Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Black Raspberries

A Black Raspberry harvest, photograph courtesy of Marvin Pritts
Mid summer is prime time for picking raspberries.

Raspberries are at their peak. Strawberries and mulberries may have already peaked in generous harvests and blackberries and blueberries have yet to appear.

Perhaps my love of raspberries comes from my mother. Her father lived next door to the Cimonetti family in Glen Cove, on Long Island. Whenever we visited, Nicky would bring over fresh raspberries, just picked that morning.

While living in Bloomington, Indiana, we moved several times. My father may have made one of the moves for my mother; next door was a large garden with a healthy grove of raspberries. Other kids sneaked out at night to smoke; I was sneaked out and tried to tell the difference between ripe and hard fruit without a flashlight.

In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, someone said that a fungus was going to make the species extinct. So, when I found raspberries in a San Francisco Safeway, during a visit to friends Jim and Yvonne, I bought several pints and called my parents from the airport.

Even though the traffic to JFK was horrible that day, my parents met me between planes and were happy to get the berries.

In the supermarket, Driscoll’s is often the main brand of raspberries. But my favorite berries are in our backyard and on the local road in front of our house.

Black raspberry bushes: the red raspberries in this picture
are berries that are not yet ripe.
Photograph by Marvin Pritts

The biggest black raspberries, or black caps, as they are also called, in the backyard have a diameter no larger than a dime. According to Marvin Pritts, Chair of Cornell University’s Horticulture Department, and a raspberry fan himself, “Genetics tend to limit the size of wild black raspberries.” “Even if a person carefully tends the plants,” he continued, “they are still likely to be smaller than plants that have been bred and selected for larger fruit size.” Cornell has an excellent website with lots of information about raspberries and other appealing fruit.

I have a circuit through the backyard, which hits all the berry bushes. Most of the time, my companions include many mosquitoes and flies. On a good day, half an hour will yield about a pint of berries.

It's not a pint's worth of a good day, but this batch of
black raspberries made two bowls of cereal
a much better breakfast

Black raspberries always seem to be there but they have a precarious existence.

According to Pritts, black raspberries “prefer full sun and well-drained soils. They tend to die out once trees grow up and start to shade them.” They appear to prefer “habitats that receive periodic disturbances (e.g. fires, clear cutting) as the roots can persist for many years under shaded conditions. When the disturbance happens, they grow rapidly (since they are already present on the site) and tend to dominate a site for several years.”

This is consistent with berry life in the neighborhood. Three years ago, there were berry bushes along the road. Rose the Dog, a white Samoyed, and I were a distinctive sight as we walked along. I would eat the higher up berries; Rose would delicately lick and nip the berries off the lower canes.

These bushes are gone because of shading and my neighbor’s changed mowing pattern. But new bushes appeared in the backyard after Hurricane Irene dropped several trees. Some of the best berry patches near the house still get enough sun but are entangled in wild grape vines and goldenrod.

E.B. Poling from North Carolina State states black raspberry canes live for two years. In year one, the cane grows. At the beginning of year two, the cane flowers and then fruit forms. After the berries are gone, the cane dies. In addition to the North Carolina State University website, Virginia Tech has a nice electronic page on black raspberries.

Pritts explains that the ancestors of raspberries came from Asia. He suspects “the black raspberry evolved in North America, although there is a different species with black fruit from India.” “Regardless,” he concludes “we find black raspberries in eastern North America (naturally) and no where else in the world.”

Adding black raspberries to a morning bowl of cereal or snacking on them while mowing are great treats. Whether it’s a cool day or a humid blast furnace, the sweet taste and the way each fruit is delicious yet unique, a sort of horticultural snowflake.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Summers Second Starry Night

Lightning Bug
Photograph by Chris Meyer, courtesy of Indiana University

Thanks to lightning bugs, we can enjoy a second starry night sky in summer- - regardless of clouds or rain!

On the East Coast, North Coast (the Great Lakes) and place s in between, lightning bugs are brightening evenings.

In a recent e-mail conversation, Cole Gilbert, a Cornell University professor of entomology, shared two important facts: “Lightning bugs, or fireflies, are neither bugs nor flies.  They are adult lampyrid beetles.  ”Fireflies that flash in the evening," Gilbert continued, "are not found west of the 100th meridian.” The 100th meridian is at the western boundary of Oklahoma, just before the panhandle shoots many miles more to the west.

Lightning bugs start arriving, a few at a time, in mid-June. As the weeks progress, they become more numerous and it seems, more vivid in lighting the night.

Some evenings in our yard, the lightning bugs are so numerous that a person might think someone had installed miles of small lights in the grass and bushes. When Gilbert looks at lightning bugs, he is awed and delighted, and sees “the yellow green Morse Code magic of a summer evening.”

According to researchers Sara M. Lewis and Christopher K. Cratsley, lightning bugs flash at night to attract mates. Male lightning bugs fly through the night flashing certain patterns, perhaps the lightning bug equivalent of “Hey, come here often?” Female lightning bugs tend to stay on the ground and watch. When they see a pattern they like, they flash in reply and the male flies to them.

There are chemical reasons that lightning bugs can make light. However, I do not think I can explain the chemistry in a concise manner to fit the blog.

If something glows at night, one might think this is suicidal behavior, that the light will draw predators. Lewis and Cratsley summarize research that shows lightning bugs have certain chemicals that make them unpalatable to predators. However, the researchers also cite other research that there are predatory lightning bugs. One of them in the eastern United States can mimic the mating lights of a female, luring a male in and then making him dinner.

Lightning bugs are declining in parts of their range. The two main reasons for the decline are light pollution and habitat destruction. suggests that landowners can help by leaving rotting logs and leaf litter on some parts of their property for lightning bug habitat. Other suggestions include leaving some parts of a lawn unmowed or reducing pesticide use.

Another good source for lightning bug information, which one of my friends pointed out after this post went up, is the Boston Museum of Science's website. See the web address below.

Linda Brown and the Harvard Dialect Survey, suggest that the name a person uses for this insect suggest where they are from. Brown suggests that Southerners tend to call these insects “lightning bugs.” The Dialect Survey found that the term “lightning bug” tended to be used in the South, lower Midwest and parts of New York. The term “firefly” tended to be used in the upper Midwest, western New York and New England.

Lightning bugs appear in literature. My favorite is from Mark Twain, who once wrote, in a letter to George Bainton in 1888, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter--it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” My friend Seth discovered that Marilyn Kallet has a nice poem, about the many emotions triggered by seeing fireflies, on her website.

In the witty spirit of Mark Twain, one reader wrote that this post inspired "looking at fireflies in a whole new light."

It was fun to research this post. But now, it’s time to turn off the lights and go watch lightning bugs.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Tiger Daylilies

Tiger Daylilies on June 26th

Tiger Day Lilies on June 29th
 In just the last few days, the tiger daylilies in our yard have started to bloom. The plant’s vivid orange blooms are brightening yards and roadsides on the East, West and North Coasts - - and everywhere in between.

Researching this lovely plant shows the confusion that common plant names cause. My friend Don Stauffer, an excellent Master Gardener, calls the plant a “tiger lily.” I thought it was called simply a “daylily.” The plant is also called a “tawny daylily” or a “ditch lily.”

According to a blog post by James McInnis, the scientific name for the tiger daylily, Hemerocallis fulva, means “beautiful for a day.” Each bloom on the flower’s stem opens in the morning and lasts for just a day.

The same flower patch on Monday July 1st!  Note the wilted blooms that have already lasted for just a day.

However, each stem has many blooms. A patch of the plants will bloom for several weeks.

The tiger daylily came from Asia. In reading cooperative extension fact sheets found online, there is not a consensus on how the plant reached the United States. One explanation, also dismissed as a “legend,” is that the sea captains transplanted the flowers from Asia and brought them home to their wives. Another source said the plant came to the United States with English colonists.

Regardless of how the tiger daylily got here, it is a vivid and delightful presence. The mass of long green leaves, topped by scores of orange flowers, is a perfect expression of the vigor and bounty of mid-summer.

I love the orange of tiger daylily blooms. On Staten Island, we used to see the blooms on back roads throughout the Island’s pine-oak forests. The orange was an appealing contrast to the shade and forest greens.

When you find daylilies on a roadside or in a remote, undeveloped place, it takes thoughts back to summers past. You might wonder what the place looked like when the flowers were first planted. You may also wonder who planted the flowers and what happened to them. Did they move West or move into a city?

Tiger daylilies in Winchester, Ct. 
Photograph courtesy of Seth Edelman

Deer will heavily graze tiger daylily shoots as the snow is melting.  In Virginia, my friend Steve Jaffe finds the deer wipe out his daylilies; in my backyard, the plant grows so exuberantly that it bounces back from the deers' attentions.

The vigorous growth that outlasts the deer can be a delight - - or a curse. They are likely to spread rapidly and take over. Some gardeners suggest planting them in places that are not likely to be used for other plants or in poor soil where nothing else will grow.

My friend, Seymour, sees flowers in Los Angeles florists that look like the tiger daylily. It also appears there are tiger daylily look-alikes that bloom longer than the original plants do - - or bloom in different colors.

Long lasting lilies are beautiful. They were the main flower at our wedding and brighten up a trip trudging around the supermarket when the weather is less temperate.

But seeing a flash of bright orange tiger lilies by the road for a week or so is an iconic view of mid-summer.  It happily reminds me of my wedding and sustains me through August heat or January cold.