Man, a lot has been going on lately! No, I’m not talking about pandemics, protests and all that.
I’m talking about burn-pile gardens, a poke salat bonanza, a rare swallow-tailed kite outside Magnolia, and the bizarre world of caterpillar parasites.
We humans tend to think all the drama centers around us. But there’s a lot more going on than what we see on the TV news, especially in the world of nature.
Here are some recent headlines from the great outdoors:
Gardens grow in Burn Piles
Last year I had a couple of food plots cleared up, which left me with a pair of brush piles. I finally got around to torching them this spring.
When the fire subsided, I was left with heaps of dirt amid a maze of charred logs and sticks.
Sensing the potential, I rounded up some butternut and cushaw squash seeds, waded in and planted them in every available patch of dirt. Then I left them alone.
Those particular types of squash run like crazy, too much so for a conventional garden. They’re hardy enough to choke out most weeds. And deer tend to leave them alone — a perfect burn-pile garden, and an emergency food supply down in the woods.
I plan to add pumpkin seeds soon, by the way.
A burn pile is naturally fertile, consisting of topsoil and ash. Mine are near a creek, so the dirt is even better.
And as a bonus, poke salat plants sprouted all around the piles in unbelievable quantities.
Poke salat futures up
I ate poke salat once, back in the day when I would eat almost any wild plant or animal. It’s one of those edible plants that’s poisonous if not prepared properly, so I haven’t bothered to take advantage of it since then — but you can bet I will if times get hard.
You pick the leaves in the spring when they’re young and tender, cut them up like any green and boil them two or three times, pouring off the water, before cooking them to eat.
If you want to try it, look up a good source like “Foxfire 2.” The Foxfire books have all kinds of pioneer methods and recipes. “Foxfire 2” features boiled poke greens, fried poke greens, fried poke stalks, poke soup, poke pickles, even poke wine.
All I tried was the boiled greens. I have no specific memory of the taste other than it was about like any other green, getting most of its flavor from seasoning and pork.
Just because something is poisonous if not prepared properly doesn’t mean it’s not good to eat. Cassava is a major food source in the tropics yet comes from the manioc root and likewise must be fixed just so to get the toxins out. I ate some cassava in Haiti and it was excellent.
The sago palm, a staple in parts of New Guinea and other tropical regions, must be pounded and rinsed repeatedly before it’s edible.
Both cassava and sago are used in tapioca pudding, which is delicious. I have some in my refrigerator right now.
Swallow-tailed kite spotted
Kay Williams called to say she and her husband Mike saw a swallow-tailed kite at their home 2 miles east of Magnolia.
The swallow-tailed kite is a dramatic-looking black and white bird with a 41⁄2-foot wingspan and sharply forked tail. It’s distinct from the Mississippi kite, which has a blunt tail and is more common hereabouts.
Swallow-tailed kites are common in southeast Mississippi, especially the Pascagoula River basin. But they’ve been cropping up around here in recent years. A couple years ago I saw three near the Pike County courthouse in Magnolia. I’ve also seen them on the Homochitto River.
The birds are migratory and fly up from South America. And they’re stunning.
“It’s beautiful,” Kay said Tuesday. “It’s so pretty.”
She’s also been hearing bobwhite quail this year, another delight.
“We have blueberry bushes,” she said. “We watched one this morning about 15 minutes eating blueberries off the ground.”
Wasp Larvae Vs. Hornworm
The other day Angelyn took a picture of a green caterpillar with a bunch of little white tubes attached to it. I told her they looked like some sort of parasites.
I sent the photo to my old Amite County friend Dr. Mac Alford, a botanist at University of Southern Mississippi. He agreed with me but ran it by another scientist to be sure.
“Many caterpillars are hosts to parasites (or parasitoids), and these in the image look like their cocoons to me,” said Mac, who sent me a link from the Galveston County, Texas, Master Gardeners website.
In this case, Braconid wasps lay their eggs under hornworms’ skin.
“As the eggs hatch, the larvae feed on the hornworm’s viscera, literally eating a hornworm alive. Larvae chew their way out through the host’s skin when they mature,” the website says.
“Once outside, the future wasps pupate, spinning tiny oval cocoons that look like insect eggs along the external back and sides of the worm. ... When the adult wasps emerge from the cocoons, the already weakened hornworm will soon die, thus preventing any further defoliation on tomato plants.”
Mac pointed out that the wasp larvae have their own microscopic parasites.
I guess even nature has its share of bad news.