Tuesday, November 23, 2021

The World-Wide Obsession with November’s Flower

A blonde haired woman in a white shirt carrying a bunch of huge pink chrysanthemums over her shoulder.
Chrysanthemum is November’s birth flower and those lucky November-born couldn’t have a more
exquisite or meaningful bloom associated with their month. The chrysanthemum comes in hundreds of varieties and each one is competing with the others to be the most beautiful bloom (see some stunning pictures here and here.) Unlike most other flowers, mums bloom in the chilly weather of autumn. This late-season blooming habit makes them the most obvious and popular choice for holiday bouquets, but for many people it has also made mums a symbol of vitality and perseverance. Mums have inspired symbolism across time and place. In Victorian times, they were symbols of well-wishing and friendship, in Australia they are the flowers of Mother’s Day (because they’re called “mums”, get it?), and in many European countries they have come to be symbols of death (which comes from their being used so frequently in funerals and graveyards). The meanings of chrysanthemums seem to be as wide-ranging as their varieties.

The Emperor of China mum - a beautiful pink, white and red variety.
A 4 Gentleman type painting with yellow chrysanthemums on the far rightIn China the mum is venerated as a whole –their symbolism, their beauty, their medicinal qualities, their spiritual potential, and even their flavor. To underscore this devotion, look no further than this ancient Chinese saying: “If you would be happy for a lifetime, grow chrysanthemums”. As far back as 3,000 years ago Chinese people have been planting, painting and writing about the Chrysanthemum. It is one of the Four Gentlemen of traditional Chinese art. These four plants are the plum blossom, orchid, bamboo and chrysanthemum. They each represent a season (plum blossom-winter, orchid-spring, bamboo-summer and mums-autumn) and also embody the highest levels of integrity and moral character. Although these ideals/images became part of the culture in the time of Confucius (551-479 BCE), they have remained an element of Chinese thought even through communism. Chrysanthemums are now a part of Chinese identity, with towns being named after the flower (Chu Hsien=Chrysanthemum City) and weeks-long festivals held in its honor.

Emperor Akhito of Japan standing in front of his Chrysanthemum throne. You can see the flower emblem on the back of the chair.
A gorgeous yellow mum opening and closing.
The chrysanthemum came to Japan much later than China (5th century AD) and has since become deeply ingrained in Japanese culture. It had been widely admired and used in many facets of Japanese life for centuries before Emperor Go-Toba made it the official symbol of his reign (1183-1198). From that time to this day, the emperors of Japan have sat on the Chrysanthemum Throne. This concept encompasses not only the monarch, but the government that he rules. Thus, the image of this mum appears not just on the actual throne, but on official documents, stamps, coins and even Japanese passports.  An interesting side note: Even though the role is mostly symbolic these days, the Japanese emperor represents the world’s oldest continuing hereditary monarchy; the same family has ruled for 2,600 years
A beautiful peach, pale yellow and red spider type of mum from Japan.

Although their beauty is undeniable, mums have more to offer than just good looks. They are the source of the powerful botanical pesticide Pyrethrin. Like the ancient Chinese, the ancient Persians had mums, and they all were well aware of its insecticidal properties.  As early as 400 BC, Persians were rubbing pyrethrin ointments on their livestock to repel fleas and ticks. This article suggests that the mum, and it’s use as an insecticide, originated in Persia (modern-day Iran) and was brought to China along the Silk Road 2,000 years ago. Others claim it moved the opposite way. Wherever and however this use began, it remains an excellent alternative to synthetic pesticides. We carry a number of top-notch pyrethrin products – check them out here.

A Kenyan woman smiling while standing in a field of daisy-like flowers.
The introduction of pyrethrin was likely a game changer for those ancient Chinese and Persians, and the same can be said for people in Kenya when British colonizers brought it there in the late 1920s. Since pyrethrin has been around so long, it's unlikely that Kenyans had never heard of it, but the British presented it as a money-making crop and that was the game changing part. It seems Kenya has the perfect climate for the daisy-like Chrysanthemum cinerariifolium that pyrethrin is derived from. These flowers grow prolifically after the semi-annual rains and they can be harvested as frequently as every two weeks, providing a nearly year-round income for growers. By the 1940s, Kenya had replaced Japan as the world’s number on producer (a position it had held for hundreds of years. In addition to the financial benefits that this flower brought to local farmers, it turns
out that just growing the plant is enough to
Red and yellow Indian chrysanthemums (Chrysanthemum indicum
repel the sand flies that carry leishmaniasis. This infection, which can cause painful skin lesions and attack internal organs, has maimed or killed untold numbers of people in Africa. The benefits that the chrysanthemum brought to the Kenyan people got lost for a while as they struggled with their new-found independence in the 1960s, but it was still cherished enough to be a part of the new Kenyan Coat of Arms. Nowadays, the mum is back to being widely produced by farmers in Kenya and studies are being done to determine how it can be used to control the locust hordes that regularly decimate crops in Africa.

A beautiful chrysanthemum with pale pink swirling petals
An amber colored glass mug with some clear liquid in it and with a lemon and a chrysanthemum floating in it.
It’s hard to think of any other flower that has such widespread devotion, with the possible exception of the rose. Chrysanthemums are undoubtedly gorgeous, in all their varieties, but they also make a healthful and delicious tea that is a natural de-stressor. If you want to take a moment to try some Chrysanthemum Tea, here’s a video from a tea expert.

Submitted by PamLucy Ball and Desi Arnaz. Lucy's hair is sticking up everywhere and she is saying, "I've always wanted to look like a chrysanthemum".

Tuesday, November 9, 2021

What’s This Bug? The Fiery Searcher Beetle.

Calosoma scrutator, the Fiery Searcher Beetle

This beautiful beetle is the Calosoma scrutator, commonly known as the Fiery Searcher or simply Caterpillar Hunter. As their name(s) suggests, these beetles are tireless and aggressive predators. Luckily for us humans, the foods they love best are some of the most crop-damaging pests around. They will prey upon a variety of insects in varying life stages, although their favorite is the caterpillar stage. Their dinner of choice depends on whether they are larvae or adults, as they hunt in both stages. Fiery Searcher larvae, since they are not as agile as the adults, prefer to target insects in their pupal stages while adults are way less picky (here’s more on their feeding preferences). According to this article, they favor the all-star list of crop pest which includes the larvae of imported cabbage worms and gypsy moths, the larvae, pupae and eggs of root maggots, as well as the Colorado potato beetle, diamondback moths, cutworms, cabbage loopers, aphids, asparagus beetles, slugs and flea beetles. Some species even eat snails. Fiery Searchers are exceptionally long-lived for an insect; they can live 2 years or more. And during their lives they can consume hundreds of insects. So, these are clearly helpers that you want to have in your yard and garden. 
Fiery Searcher larva (R) eating a Pipevine Swallowtail larva
Fiery Searcher larva (R) eating a Pipevine Swallowtail larva

These beetles live throughout North America, but their numbers are largest in eastern states. They are nocturnal, so even if you live in an area where they are prolific you may not see them. They spend their daylight hours in crevices, under leaf litter, logs and rocks and venture out in the dark. This night-life suits them well; it allows them to  stay hidden from those animals that like to prey on them and the insects that they like to eat are also hiding in daylight for the same reasons. As pests come out at night with a false sense of security and their eyes on your plants, the fiery searchers are ready to snatch them up. 

A Fiery Searcher beetle wrapped around the tip of a tree branch.

Fiery searchers are usually found in fields and gardens, although some live on forest floors. These beetles have wings, but rarely fly. Instead, they use their long legs to scamper up branches and tree trunks to grab a meal. They are especially fond of tent caterpillars and gypsy moth larvae, which they find up in the trees. Fiery searchers don’t just use their long legs to climb trees, their legs allow them to run very fast to chase down prey. Their burst of speed in pursuit of prey is similar to a cheetah’s, so much so that they have been called the cheetah of the insect world. 

A closeup of the head of the Fiery Searcher.
If you come across a fiery searcher, it is best to give it a wide berth. These are large insects (about 1-1½ inches) with big, sickle-shaped mandibles. They will not hesitate to give a nasty bite if you mess with them. And if that doesn’t do the trick, they can and will emit a foul odor when handled. Clearly they have some tools that help them remain the predator and not become prey.

Fiery searchers are around from May through November but are most active from May through June when trees have leafed out and caterpillar populations boom. In the fall, they will be scuttling around getting the last of the bug goodies before it gets too cold and it’s time to overwinter. They like to spend their winters under some bark or under a rock.

These beetles are glorious – not just in how pretty they are, but in their hunting game. They literally take no prisoners. Here’s a really informative video that shows them in action and this article contains three separate short illustrative videos . Enjoy the glory that is the fiery searcher on the hunt.

a little boy in a coonskin hat and glasses holding up 2 beetles on earring hooks and saying, "I made you some jewelry. Are your ears pierced?".

Take Care

Submitted by Pam


Thursday, November 4, 2021

Creatures To Be Thankful For

An image of Earth, showing different ecosystems like jungles and underwater.
At this time of year, we are all encouraged to find things to be thankful for and this year I'm encouraging you all to look beyond humans and to consider all the other living things that help us survive on our planet. Without the input of these creatures, the conditions that allow people to live comfortably would not exist (or perhaps humans wouldn’t exist at all). All of these deserve our gratitude. While we are familiar with many animals that are essential for the environment (hello, bees), there are many others you may not think of. I’d like to introduce you to some.

A black silhouette of a female praying mantis
BENEFICIAL INSECTS & NEMATODES- Here at ARBICO beneficial insects are a big part of our daily lives, so I can’t help but mention them first as something to be thankful for. We are all about good bugs that kill bad bugs. We have bugs that fly around hunting others, bugs that crawl around to hunt, and others that burrow through the soil while hunting. Some like specific prey, and some eat just about everything they come across. What all these beneficials have in common is that they feed on things that feed on our food. In other words, they keep gardens free from predators, so they can grow lushly and produce prolifically. If you are not familiar with all that we have, this page will get you started on learning more.

An artist's rendering of Bifidobacteria, a beneficial bacteria.
 BENEFICIAL MICROORGANISMS - As far as beneficials go, insects may be the stars of the show, but beneficial microorganisms are essential supporting characters. Without healthy soil, full of bacteria, mycorrhizae (and even fungi), your soil will not be able to sustain any plant life. These tiny beings are crucial for our survival, but it’s probably safe to say they never cross the mind of most people. Let’s take a minute to be thankful for them. We have a great many products that have one form or another of beneficial microorganisms, but they really shine in our microbial inoculants.

Silhouettes of bats flying through the trees against a blue sky
BATS – There’s nothing scary about bats; they are gentle mammals that are great to have around.. On any “World’s Most Dangerous Animals” list, you’ll find mosquitoes listed as the most dangerous  (those that don’t include humans, that is). They kill roughly 725,000 people a year from the various diseases they carry, so any animal that can put a dent in that number should be thanked. An individual bat can eat 1-2,000 mosquitoes an hour, so just imagine how many a large colony can take care of! Experts say that birds eat more mosquitoes than bats, but those bats that are not insect-eaters are pollinators. So, bats are either eating a deadly insect, or pollinating our plants – a two-fold reason for appreciating bats. One more thing: their guano is excellent fertilizer. 

A close-up of a beaver in water with his eyes and nose poked out above the surface.
BEAVERS – Most of you reading this have probably never see a beaver in the wild, but you should be thankful for them nonetheless. These North American mammals are tireless stewards of our waterways and their busy aquatic lifestyle keeps wetlands wet, groundwater levels up, and provides essential firebreaks that protect forests. Even if you don’t have beavers where you live, all life benefits when waterways are working as they should. Any creature that protects such a crucial resource as water get my thanks. This article tells how scientists in California are working with beavers to combat devastating drought and fire caused by climate change that state.

Snakes swimming in a blue ocean with a reef below them full of colorful coral and fish.
SHARKS -  I realize that this creature provokes a visceral response in many people, but it really does play an important part in keeping our oceans in balance. And we all know that a healthy ocean is key to life on Earth. Sharks preserve the balance in the sea by being an apex predator, but they also keep coral reefs healthy. They do this by eating the fish that eat the herbivores that graze on algae. When there is too much algae, the coral (and other species) will die off (for more on why reefs are important, watch this video). On the other hand, the appetite of sharks also prevents the overgrazing of seagrass (which store carbon and help prevent erosion). They do this by eating herbivore fish, so they are really working both sides of the equation.  For more on the what the wondrous shark can do, here is an excellent short article. Thanks, you big toothy environmental warrior! 

A close-up of a Red Squirrel.
 SQUIRRELS – Squirrels are (with the exception of Australia and Antarctica, found all over the world),  so they are very familiar to most people. These bushy-tailed little mammals are both endearing and entertaining as they scamper about in their busy little way. And it’s this behavior that we should be thankful for. As squirrels gather, eat, bury, store, and poop out seeds and nuts they are keeping the forest floor groomed and are ensuring a healthy distribution of future plants and trees. According to this article, it’s estimated that squirrels can be credited with planting millions of years every year in North America alone.

Green and purple phytoplankton under a microscope.

PHYTOPLANKTON – These microorganisms are even more important to life on Earth than soil microorganisms. These microscopic marine algae are a key component in both marine and freshwater ecosystems, but their impact goes beyond the water. As the foundation of the aquatic food chain, without this tiny creature whales, seals, sea birds and even humans would go hungry. But probably the most important role that phytoplankton play is in producing oxygen – up to 2/3 of the world’s atmospheric oxygen. We are all aware that trees produce oxygen, but it is these hardworking microorganisms that produces the most for us by far. This, simply put, is why we need clean oceans. So that they can continue to thrive and survive. Although they may be hard for some people to appreciate because they cannot be seen, let’s just consider them magic. A vital environmental magic.

A squirrel standing on a stack of nuts and munching on one. Of course, there are many other creatures on this planet to appreciate; in a well-functioning ecosystem all parts played by each species are important. I challenge you all to notice, and be grateful for, those that I did not have space or time to mention.

Take Care                           Submitted by Pam

 

 

 

  

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