It’s looking like we won’t have a white Christmas here although we may get a bit of snow either Friday or Sunday and it’s possible it will stick. That’s fine with me, I am not a snow worshipper and I don’t care anymore if Christmas is white. I read that some of you are likely to get a lot of snow-or rain – over the holiday. I hope it doesn’t ruin any of your plans and everyone stays safe.
Today it’s sunny and 36 degrees here with a brisk wind. It’s cold outside with the wind but I can look out the window at green grass. And I did get out with my dog today for a quick tour of the yard. My chickens are roaming, scratching through the damp leaves and finding green things to eat so they are happy too.
We couldn’t see the meteor showers or comet this past week because it was either cloudy or foggy every night. I heard they were impressive in some areas of the country. I hope some of you enjoyed the celestial display.
Today, the 18th, is Bake Cookies Day. I have been busy baking this week. The 21st is winter solstice, start of the holiday season and everyone needs comfort food and yummy sweets to celebrate but I like to be done with preparations by solstice so that I can properly experience it and Christmas. This year solstice arrives with a full moon and close to moon perigee so it’s even more impressive.
Because of Christmas there will be no blog post on the 25th. But I’ll be back with a post on January 2. No matter what holiday you celebrate this season I hope you have a good one.
There was a time when winter solstice was the most sacred holiday of the year. The calendar revolved around it. Ancient people made it a point to know when winter solstice occurred. This was the time when the sun stopped its descent to the horizon and began to climb again in the sky. The ancients knew that the sun was the key to life. When the sun “turned and began to come back” it was a signal that life continued. The celebration was a symbol of hope and joy, rebirth and a new year.
While some of man’s earliest ancestors may not have been aware of the cyclic nature of the sun because of their closeness to the equator, where there is no seasonal difference, by the time they appeared in Northern Africa, they had grasped the significance. The pyramids and other monuments that track the sun’s journey are proof.
But by the time humans migrated to more northerly areas of the middle east and Europe they became very aware of the sun’s seasonal fluctuations. The days grow shorter and the sun is lower on the horizon and its warmth wanes. The people felt great relief when they could determine that that cycle was reversing. Over generations they learned to determine this turning point at almost the instant it happens. That still seems amazing, that they could pinpoint the start of solstice, without any of our modern instruments and our knowledge of how the earth revolves around the sun and turns on its axis.
Long, long before Christmas our ancestors celebrated winter solstice. It was believed that man was closest to the spiritual realm in the days around winter solstice. It was a solemn time of meditation and reflection, a time to relinquish fears and cares in the old year and look forward to better times in the new. Fires were lit to symbolically burn fears, cares and transgressions. Sacrifices and promises were made.
At the end of about 3 days of solemn retrospection, there was feasting and visiting with the community to celebrate life and the promise of the new year. Small gifts were given, mostly for luck in the new year, which is the probable origin of gift giving at this time of year.
In all the bustle that precedes and follows winter solstice now, the Christian, Jewish, and other cultural rituals co-opted from earlier ones, it’s important to remember the significance of winter solstice. Life on earth is going to continue for our species, (at least for a while), because there is a familiar, constant and comforting law of nature.
The ancients had it right when they believed that this time of the year, the winter solstice, should be a time for reflection on the past year. It’s a time to examine our lives and decide how we want to live going forward, with the coming of a new year. We should take 3 days of every year, beginning at solstice to be introspective, spiritual and thoughtful. Have a bonfire and burn your cares and worries. Make your resolutions at this time, when the new year truly begins.
After the period of reflection, the joyful celebration can begin. It would be wonderful if that could be less about material things and more about connecting to others and being glad to be alive and having a fresh start. May you have a spiritual, reflective solstice and a joyous and fulfilling new year.
Aphids on houseplants
Aphids are small egg-shaped insects that come in white, black and every color in between, depending on the species. Adult aphids have wings, but aphids don’t usually fly very far. Aphids can be found in the garden, the greenhouse and on houseplants. There are species of aphids that prefer certain plant species and some that are generalists. Some plants are very susceptible to aphid infestations and other plants rarely host them.
Houseplants that are more susceptible to aphids include; asparagus fern, cyclamen, Fatshedera, Fatsia, fuchsia, impatiens, kalanchoe, ornamental peppers, roses, schefflera, streptocarpus, and tropical hibiscus. Some plants that rarely get aphids are succulents, spider plants, pothos, ferns, sanseveria, and Norfolk pines. Many types of plants occasionally get aphids.
Aphids suck plant juices and usually concentrate on areas of the plant that are young and tender, like new shoots and flower buds. Their feeding can cause some plant stress and they sometimes carry diseases from plant to plant. Their poop is called honeydew, it’s a sticky substance that is often found on the lower leaves of plants and on things next to plants. It can mold, turning black (sooty mold), which is unsightly and blocks light from plant leaves and impedes their respiration.
Outside aphids have many natural predators and they rarely become too abundant. On plants in the house though, natural predators and heavy rains that wash them off plants are absent, so they can build up into huge populations. Houseplants may get aphids when they are outside for summer vacations but even plants that have never been outside may get aphids. Greenhouses also have problems with aphids and they are often brought home on new plants. Seasonal plants like poinsettias and Easter lilies may even give them a ride inside.
|Aphid giving birth|
Once they get inside a home aphids can reproduce rapidly. Most aphids inside reproduce by giving birth to nymphs, baby aphids that look like smaller adults without wings. Some aphids outside lay eggs. To find aphids look at new shoots, and buds for clusters of tiny insects of varied colors. Look under curled or yellowed leaves for aphids that may be hiding there too. The sticky “honeydew” aphids produce can look shiny when fresh or like blackened areas if it molds. (Scale insects also produce honeydew.)
Aphids are not the tiny insects flying around in your home in most cases. Those are gnats or whiteflies. Aphids can fly but prefer to crawl from plant to plant. Even when touched they rarely fly.
Aphids rarely kill a plant although they make it look sickly. Leaves may yellow and curl. Buds may drop off or flowers may look deformed. Most gardeners want to control them.
If you are able to move your potted plants into the shower easily, simply set them in the shower and spray them vigorously with warm water. Concentrate on young growth and buds if any. With light infestations you may be able to use a spray bottle with plain water to spray plants too large to move easily. You may have to do this several times until you cut the population.
If you just have a few clusters of aphids on your plants, you may be able to just clip off those areas and dispose of them aphids and all. You may miss a few but you will help control the population this way. If you don’t want to trim plants there are other things you can do.
You can spray the plants with an insecticidal soap solution. This is not something you mix up in the sink with dish detergent. Don’t let anyone convince you that Dawn dish detergent is the same thing. Dawn or other dish detergents strip the oils off leaf surfaces and make it easier for aphids to feed. You’ll need to purchase the insecticidal soap from a horticultural supply store. Mix it according to label directions.
Horticultural oils are also an option but since they affect some plants adversely check the label to see if it’s safe for the plants you want to spray and can be used indoors. Neem oil is an insecticidal oil that’s fairly safe to use indoors too. Protect things around the plants you spray so the oil doesn’t stain them.
Most spray type or contact insecticides aren’t safe to use inside. Check all pesticides for the label directions and only use them inside if the label says you can. If you have a place you can move the plants to when you spray them, so that the spray isn’t in the household air you are breathing, that would probably be the best way to use these pesticides. They only need to remain isolated until the spray dries. Remember some of these sprays might harm pets if they chew treated leaves.
You could opt to use a systemic insecticide product to kill the aphids. Systemics are poured on the soil and the plant roots take them up and the plant distributes the pesticides through its whole system. It takes 2 weeks or more for these products to start working but then they protect the plants for a long time and there are no pesticides in the air to breathe.
Most systemics are in the neonicotinoid class of pesticides and can harm pollinators. If you are treating plants that never go outside or that don’t flower this is probably not a problem. Neonicotinoids like Imidacloprid remain in soil or potting medium a long time. Don’t dump any treated soil outside because plants nearby could take up the pesticide and theoretically harm pollinators. This class of pesticides is practically non-toxic to mammals if used as directed so most pets shouldn’t be affected.
I have found that if you can keep the aphid population low without using pesticides through the winter, your plants will survive until warm weather when you can move them outside. Outside the aphid problem is generally quickly resolved and plant recovery rapid.
Plants may someday charge your phone
Some fascinating new research has revealed that when the wind blows across a plant the plant produces electricity. Plants strengthen their stems when wind moves them as many growers know. Evidently it is an electrical stimulus that cause the plants to “bulk up”. When wind moves across the leaf surface it produces an electrical charge on the surface which is immediately transported into plant tissues and moved to other parts of the plant.
Researchers at IIT-(Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia) in Pisa, Italy found that a single leaf being brushed by the wind can produce 150 volts of electricity. Researchers were able to capture the electricity by making artificial “plants” whose leaves touched the real leaves of an oleander plant. Electricity then flowed through the artificial plant to be metered or to power LED lights. A single plant leaf blowing in the wind can light up 150 LED bulbs.
The researchers have a project where they are making a robot that will make “growing motions” and they hope to at least partially power the robot with plant produced electricity. Sounds complicated but this project has opened up a whole new area of research into green energy.
One day we may simply plug into plants to light our homes or charge up that phone. Maybe you could carry a special plug when you are hiking in the wilderness, so you can plug your phone into a friendly tree to charge it. You might have to stand there and blow on some leaves if the wind isn’t blowing -LOL-.
There’s no data that I saw on whether harnessing the electricity the plant is producing and diverting it for our use would harm the plant. But if a tree has millions of leaves that might not be a major problem unless we got greedy. Just plant a few trees by the house and voila!- no electric bills.
We used to do a 4-H project where several potatoes powered a small clock and they weren’t even blowing in the wind. The potatoes were able to power the clock for several days while on exhibit at the fair. (And the potatoes were still edible when they stopped producing energy). I guess you could say the potato tubers were the batteries where the potato plant stored electricity. So, it makes sense that if we found the right way to harness and store energy from plants, we could become even less dependent on fossil fuel energy.
Plants don’t like to be touched
If you are a person who constantly fusses with your plants, shining their leaves, stroking and poking them-beware, you are stressing them out. And when plants are stressed, they don’t grow as well, and their immune system is less effective.
Research published this month in the The Plant Journal (https://doi.org/10.1111/tpj.14183) found that every time a plant is touched stress hormones are triggered which are energy intensive for the plant to produce. To a plant touch is not pleasurable, rather it signifies that something is going eat them, so they need to defend themselves. Even when other plants touch a plant it causes stress.
The more a plant is touched the less energy it has for other functions like growth and reproduction. Plants that are frequently touched are not as healthy as plants who aren’t touched. The research found that plants whose nutritional needs were well met had less of a setback, but that touch was still not a good thing for plants.
Preliminary research suggests plants can’t differentiate types of touches, good touches, like in pollination, and bad, like a grasshopper landing on them. We may discover eventually that they can. Research also hasn’t determined if different plant species have different levels of response to touching. However, since the stress caused by touching causes a change in gene expression, researchers think that it might be possible to breed plants that handle touch better.
I don’t know what this means for the idea of harnessing electricity from plants- see the article above-because that involves touching leaves with a fake leaf. I suppose we’ll weigh the pros and cons and choose what’s best for us. However, all you gardeners who want healthy plants should do your best to keep your green thumbs off them.
New tick species to watch out for
In 2017 a foreign tick was discovered in New Jersey. The tick, called the Asian Longhorned tick (a stupid name because it is so similar to Asian Longhorn beetle, another recent invasive species) was found in these additional states this year: Arkansas, Connecticut, Maryland, North Carolina, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia. A new study warns that the tick will probably spread to many more states rather quickly.
This tick has some tolerance for cold and will probably spread as far north as southern Canada. It does not like hot, dry areas and the southwest is the least likely place it will spread. This tick can reproduce without mating (parthenogenic) and is quite prolific. It will feed on wildlife, livestock, pets and humans. It likes the same habitat as other species of ticks.
The Haemaphysalis longicornis tick is native to East Asia but is also well established in Australia and New Zealand. It’s a prominent livestock pest and that may be how it arrived here. Thousands may be found on one animal, severely weakening it.
In Asia it transmits several tick-borne diseases to livestock and humans. So far, the CDC has not found any Asian Longhorned ticks in the US that are infected with disease. Entomologists say that is likely to change.
As far as identifying the species, that is hard for the layperson to do. It’s a plain reddish- brown tick. You can see pictures in the link below. The CDC and USDA-APHIS would like people to submit ticks that they don’t recognize so they can track the spread and test them for disease. There are directions in the fact sheets below for how to do this. If you have been bitten by a tick- it attached to you and fed on you- should contact your doctor or the local health department.
Soil ingredient might help you lose weight
Did you eat dirt as a child? You may have been on the right track to a svelte body. As part of research on the best delivery of certain drugs to the human system, scientists in Australia stumbled upon the discovery that a substance found in some soils, smectite, a form of non-metallic clay, may someday help people lose weight by absorbing fat in the digestive system.
Smectite is also known as montmorillonite or sodium bentonite and is composed of hydrated sodium calcium aluminum silicate. It is produced by the weathering of volcanic ash. The form the researchers were using had been spray dried. The substance is harmless to humans and passes through the digestive system. Sodium bentonite is used to seal porous soils to make a liner for ponds and sewage lagoons. It’s also used in kitty litter.
Sodium bentonite has been used in medicine to absorb toxins from the body and treat diarrhea. Various folk remedies using it exist. There are studies that suggest it might help promote good gut bacteria. It’s also used in cosmetics. Overdose though, can interfere with blood electrolytes.
The researchers were using the clay to improve the delivery of certain medications when they discovered that it soaked up fat goblets in the digestive system and then carried them out of the body. They decided to compare smectite with Orlistat, a weight loss drug, in animal studies. They found the clay caused more weight loss than Orlistat.
Researchers at the University of South Australia then decided to combine smectite clay with Orlistat. Orlistat does cause weight loss by blocking the absorption of fat by the body. However, some people can’t tolerate it because the excess fat in the digestive system causes severe diarrhea. In animal studies the combination of Orlistat and smectite caused weight loss without gastrointestinal distress. Human studies of the combination will soon be starting. In the meantime, don’t start eating soil or kitty litter, there could be other complications.
"So the shortest day came, and the year died,
And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
To drive the dark away.
They lighted candles in the winter trees;
They hung their homes with evergreen;
They burned beseeching fires all night long
To keep the year alive,
And when the new year's sunshine blazed awake
They shouted, reveling.
Through all the frosty ages you can hear them
Echoing behind us - Listen!!
All the long echoes sing the same delight,
This shortest day,
As promise wakens in the sleeping land:
They carol, fest, give thanks,
And dearly love their friends,
And hope for peace.
And so do we, here, now,
This year and every year.
- Susan Cooper, The Shortest Day
May you have a spiritual solstice, a merry Christmas or the wonderful holiday of your choosing. See you next year.
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And So On….
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I write this because I love to share with other gardeners some of the things I come across in my research each week (or things I want to talk about). It keeps me engaged with people and horticulture. It’s a hobby, basically. I hope you enjoy it. If you are on my mailing list and at any time you don’t wish to receive these emails just let me know. If you or anyone you know who would like to receive a notification by email when a new blog is published have them send their email address to me. KimWillis151@gmail.com