a tale of a tiny snake

As a kid, our garden was a haven for snakes as our garden provided good slug hunting and plenty of cover. I’m sure generations of snakes thrived inside the garden fence. Early on a summer day slithering serpents could be seen diving for cover between the vegetables. Even though the snakes darted to safety as quick as they could, I always caught one if I felt so inclined – which was often. I never harmed any of the snakes I caught, I just liked to examine their markings before setting them free. There are black and brown ones, some with yellow, orange, red, or blue stripes (It turns out there are three species found here: Wandering, Common and Northwestern Garter Snakes).

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A preserved garter snake from the local area – but not the one from the optometrist office.

I’m fortunate that the snakes on my island in the Pacific aren’t dangerous – at most my hands would get covered in a stinky pee-like liquid as the captive snake tried a malodorous defense. I did get bit once (I deserved it) but, hardly a mark was left on my skin. Although garter snakes have a mild venom, it is only toxic to the small animals the snake eats. Garter snakes are not a scary snake and the only other snake in the area is the highly endangered slug-eating sharp-tailed snake that reaches a max length of 20 cm. So when someone in the area tells me they have spotted a venomous snake I wonder where it came from, a stow-away in someone’s luggage perhaps?

One late spring afternoon, my husband called to tell me of a venomous snake sighting in an optometrist office near Rithets Bog. Apparently, the optometrist had widely traveled tropical lands and was convinced he knew a venomous snake when he saw one. Somehow, my husband got called to identify and take care of the animal. Intrigued*, I agreed to accompany my husband to the optometrist office on our way to dinner with friends.

When my husband introduced himself to the staff at the optometrist’s office, a small clear plastic box encased in packing tape was produced. Inside was a tiny snake. Even without my expert husband telling me, I knew at first glance it was a baby garter snake. It was less than a few days old, so young it still had its belly button. The tiny snake was darting around its clear prison, looking for a way out. We assume the snake was born near the bog, somehow safely got across a road and parking lot before taking refuge in the optometrist office.

We took the snake and set it free.

*and concerned as my husband regularly tells tales of being bitten by various animals – including some venomous ones.

on marrying a museum curator…

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Easter lilies are in full bloom around here – this is the best shot of one that I’ve taken.

My article on marrying a museum curator for the Royal British Columbia Museum’s on-line magazine has now been posted. Check it out here.

what’s blooming now

I’ve had a frustrating morning with my computer (upgraded my operating system then discovered I couldn’t run software I need for my research, so I reverted back to my old operating system). Since it’s a beautiful morning, I took a break to take some pictures of what is currently blooming in my garden.

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Forget-me-nots (Myosotis arvensis) that have seeded them self all over the place.

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An anemone I don’t know the name of.

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Another anemone I don’t know the name of. I planted this one before I realized there is more than one type of anemone.

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Anemone trullifolia (I wrote this one’s name down), a recent gift from a friend.

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A standard spring flower.

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Fritillaria meleagris, another recent gift that I’ve planted under my apple tree (the tree is fortified to protect it from deer).

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Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) – my favorite weed.

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I didn’t plant this, it just grew. It’s pretty enough to stay. If anyone knows what this is please let me know.

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They won’t bloom for a while, but my peas are looking great.

on eating unusual plants

bgr_badge_origThe March edition of the Berry Go Round is now up on Emma the Gardener’s blog. Go check it out, people are growing all sorts of interesting edibles. Plus, it includes a post by me about growing licorice (which have been re-potted and set outside since then).

some eggy tidbits

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Both of these chicks turned out to be hens.

The longer days have resulted in a glut of eggs around here – hens I had thought were well into henopause have started laying again, and a chick I got last year that left me wondering if it was a rooster has proven she is a hen (I’d happily keep a rooster, except that in my urban area that wouldn’t be fair to my neighbours). With extra eggs in the fridge, I’ve been thinking a lot about eggs.

Ever dropped an egg? It turns out an egg can be repaired – good news for Humpty Dumpty! Even better news for a Kakapo egg as these ground dwelling parrots are critically endangered. Here‘s a story about an accidentally crushed Kakapo egg that was repaired, then hatched.

Or, considering Easter is approaching, how about natural egg dying? These natural, homemade dyes look great – especially the blues and reds. Beet juice creates a great red/purple/pink range of colours. Perhaps not really appropriate for dyeing eggs, crushed cochineal insects also produce a great and non-toxic red dye that is found in all sorts of processed food. As a slight tangent – up until roughly the 1950s, cochineal was the dye used for British army uniforms. This dye gets listed under a number of different names such as ‘natural red 4′ or ‘red #40.’

In general red colouring in food causes me some concern, a while back I took a look at the surprisingly long list of red dyes in a brand of iron pills that my doctor recommended I take. I have no biological need for cadmium, yet it could be found in those iron pills (among other unnecessary things). Apparently, cerium can be used as a non-toxic alternative to cadmium. However, I’ve since found iron pills with no colouring at all.

As a final note: check out these finches playing the guitar.

Getting grubby with grubs

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The grubs I found in the garden

I’m trying to get a handle on who lives in my garden. The mammals are easy: three primates as permanent residents, and transient squirrels, rats, raccoons and domestic cats. What interests me are the birds, insects, arachnids and other invertebrates (I’ve never observed any reptiles or amphibians – but some would be welcome such as garter snakes and tree frogs).

The arrival of spring means I must ready my garden beds for planting. To that end, I’ve been spending a lot of time on my hands and knees weeding. Being that close to the ground makes it easy to spot the slugs, worms, millipedes and grubs hiding in the soil. Slugs get fed to the hens. Worms and millipedes get a free pass as their presence is beneficial.

It’s the grubs I wonder about. Will they grow into a beneficial insect or one that will munch on my veggies? The picture shows a grub I’ve been finding a lot of lately. They are big, some the diameter of my pinky, and plentiful. I collected the three in the photo a few days ago and sent them to be identified. I don’t want to make the mistake of decimating the young of a carnivore that would hunt down the bugs eating my plants. Consider the fire-engine red, included-in-every-child’s-garden-book ladybug – it’s larvae looks like the inspiration for the mind-control-insect Kahn put into Chekov’s ear in the original ‘Wrath of Kahn‘.

My hope was the grubs were European Ground Beetles (Carabus nemoralis) – an beneficial and pretty beetle I often see in the garden. But they weren’t. The grubs are caterpillars of the Large Yellow Underwing (Noctua pronuba), a moth with yellow wings as its name implies. This moth eats plants, so the caterpillars went to the hens.

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European Yellow Underwing

As a tangent: both the European Ground Beetle and the Large Yellow Underwing are European invaders to the area. The beetle likely hitched a ride in the ballast of early ships from Europe, while the moth was released, by accident, in Nova Scotia in 1979.

Thanks to my husband for taking both these great pictures.

Aspirations of a licorice harvest

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My licorice as it is now

It all started with a beer – not just any beer, but the first one I had after my pregnancy-induced beer drought. My daughter had arrived safe and sound into the world so my husband and I celebrated with a licorice stout. At the time, I thought it was an odd sounding combination, so risking a potentially weird taste, I took a sip. The stout turned out to be tasty goodness, if you like a dark beer like I do. Since then I’ve enjoyed a few pints of the brew and it has turned into my husband’s favourite.

We’ve talked of brewing our own licorice beer, so in the spirit of planning ahead I was delighted when I noticed a listing of licorice seeds tucked between lespedeza (I have no idea what that is) and lily-of-the-valley in a seed catalogue. Their licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) was described as, “The source of most commercial licorice used in the making of candy, liquor and as a sweetener for herb tea. Extracts flavour tobacco, beer, soft drinks and pharmaceutical products.” It sounded like the right plant, so I ordered a packet of seeds.

Licorice is a legume – I’m always fascinated by the number of plants that turn out to be legumes beyond peas and beans. For example: clover, fenugreek, and lupines are all legumes. Native to Europe and Asia, licorice has a long history as a culinary flavouring. It’s latin name ‘Glycyrrhiza’ originates from a Greek word meaning ‘sweet root’. And it was not only the Greeks using licorice; ancient Egyptians, Hindus, Chinese and no doubt others used it in teas, alcoholic mixes, medicine and candy. According to two different herb tea books, licorice is also a natural sweetener and capable of curing all sorts of things, from asthma to indigestion.

I have a recipe for my licorice stout. Recently, in a happy on-line book ordering accident, I received a book of beer recipes instead of the gardening book I had ordered. Their advice for using licorice root is to boil it up with the wort. As well as a flavour for alcoholic beer, licorice is one of the roots used to make root beer. Perhaps I’ll add a few batches of root beer to my licorice plan as recipes from scratch are easy to find on line (like this one and this one). My brewmaster friend has said she is up for guiding me through making both the alcoholic and no-alcoholic licorice beers.

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Licorice plant from Wikipedia

Late February, the seeds were planted in my makeshift aquarium-plant-starter and have sprouted. It turns out, licorice grows into a small bush that likes well drained soil. I have the perfect place in one of my raised beds once the garlic is harvested.

Unfortunately, my licorice harvest is a long way away. Assuming, the two-leaved sprouts grow into proper plants, they’ll have to make it through the winter as I’m on the northern edge of what they can tolerate. I expect I’ll need to cover them late fall. With luck, in about three years, I’ll be able to harvest and dry the roots. In the mean time, I might order some licorice root to practice making the brews so I will have perfected my brewing techniques before using my home-grown licorice.

just growing plants

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My broccoli on a rainy day – pretty and tasty

Back in the 15th century Nicholas of Cusa carefully weighed a growing plant with such accuracy he was able to determine that air had weight. I can’t imagine the attention to detail and precision required to do that – I just grow plants for their own sake, many to eat and some because they are pretty.

Most of my plants I start from seeds. Last spring, it became clear that the household little person was curious about, but not gentle with, my seedlings – my little onion were ripped out, spread around and even consumed. So, this year, all the best sunny locations are off limits. A cold-frame moved to the deck now hosts rows of brassica and alum seedlings and my north-facing office now has a makeshift growing centre in an old aquarium.

The aquarium’s seals are shot, it can’t be trusted to hold water without a major overhaul so it has been sitting outside waiting for a purpose. I’m not sure when my husband got the aquarium, but when we met it hosted a colourful array of shubunkins – fish that have now moved on to our water barrel to ensure we aren’t breeding mosquitoes. Once drained of water, the tank has hosted two rounds of chicks all of whom are now living in a backyard coop.

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My makeshift seed starting system

Early February, I wanted to start seedlings in my dark office but didn’t have a budget for something like this, so I scouted around the house to see what I could find. On its side, the aquarium was perfect – plus we had three aquarium lights, two with full-spectrum blubs. A week after planting, I have a nice assortment of seedlings unfolding their green leaves.

 

An ode to bad science fiction movies and some art

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Big drills, monkey men, flying monsters, oh my. Perhaps there should be a movie version of this.

Science fiction B-movies are my favourite. I expect them to be bad and they often are, but the campy action can be fun to watch. Sometimes I get pleasantly surprised and the movies are actually good (from my perspective) like Pitch Black, Apollo 18 and Iron Sky.

For movies set in space, the space suit options can be fabulous. Check out these.

Sometimes, these B-movies present a gem of a thought exercise resulting in great conversations. Like, how does Godzilla get from his native Japan to New York City? Even if he walks across the sea floor, there is no direct route – perhaps he takes a short cut through the Panama Canal? Heroine’s manage to stay perfectly coiffed under the direst circumstances, for example: Warbirds (plus there were pterodactyls). An alien attack or meteor storm – no problem! A group of expert misfits perpetually wait in the wings to come to our rescue.

Recently, over at Infinite Spider, the extra-creepy big bug issue was examined. There are a number of limits to insect physiology preventing them from reaching super-sized proportions. For instance, bugs breathe using a different system than us, which restricts their size – a monster-size insect just can’t consume enough oxygen to live. That doesn’t stop the movies, anyone remember Mimic? The cockroaches solved the lung issue, grew to the size of humans and horror ensued. Before feeling safe in our world of easily-crushed insects, there once was a carnivorous dragonfly-like insect, the meganeura, possibly the largest flying insect ever with a wing span approaching a metre. Imagine what that would do to a windshield!

On a slight tangent – the images from The Honeybee Alterations by Aganetha Dyck are hauntingly beautiful and an interesting collaboration between human and bees. I love the collision between the beautiful organic shapes of the honeycombs and the mildly garish porcelain figures. These sculptures make me imagine a new civilization being built on the decaying remnants of a old one – perfect fodder for a B-movie. I wish I was close enough to go see this exhibit in person.

Image is from here.

a new visitor in my backyard

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The Wilson’s Snipe photographed by my husband

My currently dormant garden provides good foraging for any bird interested in invertebrates as the soil teems with worms, millipedes and unwanted slugs. A regular crew of robins hunt across my raised beds for wormy snacks.

Yesterday, I caught a glimpse of a brown bird bigger than a robin. Initially, I thought it was a flicker as they are common in the area. But a flicker on the ground would be odd as they usually drill into trees to find their food (or stop by bird feeders). On closer inspection, the visitor was a bird I’d never seen before. Almost the size and shape as a quail with a brown camouflaged feather pattern. The bird had a ridiculously long beak – great for hunting through soil.

It was a Wilson’s Snipe, normally a shore bird that had somehow found its way to my backyard. It was intent on using it’s beak to find worms. As the snipe foraged, its entire body bobbed up and down almost like a dance. Watching the newcomer was quite entertaining. The bird stayed until dusk, when it shot off into the sky.

As a tangent – hunting snipe is notoriously difficult because they fly erratically and fast. To hit one you must be a good shot, which is the origins of the term ‘sniper’ for a military sharpshooter.

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