Surprising Salvia

For the first time, I have three salvia (SAL-vee-uh) plants in my yard, chosen by another, planted for their blooms. I wanted to know more. And what I learned at KidsHealth and Australia’s Alcohol and Drug Foundation surprised me!

Salvia spathacea

You may also know salvia as diviner’s sage, magic mint, maria pastora, sally-d, seer’s sage, and shepherdess’s herb.

Please note: what follows is readily available information. I’m absolutely not recommending any particular use of salvia.

Psychedelic Salvia

Salvinorin A chemical structure

It’s an herb in the mint family that can cause brief, intense psychedelic experiences. Salvinorin A is the active ingredient in salvia divinorum. Native to the mountains of southern Mexico, salvia has a long history of use by Indigenous shamans there.

Salvinorin A affects opioid receptors in the brain. This differs from other hallucinogenic drugs like LSD and psychedelic mushrooms, which affect the brain’s levels of serotonin.  As a psychedelic drug, it can affect all the senses, altering a person’s thinking, sense of time, and emotions. Psychedelics can cause a person to hallucinate, seeing or hearing things that do not exist or appear distorted.

Salvia funerea

As a drug, salvia comes as fresh green plant leaves, dried shredded leaves, or a liquid extract. Traditionally, users chewed the fresh salvia leaves or drank the extract, but now people take the drug in a variety of ways. A user can also smoke the dried leaves in a bong or mixed with tobacco as a cigarette. For sublingual absorption, a user holds the fresh leaves under the tongue.

Salvia’s effects come on quickly, sometimes in less than a minute. According to anecdotal user reports, when smoked the effects of salvia begin in 15 to 60 seconds and last for about 15 to 90 minutes. When placed under the tongue, the effects begin in around 10 to 20 minutes and last for about 30 to 120 minutes.

Savlia’s Side Effects

Salvia officinalis

Psychoactive drugs affect a person’s mental state and can have varied effects depending on a person’s mood or mindset (often called the ‘set’) and/or the environment they are in (the ‘setting’). Salvia’s effects on the mind can range from mild to intense. They may be frightening, depending on how strong a dose of the drug someone takes.

(Factors affecting the effects of psychedelic drugs is too big a topic to include here, but info is readily available online.)

Common short-term effects include

Salvia officinalis
  • Hallucinations and changes in visual perception
  • Uncontrolled laughter
  • Mood and emotional swings
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Sense of detachment from self and reality (not being able to tell the difference between what’s real and what’s imaginary)
  • Dizziness and lightheadedness
  • Lack of coordination
  • Slurred speech
  • Amnesia
  • Loss of energy (higher doses can cause sedation)
  • Pain relief
  • Confusion
  • Delusion
  • Feelings of impending doom
  • Increased appreciation of music
  • Uncontrolled body movements
  • Anxiety
  • Restlessness
  • Increased body temperature
  • Time distortion

Some studies suggest that, over time, salvia use may contribute to dysphoria, which is characterized by feelings of depression, discontent, and restlessness.

Smoking salvia over a long period of time can lead to breathing trouble and other health problems.

Because the drug has such dramatic psychological effects, it can seriously impair coordination and perceptions of reality; people under its influence expose themselves to a substantial risk of injury or accidental death.

Salvia and the Law

Salvia coerulea

In many areas, salvia is perfectly legal and widely available. Stores sell it as a tincture or tea in some countries, or even as commercially extracted products.

However, salvia is illegal in a number of foreign countries and in many American states. Salvia is a schedule 9 drug. Federal and state laws provide penalties for possessing, using, making, selling, importing or exporting, or driving under the influence of salvia. Possession or use of salvia in states where it is illegal is punishable by fines and jail time.

This last bit gave me an adrenaline rush. But common sense soon surfaced: a garden center wasn’t likely to be selling salvia divinorum. Nevertheless, I felt compelled to find out just what kind of salvia I have. As best I can determine, it is salvia coerulea.

Salvia’s Other Uses

Most salvias are considered non-toxic to people of any age. Many ornamental varieties have a noxious taste, but there are no known toxic qualities when consumed by humans. (In large quantities, salvia can be toxic to dogs, causing symptoms like vomiting, depression, and breathing difficulties.) So, although ornamental salvias are not poisonous, they’re nothing you’d want to put in soup.

The edible salvias are usually referred to as sage, like the Salvia officinalis used to flavor roasted chicken and turkey. In fact, there are several edible varieties that are used in everyday seasonings.

Salvia elegans, pineapple sage

Sage’s leaves are very pungent when raw, which is why most chefs recommend cooking them before eating. However, the flowers are reputed to have a delicate taste that makes a nice garnish in salads or sauces. They are great for the pollinators too!

According to WebMD, sage might help with chemical imbalances in the brain that cause problems with memory and thinking skills. It might also change how the body uses insulin and sugar.

People commonly use sage for memory and thinking skills, high cholesterol, and symptoms of menopause. Some people also use it for pain after surgery or to treat lung cancer, sore throat, sunburn, and many other conditions, but there is no good scientific evidence to support these uses.

Bottom Line: Know your salvia and use accordingly!

BETTER KNOW YOUR BODY

Everybody has one. But how much do you really know about your body?

Skin

Let’s start with your largest and most visible organ: your skin. You probably aren’t precisely average, but these “average” data will give you an idea of how you compare.

World Body Painting Festival
Artist: Birgit Linke, Austria
  • If you are average, your skin weighs 6-9 or 7.5-22 pounds, depending on your source. According to the NIH Library of Medicine, skin makes up approximately 1/7 of your body weight.
  • Again, if you are average, you have approximately 21 square feet of skin.
  • Organ donation can include skin.
  • The average person has about 300 million skin cells. One square inch of skin has about 19 million cells.
  • The entire surface of your skin is replaced every month, which put another way means you have about 1,000 different skins in your life!
  • This skin renewal every 27-28 days involves sloughing off the old cells.
  • Your skin constantly sheds dead cells, about 30,000 to 40,000 cells every minute!
    • (That’s nearly 9 lbs. per year. On the low end, other sources say you slough off roughly 1.5 pounds of dead skin a year, equal to about 3 ½ cups of sugar.)
World Body Painting Festival
Artist: Stefan Stuppnig
  • Dead skin comprises about a billion tons of dust in the earth’s atmosphere.
  • Some sources estimate that more than half of household dust is actually dead skin, others say 70%, but much depends on number of people, pets, etc.
  • Scar tissue is different from normal skin because it lacks hair and sweat glands.
  • The color of human skin is determined by the level of pigment melanin that the body produces. Those with small amounts of melanin have light skin while those with large amounts have dark skin.
  • Genital skin is darker than other skin: nipples, anus, and genitals are more sensitive to sex hormones acting on melanocytes. The contrast increases during puberty and pregnancy.
  • Your skin has at least five different types of receptors that respond to pain and touch.
  • The loose skin on your elbow, known scientifically as olecranal skin or colloquially as the weenus, is basically nature’s Silly Puddy because there are fewer sensory neurons located there. That means you can keep kneading it all day long, and as hard as you want.

When it comes to skin, we tend to notice attractiveness, color, roughness, and wrinkles. But skin is functional as well as ornamental. It keeps everything on the inside from coming out. In addition, it also helps regulate temperature, provides touch and sensation, allows us to move without restriction (not too tight or too loose), heals and regenerates constantly, and much more.

Blood and Heart

World Body Painting Festival
Artist: Aina Vela
  • Your skin contains more than 11 miles of blood vessels.
  • Your blood makes up about eight percent of your body weight.
  • Laid end to end, an adult’s blood vessels could circle Earth’s equator four times!
  • This includes veins, arteries, and communicating little capillaries that move between both.
  • Pus is a build-up of white blood cells.
  • The human heart beats more than three billion times in an average lifespan.
  • Humans are the only species known to blush.
  • Your heart beats around 100000 times a day, 36500000 times a year and over a billion times if you live beyond 30.
  • Inside your bones are tiny tubes filled with blood vessels called osteons. They are to bones what rings are to trees. The percentage of large osteons increases with age.
  • If you live to age 70, your heart will have beat around 2.5 billion times!

Sweat

World Body Painting Festival
Artist: Ficek Martin
  • The body has 2.5 million sweat pores.
  • A single square inch of skin has up to 300 sweat glands.
  • Earwax is actually a type of sweat!
  • There are two different types of sweat glands.
    • Eccrine glands secrete salty water when body temperature gets too high.
    • Apocrine glands in the armpits (and a few other areas) secrete an oily, opaque substance that gains its characteristic scent from the bacteria in the area.
  • Sweat caused by mental or emotional distress is released by apocrine glands.
  • Your body needs time to adapt its sweat production in high temperatures, allowing you to produce sweat more quickly and with less salt and potassium.
  • When you’re too hot—or you lose your cool—your nerves send signals to open millions of glands, allowing sweat to flow. It pools by your armpits, palms, feet, head, and genitals.
  • Germs love to swim, so they thrive in sweat. Sweat on its own doesn’t smell bad. It’s the bacteria that mix with it.

Body Products

  • Your mouth produces about one-two liters of saliva each day!
  • Babies don’t shed tears until they’re at least one month old.
  • What we eat directly effects urine and feces. For example, you might notice red or pink after bingeing on beets. Or changes in your urine eating asparagus.
    • Note: Although asparagus affects the chemistry of everyone’s urine, some people are able to smell it and others aren’t—whether their own or someone else’s.
  • You produce about 40,000 liters of spit in your lifetime. Or to put it another way, enough spit to fill around five hundred bathtubs.
  • The average nose produces about a cupful of nasal mucus every day.
  • On average, you fart enough in one day to fill a party balloon.
  • We urinate enough every month to fill a bath!
  • Every second, you produce 25 million cells.

Brain and Nervous System

World Body Painting Festival
Artist: Lynn Schockmel, Luxembourg
  • Your brain is the fattest organ in the body, approximately 60%. It needs essential fatty acids to perform adequately.
  • The brain uses over a quarter of the oxygen used by the human body.
  • Your brain is sometimes more active when you’re asleep than when you’re awake.
  • Humans have a stage of sleep that features rapid eye movement (REM). REM sleep makes up around 25% of total sleep time and is often when you have your most vivid dreams.
  • Information zooms along nerves at about 400k mph!
  • Everyone is familiar with forgetting, but additionally, our brain re-writes memories each time we think of them, slowly altering or twisting them over time.
  • Some of the nerves in your skin are connected to muscles instead of the brain, sending signals (through the spinal cord) to react more quickly to heat, pain, etc.

Muscles

World Body Painting Festival
Artist: Cat Finlayson, UK
  • The word “muscle” comes from Latin term (musculus) meaning “little mouse“, which is what Ancient Romans thought flexed bicep muscles resembled.
  • Your heart is the only muscle that doesn’t get tired.
  • Gluteus maximus is the Latin name for the largest muscle in your body, your behind. You have two of them, one for each cheek. These powerful muscles serve as a cushion when you sit down, but when flexed tight, they keep you upright.
  • Few muscles are as hard-working as the tongue. By day, it twists to form the sounds you speak and pushes around the food you eat. While you sleep, your tongue moves saliva down your throat. 
  • Dentist Stuart Froum coined the term “curious tongue” to describe the reflex most people have to move their tongue to investigate foreign objects in the mouth, including dental drills.
  • The strongest muscle in the human body is the jaw (masseter).
  • A healthy jaw can close teeth with a force of up to 200 pounds.

Eyes

Artist: Hiraku Cho
  • Your eyes can get sunburned. The symptoms include headache, eye pain and redness, tearing, blurred vision, twitching, and feeling gritty. Sunglasses can prevent sunburn, and symptoms typically resolve themselves after 48 hours.
  • Your eye is your fastest muscle. The orbicularis oculi is capable of contracting in less than 1/100th of a second.
  • A blink typically can last 100-150 milliseconds.
  • Infants blink only once or twice a minute while adults average between 10 and 20.
  • Women blink 19 times per minute compared to 11 per minute for men. This may relate to estrogen levels, which can make the cornea more elastic, changing how light waves travel through the eye.
    • That’s over ten million times a year!
  • You blink more when talking and less when you are reading. This is why you get tired eyes when reading.
  • Only two percent of the population have green eyes. The largest concentration of green-eyed peoples is in Ireland, Scotland, and Northern Europe.
    • All races (Asian, African, Caucasian, Pacific Islanders, Arabic, Hispanic, and the indigenous peoples of the Americas) can have green eyes.
  • All babies are born with blue or brown eyes. Green eyes can take between six months and three years to appear in children.
  • By three months, our eyes are the same size that they will ever be as the corneas have reached their full width. Human eyes grow rapidly in the womb and for the first three months after birth.

Noses

World Body Painting Festival
Artist: Vlasova Yulia
  • Our bodies give one nostril a break while the other is active – we just don’t know we do it. We naturally tend to alternate breathing from one nostril then the other, which helps keep the air we breathe moist so as not to irritate our lungs.
  • Noses and ears do not continue to grow during adulthood. They do change shape, however, due to skin changes and gravity.
  • Scientists estimate that the nose can recognize a trillion different scents!
  • Identical twins smell the same. No surprise there!
  • Researchers at Rockefeller University estimated that humans can detect at least a trillion distinct smells.
  • In general, females are more sensitive to odors than males.
  • Your sense of smell is around 10000 times more sensitive than your sense of taste.

GI Tract

  • As well as having unique fingerprints, humans also have unique tongue prints.
  • It takes the body around 12 hours to completely digest eaten food.
  • When meds are to be taken “on an empty stomach” that means an hour before or two hours after eating.
  • You can’t breathe and swallow simultaneously (though I bet you’ve accidentally tried at some point in your life, likely with painful results).
  • On average, your intestines are 25 feet long from end to end. Your small intestine is over 20 feet. And while your large intestine is wider around, it’s only about 5 feet in length.
  • Your intestines are always moving, a continuous wavy motion called peristalsis. Or when vomiting, reverse-peristalsis.
  • Stomach acid can melt metal—at least certain metals, such as zinc. Digestive juices in the gut contain hydrochloric acid. They rank just below battery acid on the pH scale.

Who Else is in Your Body?

  • Your skin is home to more than 1,000 species of bacteria.
  • Your face is host to bugs too tiny to see. Your hairline, eye sockets, and lashes are favorite hiding places. If they get out of control, they can cause skin problems or eye infections.
  • 200 to 500 million different species of call your intestines home and play a crucial role in breaking down and digesting everything you eat.
  • About 2,400 different germs call the belly button home.
  • The average person has 67 different species of bacteria in their belly button.

Your Asymmetrical Body

  • The two sides of your face are not alike. If you take a photo of your face and divide it down the middle, then replicate each half, the faces look different enough for people to judge one face better looking than the other!
  • One side of your body is bigger than the other, with bigger hand and foot.
  • Your left lung is about 10 percent smaller than your right one.
  • It is possible to be “flipped.” Patients with dextrocardia have their heart on the right side of the body and the left lung is slightly larger. Depending on the patient, the liver, appendix, stomach, etc. may also be on the opposite side of the body.

Aging

Every new cell is reproduced from the template of our DNA. Therefore, it’s not surprising that this DNA template gets worn away and errors occur as we age.

But the aging body is beyond the scope here!

Bits and Pieces

World Body Painting Festival
Artist: Yulia Vlasova, Russia
  • All humans share about 99.9% of our DNA with other humans. For comparison, we share 98% with pigs, and 60% with bananas!
  • Adult lungs have a surface area of around 70 square meters!
  • Human teeth are just as strong as shark teeth.
  • Human teeth are almost as hard as opal. Diamonds have a hardness of 10,teeth are at 5.
  • You are about 1cm taller in the morning when you first get up than when you go to bed. This is because during the day the soft cartilage between your bones gets squashed and compressed.
  • You are also lighter when you first get up. During sleep, you exhale water vapor and tiny amounts of carbon as a byproduct of digestion.
  • Some penises “grow” more than 4 centimeters when aroused. I found nothing about any relationship between this and any aspect of sexual functioning.
  • Vaginas range from 2.7 to 3.1 inches. When aroused, the depth ranges from 4.3 to 4.7 inches.
  • Men are more sensitive to caffeine; women are more sensitive to alcohol.
  • Your fingernails grow three times faster than toenails, explained by the hands having more blood pumping through them. In colder climates, nails grow more slowly.
  • The smallest bone found in the human body is located in the middle ear. The stapes (or stirrup) bone is only 2.8 millimeters long.
  • Spread across their lifetime, most people spend an average of one whole year sitting on the toilet.

Bottom Line: Know your body well as a path to taking good care of it!

Playing Games with Words

Recently I had a dream that involved seeing how many words I could make from “Texas Hold ‘Em.” That felt so weird that the memory stuck with me. Subsequently I decided to give it a go, and ended up with 78 words using those letters, only those letters, and each letter only as often as it appeared in those words—i.e., words with two e’s were acceptable but two t’s, d’s, etc., weren’t.

word games - anagrams

That led me to thinking about other word games. As so many do these days, I started my search online. And, as so often is the case, up popped Wikipedia.

Wikipedia defines Word Games as spoken, board, card or video games often designed to test ability with language or to explore its properties. I couldn’t find any other definitions online.

Most people see word games as a source of entertainment, but they can serve an additional educational purpose. Among the academically best performing children, 35% had parents who encouraged them to play word games. Many young children enjoy playing games such as Hangman, while developing language skills like spelling. ESL teachers often include word games in their classrooms to help students learn to recognize and use English words in context.

Benefits of Word Games

Contrary to the stereotype of young people being the primary demographic for online games, word games attract players of all ages. A 2020 Statista report suggested that people aged 25 to 54 make up nearly 60% of word game players.

And adults can reap benefits of such brain work as well. Researchers have found that adults who regularly solved crossword puzzles, which require familiarity with a larger vocabulary, had better brain function later in life.

word games - crossword

Indeed, over time, playing word games improves problem-solving and analytical skills. Often these games require players to think and use other cognitive skills at the same time.

According to a 2024 article in Parade, the reason word games are good for brain health is that they can improve attention, verbal fluency, memory, and processing speed. All these skills can decline with age. One 68-year-long study found a link between playing word games and better cognitive health in old age.

According to a 2022 PBS broadcast, people who have a high need for cognition tend to seek out mental challenges like word game and puzzles. The results cited above are all correlational results, i.e., that is, as game playing habits go up, the positive brain measures go up as well, but maybe the cause, is actually something else, like a high need for cognition that accounts for both.

Depending on the situation, word games can play a soporific role as well. Because they require concentration and lateral thinking, they can distract the player from stress and anxiety. Many require nothing but the player’s mind, making them perfect to play in bed, on a plane, while stuck in a boring meeting, etc. A friend told me she plays an alphabet game when she has trouble falling asleep. I seem to be playing anagrams even after I’ve fallen asleep!

Word Game Categories

(Unless otherwise noted, the following information is from the Wikipedia article.)

Letter Arrangement Games

SONY DSC

The goal of a letter arrangement game is to form words out of given letters. In addition to testing vocabulary skills, these games test lateral thinking skills. Scrabble, UpWords, Bananagrams, and Countdown are popular examples of letter arrangement games.

FYI: Around the world, approximately 150 million copies of Scrabble have been sold.

Note: This is where anagrams would fit best, although not mentioned in the article. On the other hand, it involves paper and pencil, so maybe it also fits the following.

Paper and Pencil Games

word games - hangman

Paper and pencil game players write down their answers, following the specific constraints laid out in the game rules. Crossword players fill in a grid by following clues or solving riddles. Hangman players try to guess their opponent’s word or phrase before their opponent is able to draw a stick figure hanging from a gallows. Categories, Boggle, and word searches are other popular examples of paper and pencil word games.

Semantic Games

Semantic games focus on the meanings and context of words. Players rely on their shared knowledge of denotation and connotation to combine words in amusing ways. Popular semantic games include Mad Libs, Blankety Blank, and Codenames.

Modern Word Games

Game designers have taken advantage of technological advancements to create non-traditional word games for computers or mobile phones. Many of these newer games take advantage of the technology to include more complex rules.

Codenames, Decrypto, and Anomia all have popular digital formats, allowing players to participate on teams while in different physical locations. Modern audiences also eagerly play word games with mobile formats, such as Letterpress, Words with Friends, and Word Connect.

Technology and Word Games

Since Spelling Bee first aired on the BBC in 1938, the first televised game show, word games have been a constant offering on radio and television. Airing continuously since 1975, Wheel of Fortune is the longest-running syndicated game show in the United States.

Wheel of Fortune, early 2006

The popularity (and relative low cost) of word games has led producers to adapt many word games to fit a radio or television format. Some shows revolve entirely around a word game, while others include elements of popular word games mixed in. Shows like Lingo, Says You!, Task Master, Catchphrase, Family Feud, and Only Connect are among the highest-rated shows on television.

Ukranian Wordle, using the Ukranian alphabet

Wordle was the most frequently downloaded game of the year after it was launched in January 2022. Its player base grew to tens of millions worldwide. Players claim it involves a lot of strategy as well as a broad vocabulary.

As of 2022, the annual number of word games app downloads is 1.42 billion. And nearly half of Americans believe that playing word games is a productive way to spend time. With 78.03% of word games app revenue generated in the U.S. ($1.74 billion) players are everywhere! And there are games for virtually every taste, so choose your poison.

Many of these games allow the player to select the language of play. This makes those games an ideal method of practicing vocabulary for people learning a new language. Playing June’s Journey or Drops is a lot more fun than memorizing Spanish flash cards.

To Play Alone or Together?

Several word games suit both sociable and loner players. Games like Scrabble virtually always involve multiple players. Many online games are played alone but players can get comparative stats for others who use the app. Still other games—such as anagrams—can be done informally and alone, but can also be made competitive when multiple people start with the same prompt and there is a time limit.

Texas Hold ‘Em was so enjoyable that I did other anagrams:

  • Encyclopedia (102)
  • Thanksgiving Day (87)
  • Echo chamber (61)
  • Cat on a hot tin roof (88)
  • Valentine’s Day (104)
  • Vegetables (99)
  • Writing life (a puny 57)
  • Plant watering (135)
  • Orthopedic surgeon (135)

Let me know if/when you beat my numbers!

Bottom Line: Games are everywhere, they may be good for your brain, and they seem to pose no threats. So go for it!

BEACH READS 2024

Operational definition of beach reads: anything that’s read at the beach! Many of you know that I poll family members about their reading during our annual gathering at the beach. This year we were fourteen people, ages 15-93.

Actually, there was less reading than usual going on this year. One woman was submitting her thesis for a master’s degree in public health and another was job hunting. One man had two work-related zoom sessions. Two people had major cold symptoms, and one of those spiked a temperature a bit over 102—with weakness, sweats, and chills—and ended up in the ER from 11:00 p.m. to 4:00 a.m., with two others in attendance.

Nevertheless, without attribution, in no particular order, here is the list:

Bottom Line: I can’t speak for or against any of these, merely put them forth as books chosen by people I love.

LICENSE TO DRIVE

There’s nothing like a road trip to make me notice license plates even more than usual. I recently spent twelve days in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware and, not surprisingly, their iconic plates were everywhere.

A local confirmed what I had heard before, that lower numbered plates are more prestigious, and that license plate numbers can be bequeathed, bought, or sold. In order to retain ownership of a license plate, before completing the sale or finalizing the trade of a vehicle, the owner must bring the title to the DMV. The fee to retain a plate is $35. There is a $20 fee to take the plate out of retention.

As I looked into Delaware plates, I learned a lot about other states as well.

History of License Plates

Maybe charioteers marked the license number on the horse!

License plates, also known as vehicle registration plates and license tags, must be displayed on every car and truck on the road in the United States these days. But identifying vehicles is far from a recent development.

The earliest references to vehicle registration and possibly license plates date back to ancient Rome at the time of Julius Caesar (102 – 44 B.C.). There are references to the licensing of chariots, but whether a number was marked on the chariot itself or onto an attachment to the vehicle is not known.

What may have happened during the intervening centuries is a mystery. However, there must have been developments in Victorian England in the 1880s. In The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson try unsuccessfully to catch a public Hansom cab. Holmes, however, got close enough to the cab to spot its license number, which became a major clue in cracking the case.

Early American Vehicles

1894 New York horseless carriage registration

Delaware first required its residents to register their motor vehicles in 1905. Registrants provided their own license plates until 1909, when the state began to issue plates.

However, as of April 25, 1901, New York became the first state to require license plates on cars. The first New York plates were homemade, displaying the owner’s initials without any numbers. These first license plates were typically handcrafted of leather or metal (iron) and were meant to denote ownership via the initials. 

California required license plates the next year.

Massachusetts was the first state to actually issue plates, beginning in 1903. The first such plate, featuring just the number “1,” was issued to Frederick Tudor, who was working with the highway commission. One of his relatives still holds an active registration on the 1 plate.

These early Massachusetts license plates were made of iron and covered in porcelain enamel. The background was cobalt blue and the number was white. Along the top of the plate, also in white, were the words: “MASS. AUTOMOBILE REGISTER.” The size of the plate was not constant, growing wider as the plate number reached into the tens, hundreds, and thousands.

Massachusetts was the first to issue license plates, but by 1918, all 48 of the contiguous United States were issuing license plate. Although territories at the time, Alaska and Hawaii began issuing plates in 1921 and 1922, respectively.

Variations Among States

Washington DC plates carry an additional message

Although the first license plates were meant to be semi-permanent, by the 1920s, states had begun mandating renewal for personal vehicle registration. Individual states tried various methods for creating the plates. The front typically contained registration numbers in large, centered digits while smaller lettering on one side dictated the abbreviated state name and a two- or four-digit year the registration was valid during. States often varied plate color from one year to the next to make it easier for police to identify expired registrations. 

1951 Tennessee plate shaped like the state

Since 1957, most types of North American plates have been a standard size, six by twelve inches. Prior to that, different sizes and shapes were common. Most were rectangular, but some plates used oval, square, round, and triangular shapes as well. For a number of years, Kansas and Tennessee cut their plates to match the shape of the state itself.

Delaware was the last state to adapt to the 1957 changeover to standard-size 6″x 12″ license plates, and remains the only state with [historic] non-standard size plates in current use.

The majority of Delaware’s black porcelain plates in use today are reproduction copies of the original series one style. In 1986 Delaware’s Division of Motor Vehicles legalized the manufacture of accurate replicas due to popular demand. There is only one company actively supplying the demand for these plates, the Delaware Historic Plate Company. Delaware is the only state that allows the private manufacture of legal license plates, and the only state to have retained the famous (among license plate aficionados) porcelain plates in the modern era.

License Plates Today

The modern Delaware style of reflective gold on blue was first introduced in 1958. Delaware DMV added “THE FIRST STATE” slogan four years later.

The style of Delaware’s license plate has not changed much in about 50 years. The black onyx and heritage gold colored Centennial License Plate [2005] was a celebration of 100 years of state-issued license plates.

In the U.S., each state’s Department of Motor Vehicles issues vehicle registration plates. The only plates issued by the federal government are for their federal vehicle fleet or for cars owned by foreign diplomats.

License plate issued by Spirit Lake Tribe in North Dakota

Note: some Indigenous groups in America also issue their own registrations to members, but many states now offer a special registration. 

New Mexico is the only state that specifies “USA” on its license plates, in order to avoid confusion with the country of Mexico, which it borders.

Initially, license plates were issued in pairs. During WWII, due to material shortages, most states dropped the requirement for a front plate. As of 2023, the “Rugged Nineteen” states still require only one plate:

AlabamaArizona
ArkansasDelaware
FloridaGeorgia
IndianaKansas
KentuckyLouisiana
MichiganMississippi
New MexicoNorth Dakota
OklahomaPennsylvania
South CarolinaTennessee
West Virginia

Modern Standards

Even today, there’s no nation-wide standard for how many letters/numbers are on a license plate. Some states have six-character plates, some have seven-character plates and yet others have eight-character plates.

As of 2023, the four oldest plate designs in use – each with slight to moderate cosmetic changes since inception – are those of Delaware (in production since 1959), Colorado (since 1960, continuously since 1978), the District of Columbia (since 1975, and Minnesota (since 1978).

It’s been many years since all of a state’s license plates looked alike. Today, the 50 states and the District of Columbia offer 8331 different vehicle license plate designs.

Jon Keegan, an investigative data reporter, has published a complete list of all license plate designs in the US. He found that Maryland has the most plate designs of any state: 989, nearly twice as many as runner-up Texas (476). Hawaii has the fewest, with just 14. You can discover more intriguing tidbits from Keegan’s survey and search the database for yourself here.

License plates in Delaware feature up to seven characters. Prefixes indicate the type of vehicle or organization they represent. The state originally used the letter C only for trucks and vans. However, they introduced “CL” when they started to run out of numbers.

The number of possible license plate numbers depends on the format of the license plate. If the plate consists of 6 digits and letters, then there are 2,176,782,336 possible license plate numbers. If the plate consists of 7 digits and letters, then there are 78,364,164,096 possible license plate numbers.

Vanity License Plates

Virginia offers 333 basic plate designs. Drivers can personalize most of these designs for an additional fee. Vanity plates such as HRD TME, GR8 BOD, etc., are common. In fact, one out of every ten personalized license plates in the United States is registered to a Virginia driver. Perhaps this high take-up of vanity plates is due to the fact that a personalized plate in Virginia costs just $10 more than a randomly-assigned number.

Look, too, for vanity in New Hampshire, Illinois, Nevada and Montana, but car and truck owners in Virginia are the vainest of them all.

In Delaware, the DMV will no longer accept or process new vanity plate requests. The DMV has already stopped processing all pending vanity license plate requests as of Tuesday, May 14, 2024. Existing vanity license plates that have been issued prior to the Court’s decision currently remain eligible for renewal.

Government Plates

Politicians and elected officials have long had access to colorful, special, low-numbered plates. In Virginia, if you see a regular license plate that is 1, that is the Governor’s official car. The Lt. Gov. is 1A, the Attorney General A1, the Governor’s unofficial car is A, and prior Governors are 2, 3, 4, etc.

In Delaware, 1 is for the Governor, 2 for the Lt. Governor, and 3 for the State Attorney General.

In fact, in most states the No. 1 plate is assigned to the Governor’s limousine, while No. 2 is provided to the Lieutenant Governor.

North Dakota has a unique approach to providing low numbers to their elected officials. The North Dakota Governor gets plates No. 1 and 5, while the state’s senior U.S. Senator receives plate No. 2. The junior U.S. Senator from North Dakota gets plate No. 3, and the lone at-large Congressman can drive a car with plate No. 4. The Lieutenant Governor of North Dakota receives plate No. 6.  However, officials who don’t want to attract attention—for whatever reason—will choose not to display such identifiable license plates. Such special plates are very sought after by collectors.

Collecting License Plates

Serious U.S. license plate collectors consider the 1921 Alaska plate to be the holy grail of license plates and perhaps the rarest of all U.S. license plates. As recently as 2008, just four were known to exist, with their worth being somewhere around $60,000 each at the time.

But for dollar value? In 2008, someone bought the No. 6 Delaware license plate at auction for $675,000. In 2018, Butch Emmert auctioned off the No. 20 tag for $410,000.

For Delawarians, there may be no status symbol greater than the coveted low-digit license plate. Not just anyone can buy these rare Delaware plates, though. You have to be a Delaware resident with a Delaware driver’s license.

Although the biggest draw is low numbers, Delaware complicates the situation by starting some tags with letters: C for commercial, PC for passenger car, T for trailer, MC for motorcycle, RT for recreational trailer, and RV for recreational vehicle.

Bottom Line: Even something as mundane as a license plate has history. What might you learn about your own?

LEAVES TO LOVE; LEAVES TO LEAVE

When people think plants, they are likely thinking flowers, vegetables, fruit trees, flowering trees, shrubs, etc. But going forward, also consider the leaves!

I picked up this Alice Thoms Vitale book years ago—because that’s the sort of thing I do—and I must admit that I set it aside for quite a while. Big mistake! It’s fascinating.

Here, for your entertainment and enlightenment, are samples and quotes from that book. All such are from Leaves unless otherwise noted.

Virginia Creeper

It’s native and ubiquitous and, besides creeping, it trails and climbs. I work hard to keep it from overpowering nearby plants in my back yard. Nevertheless, in late autumn, the leaves turn deep scarlet, one of the few spots of color then.

They played an important role in American folk medicine as an emetic, purgative, and sweat producer. Not surprisingly, they taste bad. According to Vitale, some people also considered them mildly stimulating. To cure a headache, people smelled the juice of the leaves, or took an infusion of the leaves and berries. It had other medicinal uses as well. And, “An old belief claimed that a strong tea of Virginia creeper leaves healed even the worst hangover.” Maybe it will come back!

Vitale saw vendors selling it in pots as “American Vine” under the Rialto Bridge in Venice. If I saw it there, I didn’t recognize it.

Ivy

Although Vitale discusses English Ivy, it grows robustly—some would say invasively—here, so read on.

This evergreen vine has been central to magic, mythology, and medicine at least as far back as the ancient Greeks. Looking only at medicinal uses, Vitale lists twenty such uses, everything from bad spleen and baldness to ulcers and wounds.

“It is now scientifically established that all parts of the ivy plant are poisonous if ingested …can cause … illness—even death.” On the other hand, researchers in Romania have recently established ivy’s effectiveness as an antibiotic and antifungal treatment.

Apple Trees

Most people know apple trees primarily for their beauty and fruit; the leaves, not so much. The Greek physician Dioscorides said, “The leaves and blossoms and sprigs of all sorts of apple trees are binding.” Centuries later, an English herbalist said, “The leaves of the tree do coole and binde, and also good for inflammations in the beginning.”

Vitale’s book says no more about apple leaf medicine, but online I read that apple leaves have cooling and astringent properties. Some people use them therapeutically for stomach acid issues – heart burn, reflux, and all the way down to soothing digestive issues of the bowel such as diarrhea.

Various parts of the apple tree have many applications, and are widely used in oriental medicine. For the leaves in particular:

  • In China, doctors use the leaves to treat fever, back pain, amenorrhea, and migraine.
  • In India, the leaves of the apple tree are a common prescription against malaria, diarrhea, and rheumatism.
  • In Vietnam, some people steep apple tree leaves in the bath water of women who have recently given birth.

Currently, experts have discovered that the apple tree contains compounds that help fight HIV, which is a good signal in the search and preparation of drugs to treat this century’s disease. In addition, the extracts from the leaves of the apple tree have anti-fungal effects on skin diseases, inhibit the vascular donor activity associated with a number of diseases such as diabetic retinopathy, arthritis, solid tumors…

And we can’t forget the famous Johnny Appleseed (aka John Chapman) who carried apple seeds from a cider press in Pennsylvania across the country. While traveling the Ohio River Valley, he planted more than 35 apple orchards in Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois.

Beware: apple seeds contain cyanide, and eating a cupful of them can cause cyanide poisoning. But who would do that?

Mistletoe

Vitale writes quite a bit about European mistletoe. But my focus is on American mistletoe, so what follows is from sources across the web. The two differ primarily in the shape of the leaves and the number of berries in the clusters.

American mistletoe grows only in the Americas, from New Jersey to Florida and west through Texas. Most people know it best for its ornamental and sentimental uses at Christmastime.

As for kissing under the mistletoe, that seems to have immigrated from Europe. In Norse legend, the trickster god Loki played a sinister trick on the beloved god Baldur, killing him with a mistletoe arrow. After his death, mistletoe berries somehow brought Baldur back to life, so Frigga declared mistletoe to be a symbol of love. According to Smithsonian magazine, “Mistletoe would come to hang over our doors as a reminder to never forget. We kiss beneath it to remember what Baldur’s wife and mother forgot.”

American mistletoe (Phoradendron leucarpum), also called eastern or oak mistletoe, is a parasitic shrub that grows on the branches and trunks of trees across Virginia. It grows most commonly on oaks, red maples, and gum trees and is most abundant in the swampy forests of Virginia’s Coastal Plain.

Both American and European mistletoe can be toxic in high doses, but neither has been convincingly shown to cause clinically apparent liver injury when given in conventional doses.

NIH — LiverTox: Clinical and Research Information on Drug-Induced Liver Injury

American mistletoe was once used to counteract fertility. Native Americans employed the muscle-contracting medicinal properties of the plant to induce abortions.

The Biology of Mistletoe, Smithsonian Magazine

Woody Nightshade

The nightshade family is one of the largest plant families and is related to potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants, among others. However, plant lovers also know woody nightshade as deadly nightshade or poisonous nightshade because all parts of the woody nightshade are dangerously toxic if eaten raw. Nevertheless, the leaves and green branches have historically played an important role in folk medicine.

In the second century, Galen (a Greek physician) recommended its use for treating cancer, tumors, and warts. According to Vitale, “…recent scientific studies prove that this plant does indeed contain a tumor-inhibiting element.”

Other authorities over the centuries have recommended the juice of the leaves for treating those who have been beaten or bruised, shingles, “hot inflammations,” and chronic rheumatism.

Mashed leaves in cream was recommended as a poultice for poison ivy and to treat sunburn. Modern chemists have found that this nightshade does contain solanine, “…a substance effective for healing obstinate skin disorders and ulcers.”

And if that isn’t enough, this plant is reputed to have healing magic!

Oleander

Flowering oleanders—whether the clusters of blooms are pink, rose-red, or white—are gorgeous. They have a variety of scents—vanilla, lemon, apricot, and floral with a hint of spices—depending on species, time of day, and developmental stage.

Warning: all parts of the shrub are poison. Eating a single leaf or eating meat cooked on a skewer of oleander wood can be deadly. In India, it’s called “horse killer” but it is lethal for dogs, mules, and many other animals.

At the same time, historically, people treated venomous bites by drinking the juice of oleander leaves with wine. The juice relieves scabies, mange, and abscesses. It’s also useful as a pesticide and rat poison. Modern researchers have developed a treatment for weak heartbeats from oleandrin, a glycoside in oleander.

Lemon Verbena

Although many (most?) leaves are some combination of pros and cons, plusses and minuses, lemon verbena is all about loving it.

Wherever lemon verbena grows, the leaves perfume the air around. The dried leaves retain their scent for years, hence their popularity for potpourri and sachets.

Lemon verbena oil is a frequent ingredient in perfume, and in other cosmetics and creams.

The leaves haven’t contributed much to medicinal uses. However, decoctions have been taken as a sedative and for indigestion.

Tea made from lemon verbena leaves is widely popular for the flavor alone (for example, in Brazil). In southern Italy, women wishing to get pregnant often drink such tea—although there is no science supporting that tea as a fertility aid.

Bottom Line: Leaves are often useful as well as ornamental! Whether you take a leaf or leave it depends on your goal—and risk tolerance!

DISGUSTING! BUT FASCINATING

Roger M. Knutson, Fearsome Fauna: A Field Guide to the Creatures That Live In You

Types of Parasites

There are three main types of parasites that can affect humans: protozoa, helminths, and ectoparasites. They can live on or in the human body and cause various diseases. The Cleveland Clinic provides clear, succinct descriptions, as follows.

Ectoparasites

Ectoparasites live on the outside (exterior) of the body. They carry diseases between other animals and humans and usually carry infections through blood. They generally include the following:

  • Fleas are small, wingless insects with strong back legs that they use to jump long distances. Infected fleas can spread disease when they bite or if a person accidentally swallows an infected flea.
  • Head lice and pubic lice (crabs) are tiny, flat insects that travel by crawling. Both types of lice travel from person to person through close contact, which may include sexual intercourse or sharing personal items like hats, sheets, pillows, or towels.
  • Mites are small arachnids, relatives of spiders and ticks. They’re small, about as tall as a stack of 10 sheets of paper. They may cause scabies.
  • Ticks also are arachnids. Their bites usually don’t cause pain or itchiness. They typically bite you and then burrow into your skin.

Helminths

Helminths are worms that usually live in your gastrointestinal (GI) tract. They are visible to the naked eye in their adult stage — and range from greater than 1 millimeter to a little longer than 39 inches (slightly smaller than the width of a doorway).

Ascariasis, a soil-transmitted parasite

The main types of helminths that affect people include the following:

  • Flukes (Trematodes) are a type of flatworm that can spread through contaminated water or aquatic animals (including snails, crabs, and fish). The many different types of flukes may infect your blood, urinary bladder, liver, lungs, intestines, and other organs.
  • Tapeworm (Cestode) adults are long, flat worms that live in the intestines and feed on the nutrients that you get from eating food. They spread by laying eggs that leave your body when you poop. The eggs then spread through infected food and water or undercooked meat.
  • Roundworms (Nematodes) are small parasites that also live in your intestines. They spread from infected poop or soil.

Protozoans

Protozoans are one-celled organisms that live in your intestines or blood and tissues. You can’t see them without a microscope. They can spread through several means, including contaminated food or water and person-to-person contact.

A variety of protozoan parasites found in drinking water

There are tens of thousands of types of protozoans. Experts classify them according to how they move. The main types that affect people include the following:

  • Ciliates use many short, hairlike structures (cilia) to move and gather food. Balantidium coli (B. coli) is the only ciliate that affects people. It causes dysentery.
  • Flagellates use one or many whip-like structures (flagella) to move and sense their surroundings. The flagellate Giardia intestinalis causes giardiasis, and Trypanosoma brucei causes sleeping sickness.
  • Sporozoans (apicomplexan) aren’t capable of moving in their adult stage. They eat the food you are digesting or your body fluids. The sporozoan Plasmodium causes malaria, and Cryptosporidium causes cryptosporidiosis.

Human(-Infesting) Parasites

According to Knutson, the parasites that live in humans are generally ugly, not smart, and extremely motivated to reproduce.

Given where they live, parasites have little need for such sense organs as eyes or a sense of smell. As Knutson says, “Better you should have a good set of hooks, suckers, or clamps or a mouth for hanging on or the capacity to swim with vigor.”

According to the CDC, more than 60 million people in the US are infected with parasites. The overall prevalence of intestinal parasitic infections was 16.1%, according to the NIH. Soil-transmitted helminth infections (14.3%) were more common than protozoan infections (1.8%).

I’ve focused on the U.S., where neglected parasitic infections are not rare. NIH says neglected parasitic infections affect at least 12 million Americans, either through new infections (e.g., trichomoniasis) or from prevalent persistent infections resulting in chronic conditions. Limited access to clean water and sanitation are major factors. Practicing good hygiene, thoroughly cooking meat, and drinking clean water also helps prevent many parasites.

Roger M. Knutson, Fearsome Fauna: A Field Guide to the Creatures That Live In You

Treating Parasites

Thanks to the coordinated efforts of many international organizations, including Jimmy Carter’s legacy Carter Center, guinea worms (a type of nematode parasite) have been almost completely eradicated. In 1986, doctors estimated 3.5 million people had guinea worm infections. In 2023, there were only 14 cases reported worldwide.

Treatment is extremely important. You may develop a serious infection with severe symptoms if you don’t get treatment and follow your doctor’s orders carefully.

Treatment specifics depend on what type of parasite you have.

For treating ectoparasites such as lice, fleas, and ticks:

  • Bathing with soap
  • Shampoos
  • Ointments
  • Washing your clothing, bedding, and towels in hot water
  • Vacuuming carpets, mattresses, and furniture and emptying the vacuum bag into the trash outside

For other types of parasites, your healthcare provider may prescribe:

With a proper diagnosis and treatment, most people make a full recovery. So carefully follow your provider’s instructions. If you don’t, your parasite may come back.

Symptoms of Parasites

How can you know? Because there are so many different types of parasites, the symptoms also vary widely. According to the Cleveland Clinic, common parasite symptoms include:

Not too long ago, some people actively sought the weight-loss symptoms of parasites!
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Abdominal pain
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Increased appetite
  • Muscle aches
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Problems sleeping (insomnia)
  • Fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Skin rash

You may have a parasite and no symptoms, or the symptoms may appear a long time after infection. You may also not have any symptoms and accidentally pass a parasite to another person who develops symptoms.

Parasites Everywhere!

NIH estimates that there are between 75,000 and 300,000 helminth species alone parasitizing vertebrates. But they have no credible way of estimating how many parasitic protozoa, fungi, bacteria, and viruses exist. According to an article in Salon, several estimates suggest that parasites actually outnumber “free living” organisms by about 3 to 2. In short, they’re everywhere.

Conclusion: although you might feel queasy to learn that you have a parasitic infection, don’t take it personally. Instead take appropriate steps to recover and to avoid having anything eating you in the future!

Bottom Line: Parasites are an ugly fact of life. But you don’t have to despair. And learning about them can be fascinating.

DOWN IN THE DIRT

“God made dirt, and dirt don’t hurt.” So chant young children when they don’t want to take a bath. And mostly, that’s true.

As it turns out, the average person ingests about 100 milligrams of dirt every single day. Overall, that equates to roughly six pounds of dirt in an average lifespan! This is mostly unintentional.

Eating Dirt Intentionally

Woman selling geophagic clay in Zambia (Jcaravanos)

On the other hand, some people crave dirt. It’s a form of the disorder pica (the strong urge to eat items that aren’t food). Geophagia is the official term for craving and eating dirt, including earth, soil, or clay. Eating dirt may relieve gastrointestinal pain for some people, but it can also cause health problems such as anemia and lead poisoning.

Eating dirt is not a recent phenomenon by any stretch of the imagination. Archaeologists have found evidence that our ancestors ate dirt at least 2 million year ago, back when Homo sapiens was still Homo habilis. Hippocrates wrote about the practice more than 2 thousand years ago.

Children sometimes choose to eat dirt, and it has also been linked to pregnancy cravings and nutrient deficiencies. ‌ If you have iron deficiency anemia, you may feel an urge to eat dirt. While soil does contain minerals and nutrients, it’s not a safe way to get them into your body. Overall, dirt eating happens more often in places where there is famine and poverty.

In fact, exposure to a diverse range of microorganisms, including those found in soil and on farm animals, can actually have significant benefits on your gut microbiome, supporting digestive and immune health.

Cooking With Dirt

Mud cookies in Haiti, by David Levene

Despite headlines claiming desperately hungry people in Haiti eat “galette” out of necessity, these mud cakes actually play a different role in traditional medicine. Due to their mineral content, some people traditionally recommended these mud cookies as a dietary supplement for pregnant women and children. A small minority of Haitians believe they contain calcium (which can act as an antacid and provide nutritional benefits), but doctors warn this can also cause tooth decay, constipation, and worse.

To make sour dirt, spread soil on a cookie sheet, season with vinegar or your choice of flavorings, and then bake in a wood-burning oven for an hour or smoke in the chimney. After preparation, the dirt tastes sour with an acidic taste, crunchy, and smooth; reputedly, it melts in the mouth like chocolate. (I haven’t tried it and do not recommend it.)

The Many Uses of Kaolin

Dr. Sera Young, a research scientist at Cornell University’s College of Human Ecology, published Craving Earth, which documents more than 2,000 years of human consumption of clay, starch, and chalk worldwide. In the United States, there is a Southern tradition of eating white dirt, largely a function of geography. “White dirt” is actually a soft, chalky clay.

Kaolin in Venezuala

The southeastern North American coastline is especially rich in minerals. Chuck Reese wrote an article about the southern history of eating white dirt in The Bitter Southerner. “One of the most valuable of those mineral resources, historically, was kaolin. Look at the list of its uses, and you’ll see why:

Kaolin anti-diarrhea medicine
  • “Ceramics
  • “Toothpaste
  • “As a light-diffusing material in light bulbs
  • “Cosmetics
  • “As a gloss modifier in paint
  • “As a reinforcing element in rubber
  • “In adhesives that modify the rheology, or relative solidity, of soft solids such as muds and mortars
  • “As an organic insect repellent in agriculture
  • “As a whitewash in traditional masonry structures in Nepal
  • “As an indicator in radiological dating
  • “As an absorbent in water-treatment systems
  • “And of course, there is its most human use: Kaolin soothes the upset stomach. Didn’t your mama ever give you Kaopectate?” (Chuck Reese, Bitter Southerner)

“It’s pretty clear in the medical community that this [eating dirt] is not necessarily a deadly idea, but it’s not a good idea,” Adam Forrester says.

Chuck Reese adds, “People who eat white dirt are mostly, but not entirely, African-American. They are mostly, but not entirely, women. And mostly, women eat it when they are entirely pregnant.”

Benefits of Getting Dirty

Studies using mice have found healthy bacteria that live in the soil increase serotonin levels and reduce anxiety. But mice are pretty different from humans.

There’s a safer way. “Putting your hands in the soil releases ‘feel good’ chemicals in the brain and grounds the nervous system,” Hannah Brents, LICSW, of Safe Talk Therapy in Boston, told Psycom.

Actually, there are many benefits of gardening and spending time outdoors.

  • While tending a garden, you perform functional movement that mimics whole body exercise, burns calories, improves balance, increases strength, and increases flexibility. You’ll enjoy an improved diet if you grow your own vegetables and herbs.
  • Studies have shown that spending time outdoors reduces heart rate and muscle tension. Sunlight lowers blood pressure and increases vitamin D levels. In addition, people tend to breathe deeper when outside, which helps to clear out the lungs, improves digestion, improves immune response, and increases oxygen levels in the blood.
  • Exercise in nearly all forms is good for you. It’s been shown to lighten mood and lower levels of stress and anxiety. Routines of gardening and exercise provide structure to our days and are linked to improved mental health.
  • Gardening and spending time outdoors brings people together and strengthens social connections. They bring together people with diverse backgrounds who share preferred activities. Social connections help lower stress, improve resilience, and provide support during difficult times in life. A strong sense of belonging lowers your risk of depression, anxiety, and suicide.

Dirt Comes in Many Flavors

As you no doubt inferred from the above discussion of white dirt, there are many types of dirt. If you are a gardening nerd, you probably already know one type of dirt from another. For the rest of us:

  • Sandy soil is light, warm, dry and tends to be acidic and low in nutrients. It has a high proportion of sand and little clay (clay weighs more than sand).
  • Clay soil is a heavy soil type that benefits from high nutrients. Clay soils remain wet and cold in winter and dry out in summer.
  • Silt soil is a light and moisture retentive soil type with a high fertility rating.
  • Peat soil is high in organic matter and retains a large amount of moisture.
  • Chalk soil can be either light or heavy but always highly alkaline due to the calcium carbonate (lime) within its structure.
  • Loam soil is a mixture of sand, silt, and clay combined to avoid the negative effects of each type.
  • Black dirt typically contains iron and other chemicals, which is what gives it the brown/black color.

And then there are other distinctions known to gardeners: fill dirt, top soil, potting soil…

Dirty Danger

But when it comes to dirt, whether you are playing in it, eating it, or working with it, beware: there are many soil born diseases and illnesses. People with compromised immune systems, whether due to a congenital condition, following an organ transplant, or certain medication, must avoid gardening or soil contact for this reason. In addition to tetanus, anthrax, and botulism, soil bacteria may cause diseases in the gastrointestinal tract, infections in open wounds, skin lesions, and respiratory tract disruptions. Non-responsive, overwhelming, or chronic pneumonia may be connected to dirt as well. Typically, the growth of disease-producing microorganisms is favored by particular soil characteristics and may involve complex life cycles including amoebae or animal hosts. Infection may come from direct inoculation, ingestion of contaminated food, or inhalation.

Because there are so many benefits of getting close to dirt, do it! Just take appropriate cautions and use protective gear as needed.

Bottom Line: Getting down and dirty can be a beautiful thing!

TOMATO LOVE

How could I not love tomatoes? I grew up in Ohio, where the official state drink is tomato juice! In 1870, Reynoldsburg resident Alexander Livingston began growing tomatoes commercially, and in 1965, the Ohio General Assembly made tomato juice the state’s official beverage. Now there is an annual Tomato Festival honoring Livingston and the role of tomatoes in Ohio’s economy.

I’ve always loved tomatoes. As a child I sometimes took a saltshaker to the garden and gorged on warm tomatoes seconds after plucking them from the vine.

I’m just one of the millions—billions?—who have loved tomatoes over the centuries.

Tomatoes in South America

We are so accustomed to modern, home-grown, hothouse, farmers’ market and store-bought tomatoes that it’s hard to imagine them growing wild. Indeed, today’s tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum) have undergone centuries of cultivation and hybridization. Chances are, we wouldn’t even recognize their ancestors as tomatoes. Today, there are more than 10,000 varieties of tomatoes.

Results of researchers’ genetic studies indicate that the modern cultivated tomato is most closely related to a weed-like tomato group still found in Mexico. At that time, tomatoes were a wild, blueberry-sized fruit.

Once upon a time, tomatoes grew wild in the Andes of western South America. These were a semi-domesticated intermediate type of tomato. Ana Caicedo and Hamid Razifard, leading a team of researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, recently published the results of their research into how tomatoes evolved. Their findings show that “about 7,000 years ago, the weedy tomatoes may have been re-domesticated into the cultivated tomato.”

The indigenous people cultivated them. When the Spanish arrived in the early 16th century, they found the inhabitants growing a food crop called “tomatl” in the native language.

The Tomato Goes to Spain

Deborah J. Benoit serves as the Extension Master Gardener at the University of Vermont. She writes, “Tomato seeds were brought from Mexico to Spain by those early explorers. From there the plant spread to Italy by the mid-1500s where it began to be incorporated into regional cuisine. Over the following decades, tomato plants were cultivated throughout Europe, but primarily as an ornamental plant.”

“Still Life of Artichokes and Tomatoes in a Landscape” by Luis Egidio Meléndez (1716-1780)

Tomatoes have had many nicknames, including wolf peach and gold apple. In France, new tomato fans called them love apples and thought they might be an aphrodisiac. (Actually, amorous humans have thought dozens of foods work as aphrodisiacs over the years. You can look it up!)

Because many Europeans mistakenly considered the tomato to be poisonous, they also referred to it as the “poison apple.” True, tomatoes are related to deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna). Also true, the leaves, stems and roots of tomato plants contain solanine, a neurotoxin, and so humans should not eat them.

Because of its similarity to nightshade, some people even thought that tomatoes were a part of potions that allowed witches to fly and turned unsuspecting men into werewolves!

But the strongest “proof” of tomatoes being poisonous was the fact that upper class Europeans did die after consuming tomatoes. However, the fault was not with the tomato but with the pewter dinnerware the rich used. The high level of acidity in tomatoes leached lead from the pewter, and those wealthy enough to afford pewter dinnerware died from lead poisoning after eating tomato-based dishes.

American Tomatoes

Much like the turkey, the tomato travelled to Europe and back to the New World in the 1700s before American colonists thought it fit to grace their tables. Thomas Jefferson reportedly grew tomatoes at Monticello and enjoyed eating them. It wasn’t until the early 1900s that tomatoes became popular throughout the United States (pizza may have had a hand in tomatoes’ social acceptance). Today, tomatoes are the most popular home-grown vegetable crop in the country.

In spite of the general acceptance and use of tomatoes as a vegetable, botanically they are a fruit (actually a berry). But, as a result of the case of Nix v. Hedden, which the Supreme Court decided in 1893, legally tomatoes are a vegetable according to the Tariff Act of March 3, 1883.

Ketchup

And surprise! Early ketchups didn’t involve tomatoes at all. Ketchup originated in China. The first version was based on pickled fish and looked more like a soy sauce – dark and thin. People called it “keh-jup” or “koe-cheup,”

The condiment made its way west via European merchants, taking with it Westernized pronunciations. Early recipes for ketchup (or catsup) used a wide variety of ingredients, e.g., mushrooms, walnuts, and shellfish.

In 1812, the first recipe for tomato-based ketchup debuted. Historians credit James Mease, a Philadelphia scientist, with developing the recipe. He wrote that the choicest ketchup came from “love apples,” as Philadelphians then called tomatoes.

Bottom line: Tomatoes have come a long way, baby. But what’s not to love?