Monday, August 27, 2012

Cicada songs fill the air

Looking like a cross between a large fly and a palmetto bug, a cicada clings to the bark of a sycamore tree

Simply Living
August 27, 2012

If I lived in the city, the constant hum of traffic interspersed by the squeal of tires, honking horns, the scream of sirens and the muffled voices of people would be the background sounds of my life.  After a while, I’d probably become so accustomed to these day-and-night noises, I’d stop noticing them.   

That’s how it is in the country too only instead of automotive sounds blending into a background blur, the songs of cicadas create a white noise whir.

I’ve lived in the country for most of my life but it was only recently that I realized cicadas are responsible for the constant hum reverberating through the air during daylight and nighttime hours.  Until a few days ago, I knew cicada only as a nondescript insect that sang.  I didn’t know where it lived, what its song sounded like or how it looked. 

I would probably be oblivious still if I hadn’t been waiting for Ralph. 
We were supposed to meet up the hill to decide where to put wire fencing our son was dropping off.  But my husband was taking a long time and I was getting antsy.  Instead of being peeved, I took a deep breath and leaned against a sycamore tree intending to relax and accept the moment.

The moment had a different idea.

The pressure of my back against the tree’s trunk incited a flush of fluttering.  Startled by the unexpected movement, I jumped away from the tree.  I turned to look back, surprised by what I saw.  The tree was dotted with bugs.  Large, bright-colored, long-winged insects clung to the trunk. 

“What are they?” I wondered.  “Do they bite?  Do they sting?  And why have so many congregated on a sycamore in the middle of the afternoon?” 

My curiosity was piqued. 

I had my camera with me and began clicking off pictures.  I soon discovered that as long as I didn’t touch them, the insects were unfazed by my presence.  Those I inadvertently disturbed fluttered a short distance away to a nearby branch.  As they flew, they made a familiar clicking sound that triggered a muted memory.

“Cicadas?” I considered.  “Could that be what they are?”

Ralph finally arrived and we focused on where to put the fencing.  When done, my husband went back to work on other projects and I went inside to upload my pictures and do research.  A short time later, I was certain.  The insects on the sycamore tree were indeed cicadas.

There are 3,000 cicada species worldwide with 19 different types in Florida.  At two inches long, the ones I saw were on the large end.  Other species range from three-quarters of an inch to three inches.  Cicadas are in the Homoptera family, which also includes aphids, leafhoppers and scale insects.  Like other Homopterans, these transparent-winged bugs have stout bodies, big eyes and broad heads.  Cicadas tend to live in groups called clouds and dine exclusively on a diet of xylem, sap sucked from host plants. 

A cicada lifecycle goes through many phases.  Mature females lay eggs in the soft wood of young branches or in ridges between the bark of host trees.  When nymphs emerge from the eggs, they crawl down, burrow underground and attach themselves to roots, from which they proceed to suck fluids.  Since the xylem they’re ingesting has few nutrients, this stage of development can take a long time – in some cases, several years. 

Nymphs molt four times during their subsoil sojourn and once more after climbing back up the host plant.  Following the fifth and final molt, the cicada is mature and ready to mate.  It is then that males produce their incessant high-pitched song.  At up to 100 decibels, it is the loudest known sound in the insect world.  Female cicadas respond.  Mating takes place and the cycle repeats.  Although the males’ deafening trill is seemingly endless, individual’s lives are not.  Adult cicadas die a few weeks after procreation.  

Now that I know what they are, I find it hard to believe I went so long without making the connection.  I had long been aware of a monotonous trill filling the air but I blocked it out, choosing to ignore rather than investigate its origin.  I suppose we often do that in life. We hear the same sounds, the same words so frequently, we stop listening.  But it is important to listen and to understand – or at least try to understand – the world around us. 

Because I leaned back against a young sycamore trunk (thank you, Ralph, for making me wait!), I’ve become more in touch with and connected to my surroundings.  There’s a forest of trees on our property…I wonder what else I’ve taken for granted?

Monday, August 20, 2012

So much more than a salad dressing...

The many uses of vinegar

Simply Living
August 20, 2012

Are mosquitoes biting?  Have you stepped on an anthill, been stung by a bee or been bitten by a wasp?  Is an itchy spot driving you crazy? 

Spray it with vinegar.  Feel the relief. 

Even though I rarely use vinegar for cooking, a gallon-size container occupies a prominent place in our pantry.  Easy access is essential for useful items and vinegar holds the gold for versatility and function. 
In our household, vinegar’s chief purpose – and one it does very effectively – is to ease the pain, itch and swelling from insect bites.  It also works well reducing the discomfort of jellyfish stings.  I keep a spray bottle of undiluted vinegar in the car and when we go to the shore, it goes into the beach bag.

Because there are more insects in one square mile of rural land that there are people on the planet, bug bites are bound to happen.  Many products provide relief for stings but simple white vinegar does the job effectively, inexpensively and without any of the questionable chemicals in commercial creams, salves or sprays.

We started using vinegar shortly after settling in Florida.  Our children were little and it seemed like every day somebody stumbled upon an insect encounter.  We quickly learned the usefulness of positioning several spray bottles of vinegar around the house and in the car.  Whenever one of us was stung, we squirted several sprays of the sour substance onto the bite and rubbed it in.  We may not have been the sweetest smelling family but at least we weren’t the itchiest.

In addition to bug bites, vinegar helps with housekeeping chores.  If our windows need washing, mirrors are smudgy or fixtures have lost their shine, a quick spritz of vinegar on a clean rag rubs away the problem.  An added bonus is that vinegar acts as a disinfectant, especially handy in the bathroom and kitchen. 

There are countless other uses for this versatile liquid composed predominantly of acetic acid.  Folk remedies tout vinegar for aiding everything from arthritis to the common cold.  A quick search online yields numerous sites proclaiming its many virtues.  One of the most extensive is, which lists 1001ways to use vinegar under the categories cooking, laundry, gardening, pet care, health, cleaning and automotive.  Spend time reading through the long list of potential uses and you might think you chanced upon a miracle cure-all.  You wouldn’t be alone.  People have been trumpeting the properties of this fermented byproduct of vegetables, fruits or grains for thousands of years. 

Personally, I take such laudatory claims with a grain of salt (although in this case, mixing salt with vinegar can create a cleansing agent that removes tarnish from metals).  I’d rather rely upon personal experience.  In our family, vinegar has repeatedly proven its effectiveness at relieving the discomfort of insect bites and for keeping my windows, mirrors and fixtures clean.

Sometimes simple things work best.  Sure, you can spend big bucks for name brand products professing to fix this and solve that or you can fall back on time-tested standards like white distilled vinegar.  If you have an itch to try something different, fill a bottle with vinegar and spray away that next bug bite.  Until then, you might want to give the kitchen faucets a good shine.

Do you have a favorite use for vinegar?  Share it by posting a comment below.

Monday, August 13, 2012

A concrete reason to be outside

A winding concrete path is a welcome addition

Simply Living
August 13, 2012

It may not be the most politically correct thing to admit, but I like concrete.  I like smooth concrete driveways, raised patios and winding paths that take me where I want to go without worry about fire ants stinging my toes. 
Twenty-one years ago, when we built our house, we surrounded it with concrete sidewalks.  Back then, we were young, our four children were little and everyone in the family except the baby was learning or already knew how to ride unicycles.  Riding a unicycle is difficult enough without having to deal with the bumps and ruts of open ground so Ralph and I agreed to install sidewalks thinking they’d be the perfect place in our predominantly unpaved, rural locale, to practice our circus skills.
For a short while, that’s exactly what we did.  However, as time went by, other interests took hold and our collection of one-wheeled cycles spent more time hanging from hooks in the garage than they did supporting the bodies of eager riders.For a short while, that's exactly what we did. However, as time went by, other interests took hold and our collection of one-wheeled cycles spent more time hanging from hooks in the garage than they did supporting the bodies of eager riders.
Nonetheless, our concrete pathways continued to get use. Every day we walk down them to tend to vegetable, flower and herb gardens planted in between the sidewalks and the house. They make a stable platform for a chair when I'm cutting my husband's hair and when our grandson comes over to visit, the concrete slab in front of the garage is an ideal surface to draw upon with colored chalk.
Still, I wanted more.
"What do you think about putting in a walkway to the lake?" I would periodically ask my husband in my most fetching voice. "Don't you think that would be a good project?"
His noncommittal response was always, "It would be a project, that's for sure."
We repeated this dialogue so often over the years it was as if our comments were etched in stone or, as I preferred to imagine, in concrete.
He'd say: "I don't know why we need a concrete path. I like walking over the grass."
At which point I'd reply: "Well, I don't. I'm the one who gets bit by ants, not you, and I don't want ant bites. I want a concrete sidewalk!"
I finally won. After years of unsuccessful campaigning, I got my wish. Ralph finally agreed to put in the concrete walkway. However, my husband won, too, because he was right. It was a project.
He labored during a good part of a week with a shovel, wheelbarrow and metal rake, removing sod from the pathway-to-be and placing it on barren spots in the yard. We then spent time laying out the design until the curved path was shaped just right and although we hired a crew to put up the forms and pour the mixture, we (meaning Ralph) wound up doing most of the cleanup — and there was a lot of it!
Concrete is composed of sand, stones or gravel mixed with water and a powdered form of cement that binds the other components together. It looks and feels a lot like mud (not that you'd want to put your hands in it) and like mud, it's messy. Instead of staying only within the wood-framed form where it is supposed to go, a substantial number of globs and splatters inevitably land on the lawn where it promptly turns into tough, rough-edged nuggets that would ruin a mower blade if left in place.
From an environmental perspective, adding concrete to the landscape is frowned upon mainly because it decreases green space. That may be true in commercial areas where a paved-over-paradise-and-put-up-a-parking-lot mentality all too often applies, but residential settings are different. I find that concrete walkways, raised patios and driveways add to the outdoor experience by providing comfortable, solid platforms on which to enjoy nature. I'm much more apt to spend time outside if I can do so barefoot and worry-free. Concrete pathways provide such an opportunity.
"So," I asked my husband after he finished filling in dirt around the edges of our new paths and I'd filled the last container with chunks of concrete detritus, "what do you think of the walkways now?"
"I like them," he admitted. "They were a lot of work, but they were a good idea."
Even more than I like concrete, I like it when I'm right!

Monday, August 6, 2012

Snow in August? Guess again!

A line of pink and white crape myrtles defines the boundaries at a local nursery

Simply Living
August 6, 2012

At first glance, it looked like snow. White flurries were flying through the air, falling down and covering the ground.
But it wasn't snow. It wasn't even winter. It was the middle of a hot Florida summer day. The swirling flurries of snow-white lightness were crape-myrtle flowers freed from the branches by an afternoon windstorm.
Crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica) might well be the most widely planted ornamental in Florida. It is a fast-growing plant favored for its long-lasting, colorful blooms, attractive peeling bark and ease of maintenance. Bugs or plant diseases rarely bother this drought- and heat-tolerant tree, which is readily available in an array of sizes and colors.
Shortly after we moved to our property, we planted three small crape myrtles in white, raspberry and pastel pink. The trees grew quickly. Our multi-limbed specimens are now more than 15-feet tall and every year they produce numerous offspring with baby crape-myrtle bushes popping up close by the mother plants. The white tree turned out to be our most prolific bloomer, followed by the raspberry and pink-flowered varieties.
Crape myrtles are such ubiquitous plants in both commercial and residential neighborhood you'd think they were Florida natives. They're not. Originally from Southeast Asia, crape myrtle gained popularity in North America shortly after being introduced in the 18th century. Although primarily grown in warm climates, where it thrives year round, it occasionally appears in Northern gardens as an herbaceous perennial, a flowering plant that blooms seasonally then dies back in the winter.
Over the years, plant specialists have taken advantage of the demand for this summer bloomer by developing new cultivars. Choices now include everything from miniature plants under 3 feet tall and weeping varieties of crape myrtles that work well in hanging baskets to towering 40-foot beauties. Color choices include a painter's pallet of purples, reds, pinks and white. For those who find it hard to decide on just one hue, there are even bi-color crape myrtles — two competing colors on plant. The ones in our yard are nothing fancy. They are traditional tree-like crapes with multiple spreading limbs that provide welcome shade on a hot afternoon.
Unlike many flowering trees, crape-myrtle blooms form on each season's new growth, which is why people often whack back everything above a certain height after flowering season ends. While this practice of severe pruning was once favored, it is no longer touted as the best way to maintain healthy, attractive plants. Current thinking is to deadhead spent blooms, remove suckers that form at the base and to fertilize and water regularly during the growing season.
While following such advice undoubtedly will produce larger and more prolific clusters of crepe paper-like blooms, I do none of the above. I don't whack back my crape-myrtle trees because I think they look ridiculously ugly like that. And, because I'm lazy, I don't deadhead, remove suckers or fertilize them either. I simply leave my crape myrtles alone. They do their thing, I do mine and still they reward me with bountiful blossoms that brighten the yard.
It's easy to love such a low-maintenance, lovely-to-look-at landscape plant and it is especially nice in the midst of a heat wave when the white-flowering blooms trigger cooling memories of snowflakes falling to the ground.