Monday, September 28, 2009

Ubiquitous weed is a devil to get rid of

Butterflies might like Biden alba but I sure don't!


Bidens alba is an easy plant to dislike. I haven't liked it for close to 20 years.

Also known as Spanish needle, burr marigold, cobbler's peg and (my favorite) demon spike grass, Bidens alba has mastered the art of botanic adaptability. It grows along parched strips of roadsides and disturbed earth just as easily as it does in the rich, well-irrigated soil of flower beds or lawns. Native to South America, it has spread to every continent except Antarctica. It's easy to understand why the Chinese call it xian feng cao, or "abundant weed."

In Central Florida, Bidens alba is most obvious in early autumn. By the end of September, small plants that would have been easy to dislodge earlier in the season are deeply rooted, full-size specimens, often topping out more than 3 feet tall and equally as broad.

The flower heads — small white petals surrounding orange centers — are a "nothing special" bloom, too small and irregular to be pretty and lacking a pleasant fragrance. The hairy stems have a tendency to bend over and re-root.

Flowers and seeds

After years of pulling out the offensive plants only to find myself with an itchy rash on my arm, I learned that contact with the hairy parts causes a bothersome irritation in people who have sensitive skin. That's odd, because one of the many herbal uses of Bidens alba is to crush the flower heads and rub them on insect bites to relieve irritation and swelling. Go figure.

Although I'm not wild about this plant's flowers, leaves or growth habit, what I particularly loathe are its seeds. Demon spike grass has "hitchhiker" seeds that attach themselves with unyielding tenacity to anything that brushes by. That means if you go for a walk in the woods or alongside a road where Bidens alba is growing, you will return home with dozens of these miniature barbed bayonets clinging to your shoes, shoelaces, socks, pants or skirt.

Removal is not easy. The slightly curved, rigid black spikes grab at fabric as fiercely as ticks attach themselves to skin. A comparison to ticks is not far-fetched. Another common name for Bidens alba is beggar's tick, a reference to the seed-covered clothing of hobos walking along railroad tracks.

Nasty barbed Biden seeds stick to anything they touch

All too often, Ralph has come in from working outside with his white crew socks skewered by the black seeds. Picking off the seeds is a tedious, profanity-inducing process, but it shows why this plant is so widely distributed. Wild animals, birds, domesticated pets and livestock have inadvertently transported demon spike grass around the planet.

With so much going against it, I was surprised to learn that instead of despising this invasive weed, people in some cultures actually appreciate it. Sub-Saharan Africans eat the fresh, tender young leaves as a vegetable, while Ugandans prefer their leaves boiled in sour milk. In Mexico, the seeds find new life as a stimulating substitute for tea, while Filipinos make wine out of the flowers.

A basket filled with freshly picked Spanish needle leaves gathered for its antibacterial properties 

All parts of the plant — roots, leaves and seeds — have herbal properties. Bidens alba purportedly has antibacterial, anti-dysenteric, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, antimalarial properties. It is even under study for anticancer characteristics. Although few Floridians know it as anything but a noxious weed, many of us have noticed its popularity among butterflies. It is the preferred food source of the Gulf fritillary, orange long wing and zebra long wing.

Common Buckeye Butterfly on Bidens alba bloom (above) and Gulf fritillary (below)

After learning about its many uses, I figured I should re-evaluate my feelings for Bidens alba. I thought about its use as a medicinal herb, a food source, a butterfly attraction and livestock fodder. I considered its potential in the fight against cancer.

I tried to like it. I really did.

In the end, the best I can do is to admire its tenacity and accept its presence. Despite the plant's attributes, I still see demon spike grass for what it mainly is: a seedy hitchhiker on the horticultural highway of life. Ah, well, no one says you have to like everything.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Life lessons not taught at college

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel September 21, 2009)

My 17-year-old son recently moved into his first apartment, a two-bedroom, two-bathroom condo close to the University of Central Florida. He's sharing the unit with a 20-year-old roommate who is living away from her family for the first time, too.

My precocious, chess-playing, math-loving youngest child couldn't wait to be off on his own. His eagerness to live independent of his increasingly annoying parents had become more and more difficult for him to suppress during the months preceding the move. His patience with King Rhetorical and Queen Hysteria (as he so lovingly labeled us) had decidedly waned. Like a puppy straining at the leash, he was ready for the tether to be unclipped. If truth be told, his father and I were ready, too. After 29 years of sharing our household with children, we were anticipating our own form of freedom. What we didn't anticipate was how entertaining it would be to watch our final child feel his way down the dimly lighted hallway of adulthood.

The entertainment began when I woke one morning shortly after Toby moved into his apartment and checked my Facebook page. On it was an entry posted by my son: "[I] learned today that trying to cook a grilled cheese sandwich on an electric stove on the highest heat isn't a good idea," his understated announcement read.

Let me step back a bit here to explain that Toby makes an excellent omelet. Like his three older siblings, my youngest offspring is comfortable in a kitchen. However, despite a familiarity with meal preparations, and even though omelets are his specialty, he had never (until he moved into his own home) cooked on anything except a gas burner.

"Yeah, grilled cheese and high heat are so not meant for each other," one of his Facebook friends responded.

I couldn't stop laughing. Levity continued a few days later when he called with a question.

"What does it mean when a banana starts to leak some sort of liquid?" he asked.

Struggling to quell a roaring tide of laughter, I answered as matter-of-factly as possible: "It means the banana has started to rot. You're going to find that some foods, like bananas, tomatoes and other soft-fleshed fruit, spoil quickly, especially in the summer, so don't buy more than you can eat in a couple of days."

Shortly after the banana incident, I stopped by his apartment to drop off his cell phone. Our son, who often chides us for forgetting things, had left his phone at home when he visited the previous weekend. I should mention that the reason he came home that weekend was to retrieve his phone's charger, an item he had forgotten to pack when he moved out.

While I was there, Toby asked if we could go together to get a shower curtain. He said he had taken a shower that morning even though the bathroom did not yet have a shower curtain.

"The floor got really wet," he explained.

What a surprise!

The shower experience led to a laundry dilemma that we heard about after I had returned home that evening.

"Hi, Mama," my beloved progeny began. "I'm trying to do laundry, and I think the washing machine might be broken."

"Just a second, let me get your father," I said as I handed the telephone to the fixer in our household of all things mechanical.

"What's the problem?" Ralph asked.

Our son explained that he had put in the dirty laundry and detergent, turned the dial to the appropriate setting and pulled it to start but nothing happened.

"No water comes out," he reported. His father and I shared a knowing look.

"Look on the wall right behind the washer," Ralph patiently explained. "Do you see a couple of valves? Turn the one on the right — that's the cold-water valve — all the way to the left and then try it. Is it working now?"

How about that! It worked.

Ralph and I may be old and forgetful. Our hearing might not be as sharp as it used to be, and we do have a tendency to go on and on when all that's needed is a simple explanation. However, somewhere along the line we managed to accumulate knowledge — a fair amount of good, old-fashioned practical knowledge. That gives us the power (every now and then) to amaze one of humankind's most difficult-to-impress creatures — a 17-year-old man-child.

"Thanks, Mama. Thanks, Papa," Toby said, as he concluded the phone call. "I love you."

The feeling is mutual.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Snake's alive — somewhere in the office

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel September 14, 2009)

Many people don't like snakes, but I'm not one of them. I think snakes are beautiful, interesting and beneficial animals with skin that's surprisingly smooth and cool to the touch. But just because I like snakes doesn't mean I don't get startled if I come upon one unexpectedly — for instance, curled up on the hallway rug.

"Quick!" shouted my husband, "there's a snake in the house! It just went behind the bookshelf."

Sure enough, some sort of slithering being was indeed inside our house. I saw it with my own eyes even though I was, at the time, not wearing my glasses or, for that matter, much of anything else. In response to the seriousness of my husband's tone, I ran out of my office fast enough to see the snake retreat into an extremely narrow space behind a tall oak bookshelf.

"Open the door," Ralph commanded. "Let's try to scoot him outside."

This might be a good time to note that snakes that happen to wander into human habitats are not usually cooperative when said humans are trying to corral and catch them. The snake in our hallway reacted the way any self-protecting reptile might respond in a similar situation: It disappeared.

It's amazing how fast these creatures without feet can move. One minute it was calmly resting on the rug. The next minute it had wedged itself into a finger-wide slit between the wall and the bookshelf. Not that either of us was about to stick a finger into that slit. We were too smart for that; we used a stick instead. Unfortunately, the first stick we could put our hands on was too thick to fit far enough into the space to prod the snake out of hiding. All the stick probably did was frighten the poor thing more than two screaming humans already had done.

"Get a flashlight," Ralph directed, in the hope that illuminating the area would shed some light on what we should try next.

I ran into the kitchen and pulled open drawers. We had to have at least one working flashlight. By the time I returned to the hallway with a dimly lighted bulb, the snake had already removed itself from its hiding place and was heading toward the bedroom.

"Shut the door!" I heard myself scream. A snake in the hallway was one thing, but one in the bedroom was quite another. Ralph slammed the door in time to prevent the snake from entering our sleeping quarters, but in that particular part of the hallway there are two other doors, and both were still open. I closed the door to the bathroom but wasn't fast enough to shut the one to Ralph's office.

Some people have offices with smooth, uncluttered surfaces. My husband's office is not like that. His 9-by-12-foot nook looks more like a depository of recycled boxes and assorted electronic equipment than the efficient workroom it actually is. Floor-to-ceiling shelves line the walls with piles of paper on every surface. Add to that a labyrinth of cords and wires weaving their way over, under and around and you have what may appear — at least in the eyes of a pursued snake — to be a hiding-place bonanza.

Our hope of capturing the serpent vanished as we watched it slip effortlessly behind a stack of cardboard boxes. It might have been possible to empty out Ralph's office — dismantle the shelves, untwist the wires, move out the desks — but the thought of doing so was too overwhelming to consider.

Our decision was clear: We'd live with the snake.

It has been more than a week since the snake incident, and we have seen neither hide nor hair — I mean, skin or scale — of it. I assume it slithered out of the house the same way it slithered in — undetected. Snakes can fit through incredibly small spaces.

It's a good thing that Ralph and I like snakes. If we didn't, this whole snake-in-the-house incident could have resulted in a prolonged hotel stay, an expensive extermination fee or a series of costly visits to a therapist. Instead, it gave us yet another story of a close encounter with the animal world. As long as it doesn't decide to slither its way into the bedroom, I'm feeling good.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Have fun learning, and feed millions

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel September 7, 2009)

Great ideas can come at the most unexpected times. John Breen, founder of, was in the kitchen with his two teenage sons when inspiration hit. The Indiana-based computer programmer was trying to help his older child prepare for the SAT.

"The younger one made a mockery of the situation," Breen explained in a December 2007 interview with National Public Radio. "He kept saying, 'He doesn't know this word, he doesn't know that word.' So I decided to do something on the computer to help my son learn vocabulary words."

The computer program he developed was a multiple-choice vocabulary game. It wasn't long before Breen realized that his online learning tool had broader applications. Breen, who had previously created the Web site to help educate people about world hunger, launched on Oct. 7, 2007. In the game he designed, players earn grains of rice, instead of points, for choosing the correct answer. Sponsors, whose banner ads run at the bottom of the page, transform the virtual grains players win into actual food. The United Nations World Food Programme then distributes the grain to needy people around the world. By the end of last month, more than 67 billion grains of rice had been donated through Breen's Web site. That was enough rice to provide a day's worth of food for 3.5 million people.

Although has been around for about two years, it was a discovery for me. My friend Sharon touted its merits in a Facebook discussion, and her comment generated more than enough positive feedback to pique my curiosity. I went to and after surveying it briefly, began playing the vocabulary game.

Although English Vocabulary was the only game originally offered, the site now challenges players in 12 other subjects, including Famous Paintings, World Capitals, Chemical Symbols, Basic Math, Spanish and three other foreign languages. In English Vocabulary, I had to pick the correct synonym out of four choices to match the given word.

Each time I answered correctly, I earned 10 grains of rice. Instead of being penalized when I answered incorrectly, I was given the correct definition to study and review. The program tracked my mistakes and repeated words I didn't know until I learned them. A "warning" on the site's home page said it all: "This game may make you smarter. It may improve your speaking, writing, thinking, grades, job performance ..."

After playing about a half-hour and racking up enough rice to provide a day's worth of food for one person, I felt pretty darn good. I was having fun, helping others and learning words at the same time. I wanted to share my discovery with my husband.

"Ralph," I called into the kitchen where he was reading the paper. "Come here a sec. I want to show you something."

Ralph walked into my office hesitantly. He probably thought I needed his help with some sort of problem. He was surprised to see me playing a game.

"I want to show you this cool site I discovered," I said. "You play a game and win rice to feed hungry people."

"What's the catch?" he asked as he sat down in front of the keyboard.

"There is no catch," I replied. "One hundred percent of all money raised by the site goes to the World Food Programme. Come on. Give it a try."

He continued with the game I was playing and was captivated immediately, probably because he didn't get a single word wrong. Although the difficulty level kept increasing, he answered word after word correctly. Instead of accumulating 500 grains of rice in the virtual bowl, my sweet and mentally sharp husband increased our combined tally to more than 1,000.

At my urging (I was growing weary of seeing him get every answer right), he moved on to another subject, French. It has been more than 40 years since Ralph sat in a French class, but once again, he aced the quiz.

We were well above 2,000 points when we decided to call it a night. In less than an hour, our mutual effort had yielded enough rice to feed four people for a day. In the grand scheme it's not much, but to those four people it means one less day feeling hunger pangs.

I was amazed by the FreeRice site. In a society that attaches a price tag to almost every commodity, we don't expect compassion to reign supreme. But compassion is Breen's stock and trade. His eureka moment resulted in a new way to do business — play a game, increase your knowledge and help others at the same time. Breen has proved that even small steps — a few grains of rice at a time — can make a big difference. The world is a little better because of one man's efforts.