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!

For the Love of Turtles

This blog has nothing to do with anything except that I really like Eastern Box Turtles. I hope you enjoy it.

If I were a box turtle, I could eat nearly anything, never have to build a shelter, would be nearly impervious to predators, could live virtually anywhere in the eastern half of the U.S., and live up to 100 years! Plus, I’d be beloved across time and cultures.

Researching Turtles

I first paid attention to them when I was a summer research assistant during graduate school. The professor I was working for eschewed buying lab animals. Instead, he had his graduate students do things like trap dump rats. One spring, he had his students collect box turtles from roadsides and fields for a class project. I worked for him the following summer.

The brick animal holding building near the river was old, dim, and dank. I worked in the basement where the box turtles lived in a huge terrarium. We fed them lettuce, blueberries, and raw hamburger.

Turtle Speed Runs

I set up a T-maze, which looks just like it sounds. As I recall, the stem as well as each arm was two feet long. One arm led to food; the other arm led to a drop-off into a big box of shredded paper. I measured several things:

Turtles on my patio
  1. How long it took each turtle to traverse the maze;
  2. How many times the turtle looked left and then right at the choice point before choosing a direction—i.e., (for science nerds) the VTE’s or vicarious trials-and-errors;
  3. Whether the turtle made the right choice or not;
  4. How many trials it took before the turtle consistently made the right choice.

It was a l-o-n-g summer of l-o-n-g workdays. Sometimes, a single trial for a single turtle took more than an hour.

Research Results

The hypothesis being tested was that the more VTE’s, the fewer trials to learn. Not supported.

However, over some weeks, we noticed aberrant behavior. For example, we saw several instances of males mounting males or turtles eating newly-laid eggs. So, we wrote a paper about the effects of crowding on eastern box turtles. As far as I know, that paper never saw the light of day.

But I learned a great deal about Eastern Box Turtles that summer, starting with how to “sex” them, quick and easy: bright red eyes distinguish males from the brown-eyed females. In addition, male box turtles’ heads and shells are often more brightly and distinctively colored than females. The underside of female box turtle shells are flat; males are concave. There’s more, but not as obvious.

Subsequently, I’ve picked up a lot of interesting (to me) information. For example, the temperature of the nest determines the sex of the hatchlings; eggs incubated at 70-80 degrees Fahrenheit are more likely to be males, and those incubated above 82 degrees Fahrenheit are more likely to be females.

Turtles Gone Wild!

Periodically, I see eastern box turtles in my backyard. Once I saw two on the bank, mating. Never before, and not since!

Eastern box turtles live in a wide variety of habitats including forests, forest edges, meadows, and rural or suburban backyards. Depending on the habitat quality, Eastern box turtles can have a home range between 2 and 13 acres. If their habitat provides enough food, water, shelter, and occasional contact with other box turtles, they have all they need and rarely leave their home range.

Box turtles will always go back to where they are most familiar with their surroundings. Researchers call this adaptation homing behavior. Home ranges often overlap regardless of age or sex.

Actually, you shouldn’t disturb turtles in the wild. (Little did we know when embarking on the turtle project all those years ago!) Don’t disturb, pick up, or move a box turtle unless it has a visible injury or is in imminent danger. If you find a turtle in the road, move it to the other side in the direction it was going. Don’t attempt to relocate it. Turtles have small home territories and should be left where they are found.

Behavior

Courting turtles in my backyard
Turtle courtship in my backyard

Turtles typically show no antagonism toward each other.  While aggression between individuals is uncommon, competing males will spar each other. This involves biting at each other’s shells.

Box turtles reach sexual maturity around age five. Mating season generally starts in the spring and continues through fall. After rain, males become more active in their search for females. Males may mate with more than one female or the same female several times. Females can store sperm for up to four years. They lay fertilized eggs at will, so they don’t mate every year. A female could lay fertile eggs up to four years after a successful mating!

In the wild, eastern box turtles walk energetically with their heads upright. They may walk about 55 yards in one day. A homing instinct helps them find their way back home. Box turtles generally live for 25-35 years but have been known to survive to over 100! They grow to only about 4 inches by six inches.

If you do need to pick one up, hold it like a sandwich with both hands.

And they like to be scratched with a stiff brush!

Diet

Eastern box turtles are omnivores, and in the wild eat whatever is available: a variety of plants, fruits, insects, fish, small amphibians, eggs, and even animal carrion. They can even eat mushrooms that are toxic to humans!

Juvenile Eastern box turtle

Younger box turtles grow very rapidly and tend to be preferentially carnivorous (for the needed energy). Younger turtles tend to be more carnivorous than adults, hunting in ponds and streams for food. After five to six years, they move onto the land and shift to a more herbivorous diet.

Anatomy of Turtles

Box turtles have great eyesight for recognizing food surroundings, and potential danger. Not only can they tell the difference between ripe and unripe fruit, but they can also identify other individual box turtles based on the colors and patterns on their shells and bodies.

Turtle with plastron shut

The underside of its shell (its plastron) is dark brown and hinged, which allows them to almost completely shut their shell. When threatened, the box turtle can pull its head and legs into its shell and wait for the danger to pass. Very few predators can effectively prey upon adult box turtles because of this technique.

Its shell is also unique in that it can regenerate. In one reported case, the carapace of a badly burned box turtle completely regenerated.

Wonderful as they are, box turtles are not good pets. They don’t like to be petted or handled, and without special lights they are prone to bone and other health problems. Also, most turtles carry salmonella infection asymptomatically, in that they do not show signs of illness, but can pass it on, which can be an issue for children, especially.

Symbolic Turtles

Palm leaves woven into a turtle shape to make a ketupat penyu, an amulet providing protection in traditional Malay medicine

However, you can still have turtles around you! Turtle jewelry is easily found, and very variable. Just ask me! Besides the turtle image itself, the power of the metal and stones may be protective, too.

From the Great Peace of Montreal, the mark of the Turtle Clan, which Tourengouenon signed for Senecas

Besides appealing to me generally, I like the symbolism of turtles. Many Native American cultures believe turtles to have a strong and ancient understanding of the world they hold upon their shell. The Chippewa, Menominee, Huron-Wyandot, Abenaki, Shawnee, Lenape, and Iroquois tribes all have Turtle Clans. In other tribes, turtles represent healing, wisdom, spirituality, health, safety, longevity, protection, and fertility.

Many cultures associate turtles with water. Some concentrate upon the fertility that this connection can suggest.

In addition, some cultures view the turtle as a symbol of spiritual rebirth and transformation. The turtle has the ability to submerge underwater and then resurface, representing renewal and spiritual protection.

Wise Turtles

Cambodian bas-relief showing Samudra manthan-Vishnu and his turtle Avatar Kurma

Around the world the tortoise and/or turtle can be seen as a symbol of wisdom and knowledge, and is able to defend itself on its own. According to Yoruba foklore, the trickster Alabahun is a tortoise who performs heroic deeds. In other traditions, turtles signify water, the moon, the Earth, time, immortality, and fertility.

The turtle is one of the Four Fabulous Animals of Chinese mythology, the ruler of the North. Seen in ways similar to those of Chinese tradition, the Japanese turtle spirit minogame (蓑亀) represented longevity, support, and good luck. Although they don’t have Eastern box turtles in China and Japan, they do have the Yellow-margined Box Turtle (Cuora flavomarginata).

Strong Turtles

Turtles are still popular subjects for tattoos in Polynesia

Turtles in Oceania tend to be more representative of strength. According to Tahitian legend, the tortoise is the shadow of the gods and the lord of the oceans. Polynesian warriors would tattoo the symbol of the war god Tu on themselves, often in the form of a huge turtle.

Sometimes, a turtle’s strength and perseverance is marked on its shell. A folktale from the Amazon tells the story of how the turtle broke its shell when falling from the sky in an attempt to reach the King of Heaven. In Cherokee legend, the patterns on a turtle’s shell serve as a reminder of when the gods took pity on a turtle with a broken shell.

All in all, turtles are considered to be symbols of good luck because they embody positive qualities that are associated with prosperity, longevity, and perseverance.

Bottom Line: May turtles live long and prosper!

BUTTERFLIES HELPING HUMANS

Humans have seen butterflies as deeply symbolic for at least as long as they’ve been making art. In poetry, paintings, music, dance, and fiction, the butterfly signifies the human spirit. They symbolize hope, eternity, and rebirth. But beyond their metaphorical significance, butterflies inspire humans in many other ways.

Butterfly Eyes

Butterflies will always win a staring competition. They have two compound eyes, containing up to 17,000 mini eyes, each with its own lens, a single rod, and up to three cones. Where humans have cones (photo-receptors) for three colors, butterflies have photo-receptors for up to nine colors, one of which is ultra-violet. But what they don’t have is eyelids; hence, they’d always win.

Butterflies eyesight has inspired technology developments potentially beneficial to us all. Professor Doekele Stavenga teaches evolutionary biophysics at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. “The optical principles evolved in nature have inspired improvements of LEDs, for instance, and colour discrimination processing,” says Stavenga.

Butterflies perceive a spectrum of light beyond human capabilities. This extraordinary vision has inspired scientists to develop multispectral surgical cameras. These cameras, mirroring the butterfly’s sight, help surgeons see more than ever before, making surgeries safer and more precise.

Butterfly Wings

“Only some [butterfly wings] are really transparent. … Morphos (and many others) are structurally coloured, due to optical multilayer reflections,” explains Stavenga.

In 2015, a group of researchers revealed the science behind transparent butterfly wings. Nano-structured pillars of random heights cover each wing surface. Scientists found that the extreme irregularity of these pillars barely reflect any light.

Scientists studying these phenomena in butterflies can apply that understanding to developing new smartphone screens.

Butterflies don’t flap their wings to fly, only to take off. They have “cymbal wings” that “clap.” The distinctive wing clap collects a pocket of air and use it to fly. “Just before the clap, it seems like these wings bend, form like a pocket shape. And then that collapses and they push out again, creating a jet of air, basically,” says Professor Per Henningsson at Lund University in Sweden.

“The shape and flexibility of butterfly wings could be really key to small micro vehicles or drones, that need to be really lightweight and efficient,” Henningsson says.

Butterfly Wing Inventions

The Key Program for International S&T Cooperation Program of China, the National Natural Science Foundation of China, the Shanghai Science and Technology Committee, and the National Key Research and Development program have been funding research into the energy capabilities of butterfly wings. They recently published four elements of progress achieved by studying butterflies.

  • By employing the different properties of butterfly wings, featured researches have successfully fabricated thermal, medical, and vapor sensors, anti-counterfeit security devices, photocatalysts, photovoltaic systems, triboelectric nanogenerators and energy storage systems.
  • More research is necessary but researchers suggest that the applications should extend to photothermal imaging and therapy in cancer treatment and management. The good performance recorded by medical sensors for health monitoring and photothermal capabilities of butterfly-wing-inspired materials will aid in the detection, imaging, therapy, and monitoring of terminal diseases.
  • Similarly, photothermal materials inspired by butterfly wings can gain interest in the emerging stealth technologies research for modern-day warfare and scientific research technologies, such as rockets.
  • Lastly, butterfly wings have exhibited numerous and diverse properties that enable them to respond effectively to external stimuli.

Butterfly Behavior

Butterflies (and moths to a lesser extent) serve as part of a group of ‘model’ organisms that researchers use to investigate many areas of biological research, including such diverse fields as navigation, pest control, embryology, mimicry, evolution, genetics, population dynamics, and biodiversity conservation.

New research on butterflies is proving that these insects are capable of an astonishing range of clever behaviors. They can thwart attacks or outwit competitors. Their abilities range from learning lessons to navigating long distances. “They don’t have a lot of gray matter in their brains, maybe just a cubic millimeter,” says Georgetown University biologist Martha Weiss, “but with it they can do everything they need to do.”

A lot of research concludes that abundance of butterflies is often an indication that an ecosystem is thriving. For one thing, butterflies are an important link in a food chain, as predators and prey. Both adult butterflies and caterpillars are an important source of food for other animals such as bats and birds.

Butterfly Migration

Monarch butterflies have a longer lifespan than most and will take flight from their native USA and Canada habitats to the warmer climate of Mexico for winter. Some migrating monarch butterflies travel over 4800km (2983 mi) to reach their warm winter home.

Butterflies only flutter on takeoff. Long-distance migrants like monarchs will save energy by holding their wings in a flat “V” and gliding. “When they’re migrating, monarchs will fly a few feet off the ground in the morning until they hit a thermal rising off some barren earth or asphalt. Then they’ll rise like a hawk.” So says Orley Taylor, a University of Kansas ecologist and director of Monarch Watch, a mark-and-recapture program. Monarchs can ride a thermal to 5,000 feet.

Out of sight of humans, butterflies on their way to their usual wintering grounds in Mexico each fall migrate in such dense concentrations that they show up on radar. Despite flying 2,000 miles on paper-thin wings, their mastery of low-powered flight means they arrive barely winded. “A lot of monarchs arrive in remarkable condition,” says Taylor. “They look like they just hatched.”

Butterfly Food

Whether they migrate or not, butterflies are important pollinators. We think of honey bees as great pollinators, and they are, but they confine themselves to a much smaller range than even stay-at-home butterflies.

Nectar is an important component of a butterfly’s diet. Technically, butterflies can’t eat anything and instead drink all their nutrients. Proteins and minerals gained during the caterpillar’s diet of plants and ants are stored for the butterfly. It’s essential for metamorphosis and sustaining the butterflies through to reproduction.

Thanks to the effort of their crawling caterpillar stage, butterflies are free to get their sugar-fix of instant energy from nectar. You might see butterflies drinking from wet soil or puddles. Gulping up muddy water helps butterflies regulate their temperature and increases their salt supply. People have even found butterflies lapping up the salty tears of turtles. And they will suck up blood if the opportunity arises!

Butterfly Habitat

Like rats, the only continent butterflies can’t be found is Antarctica due to its sub-zero climate.

Because of their sensitivity to environmental changes, butterflies make an ideal specimen for scientists how climate change influences biodiversity. As the planet warms, researchers in Scandinavia have noticed that these beautiful insects have gradually altered their range, expanding northwards. Researchers in Sweden and Finland have discovered an astonishing 64% increase in average provincial species richness, expanding from 46 to 70 species per province.

Butterflies are aesthetically pleasing and few species cause any damage to commercial plants. They are a diverse group of insects containing around 20,000 different species. North America is home to more than 700 of these species. Each type has various behavioral and structural adaptations that allow them to survive in various environments.

Microgravity during a space flight creates almost weightless conditions. Still, astronauts were able to observe metamorphosis of the Monarch and Painted Lady butterflies in space. With a little difficulty, the butterflies managed to emerge. However, they had some trouble navigating. They bumped into the sides of their habitat and struggled to fully expand and dry their wings as quickly as they would here on Earth.

Butterfly Anatomy

Butterflies have taste buds across their wings, feet, and antennae as well as their proboscis.

Butterflies are day insects and “sleep” hanging upside-down from leaves. Hanging on leaves actually protect them from rain and any early morning birds.

Butterflies with ‘warning colors’ like the orange and black of the monarch and the long-winged tiger and zebra butterflies are less concerned with hiding while they rest. These colors indicate to predators that they will be poisonous to eat. Some butterflies have evolved to store the toxins from the milkweed they eat as caterpillars.

Although their habitats range all over the world, butterflies have a fleeting life, with an average lifespan of around three to four weeks. However, it varies across species. In 2009, scientists did a large-scale study and found that butterflies’ lives span from a few days to almost a year.

Bottom line: Butterflies deserve their symbolism. In literature and art, butterflies signify hope, love, and the soul’s eternal nature. In science, butterflies symbolize (and inspire) advances in research and technology.

BODY SPEAK

Not body language—facial expressions, gestures, movement, etc. Rather, body parts used in clichés and idioms that mean more than the words. Keep your nose to the grindstone or Have a silver tongue.

Linguists have noticed that English is not the only language with idioms full of body parts. Czech, Korean, Malay, Pashto, Turkish, Igbo, and Vietnamese (just to name a few) are full of body part phrases that mean more than the literal sum of their parts. It seems, no matter what language you speak, your brain reaches for parts of your own body when looking for interesting ways to express yourself.

So, head to toe, here are examples.

Head

  • Hard-headed
  • Soft in the head
  • Bang your head against a brick wall
  • Keeping your head above water
  • Able to do something standing on your head
  • Keep your head down
  • Hold your head high
  • Bite someone’s head off
  • Head in the clouds
  • Head in the sand
  • Bring something to a head
  • Can’t make heads or tails out of something
  • Drum something into someone’s head
  • Head to toe
  • Keep your head in the game
  • Fall head over heels in love
  • Get a head start on something
  • Get someone or something out of one’s head
  • Give someone a head’s start
  • Go over someone’s head
  • Have a good head on your shoulders
  • Head someone or something off
  • Hit the nail on the head
  • In over your head
  • Lose your head
  • Keep your head
  • Off your head
  • Scratching your head over something

Brain

  • Right brain/left brain
  • Brain storm
  • Brain fart
  • Brain buzz
  • Brain freeze
  • Brain dead
  • Braining (to hit someone on the head)

Neck

  • A pain in the neck
  • Stick your neck out
  • Neck and neck
  • Breathe down your neck
  • Dead from the neck up
  • Up to your neck
  • Neck of the woods
  • Millstone round your neck
  • (Competitors are) neck and neck
  • To save your neck
  • Risking your neck
  • Wring his or her neck
  • Rubber necking

Shoulders

  • A chip on your shoulder
  • Come straight from the shoulder
  • Give someone the cold shoulder
  • Put your shoulder to the wheel
  • A shoulder to cry on
  • Stand shoulder to shoulder
  • Shoulder a burden

Arm

  • Arm of the law
  • Cost an arm and a leg
  • Give your right arm
  • Up in arms
  • (Keep) at arm’s length
  • Strong arm someone

Hands

  • Give a hand
  • At hand
  • Out of hand
  • Bite the hand that feeds you
  • Change hands
  • First hand
  • Hands down
  • Have a hand in
  • A firm hand
  • Hand something over
  • Hand in glove
  • Heavy handed
  • Hand holding
  • In your hand
  • Lend a hand
  • Out of your hands
  • Wash your hands of
  • Get your hands dirty
  • Hands full
  • Hands tied
  • Live from hand to mouth
  • All hands on deck

Chest

  • Something will put hair on your chest
  • Get something off your chest
  • Keep your cards close to your chest
  • Chest thumping

Spine

  • Spineless
  • (Send) a shiver down someone’s spine
  • Spine-tingling
  • Spine of steel

Heart

  • Change of heart
  • Heart of gold
  • Eat your heart out
  • Know/learn something by heart
  • After your own heart
  • Cross your heart
  • Lose heart
  • Follow your heart
  • Heart skips/misses a beat
  • Take heart
  • Follow your heart
  • Break your heart
  • Have your heart set on/against something
  • Heartbeat away
  • My heart bleeds
  • Bleeding heart
  • Heart of stone
  • Soft-hearted
  • Young at heart
  • Wear your heart on your sleeve
  • Big-hearted
  • A heavy heart
  • From the bottom of your heart
  • Get to the heart of the matter
  • Be halfhearted about something
  • Have a heart-to-heart talk
  • Heart in the right place
  • Pour your heart out

Guts

  • Gut feeling /reaction
  • Gut punch
  • Beer gut
  • Blood and guts
  • Bust a gut
  • Go with (one’s) gut
  • Gut feeling /instinct
  • Gut it out
  • Gutted
  • Gut-wrenching
  • Hate someone’s guts
  • Have someone’s guts for garters
  • Have the guts (to do something)
  • No guts, no glory
  • Puke (one’s) guts out
  • Slog/sweat/work your guts out
  • Spill your guts
  • Split a gut

Leg

  • Not have a leg to stand on
  • On one’s last legs
  • On the last leg (of a journey)
  • Pull (someone’s) leg
  • Put your pants on one leg at a time
  • Have/find your sea legs
  • Get/give a leg up
  • Break a leg (theater)
  • To have hollow legs
  • To leg it
  • To talk the hind leg off a donkey
  • To pull someone’s leg

Knees

  • Bee’s knees
  • On one’s knees / bring to one’s knees
  • Knee-high to a grasshopper
  • Weak in the knees
  • Take a knee (football)

Feet

  • Cold feet
  • Foot in the door
  • Have two left feet
  • Get off on the wrong foot
  • Have itchy feet
  • Put your foot down
  • Feet on the ground
  • Foot the bill
  • Get back on your feet
  • Feet of clay
  • Get your feet wet
  • Swept off your feet
  • Best foot forward
  • Have a lead foot
  • One foot in the grave
  • Bound hand and foot
  • Dead on my feet
  • Foot in both camps
  • Jump in feet first
  • On the back foot

Heels

  • Achilles heel
  • Bring someone to heel
  • Cool one’s heels
  • Dig in your heels
  • Be a heel

Toes

  • Dip one’s toes in (the water)
  • Keep someone on their toes
  • Step/tread on someone’s toes
  • Toe the mark

Bottom Line: When words about body parts don’t literally mean what they say, they can be used in an infinite number of ways.

LIFE’S SIMPLE PLEASURES

Simple Pleasures

The first thing I’ll say about life’s simple pleasures is that with age I am more conscious of them. That’s probably because I have more time to notice—and this is a good thing! These are among my pleasures, in no particular order.

Weather and seasons affect me daily, and always have. In the past, mostly that’s been for practical reasons: do I need an umbrella? A snow shovel? Extra sunscreen? While those questions are still relevant, now I’m also aware of breezes on my face, and the skyscape—bare branches against “Carolina”
blue sky—seasonal changes, and the varied faces of clouds.

I have stained glass panels hanging in the window over the sink and in my study window. Sunlight through those windows gives me great pleasure, more than either sunlight or colored glass alone. This underscores my preference for daylight over dark.

Drinking many mugs of water every day has made me aware of the pleasure of ice cubes—one of my favorite things! Our old refrigerator wasn’t dispensing ice well for months, so the contrast with the new one is stark.

And speaking of sensory pleasures, I enjoy flannel sheets and down comforters, and lying in bed deciding whether to get up then or later. (It’s usually later.) Even better is turning off the alarm and going back to sleep. And in a similar vein: I like to nap in my recliner in late afternoon.

This is not my bedroom, but it sure looks pleasant!

With the exception of high winds and rain, virtually every breakfast and lunch brings the pleasure of bird and squirrel watching. I’ve now learned the names of our resident bird species: house finches, gold finches, bluebirds, blue jays, titmice, chickadees, robins, mourning doves, mocking birds, cardinals, white-throated sparrows, catbirds, grackles and starlings, and the occasional sharp shinned hawk. I can
usually remember them! But I enjoy them regardless.

The other kitchen table pleasure is watching squirrels. I admire their athleticism. It’s amazing what having back feet that can rotate 180 degrees allows them to do! All the males I call Stanley and all the females, Olive.

Speaking of kitchen pleasures reminds me of coffee—strong, black, and moderately hot. Mocha java, Moka Batak Blend, and Columbian Supremo are among my favorites. Three particular coffee pairings bring pleasure: cranberry-nut bread with plain goat cheese, crusty bread with havarti, and anything chocolate!

Reading. I read every day—sometimes long into the night. Having more books on hand than I’ll have time to read is wonderful. I’ve often said it’s like money in the bank. Should I ever be laid up for three months, I’m prepared!

Read what? It scarcely matters. Mysteries, action/adventure, romance, creative non-fiction, memoirs, popular science… Not much poetry. But a related pleasure is finally allowing myself to not finish a book that is boring or poorly written.

And then there is laughter. It can be any sort of laughter, from giggles to guffaws, tinkling to belly laughs, as long as it comes from joy and pleasure.

Life’s small pleasures are nearly limitless. Blooming plants. Mah Jong tiles, the look as well as the feel of them. Playing computer solitaire. Playing with my jewelry, organizing “sets” of pieces that I find make pleasing combinations.

Rocks, stones, shells, sticks. A completely silent house. This list could run on, but I won’t let it.

You’ll notice that I haven’t mentioned family, friends, love, good health, writing or other big pleasures—because they are big—but pleasurable they are.

Bottom Line: Stop and smell the honeysuckle. You will be glad you did.

DUST TO DUST

It’s here, it’s there! In the car. Under the china cabinet. On book shelves—and books. Curled into dust bunnies in closet corners. Where on earth does all that dust come from? Short answer? Nearly everywhere!

Wherever it comes from, dust is fine particles of solid matter, heavy enough to see and light enough to be carried by the wind.

What Makes Dust?

Pay no attention to the cuteness – these creatures are dangerous!

Tiny fragments of human skin account for 20-50% of household dust! People are generally aware of dry skin on the scalp and body. Now you know: it doesn’t just disappear! If you sleep on flannel sheets, your bed might look like you have full-body dandruff. (Told to me by a friend!)

Pets also shed skin cells. People who are allergic to cats, dogs, guinea pigs or whatever, are allergic to that pet’s dander. Personally, I have a major anaphylactic response (throat swelling, unable to breathe) to guinea pig dander—even to a room where a guinea pig has been! In Peru, guinea pig meat is a traditional and major source of protein. It turns out, I can eat guinea pig, I just can’t be around them.

BTW, although it is extremely rare, people can be allergic to human dander! And some dogs are allergic to humans!

Hair is usually seen in strands, but can disintegrate into dust, too.

Dangerous Dust

Smoke and ash often go together. You smell smoke because of the particles coming in contact with your nasal membranes. And as you all know, excessive exposure to smoke or ash can be deadly. But don’t forget volcanic ash!

Pollen season where I live washes the world in chartreuse.

Those spring days when your vehicle seems to have been powdered in yellow, you can see pollen dust. But even when you can’t see it, airborne pollen can adversely affect breathing.

Bacteria are dust? Yep. Or at least they are in dust. The most common ones are staphylococcus and streptococcus, both common on human skin and relatively prevalent in our everyday lives.

Dust that is small bits of dirt or rock are hazardous to one’s lungs with long or repeated exposure. Think black lung disease for coal miners. Ditto asbestos used in construction. Even plaster or chalk dust.

Wind moves dust in dry places. A small wind gust can swirl debris almost anywhere, such as the driveway or a city street. A strong, well-formed, relatively short-lived whirlwind makes a dust devil. It can be short or tall, like a swirling cone of dust.

A gigantic dust cloud engulfs a ranch in Boise City, Okla., in 1935.

Big winds, over expansive areas can form dust storms. This happened long-term in the 1930s across the American and Canadian prairie. The result was called the Dust Bowl, and great damage to the ecology and agriculture.

People with asthma or other breathing problems pay close attention to the daily air quality index, which is affected by all these sources of dust pollution.

Useful Dust

Scott Wade turns dusty cars into fantastic works of art!

Is there anything good about dust? I mean apart from children being able to write their names on tables, cars, etc.

Beauty, maybe? You can buy sea salt spray for your hair, purported to offer texture, a natural look, and to counter some of the oil on hair to give you an extra day of good style between washes.

Sea spray (aerosol particles of salt crystals from the ocean) is formed mostly by bursting bubbles where the sea meets the air, transferring matter and energy between the ocean and the atmosphere. It’s most obvious when it dries on surfaces.

Dust particles help in pollination of plants.

Then, too, individual dust particles are a major part of rain. Water vapor in clouds condenses (turns to liquid) around invisible dust particles. A “grain” of dust is likely at the center of every raindrop.

In agriculture, dust can enhance soil fertility and improve crop growth. Adding rock dust to fields can also help to capture carbon in the atmosphere, potentially helping to reverse climate change.

In industry, dust can be used in the production of such materials as concrete and ceramics.

During Holi, celebrants throw colored dust (typically made of corn starch and dye) on each other to celebrate spring, love, and the triumph of good over evil.

Among the benefits of dust is that it reduces the air temperature, as well as reduces the risk of toxic gases in the atmosphere.

Exposing children to dust through gardens and dust in the child’s natural surroundings enhances children’s immunity.

Household dust actually purifies the air by neutralizing ozone that can harm our lungs—because one of the major components of house dust is human skin, which contains the ozone-eliminating component squalene.

Dust is important for survival because it plays a role in a range of physical, chemical, and bio-geological processes, and interacts with the cycles of energy, nitrogen, carbon, and water that are necessary for Earth system functions.

Bottom Line: Like so many things, dust is good for you—in moderation.

In Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series of fantasy novels, “dust” is actually an elemental particle responsible for consciousness.

Self-Soothing

“Self-soothing” refers to behaviors people use to regulate their emotional state by themselves. It’s a strategy used to regain equilibrium after an upsetting event, or when facing a stressful situation. (For example, when a child’s parents argue, or an older person has to make a public presentation.)

Self-soothing behaviors are often apparent early in life, and are calming or comforting for a child or adolescent. Infants, for example, may be seen repeatedly sucking fingers or thumbs, hugging a toy or blanket. These habits may continue for years.

Self-soothing behaviors are repetitive/habitual in nature—and are often not consciously applied. Do you touch your hair, twist a ring, straighten your tie, etc.? Noticing when you engage in such behaviors can help you recognize mildly tense or stressful situations. It’s another form of self-awareness.

Following a shock, a traumatic or upsetting event, all people need soothing. In these more intense situations, two common self-soothing behaviors include reaching for an alcoholic drink or a tub of ice cream or other emotional eating. However—as you no doubt know—these kinds of self-soothing behaviors can cause additional problems.

Several self-soothing behaviors can lead to other problems: binge-watching TV, compulsive gaming, or internet surfing. Many superheroes have unhealthy self-soothing behaviors, including Jessica Jones and Iron Man.

Constructive Methods of Self-Soothing

Positive Psychology published an article suggesting several more positive strategies: “24 Best Self-Soothing Techniques and Strategies for Adults.” The following 7 suggestions quoted below are included in that article.

1. Change the Environment

If possible, just change the environment for a few minutes. Go outside and focus on greenery or find a soothing indoor space with a pleasant view or ambiance.

(The origin of the “Green Room” in theaters may stem from Elizabethan actors resting “on the green” between scenes to calm their eyes and their nerves. As the wavelength of green light causes the least strain on the human eye, those Elizabethans may have been on to something!)

2. Stretch for Five Minutes to Move Any Blocked Energy

For best results, try to put your chin between your heels.

Often, after upsetting news or a shock, our bodies respond by freezing and energy gets blocked. A few simple trunk twists, neck rotations, or bends at the hip to touch the toes can help shift stagnant energy.

(Even without a shock, our bodies tend to store tension and stress in our backs, shoulders, and necks. Stretching these areas can prevent headaches and improve circulation.)

3. Take a Warm Shower or Bath

Treat yourself with soothing body wash or bubbles and a fresh, soft towel afterward.

(For best results, do not use overly hot water and avoid scrubbing too hard. If hot water is not available, you can turn to oil, smoke, some types of mud, or simple cold water to achieve cleanliness and promote peace of mind.)

4. Soothing Imagery

Find soothing things to look at such as a burning candle, soft lights, pictures of loved ones, favorite places, or perhaps some framed inspirational resilience quotes or affirmations.

(The color green is most restful to the human eye, but some evidence suggests that other colors may have a calming effect on stress and mood. According to the principles of chromotherapy, surrounding oneself with blue, purple, or white can calm, soothe, and relax the central nervous system.)

5. Soothing Music

Harpist Carlos Reyes

Listen to favorite tracks that have a calming effect or one of the many relaxing music videos for stress relief that are available online.

(Harp music in particular has a soothing effect on the body as well as the mind. Research has shown that listening to harp music improves pain management, blood pressure, and heart rate regularity.)

6. Soothing Smells

Create pleasant smells by using an essential oil diffuser, scented candle, or incense. Also, try using scented hand lotion.

(The most soothing scent of all!)

7. Self-Compassion

Speak compassionately to yourself aloud. Talk to yourself like a good friend would. Give yourself the grace to be off-balance and the space to just be as you are for a while.

Soothing Every Sense

When people experience high levels of stress or discomfort often, some therapists recommend making a self-soothing box that includes objects or reminders of how to soothe all five senses:

  • Comforting smells such as scented candles, essential oils, or body lotion
  • Pleasant tastes such as herbal teas or favorite snacks
  • Soothing things to touch such as a favorite sweater, wrap, or stress ball
  • Comforting sights such as photos of loved ones, pets, or favorite places
  • Soothing sounds such as a favorite piece of music or guided meditation track

Most of us are familiar with people soothing other people—a hug, a back-rub, a shoulder to cry on. During COVID, when interpersonal soothing was less available, researchers studied the benefits of self-touching (Dreisoerner et al., 2021). They found that both self-soothing touch (in this study, most participants chose to place their right hand on their heart and their left on their abdomen while focusing on the rising and falling of their breath) and receiving a hug from another person were equally effective at lowering stress levels.

When adults are distressed, it’s difficult to regulate potentially disruptive emotions like anger, fear, and sadness, especially in a public space such as the workplace. If you want to explore self-soothing further, just look online. You will find lists of techniques from 8 to 100. Surely there’s something there for everyone.

Bottom Line: Everyone experiences distress of various sorts and at various levels. Self-soothing is a life skill worth learning.

THE WELL-TRAVELED TURKEY

Once Halloween is over, it’s all about Thanksgiving. The shift of focus from goblins to gobblers is instantaneous. Although officially called Thanksgiving, for many it’s really Turkey Day. But beyond dinner, what do people really know of Meleagris gallopavo, the wild turkey that gave rise to the one likely to be on the platter?

Turkeys in North America

flying turkey

Turkeys are native to North America, as are all the subspecies. M. gallopavo silvestris, sometimes called forest turkeys or eastern wild turkeys, are the most numerous of the subspecies, more than five million.

Archaeological evidence suggests that Native Americans domesticated turkeys more than 1500 years ago, before Europeans set foot on the continent. Archaeologists have found turkey bones in burial mounds in Tennessee, Kentucky and some other parts of the South. Turkey relics have surfaced in Arizona dating as far back as 25 C.E., and turkey-raising may well be one of the oldest forms of organized meat production in the Northern Hemisphere.

Indigenous farmers raised turkeys in Mexico and Central America more than 500 years before the Spanish arrived. Evidence of turkey bones at religious sites and burial mounds suggests that turkeys served a ceremonial role as well as providing meat. Although native to North America, the turkey’s range extended into Mexico.

Turkey Trade in Central America

Chalchiuhtotolin, Aztec turkey god
Chalchiuhtotolin, the god of plagues, depicted as a turkey in the Aztec Codex

Central Mexico once acted as a center of turkey domestication. Archaeologists have found bones of Meleagris gallopavo from as early as 8000 B.C.E. in what was once Maya territory. Remains of turkey pens and fossilized poop containing traces of corn suggest ancient Mayans kept and fed turkeys, trading them throughout Central America.

A 1980s archaeological dig at the El Mirador assemblage in Guatemala unearthed seven turkey skeletons. The bones were from more than 2000 years ago and more than 400 miles from their native range in Central Mexico.

One thing is certain, says Erin Kennedy Thornton, an environmental archaeologist at Trent University Archaeological Research Centre in Peterborough, Canada. The turkeys “didn’t walk there [to the Jaguar Paw Temple] themselves.” Like many Native American cultures, she says, the Maya used turkey feathers in ornaments and carved turkey bones into picks, pins, and elaborate tubes.

Ocellated Turkey
Ocellated Turkey – no wonder Hernán Cortés confused them with peacocks in 1519!

Thornton studied the bones, and concluded they did not belong to the indigenous ocellated turkeys that roamed Mayan territory. Those birds are small, with blue heads and iridescent blue, green, and copper feathers, she says,”almost like a cross between a turkey and a peacock.” The bones found in the temple appeared to belong to the larger, duller Mexican turkey.

After reexamining the bones, Thornton collaborated with archaeologist Camilla Speller, an expert in ancient DNA analysis at the University of Calgary in Canada, to confirm that the bones belonged to M. gallopavo. Only one of the bones yielded enough replicable DNA for analysis. That DNA was an exact match with M. gallopavo, and not the ocellated turkey.

Mayan traders maintained long-distance exchange networks between northern Mesoamerica and Mayan territory. They moved many objects such as jade, obsidian, and pottery throughout these networks between 300 B.C.E. and 200 C.E., when the bones likely originated, says Thornton. However, she says, this is the first sign that Mayan traders may have transported living animals as well.

As early as 300 B.C.E, people transported Mexican turkeys between 650 and 950 kilometers outside of the their natural range. In a study Thornton and others published, they argued that this distribution suggests turkey domestication in Mexico may have begun centuries earlier than scientists previously thought.

“I think they did a good job of making the case that the Meleagris gallopavo birds at El Mirador were derived from Central Mexico and were probably being confined,” says William Lipe, an archaeologist at Washington State University, Pullman. However, the small sample of DNA concerns him, and he agrees with Thornton that scientists need to do more research. “My guess is that the history of turkey domestication in the New World is fairly complex and that we are just beginning to see some of the outlines of it.”

Turkeys in Europe

Turks call this bird a “Hindi.” Hindi speakers call it a “Peru.” Arabic speakers call it a “Greek chicken.” Greeks call it a “French chicken.” The French call it an “Indian chicken.”

So, it’s likely that the Mayans of southern Mexico domesticated turkeys, maybe 2000 years ago. Spanish explorers took Mexican wild turkeys domesticated by the Aztecs back to Europe about 1519. These turkeys spread rapidly throughout Europe, and traders introduced them to England between 1524 and 1541. There, they became a highly sought-after element of gourmet dinners.

After those early domestic turkeys spread across Europe in the 1500s, European colonists brought them back. When colonists set off for the New World, they brought turkeys back across the Atlantic, to the land of their origin. At the time, the turkey was already one of the most plentiful foods of Native Americans. The wild cousin is slim, tall and long-legged. It possesses keen eyesight, hearing, and native cunning, making it a difficult target for human and animal hunters alike.

“The wild turkey in a sprint can outrun a galloping horse for a short distance,” said Charles Ruth, Big Game Program coordinator for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR). “Although it is one of the largest game birds, weighing up to 25 pounds, it can fly distances of more than a mile, sometimes at speeds of 55 miles per hour.”

The Modern Turkey

Despite these survival traits, by the early 20th century, wild turkey numbers had plummeted because of overhunting and loss of habitat. In the early 1900s, the population reached a low of around 30,000 birds.

Fortunately, game managers stepped in, re-introducing wild-caught birds to areas where turkeys had disappeared. Thanks to these efforts, since the 1940s, wild turkeys have been prospering. There are now wild turkeys in all of the lower 48 states and even Hawaii, far beyond their original range. They number more than seven million.

Restoration of the wild turkey in South Carolina is one of the Palmetto State’s most noteworthy conservation success stories. In the early 1900s, only small pockets of wild turkeys survived in South Carolina. They lived primarily in the Lowcountry’s Francis Marion National Forest and along the Savannah River swamps. Today, the wild turkey is widespread throughout South Carolina. All 46 counties hold a spring hunting season (there is no fall season). Wild turkey restoration was made possible through the efforts of the SCDNR, the National Wild Turkey Federation, the forest products industry, private landowners, and South Carolina sportsmen and sportswomen.

Myths Busted

The name of the Republic of Turkey (now spelled Türkiye) and the funny-looking bird we eat in November are actually related (maybe). In the 1550s, merchants brought the birds to England by way of Spain and North Africa. People associated the new delicacy with the Ottoman Empire, particularly with the Turkish people.
  • Myth: Benjamin Franklin suggested the turkey as a national symbol or part of the Great Seal for America.
    • Fact: In 1784, Benjamin Franklin did praise the turkey. He wrote that compared to the bald eagle, the turkey is “a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America.” But he never actually proposed the turkey as a symbol for America.
  • Myth: Turkeys are just big chickens.
    • Fact: More than 45 million years of evolution separates the two species. However, both are more closely related to dinosaurs than most modern birds!
  • Myth: Turkeys are so dumb, they’ll stare at the sky during a storm and drown in the rain.
    • Fact: Some turkeys have a unique genetic condition called tetanic torticollar spasms. This condition can result in some strange behaviors, like staring at the sky. No turkeys with this condition have been reported dying from looking up in the rain.
  • Myth: Turkey is high in tryptophan. Eating turkey makes you sleepy.
    • Fact: Turkey is just one of many foods that contain tryptophan. In order to feel the effects, you’d need to eat nearly 8 pounds of turkey in one sitting.

Bottom Line: When you think turkey, think beyond the supermarket.

GOING BANANAS

Bananas: feeding toddlers and entertaining onlookers!

Commercially available bananas are far from my favorite fruit: too soft, too sweet. I may well be in the minority here. In the U.S., they outsell oranges and apples combined.

Just look at the numbers!

Bananas are one of the most consumed and cheapest fruits worldwide: they are the most traded fruit and the fifth most traded agricultural product. In 2022, the global export value of the banana trade totaled US$12.5 billion. Banana growers exported 19.6 billion metric tonnes of bananas (with the exception of plantains) in 2022. Cavendish bananas alone had a retail value of approximately US$ 25.74 in 2022. They are the fourth most important crop in the world, behind wheat, rice, and corn.

Red bananas in Thailand

The U.S. imports bananas primarily from Guatemala, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Columbia, and Honduras. Chiquita-Fyffes, Del Monte, Dole, Grupo Noboa S.A. own or subcontract the majority of banana plantations around the world. According to World Top Exports, “The biggest 5 exporters of bananas (Ecuador, Philippines, Guatemala, Costa Rica then the Netherlands) accounted for three-fifths (60%) of all banana sales on international markets.”

Many banana growing countries don’t export them; banana growers sell them for domestic consumption.

A Brief History of Bananas

Wild bananas have lots of hard seeds.

But what are we talking about, really? Botanically, a banana is a berry that grows on several kinds of large herbaceous flowering plants in the genus Musa. These plants look like trees but are actually giant herbs. The Latin name for banana, musa sapientum, translates to “fruit of the wise men.”

Food historians believe the first wild bananas grew in jungles in regions of Asia such as the Philippines and Indonesia. Researchers have found domestication projects of the fruit in Southeast Asia and the South Pacific. Based on archaeological evidence, the cultivation of bananas in the highlands of New Guinea dates back as far as 8000 BCE.

Alexander the Great first discovered the taste of bananas while campaigning in India in 327 BCE. Islamic conquerors brought the banana back to Palestine in 650, and Arab merchants eventually spread them around Africa.

Portuguese sailors brought bananas from West Africa, introducing them to the Americas in the 16th century. Its Guinean (Wolof) name was banema, which later became banana in English. From Guinea, we also get the word guineo for an unripe banana.

Merchants introduced bananas to North America in the 1880s. Fashionable people ate them with a knife and fork.

Gros Michel banana plants affected by banana wilt (1919)

What we eat in the U.S. today is almost exclusively the dessert banana Cavendish. Prior to the 1950s, the Gros Michel variety dominated the US market. However, a combination of fungal plagues, particularly Panama disease, wiped out nearly all of the Gros Michel plantations.

Artificial banana flavoring actually tastes like a Gros Michel banana (or an English pear, depending on who you ask). When you eat banana flavored candy, you’re getting a taste of the past!

The Cavendish banana variety is now under threat from the same disease that struck its predecessor. Panama disease has evolved into a new strain (Tropical Race 4), which can resist many of the quarantine and anti-fungal measures of farmers. Since researchers first identified Tropical Race 4 in Australia in 1997, they have traced its spread across Oceania, South-East Asia, and the Middle East. In 2021, the Peruvian government declared a phytosanitary emergency for the whole country after detecting the new strain of Panama disease. (Researchers think Panama disease actually originates in South-East Asia, not Panama or anywhere in South America.)

And then there’s banana ketchup. During World War II, ketchup producers in the Philippines faced a shortage of tomatoes but had plenty of bananas on hand. Maria Orosa, a Filipino chemist and food scientist, created banana ketchup to solve both problems. She made a paste of bananas, vinegar, sugar, and spices, and added red food coloring. People who have tried it claim it tastes just like the ketchup you’d find in any fast food restaurant in America.

But How Much Do You Really Know About This Fruit?

One might think that a banana is a banana, but there are between 500 to 1000 different varieties of bananas growing around the world, subdivided into 50 groups. Some are sweet, like the Cavendish banana, which is the most common and most widely exported. In many countries, people differentiate between bananas (sweet and eaten as a snack or dessert) and plantains (starchy and used in cooking).

Banana Varieties

Cultivated bananas reproduce asexually. Each plant basically grows as a clone of its elder, starting from suckers or pups growing out of its base. The lack of variety and adaptation leads to extreme vulnerability, such as from Panama disease.

Banana Tree in Vietnam

Due to their need for a warm, tropical climate, bananas can not grow easily in most of the United States. Many farmers in Hawaii grow some of the lesser well-known varieties of banana, such as Blue Java bananas, which purportedly taste like vanilla ice cream. Small groves of banana trees grow throughout the American south, in Florida yards and along Louisiana highways.

Banana bunches grow pointing up. Growers call these bunches “hands.” Each hand typically has about 20 “fingers”.

In 2001, a banana cluster took the title of the “largest bunch of bananas.” It held 473 individual bananas or “fingers” and weighed a whopping 287 lbs (130 kg). Kabana SA and Tecorone SL grew the bunch in the Canary Islands.

Consider health benefits in particular. Bananas are nutritious. They have approximately 89 calories per 100 grams (3.5 oz). Bananas are most known for their potassium content but also contain B vitamins, vitamin C, magnesium, and fiber. These support heart health and digestive health. According to research, eating bananas can lower the risk of strokes and heart attacks. Foods that are high in potassium might stop fatal blockages from occurring and can also inhibit the hardening and narrowing of arteries.

Banana cart in Vietnam

Bananas contain serotonin, a natural substance that alleviates depression and balances other moods. This form of serotonin cannot cross the blood-brain barrier, so bananas don’t act as a kind of natural antidepressant. However, a banana’s high concentration of vitamin B6 can help the body to produce its own serotonin naturally. This chemical also contributes to an overall well-balanced feeling amongst consumers.

If you have a bug bite, the inside of a banana peel can relieve itching. The natural oils found in the banana skin contains a chemical that helps alleviate irritation from mosquito bites and poison ivy.

Fun Facts

Banana leaves make versatile, biodegradable, and very handy packaging!

If bananas are too green to eat, put them in a paper bag with an apple or tomato. The banana’s ripening will speed up overnight. These helpers release more ethylene than others. This is the chemical that helps fruits ripen over time.

For the same reason, don’t keep fresh flowers on a counter or table next to bananas. The released ethylene will make the flowers wilt more quickly.

In 2016, police in Mumbai forced a thief to eat 48 bananas so that they could retrieve the gold chain he stole and swallowed.

Authorities in China have banned seductively eating a banana during a live stream, as of 2016. This is to keep under-aged women from attracting older male audiences. The Chinese government deems such acts harmful to social morality. Wearing suspenders on a live stream is also illegal.

Jordan Maddocks set a record for running the fastest marathon while dressed as a fruit in 2020. He ran the Rock n’ Roll Arizona Marathon in 2 hours and 41 minutes.

APOPO trains African giant pouched rats to identify landmines and tuberculosis, often by rewarding these HeroRATS with bananas, one of their favorite foods.

Banana fruits are naturally radioactive! This radioactivity is present in fruits containing potassium and potassium decays. You could die of banana radiation poisoning if you were able to eat 10 million bananas at once. You might experience chronic symptoms if you were to eat 274 bananas every day for 7 years. What are the chances?

The Guinness Book of World Records recognized Patrick Bertoletti as the man who could eat the most bananas in one minute. He peeled and ate eight bananas on the 14th of January in 2012 at Sierra Studios, Illinois, USA. In 2015, Pedro Aguilar from Mexico City, Mexico matched the record on July 26, 2015. You can do the math!

If a child hands you a banana, you are legally obligated to hold it to your ear and answer it like a phone.

Fifty percent of people who are allergic to latex are allergic to bananas as well. The term for this phenomenon is latex-food syndrome or latex-fruit allergy. While few people are born with allergy, it can be developed later on in life.

Bananas can float on water. They have relatively low density and multiple air pockets. Similar fruits such as watermelons, oranges, and apples are also naturally buoyant.

Bananas are approximately 75% water, which seems like a lot. By comparison, cucumbers or radishes have 96% and 95% water respectively.

A team at Kitasato University in Minato, Japan won the 2014 Ig Nobel Prize in Physics for calculating precisely how slippery a banana peel is. As it turns out, it is all down to the polysaccharide molecules in the peel, a substance also found in our joints. When crushed, the cells in a banana peel release these polysaccharide molecules as a gel, coating whatever surface they touch.

The International Banana Museum in Mecca, California

Rubbing the inside of banana peels on leather products like handbags or shoes works like shoe polish. The potassium in bananas, just like the potassium in leather polish, conditions and shines leather. Just rub the banana peel on the surface needing a polish and wipe off any residue with a cloth.

The use of “bananas” or “going bananas” to mean insanity may stem from flapper slang in the 1920s. The Routledge Dictionary of Modern American Slang and Unconventional English traces this use back to the late 1910s, when flappers used “banana oil” to mean “nonsense.” Alternatively, a glossary of criminal slang from 1935, The Underworld Speaks, noted that “bananas” meant “sexually perverted.”

The Coat of Arms of Fiji, featuring bananas on the lower right

A monkey peels a banana upside down compared to our method: they pinch the nub at the floral end and split the skin to peel it down toward the stem. The most nutrient-dense part of a banana is opposite the stem, the part that would be pointed up when a banana was growing on the tree. Peeling a banana from this end allows the monkey (or you) to reach the best part of the banana first. People who peel a banana from the floral top are also slightly less likely to contaminate the fruit with bacteria from the stem. Hungry monkeys will sometimes just eat the whole banana, peel and all!

Humans share about 41% of our DNA with bananas.

Banana leaves have nearly as many uses as the fruits. When cooked, they have many nutritious benefits. People use them as a building material or for rain protection. They can be formed into biodegradable cooking or eating utensils. Weavers can process fibers from banana leaves and stems into rope and fabric.

The Dark Side of Bananas

I don’t like to write downer blogs, but be aware. There is evidence of price fixing on bananas, keeping them at 79 cent a pound. This is possible because of the concentration of banana plantations and export under the control of just a few companies. The cost savings to consumers means that those actually growing and harvesting the fruit often live on subsistence earnings.

Bottom Line: Bananas are popular and convenient and more complicated than you probably knew.

Market in Huế, Vietnam

TRASH PANDAS, A.K.A. RACCOONS

Fluffy bandits a.k.a. trash pandas a.k.a Pyroton lotor a.k.a raccoons are infamous for raiding garbage cans, even those with weighted lids. They are reputed to eat almost anything.

They look like cute, cuddly bandits, but they can be quite fearsome when approached. (More about that later.)

What Do Raccoons Eat

They also ate every single seed and the entire suet cake out of the bird feeders in my backyard.

Raccoons are truly omnivorous, and in the wild they eat about 40% invertebrates, 33% plants, and 27% vertebrates.

More specifically, when it comes to meat, raccoons eat more invertebrates than vertebrates. Some of the raccoon’s favorites are frogs, fish, crayfish, insects, rodents and bird eggs. Their voracious appetites allows raccoons to help control the populations of some pests, like yellow jackets and mice. When food is scarce (or they’re feeling lazy), raccoons will scavenge human trash or eat roadkill.

For plants, they like cherries, apples, acorns, persimmons, berries, peaches, citrus fruits, plums, wild grapes, figs, watermelons, beech nuts, corn, and walnuts. And they raid bird feeders whether food is scarce or not!

In more urban environments, raccoons will eat pretty much anything.

In fact, urban raccoons suffer some of the same consequences as humans when they share the unhealthy parts of human diets. Their access to drive-thru dumpsters and grocery store bins provide raccoons with plenty of fried, sweetened, and highly processed foods. A research team in Canada has found that raccoons in urban areas have higher blood glucose levels and higher weight than those living in wildlife preserves.

Raccoons in Cultural History

Long before Europeans came to North America, raccoons played a vital role in the lives of Indigenous people who already lived here. Our names for these animals today reflects this history. The English name “raccoon” comes from the Powhatan word aroughcun, meaning “hand-scratcher.” Further south, the Nahuatl/Aztec word mapachtli led to the modern Spanish word “mapache” or “one that takes everything in its hands.”

Several tribes, including Muskogee Cree (Wahlakalgi or Wotkalgi), the Shawnee (Sha-pä-ta’), Chippewa (Esiban), the Monominee (Aehsepan), and the Chickasaw (Shawi’ Iksa’) have Raccoon clans.

In many mythologies, Raccoon played the part of a trickster spirit, spreading mischief or using cleverness to escape danger. The Abenaki told stories of how the raccoon Azeban tricked other animals into giving him food or lost a shouting match with a waterfall. A Menominee story of a raccoon tricking blind men served as a morality tale for children. A Seneca legend of raccoons disguised as humans illustrated their intelligence escaping from an evil magician.

Raccoons in the Cooking Pot

from the 1975 edition of The Joy of Cooking by Irma Rombauer

In addition to starring in many American stories, raccoons have also starred in the American diet! Until the middle of the 20th century, people commonly trapped and ate raccoon along with many other small game animals that adapted to survive near humans.

Raccoons require very clever traps to outwit their nimble paws. According to historian Michael Twitty, enslaved people from West Africa adapted traps they had used for grasscutters, a West African bush rodent, to catch raccoons. Those traps were nearly identical to the traps Native Americans had been using to catch raccoons for centuries. The cooking methods both groups used for raccoon meat also greatly resembled West African culinary traditions.

In addition to providing people with a ready source of protein, hunting and trapping raccoons also helped to control the population of animals that would otherwise eat crops. Selling pelts also brought in some extra income. In some places, particularly in the North where raccoon fur is thicker, raccoon meat for the table was more of a byproduct of the practice of selling pelts. Mark Twain listed raccoon as one of the foods he missed most while traveling in Europe in the 1870s.

At one point, discerning consumers could find raccoon meat on the menu from cookbooks in Colorado to fancy restaurants in Maine. The spread of factory farming in the 20th century made beef, chicken, and pork more affordable and more popular in the American diet. There are some places where you can still find raccoon in the kitchen. I hear the best meat is in the hind-quarters.

Habitat (Natural and Otherwise)

Raccoons are very adaptable, living in a wide range of climates and habitats. They live quite happily in forests, marshes, prairies, and cities. Historically, raccoons ranged from Central America all the way up to what is now southern Canada. They typically make their dens in trees or caves, though they will also make homes in barns, abandoned vehicles, and other human-made locations.

A waschbaer in Albertshausen Germany

Raccoons have made themselves right at home in Germany, much to the dismay of German homeowners and wildlife control. Back in the early 20th century, a few people in German started raising raccoons for their fur. Bombs struck one of these farms during World War II, releasing dozens of raccoons into the surrounding countryside. In 1934, forestry officials released several pairs of raccoons into the wild in an attempt to increase wildlife diversity. Today, there are as many as a million of these waschbären (“washing bears”) in Germany, devastating local bird and turtle populations, destroying vineyards, and causing traffic accidents. German raccoons seem to be especially attracted to stealing beer, wine, and hard cider, getting noticeably drunk at festivals or breaking into kitchens and targeting beer.

Germany isn’t the only place in Europe where raccoons are making a nuisance of themselves. A similar story of fur farms and war has caused an invasion of raton laveur (“little washing rats”) in France. Authorities in Madrid called for a raccoon culling in 2013 “to control and eradicate this unwelcome invasive species” that has made itself unwelcome in Spain. Scotland lists raccoons as one of the top 50 invasive, non-native species. The European Union has classified Pyroton lotor, the North American raccoon as an invasive species and banned their sale and import.

Though they look similar and share many of the same habits and dietary preferences, North American raccoons and Japanese raccoon dogs (tanuki) are not related.

In 1977, the anime Araiguma Rasukaru, telling the story of a man who adopted a pet raccoon, became a massive hit in Japan. Fans of Rascal the Raccoon began importing at least 1,500 raccoons a month to Japan. After realizing that raccoons don’t make good pets, many people then released them into the wild. The descendents of those raccoons today have spread to 42 of the 47 prefectures in Japan. They destroy crops, damage historic shrines, spread disease, and steal from fish and produce vendors. North American raccoons have begun to displace native Japanese “raccoon” dogs, tanuki.

Cohabitation with Humans

Though raccoons are more than happy to live in human areas, they can be vicious when defending themselves or their kits. But generally, even if people try to scare them off with noise or lights, raccoons are bold and simply back off to return later.

Humans should be particularly cautious of approaching raccoons in North America because they are common carriers of rabies, roundworms, and leptospirosis, according to The Humane Society. Having a raccoon as a pet is not recommended, even if you’re the President.

Grace Coolidge with Rebecca the raccoon at the 1927 White House Easter Egg Roll

In 1926, Vinnie Joyce in Mississippi sent a raccoon to the White House, promising the Coolidges that it had “a toothsome flavor” and would make a wonderful Thanksgiving dinner. Rather than eating the furry gift, Calvin and Grace Coolidge named the raccoon Rebecca, gave her an embroidered collar, and invited her to participate in the White House Easter Egg Roll. At the end of Coolidge’s presidency, Rebecca went to live in Rock Creek Park in Maryland.

Physiognomy

Raccoons are round, fuzzy creatures with bushy tails and a black fur mask around their eye area. They are about as big as small dogs, about 23 to 37 inches and 4 to 23 lbs., according to National Geographic.

They are adaptable and use their dexterous front paws and long fingers much like human hands to climb and manipulate things. These front paws are hyper-sensitive, particularly when wet. Raccoons in the wild use this extreme sensitivity to search for food underwater from the banks of streams.

Even in captivity, raccoons will often rub their food underwater before eating it. Scientists believe that, rather than washing their food, raccoons are softening the vibrissae on their paws, allowing them to feel their food more carefully to ensure it is safe.

With their clever paws and intelligent brains, raccoons can open locks, figure out traps, solve puzzles, and get into almost anything containing food. In studies, raccoons successfully opened complex locks 11 out of 13 times and then remembered the solutions when presented with the same locks later.

Raccoons live around 2 to 3 years in the wild, though raccoons in captivity can sometimes live as long as 20 years. But they are always with us.

Rocket is not actually a raccoon. He is a cybernetically-enhanced alien species from a planet in the Keystone Quadrant. Unlike Earth raccoons, he has opposable thumbs!

Baby raccoons are called kits or cubs and are usually born in the early summer. Females have one to seven offspring and are only pregnant for 2-2.5 months. A mother and her baby raccoons are called a nursery.

At birth, raccoon kits are blind and deaf. For the first two months of their lives, babies live in their den and nurse from their mothers. At 12 weeks, they will start to roam away from their mothers for whole nights at a time. They become completely independent at 8 to 12 months of age.

Coonpath Road is near the town where I grew up. The implication that coons follow a circuit or path is accurate. They are active from dusk to dawn, and when they raid my bird feeder, it is near the same time every night.

Bottom Line: Raccoons are fascinating creatures, but best observed from a distance.