Monday, December 27, 2010

Family newsletter provides a record of life's big and small moments

Milestones such as a grandchild's birth share space in a monthly newsletter with less momentous events.

Simply Living
(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel December 26, 2010)

Year-end letters: Some people love receiving them. Others find them boring, overdone or annoying.

I'm in the "love 'em" camp. Every time I get a newsletter from a faraway friend, I feel like I've received a gift. I enjoy reading about what folks have been up to for the past 12 months, and I pore over any included pictures.

I like newsletters so much that I write my own, but I've tweaked the concept a bit. Instead of sending out a yearly missive, I pen a monthly review. I've been doing it since 1997, and although my mailing list has expanded over the past 13 years, the reason I compose the letters remains the same. I write to have a record of our family's life. It's a way to remember.

Without some sort of recordkeeping, dates and details of noteworthy events blur or even fade away. To prevent that from happening, I make the time to preserve moments. Every month I sit down at my computer and let my mind drift back through the past 30 days. It's a chance for reflection, introspection and summation.

On a monthly basis, I consider my life: What did we do this month? Did we have fun? Were there problems? I seek out a theme.

Every month, at least one feature predominates. It could be as special as the birth of a grandchild or as mundane as an overwhelmingly busy schedule. Whatever that theme is, I elaborate on it, then flesh out the newsletter with bits and pieces about unrelated topics. Which flowers were blooming? What fruits and vegetables did we harvest? Did we take any trips? Were there any interesting wildlife sightings, good books read or friends who visited?

I'm not the only one involved in this project. Over the years, my children and their spouses have found themselves drawn in. When the kids were little, I did it all myself. I'd ask them what they wanted me to say and paraphrased their comments to include in the review. As they got older, that extra step seemed unnecessary.

I felt the newsletter would be better for everyone if the children, who were no longer little kids, took a more active role. That's what we do now. Each of us is responsible for writing our own section. We each pick out the pictures we want to include, then post them on the blog that replaced the printed-out newsletters I used to write on the computer and send by snail mail.

Although I don't miss the days of sticking stamps on dozens of letters, addressing them by hand and taking them to the post office, posting a monthly missive on a blog has its own share of difficulties. The design and layout procedures of the blogging site I use are a continual source of frustration. Every month some glitch in the system presents challenges to overcome. After listening to me rant and rave for many months in a row, Ralph learned to stay out of my office on the days when I'm putting the blog together.

Despite such frustrations, I'm glad to do it. Creating a pictorial and written account of our family's activities every month gives me a tremendous sense of accomplishment. It no longer matters if I can't recall details of important events or my mind goes blank when asked to remember some special date. I can refer to the blog.

I can look up details and jump-start my memory with pictures and anecdotes. My only regret is that I didn't start earlier. I wish I had a record of the previous 27 years of my marriage, something to look back on and cherish. Fortunately, my children will have such a record. And their children will, too.

What better way to start the New Year than by investing a little time in recording the past? It is one investment that has guaranteed returns.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Only fellow Floridians understand complaints about 'cold' weather

Simply Living
(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel December 19, 2010)

It's cold!

The heat is on, but as I write this, I'm sitting in my house wearing several layers of clothing and fur-lined boots. I'm typing in the living room instead of my office because my office is far too frigid.

A large, single-pane picture window covers an entire wall in my usual writing space. Normally, I love that window because it provides great views of the garden and hillside, but when the temperature dives, so does its charm. Cold air seeps through the glass like water through a burst pipe.

Speaking of burst pipes, did you remember to leave your faucet running during the recent freeze? We Floridians become so accustomed to year-round warm weather that we forget to take basic preventive measures such as protecting water pipes from freezes.

We abandon many wintertime procedures when we settle in the Sunshine State, and we do so gladly. Who wants to wear layers of clothes, worry that the cold will kill our plants or create geysers out of barely buried water pipes? We didn't move south to sit by leaky windows or to cover our feet in anything except flip-flops.

But cold weather occasionally comes, and Floridians adapt. We also complain.

I'm telling you this because I know you'll understand. You live in Florida, too, and even though the weather probably will have warmed considerably between the time I'm writing this and the time you're reading it, most of you share my desire to live in a freeze-free zone.

That commonality enables us to commiserate with one another. We can start conversations with, "My gosh, it's cold," knowing that the people we're talking to will nod their heads and offer up a sympathetic reply.

That's not the case if the person we complain to lives out of state in, say, Rochester, N.Y. I made that mistake the other day. Ralph and I spent the night at La Veranda Bed and Breakfast in St. Petersburg. Before breakfast, we began loading up the car with our suitcase and gear. The car was a short distance away, so in typical Florida fashion, I didn't bother to bundle up before heading out. By the time I came inside to sit down at the table, I was chilled.

"Brrr," I said to the other guest who entered the dining room just after I came in. "It's cold out there!"

The man stared at me as if I was talking gobbledygook.

"I just came in from outside," I explained, thinking that would help.

"How cold is it?" he asked.

"Maybe in the low 30s," I said. "It's really cold."

He continued to stare.

A spark of awareness lit in my cold-dulled brain. "Where are you from?" I asked.

"Rochester, New York," he replied.

"Ah," I said. "Well, that explains your expression. Forgive my complaint, but to me it's cold. Not to you, no doubt, but we Floridians aren't used to such chilly weather."

The rest of our breakfast conversation was pleasant enough. We managed to avoid any weather-related topics and said our goodbyes with mutual respect.

The encounter reinforced a maxim I learned shortly after moving to the Sunshine State: If you want to complain about the weather in Florida, make sure the person you are complaining to lives in Florida, too. You'll get no sympathy from Northerners. They simply don't understand.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Old love

40 years ago...and today
Simply Living

Forty years ago this week, I made a decision that changed my life.  Instead of going back to my parent’s house in Yardley, Pa. for winter break, I hopped on an airplane and flew to Boston.  I’d never been to Boston before.  The only person I knew there was my high school friend Megan.  I asked Megan if I could visit and she offered me a place to stay. 

At the time, I was a second-year student at the New College of Hofstra in Hempstead, NY.  Although my official major was Humanities, a more accurate description of my college focus was Being Involved in Relationships.  Academically, I was doing fine but my relationship meter had bottomed out.  The trip to Boston was a step toward independence.  I was tired of constantly searching for that special someone.  I’d had my fill of pining over boys.  My plan was to spend the holiday in a guy-free zone visiting art museums, exploring the city and reconnecting with my friend. 

That’s not what happened.

Megan lived in a big house with several roommates, one of whom was a longhaired, bearded fellow with thick lenses in his plastic-framed glasses.  His name was Ralph and we met shortly after my arrival.  Within three days, we were a couple.  I never did make it to any art museums during my Boston getaway.  Megan and I hardly spent any time together and instead of exploring Boston, Ralph and I hopped into his blue Datsun station wagon to spend a weekend on Cape Cod.  Afterwards, we drove to his parent’s home in Illinois for Christmas, stopping first to see my folks in Pennsylvania. 

The paths we travel in life can change so abruptly.  I was only 19 when I met my future husband but it was an encounter to last a lifetime. 

In the 40 years since, Ralph and I have had countless adventures.  We’ve lived in three different states, raised four children and are presently enjoying the pleasure of being grandparents.  Both of us shake our heads in disbelief when we consider how much time has passed since our fortuitous New England encounter.  The years may have grayed our hair and wrinkled our faces but they have also added a treasure trove of shared experiences and depth to the affection we feel for each other.  I’m more in love with my husband now than ever.

Ralph is currently reading Ray Kurzweil’s book, The Singularity is Near.  Kurzweil is one of the world’s leading inventors, thinkers and futurists.  His predictions for the past 21 years have been remarkably accurate.  In this 489-page tome, Kurzweil draws a detailed picture of what he believes the future will hold.  For the next 40 years, he envisions a world far different from anything we’ve yet experienced.

It is understandable that my husband finds Kurzweil’s concepts intriguing.  There comes a point in life when the road ahead looks decidedly shorter than the road already traveled.  Kurzweil presents possibilities that extend the journey.    

Only time will tell if his predictions prove true.  Although the author’s view is optimistic, I don’t share my husband’s enthusiasm for the topic.  I’m more concerned with the present that I am with the future.  I find myself more inspired by all that has already transpired than I am by what might or might not come to be.

I’ve learned many things over the past four decades but one lesson that stands out is that nothing is static.  The direction your life takes can change in an instant.  For me, that instant happened forty years ago this week.  Would I go back and do it over?  In a heartbeat. 

Monday, December 6, 2010

After a long wait, mushrooms crop up at last

Fresh picked shiitakes!
And another mushroom still growing

Simply Living
(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel December 5, 2010)

What a surprise! After two years of waiting — long enough to have just about given up — the oak logs that my husband seeded with mushroom spores have produced a small crop of shiitake mushrooms. My son Timmy discovered them sprouting from the pile of stacked logs.

"Look what we've got!" Ralph said, as I came into the kitchen still drowsy with sleep. I knew something was going on from the sound of slamming doors and excited voices during the normally sedate pre-breakfast hour.

"Timmy found all these shiitakes growing on the logs," Ralph announced, holding out a plateful of round, brown mushroom caps ranging in diameter from 3 to 6 inches.

Shiitakes are Ralph's favorite mushroom. For years he has been eating both fresh and dried versions of this historically prized, nutritionally rich fungus. It has been a long time, however, since he has had a homegrown supply.

Shiitake mushrooms originated in Asia and have been around since prehistoric times. For thousands of years, Chinese and Japanese farmers have cultivated shiitakes on logs cut from the "shii" tree, a medium-size evergreen related to beech and oaks.

Ancient peoples noted the mushroom's numerous health benefits, and recent research supports many of those traditional claims. Low-fat, high-protein shiitakes are an excellent source of vitamins and minerals. These qualities have not been overlooked by my health-conscious husband.

"I wonder if that's all we'll get or if it's just the beginning," Ralph mused while trimming off the bulbous stem ends and brushing away a small spider hiding on the white underside of a mushroom cap.

My husband's uncertainty is understandable. He hasn't had a reliable mushroom crop since we left Cape Cod. In the late 1980s, Ralph took a three-day mushroom growing course at Fungi Perfecti, a family-owned company in Washington State founded 30 years ago by Paul Stamets. Stamets is renowned mycologist, a scientist who specializes in mushrooms.

Ralph returned from that hands-on workshop with his mushroom fervor at full throttle, revved up and ready to establish his own supply of edible fungi.

Back on the Cape, he felled some large oak branches and drilled many small holes to receive the inch-long dowels containing the shiitake spores, or spawn. Less than a year later (spawn mature at 6 to 18 months), he was sautéing his own homegrown mushrooms with olive oil and garlic in an cast-iron pan. The logs continued to produce a bumper crop of brown-capped beauties for several years.

Then we moved to a completely different climate.

Ralph assumed that without an extended cold period, shiitakes wouldn't grow in Central Florida, so he didn't try to establish a colony. For the past two decades, we relied on fresh shiitakes purchased locally and on dried mushrooms ordered from an online supplier.

My husband's mycological musings started anew when he read an article about a Floridian with a backyard shiitake mushroom operation. Inspired by that farmer's success, Ralph decided to try again. While waiting for shiitake plugs to arrive from Fungi Perfecti, he cut up oak logs and readied them for seeding. That was two years ago. Until this week, the only mushrooms he had harvested were two or three small specimens, barely enough to provide a satisfying meal for one.

Only time will tell if the logs will continue to produce a crop. I hope they do. Growing your own food is satisfying on so many levels. Not only do you savor the incomparable flavor of homegrown edibles and enjoy the nutritional benefits of eating the freshest food possible but you see how each type of food grows. By watching their development, you get to know plants. You even become familiar with whatever little bugs, butterflies or, in the case of shiitake mushrooms, tiny spiders find those crops attractive.

With shiitake mushrooms — at least with those spawn that manage to establish a colony — the process of producing your own food is as basic as it comes. Choose logs. Drill holes. Insert seed plugs. Seal holes. Provide a shady, moist location. Sit back and wait.

But be forewarned: By the time you're ready to give up all hope that you'll ever reap a harvest …surprise! Shiitake mushrooms for supper, homegrown and delicious!

Monday, November 29, 2010

Cottony groundsel blooms of winter are Florida's snowflakes

Grounsel Tree up close
and from a distance
Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel November 28, 2010)

When seen from afar, the soft, white blooms on groundsel trees resemble rounded mounds of snow.

Over the past few weeks, as I've been driving through Central Florida, I've noticed a preponderance of white, fluffy shrubs along the roadsides.

Standing between 5 and 12 feet tall, and about half as broad, these November beauties tend to cluster in lowland sites. They often appear along drainage ditches, which is probably why they tend to line many country roads.

Although their botanical name is Baccharis halimifolia, these plants have many nicknames. They're known as groundsel trees, salt-marsh elders, waterbrushes, silverlings or sea myrtles. I like to call them "snow mound bushes" because, when seen from afar, the soft, white blooms on the female plants remind me of rounded mounds of snow.

For most of the year, these Florida wildflowers go unnoticed. The bushes, with their upright growth and rough bark, blend into the background along fresh and saltwater marshes, lakesides and fields.

They are rather scrubby looking, with no particularly distinguishing characteristics. Then comes November, and the female plants burst into bloom. Overnight, an ugly duckling becomes a beautiful swan. The cottony flowers are everywhere.

It is because of those fluffy blooms that the plant is so widely dispersed. The wind picks up the pappi, the bristles surrounding the featherweight seeds, and scatters them about. Over the years, many of those airborne bristles must have landed on our property because numerous "snow mound bushes" thrive along the edge of our lake and marshland.

Recently, when I was gathering flowers for a bouquet, I snipped off a few of the plant's thinner branches. That day, of all the flowers I picked and arranged in a vase, the white groundsel tree blooms lasted the longest. They looked fresh long after the other flowers had faded.

Even though its blooms work well as cut flowers and the plant itself provides excellent cover for wildlife and nectar for butterflies, the groundsel tree is not a commonly used landscape plant.

Most nurseries don't even carry it. The best way to add a groundsel tree to the yard is to visit a native-plant nursery or propagate it yourself from a cutting.

Once established, it lasts a long time, providing seasonal beauty for up to 50 years. However, you don't have to add this winter-blooming shrub to your landscape to appreciate its loveliness. You can do as I often do: admire it from the front seat of a car. You can even pull off to the side of the road and snip a few of the blooms for a bouquet of your own. The flowers will survive the drive home and make an attractive display when placed in a vase.

Wildflowers have a way of appearing when least expected. Just when cool weather has dulled the sheen on most blooms, a splash of brightness takes front stage. That's how it is with the groundsel tree.

The "snow mound bush" is one of those wonderful wildflowers that we tend to take for granted until they burst into bloom. When the bush finally does flower, the white blossoms covering the upright branches jazz up an otherwise subdued landscape. Snowflakes may not fall in Central Florida, but thanks to the groundsel tree, our roadsides are blanketed with snowlike mounds of botanical beauty all winter long.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Knock-knock...who's there?

A female yellow-bellied sapsucker on sycamore tree

Simply Living
(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel November 22, 2010)

There is a yellow-bellied sapsucker in my yard.  The bird – a female – has claimed a specific tree for herself.  The tree is a 40-foot tall sycamore and the sapsucker is doing just that – sucking the sap that drips out of holes it has drilled through the bark. 

I noticed the holes several weeks before I noticed the bird.  Starting about six feet above the ground, a series of pea-sized indentations encircles the trunk.  The wells are closely spaced in horizontal lines that are not quite straight.  They remind me of the type of puncture marks my husband makes when he’s trying rather unsuccessfully to locate a stud through sheetrock.  The perforated rings continue one row above another.  They cover about a four-foot tall section of the tree’s trunk. 

At first, I thought some sort of boring insect was responsible for the damage but a visit from my daughter a few weeks ago proved my assumption incorrect. 

“There’s a woodpecker on the sycamore tree,” Jenny said as she came inside from the front yard. 

Grabbing my camera, I went outside to see.  Sure enough, there on one side of the sycamore’s trunk was a black and white woodpecker with a bright red crown.  Female yellow-bellied sapsuckers only have red markings on their heads while male birds have an additional splash of color on their necks.  

The bird I was watching was clinging to the tree in an upright position.  I started taking pictures from about 10 feet away.  When I moved closer, the bird shifted sideways.  It didn’t fly away.  It simply scooted to a spot on the tree where it wouldn’t be visible.

Seven types of woodpeckers live in Florida year round but yellow-bellied sapsuckers are not among them.  These eight to nine-inch long wood drillers spend most of the year in Canada and the northern United States.  They wait until winter temperatures start to fall before flying south.  After migration, sapsuckers seek out suitable winter homes.  Once an appropriate habitat is located, each bird sets its sight on a few special trees.  What it wants is sap, the watery solution of sugars, salts, hormones and minerals that circulates beneath a tree’s bark.  

Using a percussive motion with its pointy bill, a yellow-bellied sapsucker drills through the tree’s outer bark to stimulate sap flow.  It then eats the inner bark, licks the oozing liquid with its brush-like tongue and consumes any insects trapped within the sticky solution.  Occasionally a yellow-bellied sapsucker will eat berries, fruit or even slugs but their main food flows beneath the inner bark of trees.

Once a tree has been “claimed,” the bird returns to it day after day pecking away for needed sustenance.  These food sources are so essential to the sapsucker’s survival, it will defend “its tree” when other birds and small mammals are attracted to the sap wells.

In a few days, many of us will celebrate Thanksgiving with family and friends.  For some of us, however, Thanksgiving is a year-round celebration.  There are moments every day – many moments – for which to be grateful.  Discovering that a yellow-bellied sapsucker is a daily visitor to my yard is just one such moment.  For that and for the many other wonders of nature, I am now and will always be filled with gratitude and awe.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Manna Bread — a little slice of heaven that's also healthful

Simply Living
(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel November 14, 2010)

Many of the foods my family eats are not your typical grocery store finds. One such food, Manna Bread, is a moist, cakelike loaf made from sprouted grains, fruits and nuts. My husband adores Manna Bread. It has been an essential part of his diet for the past 35 years, and when his supply runs low, as it did this past week, he enters a state slightly south of Panic.

"I'm almost out of Manna Bread!" he announced.

"Maybe I can get some in town," I said, hoping to alleviate his anxiety. Although it's not usually available in the grocery store, health-food stores sometimes carry it in their refrigerated cases. I figured I'd go to town and check it out.

We discovered Manna Bread 35 years ago, when we owned a small natural-food store on Cape Cod. For Ralph, it was love at first bite.

"It tastes like carrot cake, yet it has no sugar, no salt, no oil and is made from sprouted grains. What's not to like?" he said, referring to Carrot Raisin Manna Bread, his favorite among the nine varieties produced by Manna Organic.

This concoction is remarkably flavorful despite its minimal ingredient list. Sprouted organic whole-wheat kernels, filtered water, organic carrots and organic raisins are all that's in a 14-ounce loaf of Ralph's favorite bread.

"By fully germinating our grains, we convert the starches into easily digested natural complex sugars, similar to those found in fresh fruits, hence the sweetness," explains Manna Organic on its website, "The sprouts are ground and hand-shaped into loaves, baked at a low temperature, then packed and frozen to preserve shelf life, without any chemical additives."

The bread's sweetness — especially in the Carrot Raisin loaf — makes it a perfect dessert food, and that's how my husband usually uses it. Ralph ends most meals with a serving of Manna Bread.

"It's like having a piece of carrot cake without eating any sugar or oil or salt or preservatives," he explains. "It satisfies my sweet tooth."

With only 130 calories in a two-ounce serving, Manna Bread is kind to the waistline. Flavorful enough to eat plain, it is also tasty when toasted and served with a smear of nut butter, jam or cheese.

"I don't know what I'd do if they stopped making it," he lamented after we returned from a trip to town empty-handed. "I'd be devastated."

I'm hoping that won't happen. Although local stores may not normally carry this less-than-mainstream food, it has been a standard item at large, natural-food chains for more than a quarter-century. It is available in Orlando at Whole Foods Market, and smaller stores can order it if a customer requests it.

We all have special foods that make us happy. For me, it's a cup of stevia-sweetened jasmine green tea. For my husband, it's the naturally sweet taste of carrot-raisin manna bread. If I have to take a 45-minute trip to the city to satisfy my partner's food needs, I'll gladly rev up the motor.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Sandhill cranes' mating dance a stunning spectacle

Sandhill cranes, large birds that mate for life, begin their partnership with an elaborate mating dance.

Simply Living
(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel November 7, 2010)

A pair of sandhill cranes wandered into our yard when my daughter and I happened to be watching. The male bird, a bold chap slightly smaller than his female counterpart, decided the time was right to demonstrate his prowess. While we stood less than 20 feet away, the male spread his wings and jumped up and down as he poked at an unidentifiable object down by the water.

"What's he doing?" Jenny asked.

"It looks like there's something in the lake — maybe a snake — that he's trying to scare away," I said, before it dawned on me that we were observing the opening act of a sandhill crane mating dance.

Although I often see sandhill cranes strutting by or flying overhead, I have had a front-row seat for this avian spectacle on only one other occasion. In February 2009, I managed to capture on video a sandhill crane mating dance from start to finish.

Although that performance was amazing, the dance that Jenny and I observed the other day was even more special. Not only did we see it together, it also happened much closer. At one point, the birds were within arm's reach of where we were standing. Although aware of our presence, the pair of 4-foot-tall, gray-feathered birds with bright red crowns seemed sufficiently secure to go about their business without reticence.

As part of the courtship ritual, a male sandhill crane demonstrates to his potential partner how strong, powerful and protective he can be. He pokes at sticks, reeds or long grasses and sometimes tosses in them the air. He hops up and down, fluffs out his wings and shakes his tail feathers. He does all of this while standing quite close to the female, who tends to ignore the display. She turns her back and pecks for food as if the male weren't there.

Watching the cranes with my daughter was an unexpected pleasure. Jenny and her husband, Brett, had flown into Orlando from their home in Massachusetts to spend a long weekend with us. It was a rare opportunity for all of our grown children, their spouses and our one grandchild to spend time together. Chancing upon an up-close viewing of a sandhill crane mating dance – the first step in the cranes' own development of family matters – was not only stunning, it was an appropriate addition to our own family get-together.

"They got so close to us," Jenny said afterward. "It's as if they knew we wouldn't hurt them."

Maybe they do know, I thought. Maybe their presence at a time when our family was there to observe them was not just an accident of timing but an indication of acceptance. Perhaps the birds sensed our affection for them and felt secure enough to be at ease.

It's just as likely, however, that the whole thing was just a chance encounter. Sandhill cranes are among the least shy birds in North America. Mated pairs and extended families frequently wander through suburban neighborhoods, peer into porch windows and poke their sharp beaks into lawns in search of insect treats.

I'll never know why the two cranes chose that particular day and time to come into our yard and perform their mating dance, but I'm glad they did. Being privy to wildlife interactions always excites me, but being able to share such experiences with people I love adds richness and meaning to the moment.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Runaway pipevine is an incubator for swallowtail butterflies

The large, yellow-speckled purple pipevine flower is surrounded by the plant's heart-shaped leaves

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel October 31, 2010)

Sometimes you place a plant in your garden and forget all about it. That's how it has been for me with "Aristolochia elegans," better known as Dutchman's pipe, pipevine or calico flower.

Although I've been growing pipevine for about a decade, I've seldom paid much attention to it. This aggressive climber, which I started from a cutting, has been neglected since it was chopped back a couple of years ago to within a few inches of its woody-stemmed life. That means it has had the freedom to run wild.

Pipevines apparently thrive on a lack of human intervention because this year's growth is spectacular. My pipevine is a spreading mess in a once-tidy garden. The plant's thin, green tendrils have encircled everything within reach, including some plants that have met their demise beneath the pipevine's suffocating mass of heart-shaped leaves.

I suppose that such invasiveness should bother me, but it doesn't. It's hard to be upset about a plant that not only produces an abundance of large, odd-shaped, yellow-speckled, purple flowers but also acts as a host to two of the most beautiful butterflies around — the pipevine and polydamas swallowtails.

Swallowtails are a striking family of butterflies. Of the 700 or so species worldwide, eight live in Florida. Among those eight, the pipevine and polydamas have life cycles that depend on pipevines. After mating, female butterflies lay their round, orange eggs on the underside and stems of pipevine plants. About a week later, the larvae emerge to feed on the plant's leaves.

The selection of the pipevine as a host is not accidental. Plants in the pipevine family have chemicals that are poisonous to most animals, though not to these two species of swallowtail butterflies. When the hungry caterpillars munch away on pipevine leaves, toxic chemicals enter their bodies.

Those chemicals don't disappear. They stay with the larvae throughout its metamorphosis — from egg to larva to pupa to butterfly — and they poison any predator or parasite that decides to dine upon one of these attractive but lethal insects. So effective is this method of self-protection that other members of the swallowtail family mimic their cousins' appearance. Without having to consume the plant's poison, other butterflies have evolved into pipevine and polydamas lookalikes.

Most swallowtails are black butterflies with bright yellow, red and white markings. The pipevine swallowtail has beautiful iridescent blue hind wings and a curving arc of orange dots on its underwing. The polydamas swallowtail is also known as "gold rim" because of a band of yellow spots within the margins of the front and hind wings. The markings on both butterflies act as warning signals that tell would-be predators: Stay away!

Had I stayed away from the pipevine, I would have missed seeing all the caterpillars developing on the plant's leaves. Thanks to my daughter Amber, who was wandering the yard in search of cuttings for her own garden, we stopped at the overgrown pipevine and gave it a close look. It was probably the first time in more than a year that I had paid any attention to the plant. Although my intent was simply to point out the pipevine's peculiar flower — a large and suggestively shaped bloom that never fails to amuse me — what we discovered were dozens of swallowtail larvae munching away on the plant's leaves.

"Butterflies!" I exclaimed. "These little guys are going to turn into beautiful swallowtail butterflies!"

It's not every day you can plant a seed and grow a butterfly, but that's essentially what happens when the pipevine is added to the landscape. If that's not a redeeming feature, I don't know what is.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Birthdays a time to slow down, take stock and be selfishly indulgent

A peaceful place to sit and relax

Simply Living
(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel October 24, 2010)

It's almost my birthday. I love birthdays, especially my own. Many adults don't feel that way. The older they get, the less they want to celebrate the day of their birth. Birthdays remind them of the passing years, years that fly by at an increasingly frightening speed.

I understand the fear of aging, but I don't embrace it. Rather than ignoring time or wishing it away, I choose to celebrate it. Each year — for that matter, each minute of the day — is a gift, the best gift ever. Birthdays make me grateful, and a little giddy.

I'll be 59 years old on Wednesday. If I had been born in China, Japan or one of many other Asian countries, I'd already be 60. Those cultures calculate birthdates differently than we do in the West. In Korea or Vietnam, for example, a child is 1 year old when born and celebrates its second birthday a year later.

I suppose it doesn't really matter how birthdates are calculated. What's important is their acknowledgement. I don't mean public displays by family or friends. Being remembered by others is appreciated but not essential. What's essential is to remember ourselves and to acknowledge our accomplishments, value and worth.

Birthdays are, after all, celebrations of self. We all have an opportunity, once a year, to consider our lives. What would we like to do differently? What would make us happier? Healthier? More alive? We can ask ourselves what presents we'd like to receive, and we needn't wait for others to give us those gifts. We can give ourselves the gifts we really want.

Most of the gifts I'm giving myself this year concern time. Sure, I've indulged in the occasional handful of candy corn (a seasonal treat) and one thick, gooey slab of brie cheese. (It's not good for me, but it's my birthday, so I'm allowed!) But the gifts I want most are not the kind you can buy at a store. I want more time to read, to exercise and to spend with family. I want to have fewer problems to solve. In essence, I want less stress. Figuring out how to give intangible gifts is more difficult than buying a bag of Halloween candy and a slice of brie cheese, but that doesn't make the search any less important.

Determined to find what I seek, I have begun by doing nothing.

Doing nothing is something we 21st-century Americans rarely do anymore. We're very good at being busy. We're proficient at multitasking, but tell us to sit still without an agenda and we're often at a loss. Nonetheless, I did it the other day and again a few days later. I went outside and sat in a chair. I didn't have a book or a computer or even an iPod. I just sat there and looked out. I felt the breeze, watched the water and listened to the sounds of birds calling, fish splashing and dragonflies whizzing by. It was extremely peaceful to be so actively idle, and it actually worked. Time slowed down. Mental chatter decreased. I felt less stressed.

The way I see it, birthdays are a free pass to accept pleasure without guilt. They represent new beginnings and annual opportunities to refashion, refresh and relish our lives. On our birthdays, we can be selfishly indulgent. We can be as idle or as active as the mood demands.

In two days I'll be 59 years old — 60 if I had been born in Asia. No matter how it's calculated, what really counts is how we use the time we have. I intend to use my time to celebrate life, to enjoy the everyday treasures that are always here if we take the time — make the time — to look around and truly see.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Great blue heron wins war of nerves with osprey

Although a Great Blue Heron is a large but delicate-looking bird, it can hold its own against powerful raptors like ospreys

Simply Living
(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel October 17, 2010)

Which is the more dominant bird — the great blue heron or the osprey?

If you had asked me that question last week, my answer would have been "osprey." I would have been wrong. Here's what happened to change my mind.

I was standing outside enjoying the view. The lake was calm. Most of the morning mist had disappeared, and the osprey that spends nights perched 6 feet above the water on the bamboo platform had flown off to do whatever it is ospreys do early in the morning.

In its absence, a great blue heron that had been quietly fishing in the shallows flew up to the platform. The heron, a tall, slender bird with long legs and a sharp beak, was using the perch to do a bit of preening. From my shoreline observation post, I was thinking about how quickly the heron commandeered the platform once the osprey departed. The heron must have been waiting for the fish hawk to fly off so it could take its place.

While those thoughts filtered through my still-sleepy mind, the osprey returned. The first indication of an impending confrontation came with the osprey's high-pitched, piercing whistle.

"Kew-kew-kew," the broad-winged bird cried as it approached the platform in a low, swooping flight. Once I realized what was happening, I expected the heron to retreat. Instead, it stood firm. As the fish hawk dived down, the heron stretched up, its sharp beak pointed defiantly toward the oncoming assault.

The heron's steadfast response surprised me. Ospreys are large, commanding predators. Their strong, 2-foot-long bodies feature a 5-foot-wide wingspan, sharp talons and a curved beak capable of tearing apart flesh with ease. Given its powerful presence, I expected the osprey to triumph. The osprey must have expected the same because it seemed surprised by the heron's defiant response. Just before impact, the osprey made a quick U-turn, flying off before circling about for another go-round.

The osprey's second attempt to reclaim its post seemed mostly for show. Now that it was prepared, the heron appeared even more determined to stay on the perch. With its long neck fully extended, its sharp beak pointed upward and blue-gray feathers ruffled, the great blue heron headed off the osprey's second attack with a vocalization of its own.

"Kraaaak," it croaked. Although not nearly as impressive as the osprey's shrill shriek, the heron's throaty call effectively demonstrated its determination and dominance. In a strangely guttural tone, the long-legged wader seemed to announce: "I'm here now, so go away. You left your perch, and when you did, you relinquished all rights. Fly off now. Be gone."

The osprey did fly away. The heron remained on the platform, where it resumed preening. Apparently, in the world of fish-eating water birds, a loud voice, sharp talons and sturdy body are not enough to guarantee dominance. Even frail-looking, graceful birds can reign supreme if they muster sufficient mettle.

Before observing the two birds in conflict, I would have predicted an osprey victory. Ospreys are fierce-looking, intimidating predators, while herons appear to be non-aggressive and shy. If I had been on the platform and an osprey was dive-bombing me, I would have jumped off in a millisecond. I guess that means I'm easily intimidated. It also means the heron is not.

I have no idea why the great blue heron was so intent on staying put or why the osprey, having left the platform, needed to make some sort of territorial claim. What I do know is that occasionally steadfast determination trumps unmitigated brute strength and that —– at least in the animal kingdom — differences can sometimes be resolved without either party being hurt.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Osprey, one of nature's most impressive birds, returns

An adult osprey needs to catch and eat one to three fish everyday - more if it is supporting a family

Simply Living
(First appeared October 11, 2010)

The osprey is back! On the first cool day in October, after being absent during the hot summer months, a solitary osprey has returned to our lake. How consistent this bird has been. Ever since 2008, it has been a seasonal fixture, roosting on a mid-lake platform from October through May.

The white-chested fish hawk arrives before dusk to spend the night perched on a raised 3-foot-square platform in the middle of our lake. In the morning, shortly after dawn, the osprey flies away. I don't know if the 2-foot tall bird with the 4- to 6-foot wingspan goes far away or stays nearby because sometimes I see it during daylight hours sitting in one of the tall pine trees that grow along the shoreline or circling overhead in search of a meal.

Ever since Ralph built the platform and erected it in the middle of the lake, I've been hoping an osprey would nest there. Ospreys become sexually mature when they are 3 years old, which means if this bird arrived as a juvenile in 2008, 2010 might just be the year it is ready to mate. I'd be so excited if that happened.

Female ospreys tend to arrive about 10 days after the males. So far, I've only observed one bird, which I believe is a male. Although they look very similar, females are slightly larger than males and sport a "necklace" of mottled brown chest feathers. Once the female arrives, the male courts her with an aerial ballet. To impress his potential partner, the high-flying raptor performs a sky dance while carrying either a fish or nesting materials in his talons. If the female is sufficiently impressed by this winged display, the pair will mate and begin the process of nest building.

Nests are built atop tall trees or manmade platforms like the one in our lake. Usually, the birds choose a location close to water, where food is plentiful and the sharp-eyed raptors can survey their surroundings. As monogamous animals, once they've mated, ospreys stay together for life. They also return to the same nest year after year. It would fulfill one of my dreams if the nesting platform in our lake became the permanent home to a pair of ospreys.

Unlike eagles or hawks — whose diets include small animals as well as fish — ospreys dine almost entirely on live fish. An adult bird needs to catch and eat one to three fish every day to supply its own dietary needs, but that number increases dramatically once baby birds are born. Female ospreys lay an average of three eggs that both parents take turns incubating for the five- to six-week gestation period. How many of those hatchlings survive depends on the availability of food. An osprey family needs to consume six to eight fish a day. If fish are plentiful, survival rates will be high. If there are not enough fish, the last baby birds to hatch will be the least likely to live.

I don't know if our lake will support a family of ospreys or if the platform in the middle of the lake will work for anything other than a nighttime perch, but I hope in the weeks ahead to find out. In the wild, an osprey's lifespan is 13 to 16 years. This autumn marks the third year "my" osprey has been visiting our lake. Even if the solitary raptor doesn't decide to make a nest, I can at least look forward to many more years of seasonal visits by one of nature's most impressive birds.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Pomegranate — a messy fruit with a rich history

A yellow-skinned pomegranate doesn't turn red like traditional fruit

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel October 3, 2010)

I didn't grow up eating pomegranates. I don't think I even tasted the tangy-sweet fruit until I was well into adulthood. But two years ago, my son Timmy planted a small orchard that included three pomegranate trees. This year, for the first time, we have an abundant crop.

"Do you think they're ripe yet?" I asked Timmy as we walked past the orchard.

"I don't know," he said. "Let's pick one and find out."

The pomegranates Timmy planted are a yellow-skin cultivar. They don't have the red color traditionally associated with the fruit. Because the leathery outer covering isn't red, the only way to tell if the fruit is ripe is to cut one in half.

Back at the house, we did just that.

"Hmmm, that's interesting," I said, after slicing through the tough skin to expose a honeycomb of tan-colored, pea-sized seeds, each one encased in a clear sack of sticky pulp.

The pulp is the edible part of a fruit that dates to the Early Bronze Age. Archeological excavations have shown that it was among the first cultivated plants. Native to Asia and the Middle East, pomegranates now extend well beyond their origins into cultures and culinary practices around the globe. Mentioned in literary works such as Homer's "Odyssey" and Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet," the pomegranate is rich in folklore, religious and mythological references.

Ancient Egyptians believed that pomegranates paved the path to the next life, so they included the fruit in the tomb of King Tut and other notables of the period. In Islam, the Quran mentions pomegranates as a feature of the Garden of Paradise. In Judaism, the pomegranate is a symbol of righteousness and one of only a few images depicted on ancient Judean coins.

In Christianity, the pomegranate is a motif in many religious decorations, and the opened fruit is often included in paintings of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus. To Hindus, pomegranates symbolize fertility and prosperity, and they use all parts of the plant in traditional Ayurvedic medicine. Today, because of its high antioxidant value, potassium, folic acid, vitamin and iron content, pomegranate juice is a darling of the health-food industry.

I know that my son didn't plant his three pomegranate trees because of their purported health benefits, historical references or religious symbolism. He simply wanted to create an orchard with a wide variety of fruit. Although pomegranates grow in Florida, this is not their ideal climate. The multi-stemmed shrub — about the size of a hibiscus — prefers hot, dry summers and cool winters. The soil it likes best is a heavy loam, although it tolerates clay and sand and acidic, alkaline or even salty locations.

The flowers — bright orange, trumpet-shaped blooms — appear in summer, developing into harvestable fruit by autumn. That's about the time pomegranates start showing up in grocery stores. By December, in time for the holidays, the price usually drops low enough to entice me to buy. Every year I bring home my bargain, slice it open, marvel at its weirdness and make a mess fishing out sticky seeds.

With Timmy's orchard now providing me with homegrown fruit, it's time to clean up my act. I went online to find out the best way to eat a pomegranate without making a counter- and finger-staining mess, and I found a number of YouTube videos demonstrating de-seeding techniques.

Because each pomegranate tree has the potential to produce a couple of hundred pounds of fruit, I'll have plenty of opportunities to perfect my skill. Until then, I'll continue slicing fruit over the sink and wearing a napkin while slurping up the juice.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Ginger plant's fragrant liquid makes it a useful beauty

The plant's red bract resembles a pine cone

Simply Living
Zingiber zerumbet is a real attention-getter.

Better known as pinecone ginger or shampoo ginger, this perennial beauty sports cone-shaped structures called bracts that change from a light green to a bright, commanding red in late summer and early autumn. By late September, the cones are almost all red — a shape and color that stand out against the ginger's long, green, bladelike foliage.

When I'm walking with customers through our bamboo nursery, where patches of ginger flourish in the shade beneath tall bamboos, people often ask, "What's that plant?"

"It's a type of ginger," I explain as I squat next to a stand of the yard-tall beauties. "If you squeeze the soft, red cones, a clear, fragrant liquid oozes out."

At that point, I usually put my hand around one of the pine-cone-shaped bracts, which causes the liquid to escape.

"Want to try it?" I ask. "It's not sticky, and it has a mild spicy fragrance that smells lovely."

People seldom take me up on the offer. Perhaps they're afraid the liquid will stain (it won't) or sting (it doesn't). For whatever reason, their reticence prevents them from sampling one of nature's finest body-care products. For centuries, indigenous people in Asia and Hawaii have used the liquid from Zingiber zerumbet as a shampoo, hair conditioner and body wash. Contemporary manufacturers even incorporate it into commercial shampoos.

I've never washed my hair with pinecone ginger, but I have often applied the clear, slightly sudsy fluid directly to my skin. When I'm hot and sweaty, I find it refreshing to rub a handful of the ginger-scented liquid on my body. Although the fluid is absorbed almost instantly, the fragrance lingers to provide a gentle pick-me-up.

Zingiber zerumbet is a perennial plant that develops from underground rhizomes. The tan, papery tubers form "eyes" from which shoots appear in the spring. Throughout the warm months, those shoots develop into tall stalks that support long leaves fanning out on opposite sides of the stem.

The pine-cone-shaped bracts appear later on separate, slightly shorter stalks. As the season progresses, one to three flowers — small, yellow-white blooms — poke out of the bracts. If you place your nose close to the flowers, you'll notice a spicy aroma. There's something exotic and enticing about the smell. The scent alone is invigorating.

Pinecone ginger doesn't last through the winter. Every year when temperatures dip, the leaves turn brown, shrivel up and die. That's the time to snip off the dead foliage, add a blanket of mulch or soil supplements and leave the plant alone. Unless you want more gingers. In that case, winter is a good time to dig up some of the underground rhizomes to replant elsewhere.

Pinecone ginger grows well in full to partial shade. It tolerates drought but also does well in moist locations. I've found that rhizomes growing in unimproved soil without irrigation are decidedly smaller and slower to bloom than those planted in rich, irrigated soil. When winter is over, the underground rhizomes respond quickly. Ginger shoots poke through the ground and rapidly grow to their full height of about 3 feet soon after temperatures warm.

I'm fond of easy-to-grow plants with multiple functions, and Zingiber zerumbet is certainly that. It not only looks pretty, smells lovely and has an eye-catching bract, it also produces a fragrant liquid that can be used directly from the plant as a body-care product. Whether known as pinecone ginger, shampoo ginger or by its Hawaiian name, awapuhi, there's no denying that Zingiber zerumbet is a botanical zinger.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Couple's cross-country bike trip was an adventure in tandem

Jenny and Brett Constantine celebrate their accomplishment after dipping the front tire of their tandem recumbent bicycle in the ocean along the Oregon coast.

Simply Living

(First appeared September 19, 2010)

"We're home!" my daughter called to tell me.

On Sept. 7, after 91 days and 4,380.1 miles, Jenny and her husband, Brett, completed their cross-country bike trip and flew back to New England. I first wrote about their adventure June 7, the day before they mounted their tandem recumbent bicycle and pedaled away from their home in Florence, Mass.

In June, Jenny and Brett began an odyssey that took them through 12 states and one Canadian province. They rode up and down mountains, through lush farmland, hot desert, tiny towns and small cities. They averaged almost 50 miles a day, with an average speed of about 10 mph. Although they mainly traveled on scenic secondary roads, they occasionally ventured alongside speeding trucks on major highways as well as over gravelly side roads and vehicle-free bike trails.

A number of mechanical breakdowns occurred during their trip. They replaced their bicycle computer three times and changed four flat tires and more than a dozen tire tubes. The only physical ailment was Brett's knee, which became painful after the first days. A knee brace and frequent stretches kept the pain at bay, and by the time they reached the state of Washington, my son-in-law was able to pedal painlessly without a brace.

Although they mainly stayed in campgrounds, their accommodations also included a couple of hostels, three overnights in the homes and yards of people they met along the way, a few stealth campsites and three stays with members of the bicycling network called

Only on seven occasions did they indulge in the luxury of a motel room. One of those occasions was Day 20 outside Sandusky, Mich. After biking for 40 miles through one downpour after another, Jenny and Brett were ready for a night of comfort. They chose a motel that offered a biker's discount, pulled their 45-pound riding machine into the room, spread their wet items out to dry and took showers before preparing a delicious dinner on their camp stove.

"It felt really good to have a big bed to spread out on, in a dry room, out of the rain," Jenny wrote that night on their blog, PlayAlways.

Thanks to their online journal, staying connected was easy. A lightweight netbook and digital camera enabled the pair to capture images and keep friends, family and acquaintances well informed.

"It does my mother-heart good to know where and how you are!" Brett's mother, Kathy Ruseckas of Leyden, Mass., commented on the blog.

I couldn't have agreed more. The blog was both comforting and exciting to follow. The pictures and travel descriptions were so compelling that I often felt like I was along for the ride. I loved seeing all the different kinds of wildflowers they saw along the roads. I found the varied landscapes they passed fascinating and the sunsets beautiful. They saw so much wildlife.

"We loved seeing so many birds of prey in every state, especially once we left the Northeast. In the Midwest, we saw several hawks on telephone poles just about every day. We even saw a couple bald eagles! Farther west, we saw prairie dogs and a large rattlesnake in Montana. In Idaho, we saw two moose! When we got to the Pacific, we were lucky enough to spot whales," Jenny wrote in an e-mail.

Other animal sightings included beavers, foxes, kingfishers, pelicans, raccoons, skunks, butterflies, groundhogs, songbirds, great blue herons and, of course, hundreds of deer.

"Seeing so many animals was one of our favorite things about our summer on a bicycle," Jenny said.

Although they expected to see wildlife when biking, a couple of animal sightings gave them pause. On Day 50 they passed a zebra grazing in a field outside Plevna, Mont., and on Day 67, when they were just over 3,300 miles into their trip, they spotted a camel. A solitary dromedary was sauntering over the arid ground outside Walla Walla, Wash.

While I envied much of their adventure, I'm glad I wasn't there to experience the mosquitoes and flies. Hordes of bugs were a daily annoyance. Bugs bit while they biked and when they were setting up camp. Many nights were a struggle to eat and sleep bug-free.

When I asked Jenny and Brett what they missed most about being away from home they said: "We missed friends and family most, but also being able to shop for more than a meal or two at a time in the stores. Sometimes, we missed having a place to escape the elements or the bugs."

To me, escaping the elements and bugs would have topped the list.

Food was a frequent focus of their daily reports. They stuffed themselves on berries found along the road — blueberries, blackberries, red raspberries and blackcaps — and in Michigan's Upper Peninsula they were introduced to the meat pies known as pasties. They picked figs in Portland, Ore., ripe plums in Idaho and cherries in Ontario. When they pedaled to the top of their last mountain pass and crossed the border into Idaho, they celebrated by eating a small watermelon they had carried up the mountain.

I'm proud of Jenny and Brett for dreaming big and accomplishing their goal. More important, I'm proud of all the kindness and consideration they bestowed on each other. Anyone with willpower can rack up miles, but it takes a special type of person to withstand difficulties with compassion and patience. Jenny and Brett sang songs as they pedaled across the country. They laughed often and made time for play. "Playalways" is not just the name of their blog, it is a personal philosophy that will serve them well in their many journeys to come.

Monday, September 13, 2010

London plane trees offer first sign autumn is near

The changing colors of the London plane tree leaves is one of the first signs in Central Florida that autumn is on the way
(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel September 13, 2010)

My interest in London plane trees began during my childhood in Yardley, Pa. Huge London planes encircled a large house on my street, and I enjoyed picking up round seedpods from the ground and breaking them apart with my fingers. The symmetrical shape of those trees appealed to my developing sense of aesthetics, as did the trees' multicolored peeling bark.

I'm still interested in London plane trees, but over the years my reasons have changed. In Florida, this hybrid of the American sycamore and Oriental plane tree is one of the earliest signs of autumn. Of all the trees that grow in the central part of the Sunshine State, London planes are among the first to change color. Although sometimes a bit of yellow appears, most of the large, star-shaped leaves go directly from green to brown. It's not a showy display, but it's an obvious indication that summer is waning.

This year, the first leaves to change color weren't the ones on my own London plane trees but on a row of trees outlining a nearby building. Not far from my home is an industrial complex with several London plane trees. Plane trees are a popular choice in residential and commercial locations because, in addition to being fast-growing, they tolerate an extraordinary amount of abuse.

These 80- to 100-foot-tall behemoths can handle exposure to air pollution, reflected heat, smoke, dust, soot, wind and heavy pruning. They can even tolerate pavement covering their broad, spreading roots. The leaves on the trees in the industrial park turned brown several weeks before my own did. Soil and water conditions trigger leaf change, which means that trees in drier, less fertile soil tend to lose their leaves sooner than those growing in richer, moister conditions.

Despite its many favorable qualities, the London plane tree has negative characteristics as well. Many people consider it a "dirty" tree because so many large, leathery leaves litter the ground in the fall. The seedpods also create what some consider unattractive debris. Its height, while a positive feature in some situations, becomes a problem when it's planted in the wrong place, such as beneath utility wires. The tree's root system presents even more problems. The strong, broad roots can interfere with sewers, damage sidewalks and cause problems with building foundations.

A few years ago, when I was still infatuated with the tree's symmetrical shape, peeling bark and rapid growth, I made the mistake of planting a London plane tree about 15 feet from our house. In less than four years, the seedling, planted in rich, irrigated soil, grew 40 feet tall and almost as broad.

It was around that time my infatuation with London plane trees began to fade.

I grew tired of all the leaves it dropped every year. I didn't like the way the roots — many growing right at the surface — spread in every direction. They limited my use of the ground beneath the tree and grew perilously close to the house's foundation and walkways.

After some coaxing (after all, I had previously persuaded my husband to plant the tree there in the first place), we solved the problem by cutting the tree down. There's another London plane tree in our front yard, but it's farther away from the house and not as much of a bother.

Because I remember London plane trees from my youth, they will always have a place in my heart. But these days, instead of appreciating them as an element of the landscape, I like them for way they indicate seasonal shifts. The weather in Central Florida may still be hovering in the 80s, but by looking at the line of London plane trees growing down the road from my house, I know that autumn is almost here.