Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Do Plants Behave?

Last month the PBS program Nature had a fantastic episode about plant behavior -- a controversial term. Do plants really "behave"? This show argues yes: plants can communicate, move purposefully, and compete selectively. They just do it in ways that are much harder to observe than the animal behaviors that usually make it into nature documentaries:

  • Parasitic plants use their sense of smell to choose the best host plants, and grow toward them.
  • Some plants can change their blooming pattern and chemical composition to avoid overpredation -- and pick up cues to do this from other plants that are getting eaten.
  • Some plants can recognize siblings, and their roots grow less competitively with their siblings' roots.
  • A vast underground network of fungi not only takes carbon from trees in exchange for nutrients, but actually helps shuttle carbon to baby trees.

In another interview, one scientist featured in this episode says, "I was raised to believe that plants are plants. You eat them, you grow them, and they look pretty, but this is suggesting that there is a lot more to them than just that. I really think that we’re at the cusp of a real paradigm shift and that people are going to be viewing plants very differently in the next ten years."

Check it out:

Watch What Plants Talk About on PBS. See more from Nature.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Alpha-Gal Syndrome: One more reason to look out for ticks

Lone Star Tick from CDC
via the Hardin Library for the Health Sciences.
We're not big consumers of red meat here at the Natural Capital. In fact, I haven't eaten it in years. But Matt has been known to eat a burger now and then...until recently.

The last three times he has eaten red meat -- even organic, free range meat -- he has broken out in hives. Itchy, all-body, take-several-Benadryls-and-go-to-bed-til-it's-over hives.

For some people, the reaction can be even worse: they can go into anaphylactic shock.

The culprit? Researchers at the University of Virginia think it's tick spit.

More precisely, the spit of lone star ticks that contains a sugar known as alpha-gal (galactose-alpha-1,3-galactose) -- a sugar that's also in red meat. If a tick bites you, and the alpha-gal gets into your bloodstream, you may develop antibodies to it. Then, when you eat that hamburger, your immune system attacks the alpha-gal, releases lots of histamines, and you end up with hives...or worse.

There are over 1,500 reported cases of alpha-gal syndrome, and probably many more that have gone unreported -- including Matt.

Lyme disease is still much more prevalent and problematic than alpha-gal syndrome. But as with Lyme disease, the DC area is right on the edge of the highest-prevalence area.

I've written before about how important it is to avoid tick bites and to get any ticks that do bite out as soon as possible. If you like to eat meat, you can now add this as one more reason to be vigilant.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Things to look for in May

Last spring was hot and way ahead of schedule, and this spring has been cold and a little slow. Morels, in particular, took forever to show up. We just found some on Wednesday, later in the year than we ever have before. I have a feeling that May will even out to be about below are all the things we've highlighted before on the Natural Capital in the month of May. It's getting to be a long list!

What else have you been seeing out there? Enjoy the beautiful weekend outdoors and come back and leave us a comment here or on Facebook!

yellow ladyslipper orchid
yellow ladyslipper at TWMA by Carly&Art
We often make it out to Thomspon Wildlife Management Area in early May to see the trilliums and ladyslipper orchids. I know I usually say that there's so much to see in the DC metro area that roadtrips are unnecessary, but the display at Thompson's is really unbelievable. Last weekend the trilliums were out in Charlottesville so I think they should also be going at Thompson's.

Photo credit: cotinis
Pinxter Azaleas - Some yards are an absolute riot of hot pinks and purples in the spring with azaleas bred from Asian species. But there is actually an azalea native to this area, and it's quite showy in its own right. They're blooming in Rock Creek Park right now.

tuliptree flower
Photo credit: The Natural Capital
Tuliptree Flowers - Tuliptrees are one of the dominant species in the forests in and around Washington, DC. But because the trees are so tall, many people have never seen their flowers. You may find some falling on the ground even if you can't see them in the treetops. (But the real treat is, you can drink their nectar.)

Baltimore oriole
Photo credit: Eric Begin

Baltimore Orioles - Migrating right along with the tuliptree nectar are the orioles. Learn to recognize their pretty song and you may greatly improve your chances of actually seeing one. We just saw one for the first time this year on Wednesday, and we knew to look because we heard it first.

Hummingbird by Jason Means
Ruby throated hummingbirds - Need I say more? Love, love, love these birds and I'm always so happy to see them come back in the spring. We saw our first one of the season last weekend near Charlottesville, so they're probably around here too -- or will be soon.

Canada Warbler (male)
Canada warbler by Jeremy Meyer
There are also many species of migratory warblers -- pretty little songbirds with pretty little songs. In the last several years, we've had a day or two in mid-May when a lot pass through our yard. This post shows some of the species we see the most.

Mountain Laurel blooms
Photo credit: ac4lt
Mountain Laurel -  The gnarled, shaggy trunks of mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) make it a showy shrub at any time of year. But in late May or early June, they burst into flower.

Tiny Tim the Titmouse
Tufted Titmouse by RunnerJenny
Tufted titmice - These birds are in the Washington DC area year round, but (like many birds) they're nesting in May. This post was inspired by catching a pair flying back and forth repeatedly to their nest to feed their young.

Blue Flag Iris
Blue flag iris by dermoidhome
Blue flag iris - This gorgeous iris can be found in our local wetlands. It's one of the showiest flowers native to the DC region.

Oyster mushrooms by justresting
Oyster mushrooms - These are quite possibly my favorite local mushroom. They're not showy like chicken of the woods or early like morels, just a reliable, plentiful mushroom with a nice mushroomy flavor.

Putty Root - closeup
Photo credit: NC Orchid
Putty root orchid - I had been looking for this flower for years. I finally saw one last May.

serviceberry, amelanchier, juneberry
Serviceberries by dbarronoss
Serviceberries - We first learned these native, edible fruits as "Juneberries," but we're starting to think they should maybe be called "Mayberries" around here. (Does something already have that name, or is it just a place in tv land?) They should start ripening at the end of the month. They're scattered throughout the woods in the DC area, but you'll get the most fruit from trees that have been planted ornamentally...see our list of some of the best areas we've found, and a few more in the comments to the post.

Eyed Click Beetle (Alaus oculatus)
Photo credit: Mary Keim
Eyed click beetles - We love these funky insects and their acrobatics. If you've never seen one in action, check out the videos in our post. For some reason we seem to always see them around this time of year. I'm not sure if that's just chance, or something about their life cycle.

Photo credit: USDA
And while you're out looking for all these things, don't forget to start checking for ticks. I've already found one crawling on me this year. Lyme disease is rampant in our area, and a big deal if you get it. But if you find a tick within 24 hours of it attaching itself to you, chances are you won't get Lyme. So just suck it up and look for the little bloodsuckers.