Monday, December 28, 2015

Science with a Store Card and a Supermarket Coupon (Nematode Whip and Nae Nae)

Because you never know when opportunity will strike...

The unusually warm weather of this December and the purchase of a home microscope have made me ambitious, scraping trees of moss and lichen, looking for tardigrades.  I first used the microscope kit's rather dull scalpel and a bill envelope to collect samples from the large oak on my property, as well as some off a pine in the woods nearby.  But when I took my daughter to Fargnoli Park December 26th (it was in the 50s), I realized I was potentially missing an opportunity.

I had travelled light, wearing only a sweater and cargo pants, none of my usual tools I stuff in my pockets on me.  Yet, here was an expired coupon I had been using as a bookmark in my Game of Thrones book and here on my key chain was one of several store cards that get scanned on my trips there.  I folded up the coupon to make a crude envelope as I walked passed several sycamore trees.   Gently I scraped the soft yellow-green lichen and pulled out an elusive piece of moss from inside the grooved bark of an enormous oak tree. 

The bit of moss was the 3rd one I tried for, after dropping the first two into oblivion.  I tucked the envelope into my right front pocket and my daughter and I continued our play on the swings and see-saw.  Back at home, I removed the folded paper and placed it on a book shelf.  Later, I used the lid of the petri dish (the base was already occupied with yard samples) to add bottled water for it to sit in overnight.  Tardigrades and many other microscopic animals are aquatic.

To best view my finds, I used the method recommended by Mike Shaw:

I took a lot of blurry photos with my cellphone shaking over the microscope viewer.  I will work on a better system.  But for now, I thought I'd share some of my findings:

Early photo of moss from ground.  No critters I could see.
Thought the white image in center was a tardigrade.
Adjusted focus and lighting and as it never moved,
decided it was part of the moss.

First images of moving creatures.
Have since identified as a rotifer.
Two creatures continue to move,
standing up and swaying.
One on right goes behind moss
briefly, then reappears.

Still not sure what I found.  Any answers out there?  Looking up rotifers now...

Edit: It WAS rotifers!!  Hoping to get better pictures next time.  Keep exploring!

More pictures and video below:

Base of seed from sycamore seed ball.

Something speedy...

Rotifer moving about petri dish.

Nematode doing the whip and nae nae:

Sunday, November 15, 2015

A Study in Scavenger Hunts

Something is afoot!  The leaves are falling, the year is winding down, yet the evidence is everywhere!  What clues can you look for that animals have been present?

My third grade students looked for these clues on an unseasonably warm day in November.  It had been raining earlier in the week.    The ground was covered with fallen leaves.  Previously hidden nests were revealed in the exposed branches.  Tracks filled the soft earth.

With pencils, clip boards, data sheets, and scat and track guides, we went exploring.  We looked in three locations: school garden, oak grove, and creek.  Would we find evidence of animal shelters, tracks, scat, eaten food?

What's under here?
Is this a home?
How about this?
Found something!

Who lives here?

What's that?!

Give me shelter!

Scat!  Deer scat!

Bark beetles set up their edible hotel.

"There's a feather in there!  Must be a bird's home!"

"Is that a home?" "No, my little brother made that."

Is this the key hole?

Mushrooms eat the wood.

Who ate this?  Squirrel or chipmunk?

We found leaves eaten by caterpillars earlier in the year.
Some thought they were worm holes.  We're always learning more!

We drew pictures of our finds and took notes.
What else did we learn and discover?

Conduct your own investigation with the resources found here.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Gluten-Free Stuffing and More!

Thanksgiving is coming!  I'll be doing a FREE workshop MONDAY on cooking with local ingredients, including TWO gluten-free stuffings!  Reduce your carbon footprint, save money, improve your health, save the world with these world-cuising recipes using New England-sourced ingredients.  There will be samples of pumpkin polenta, stuffed squash, apple parsnip soup, firecracker cabbage rolls, and Jamaican ginger apple carrot bread.  Plus, you get to try acorns!

Monday, October 26th
6 p.m.
Harmony Public Library
195 Putnam Pike, Harmony, RI 02829
(401) 949-2850

Monday, October 19, 2015

Free Food Workshop

World Cuisine with Local Ingredients:

Love to eat around the world?  Master Gardener, cook, and author Melissa Guillet will take you through four seasonal fall recipes featuring local ingredients.  Get a taste of Jamaica in a gingery bread, try the firecracker flavor of China, indulge in an Irish apple and parsnip soup, and rediscover pumpkin with Italian polenta.  Recipes will be available to take home.  Don't miss this unique event!

Monday, October 26th
6 p.m.
Harmony Public Library 
195 Putnam Pike, Harmony, RI 02829
(401) 949-2850

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

What's a Weevil? (Plus: How to Eat Acorns)

Er...What IS THIS on my house?  It's tiny.  It's weird.  It's got this snout and heart-shaped feet.  It is WEEVIL!!!!

What is a weevil?!!

Curculio glandium is a beetle with a long snout called a rostrum.  There are boll weevils, potato weevils, acorn weevils...  This is an acorn weevil, and in this mast year for acorns, it is very happy.  It will bore into acorn shells to feast, as well as lay eggs.  The eggs are laid after the female bores a hole into the acorn's center, then the nut heals over the hole.  By the time the acorn falls from the tree, the tiny larva is ready to bore its way out and dig as deep as a foot underground to live up to five years before pupating into an adult.  More info here and here.

Weevils aren't the only ones who eat acorns.  So dgray squirrels, blue jays, black bears, chipmunks, ruffed grouse, deer mice, and people.  I have two oaks in my yard and plan to harvest some of those acorns for some yummy pancakes and brown bread.  There are approximately 58 species of oak trees in the United States, with white and bur varieties producing the biggest acorns.  A single tree can yield over 29,000 acorns in a good year.  But acorns don't come ready to eat...

Acorns are high in tannins, which naturally occur in many plants, including grapes.  Tannins are bitter-tasting and too much will interfere with kidney function.  Red and black oak have the highest tannins, white oak the least.  Not coincidentally, red and black oak acorns take two years to sprout, thus storing well for animals, while white oaks sprout quickly and being sweeter, are quickly eaten up by animals fattening up before winter.  But all are edible with this process: water soaking.

The squirrels figured this out by burying acorns for later and letting the rains soak and resoak them.  By the time winter arrives, they are a lot more tasty!  Native Americans stored them in baskets they weighted down in rivers and streams, letting the current do its work over several weeks.  Today, we can boil the nuts and change out the water.  First, crack the shells with nutcrackers, discarding nuts with holes, rot, or visible larva.  Place in a large pot with clean water.  Bring to boil.  The tannins will turn the water black.  Drain the water and replace with fresh water.  Repeat boiling and draining until the water stays clear.  The acorns are now ready for roasting.  Roast in oven at 375 until aromatic.  They have a taste similar to hazelnuts.

Once roasted, they can be ground as flour, added to batters, or baked into bread.  Here's the recipe from my new cookbook, Around the World in 100 Miles:

Wild Option

Mercy Brown Bread
Taste of Old New England

Prep: 10 minutes Cook: 2 hours Makes 3 loaves

1 cup processed acorns (see page 134) or raw hazelnuts
1 cup buttermilk
1 cup plain yogurt
1/2 cup molasses
1 cup fresh cranberries
1 cup unbleached flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. cinnamon

Combine nuts and buttermilk and run through food processor to make a thick paste. Mix paste with yogurt and molasses. Stir in washed and picked over cranberries, removing stems and soft berries first. In a separate bowl, whisk together flours, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon. Gradually stir flour mixture into wet mixture. Grease three coffee cans and divide batter between them. Seal cans with foil and rubber bands.

Place cans in large stock pot with at least two inches of water. Cover and bring to gentle boil. Steam breads two hours, adding more water as necessary. Allow to cool before removing foil. Slice and serve.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Going to Seed

© Melissa Guillet

It's fall and that means the garden is winding down.  Plants prepare for the cooler weather.  Flowers, fruits, and pods release their seeds.  Fall fruits are entering their harvest time.  It's a great time to teach about seed dispersal, or how seeds "migrate".

There are five major ways seeds travel.  One of the funnest ones to observe is dispersal by wind.  Dandelions did this all summer and a dandelion gone to seed to spread its vitamin C-rich leaves and edible flowers is 15 Minute Field Trips' new symbol, sending environmental literacy and leadership into the world.  Now we can see milkweed pods split open to release flat brown seeds carried on fluffy strands.  The milkweed plant is critical to the survival of Monarch butterflies as it is the host plant for their eggs and larva.  (More about milkweed the plant here and its commercial uses here.)  Thistle also uses these silken hairs at this time.  Another method using wind includes the samara, or a seed with wing- or propeller-shaped papery tissues such as found on ash, elm, and maple.  The flat extension helps the seed journey further from the parent plant on the wind.

Another method plants use is travel by animals.  This takes diverse forms.  Acorns, for instance, are buried by squirrels for winter storage (where rains will eventually dilute the tannins that make them so bitter), and those that are forgotten or never collected begin their oaken lives.  Mistletoe, which as an epiphyte, needs a tree to grow on.  It developed a sticky coating on its seeds within the fruits that survives digestion so birds would be forced to rub their tail end on a branch to be free of the seed.  Many berries get dispersed by animals through digestion, the seeds left behind in their droppings.  Even ants carry seeds off, some of which will germinate underground.  Other seeds, such as beggars ticks and burdock stick to animal fur and pant legs with their pointy hooks and spines. 

A third method not likely to be seen in a school- or backyard is flotation, as it's seen in aquatic plants.  Coconuts, the largest seed, float to new shores, where the tides plant them.  Cattails and lotus also use this method.

Datura seeds and seed pod, [ Angel Trumpet, Loco Weed]:
Devil's Trumpet found on

An exciting method if you're luck enough to witness it is bursting or popping.  Seed pods such as peas, sweet peas, and lupines do this.  Devil's trumpet, angel trumpet, and jimson weed, of which we found many in the city compost, is a spiny pod that bursts to release small, black flat seeds.  A milkweed pod also bursts first before releasing wind-blown seeds.  Catalpa pods are fun to collect and if they haven't split, they make a great rattle.  Chestnuts are another burster.

Finally, some plants are dependent of humans to plant them.  While I often get squash and tomatoes growing from my compost, corn, beans, and many fruits have evolved through human selection and agriculture.

Fun images of seedpods: Pinterest

If you would like to learn about how to clean and save seeds, the RI Wild Plant Society is having a workshop September 20th, 10-2.  Register here

For a fun seed-sprouting activity for kids using socks, go here.

Also check out the Seed Mobility page on this website!

Friday, August 7, 2015


This is a partial reprint of a previous blog from my old site, but this activity continues to be fun the more I learn (and has taught me a lot on how to adjust the AV setting on my camera).  Where do gnomes live?  Why, in mushrooms, of course!  

Emetic russula

It's the new after-storm sport!  After a lot of rain – be it rain storm, tropical storm, or hurricane– come the mushrooms.  Make a family activity of it and bring your camera. Go in the back yard, in the woods or a field, and keep your gaze low to the ground.  (Mushrooms also grow on dead and dying trees, of course, but it's the ground-dwellers that appear out of nowhere that we look for now.  Call it "gnome-hunting" if you want.)  So grab a Peterson Field Guide to mushrooms if you've got one and get outside!

This activity serves three purposes: Time with the family (that doesn't require electricity aside from the batteries in your camera and flashlight), exercise, and learning to identify mushrooms.  Most mushrooms are poisonous and your first foray into their unknown world should be cautious and respectful.  Don't touch mushrooms with bare hands or taste them.  Wear long pants.  Bring insect repellent.  (Lavender and feverfew are natural insect repellents and can be rubbed on clothing and hair.  Never use insect repellent with deet on pets or small children.  Do not use feverfew or pyrethrin-containing products on cats.)  Take lots of pictures and note when (month) and where (log, ground, field, sun, shade, etc.) you found the mushroom.  Note stem and cap sizes, gills, spore color, or other distinctive characteristics.   Bring a flashlight if you're in a dark area.

I am by far NOT an expert in mushrooms, but I am starting to learn about edible ones.  Misidentification can lead to severe illness and death.  Do not eat wild mushrooms unless you have a positive identification from a trained guide (mycologist), the mushroom is not spoiled, and the mushroom has been cooked!  One Asian family, gathering mushrooms in the U.S. that looked like the edible ones from their homeland, all died.  Another family in Mexico bought wild mushrooms at a Farmer's Market that were misidentified and also died.  Alcohol intensifies the effects of toxins.  Then there's simple allergy.  I don't mean to scare people, but foraging of this sort should not be taken lightly.  For help with identification and symptoms of poisoning, check here.  It's fun just finding mushrooms and trying to identify them.

Here are some photos of specimens I found in Chepachet:

bracket fungus?

Not a fungus or mushroom, but a plant
that does not have chlorophyl called "Indian pipe".

Is this how a gnome flips his home?  Next to sassafras.


Curiouser and curiouser...
A bit stuck up?

russula again?