Monday, July 30, 2012

Huitlacoche: Corn Smut

Big scale farming has made huge efforts to do away with corn fungal infections.  They of course have very good reasons for doing this being parasitic fungi can devastate a crop.  Today, there are a number of corn varieties that are resistant to fungal infections.  Native Americans and even some Mexican farmers today, however viewed corn fungal infections much differently.  For these people, corn fungal infections are are a good thing and even encouraged.  Why?  Well, they view corn mushrooms as a delicacy.  Historically, certain varieties of corn were actually bred so they would be easily infected with the fungus.  Some Native Americans even scratch and infect corn purposely to produce the mushrooms.  I have grown many different varieties of corn over the years and old heirloom Native American varieties almost always are far more susceptible to to fungal infections than any other type of corn.  Both modern and pioneer hybrids and heirloom varieties are far less susceptible to fungal infections.  This is simply because of selective breeding.  Native Americans selectively bred varieties that favored infection while pioneers and modern farmers selectively breed corn so it won't be infected.

This corn fungus, or mushroom, is more commonly called corn smut.  In Mexico it is commonly called Huitlachoche.  Corn smut spores are carried to corn plants through wind blown dust and rainfall.  For this reason, even a fields separated many miles from one another can infect each other.  Corn smut also infects plants best at temperatures above 80 or so degrees.  Being I have grown corn both in the Midwest and the Southwest I have observed corn smut infections to be much more prolific in the Southwest, presumable because it is so much hotter there.  I have also observed that corn smut infections are most prolific during the months of July and August in the Southwest, again presumably because of the higher temperatures.  Typically, the individual grains of corn become infected with the fungus.  Any part of the corn plant can become infected though, as long as a spore finds its way into damaged tissue.  Once damaged tissue is infected, the fungus grows and causes a tan-gray swelling of the area, also known as a mushroom.  This mushroom will eventually produce spores which can infect other parts of the corn or other corn plants.

Today, eating corn smut is not extremely common.  Corn smut typically is reserved for gourmet restaurant menu's where it is called either corn mushroom or huitlacoche.  It can occasionally be found canned in grocery stores.  It is actually quite expensive costing anywhere between 10 to 20 dollars a pound.  I have eaten fresh corn mushrooms a number of times.  When I ate it fresh, as in less than a day old, it was very good.  It had a sort of corn-mushroom-earthy flavor to it.  When I ate it after sitting in the refrigerator for several days it was quite gross and tasted like dirt. If you want to try corn mushroom yourself the easiest way to find it is probably by buying it canned.  If you are patient, you could also try to grow it yourself.  Corn mushrooms are safe to eat if cooked, but never eat a similar looking mushroom if found on a different plant.  For example, smuts that grow on wheat are extremely toxic.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Goat Man

The hiker, left, that came across "Goat Man" in the remote mountains of Utah.  Pictures the hiker took of the "Goat Man", center and right.
Below I have copied an article from the AP where a hiker came across a man dressed as a goat in the Utah wilderness.  The man was following a heard of mountain goats with this rather weird tactic.  I would really like to know from the actual "Goat Man" how effective his suit was at coming close to goats.  I would guess you could come a lot closer to the animals dressed as one of them, than if you dressed in camouflage and tried to sneak up to them.  Though humorous, this really is an interesting idea.  Native Americans used this tactic to sneak up on animals, so apparently it can be effective.  This might be a great way to study or watch wildlife up close.  It could also be very dangerous as the article describes.  

SALT LAKE CITY AP -- A man spotted dressed in a goat suit among a herd of wild goats in the mountains of northern Utah has wildlife officials worried he could be in danger as hunting season approaches.  Phil Douglass of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources said Friday the person is doing nothing illegal, but he worries the so-called "goat man" is unaware of the dangers.
"My very first concern is the person doesn't understand the risks," Douglass said. "Who's to say what could happen."
Douglass said a man hiking Sunday along Ben Lomond peak in the mountains above Ogden, about 40 miles north of Salt Lake City, spotted the person dressed like a goat among a herd of real goats. The person provided some blurry photographs to Douglass, who said they did not appear to have been altered.
Wildlife officials now just want to talk to the man so that he is aware of the dangers. There's no telling what his intentions are, Douglass said, but it is believed he could just be an extreme wildlife enthusiast.
"People do some pretty out there things in the name of enjoying wildlife. But I've never had a report like this," Douglass said. "There's a saying we have among biologists -- You don't go far enough, you don't get the data. You go too far, you don't go home. The same is true with some wildlife enthusiasts."
Douglass said 60 permits will be issued for goat hunting season in that area, which begins in September. He worries the goat man might be accidentally shot or could be attacked by a real goat.
"They may get agitated. They're territorial. They are, after all, wild animals," he said. "This person puts on a goat suit, he changes the game. But as long as he accepts responsibility, it's not illegal."
Douglass said wildlife officials received an anonymous call Thursday from an "agitated man" after the sighting was reported in local media. The caller simply said, "Leave goat man alone. He's done nothing wrong."
"I want people to enjoy Utah's wildlife. We live in a really neat place. We have wildlife all around us," Douglass said. "We just want people to be safe."
Coty Creighton, 33, spotted the goat man Sunday during his hike. He said he came across the herd, but noticed something odd about one goat that was trailing behind the rest.
"I thought maybe it was injured," Creighton said Friday. "It just looked odd."
He said he pulled out binoculars to get a closer look at the herd about 200 yards away and was shocked. The man appeared to be acting like a goat while wearing the crudely made costume, which had fake horns and a cloth mask with cut-out eye holes, Creighton said.
"I thought, 'What is this guy doing?' " Creighton said. "He was actually on his hands and knees. He was climbing over rocks and bushes and pretty rough terrain on a steep hillside."
Creighton said the man occasionally pulled up his mask, apparently trying to navigate the rocky terrain. The man then appeared to spot Creighton.
"He just stopped in his tracks and froze," he said.
Creighton moved down the mountain and hid behind a tree, then began snapping photographs.
The goat man then put his mask back on, Creighton said, got back down on his hands and knees and scurried to catch up with the herd.
"We were the only ones around for miles," Creighton said. "It was real creepy."

Monday, July 23, 2012

Summer Garden Plants for the Desert

Corn, a great late summer crop for the desert garden.
Here in the Sonoran Desert gardening is quite different from what typical temperate gardens.  The summer heat and sun intensity are so extreme most summer plants of the temperate region, such as cucumber and tomatoes, are easily scorched by the sun and killed.  It can be difficult growing some of these plants without shade.  Corn is another example of a crop that doesn't produce well in the summer.  The corn plant absolutely loves the heat and sun of the desert, and certain varieties can tolerate the dryness as well.   Oddly though, producing corn cobs with seed in them can be a huge problem in the summer though.  Heat and dryness can cause a major problem with pollination, preventing seeds from growing on a cob.  It is quite disappointing to plant corn in April, May, or June then to have it tassel and produce silks during the peak of the summer, only to produce cobs without hardly any seed on them.  The reason for this is that the dryness causes corn silks to dry-out before they can be pollinated.  Temperatures round 100 degrees or higher also kill corn pollen.  Both of these things always result in extremely poor corn production.

Despite this, corn is a great desert crop.  It does well with the heat, intense sun, and dryness.  To make it productive however, you just have to plant it at the right time of year.  The most productive times to plant corn are in early March so the corn is done pollinating before temperatures consistently break the 100 degree mark.  With the year round growing season a second crop of corn can be planted in late July, after the extreme heat of summer has passed and once the monsoon rains start.  If planted in this way to avoid pollination during the extreme heat of the summer corn can be extremely productive in the desert.  Even at the ideal times of year though corn production can be greatly helped by hand pollination.
Okra, another great desert summer crop.
Okra is another garden plant that seems to love everything about growing in a desert summer garden.  It doesn't need extreme amounts of water and it absolutely thrives in the extreme heat and intense sun.  In-fact, it seems the more sun and heat Okra can get the faster it grows and the more it produces.  If planted in March, Okra will begin producing in May and continue with harvests through the end of October.  During peak production, say June through September, okra will need to be harvested every other day or so.  The odd thing about okra is that if you don't harvest it, it will stop producing.  So the more often you pick the more it will produce.  Unfortunately, okra can be quite irritating to harvest with its prickles which sort of remind me of stinging nettles.  The prickles are probably worse for me than most people though being I am allergic to the plant and it can make my sinuses and eyes go crazy.
Armenian cucumbers, an unbelievable summer crop for the desert garden.
Armenian cucumbers are the last amazing summer garden crop I will mention here.  These are different from regular cucumbers and are actually a type of melon.  They taste somewhat like a cross between a cucumber and a melon without the sweetness.  As with okra, armenian's don't need huge amounts of water and they absolutely love the summer heat and sun.  The more they can get the better.  A single armenian cucumber plant can easily overtake a whole garden and produce tens of pounds more than any family could ever eat.  For some reason, some plants don't always do well in my experience.  But plants that become established can simply go crazy.  Their productivity is simply amazing.  If planted in May, they seem to do best July through September.

I have also found that certain varieties of summer and winter squash also do well through most of the summer.  Summer squash especially can be a great producer but generally need more water than the above mentioned crops.  Beans also, especially bush beans don't seem to mind the heat at all.  If anyone knows of other crops that grow well in the desert summer heat and sun I would love to know about it.

Friday, July 20, 2012

What Science Says About God

Its a pretty common debate these days, questioning the existence of God based off of scientific evidence.  Both sides are extremely passionate and dead set on their beliefs.  While this debate has been around for millenniums, with theists overall weighing in as the champions, in the mid-1800's Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection began tipping the scales in favor of atheism.  With the theory of evolution, the debate became even more heated and that heat promises to continue for many years into the future.  So I want to ask a question, what does science say about God?  Does it say God exists?  Or not?

To give you my take on this question, first I want to establish what science is.  Science, as we know it today is the (1) logical search for truth, (2) utilizing the measurable and predictable physical world or universe.  Without the existence of logic or truth science is a worthless endeavor.  I totally agree, logic and truth exist and are the foundation of all science.  If atheists and theists agree on any one thing it is this, and they passionately agree on this together.  Without logic or truth no one could prove, understand, or know anything.  You couldn't even know that you exist or not.  In this though lies what I see the first problem for science itself.  Science does not have the ability to prove the existence of truth and logic in itself.  Science is limited to studying only the measurable and predictable physical world.  Logic and truth are not physical or measurable, therefore science has nothing to say about them.  Rather science must assume they exist, relying on the field of philosophy to prove the existence of truth and logic.

This leads to the next issue.  Atheists and theists using science to claim that something non-physical, and therefore not measurable or predictable, does or does not exist have a fatally flawed argument.  The leap from science to philosophy is logically difficult if not impossible.  As mentioned in the previous paragraph, philosophy easily makes the leap into science.  Philosophy is all inclusive in nature, so it obviously must include science.  Science however, is limited only to the physical.  What does this say about Darwin's theory of evolution?  This very clearly says that evolution (science) is incapable of coming to a conclusion about the existence of non-physical beings such as God.  Conclusions about the existence of God therefore fall into the study of philosophy or theology rather than in the study of science.  Biologists that use evolution to disprove God are using faulty logic.  On the other hand, if we stick to the strict definition of science mentioned above, theists that use science to prove the existence of God are also using faulty logic.  In a pure sense, the physical cannot prove the non-physical.

Does this leave us with nothing?  Neither theists or atheists can prove their point using physical sciences. Science still can be used to study origins of the universe and organisms though.  To determine whether God exists or not we must rely on philosophy and theology.  So back to the same old, millenniums old debate on the existence of God.  Over two thousand years ago Plato's "Timaeus" used philosophy to prove the existence of God.  "Timaeus" claimed that the universe requires one eternal creator outside of the physical realm to make and start all time and physical objects off.  Realistically, the debate hasn't move much further than this in over two thousand years.  The debate of course has matured and become more refined, but its still pretty much the same.  Any claims of "new" philosophical or scientific findings help refine the debate, but haven't really moved the overall debate anywhere nearer to a conclusion.  Which is to say, the so called "New Atheism" which heavily utilizes science for its conclusions is nothing new.  In fact, when I have heard proponents of the "New Atheism" speak or have read their materials, I am astounded at the fact that they claim they have found something "new".  Actually, the "New Atheism" sounds pretty much like the "old atheism" of 100 years ago or so.  Same with "intelligent design", this is not a new scientific or philosophical finding, it has been around since the beginning of time.

This blog entry opens a whole can of worms and we have barely scratched the surface.  As you may be able to tell, I fall into the theist category.  It is not logically possible for anything to exist unless there was something outside of time and the physical to create it.  Logic and truth also require a creator.  Science, being dependent on logic and truth, is therefore dependent on a Creator of logic and truth.  Without a creator, we have no logic or truth and therefore no meaningful science.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Life of a Cactus Part 10: Nurse Plants

The pulp within a cactus fruit contains hundreds to thousands of seeds.  Unfortunately, very few of these seeds will ever germinate, and probably less than 0.1 percent of these seed will ever grow to mature plants.   Life is just too dangerous and for the seed and young plants.  The first problem a cactus seed faces is also a blessing.  The succulent flesh of a cactus fruit is like a magnet during the bitterly dry and hot summer.  Birds and animals gorge themselves on these fruits as a rich source of moisture and nutrients.  As they eat the fruit though, many, if not most of the seeds are also eaten.  This isn't such a bad thing, as long as the seeds are not crushed by chewing.  The seeds are especially adapted to remaining intact and passing directly through the digestive tract unharmed.  With most cactus fruit being brightly colored and located high on the plant, these fruits are especially enticing to birds, which may be the only organisms capable of reaching the fruits on taller cacti.  For example, the saguaro cactus holds its fruits tens of feet off of the ground, only allowing birds to access it.  Being birds do not chew food, instead swallowing it whole by the beak-full, most of the seeds can pass through the digestive tract unharmed and be deposited in their fecal matter.  Kind of a disgusting start to life but true never-the-less. 
Young Saguaro Cactus growing under the canopy of a Palo Verde.
Being birds of course frequently perch and sleep in shrubs and trees, most of their fecal matter, and therefore cactus seeds, will be deposited below.  This is the ideal environment for a cactus seed to germinate and grow in.  The shrub or tree provides shade which creates a slightly cooler and moister environment for the seed to germinate and grow in, something much needed in the desert.  The shrub or tree also provides cover and protection from predators which might eat recently germinated seeds.  Soil also is slightly more rich in these locations also.  This environment under the shrub or tree is termed a microenvironment and the plant that makes it is called a nurse plant.  Of course, the nurse plant is termed such because it helps, or nurses, young plants such as cacti to maturity in the microenvironment they create.  A microenvironment is a small area, such as under a tree canopy, that has slightly different conditions than the surrounding environment.  Within the Sonoran Desert Triangle-Leaf Bursage is the most important nurse plant.  Very few plants are able to grow without the nursing aid of a Bursage microenvironment.  This is sort of odd considering Bursage is such a small desert shrub, usually only reaching 20 or so inches in height.  Bursage is however one of the few plants capable of establishing itself without a nurse plant and is extremely abundant across the desert.  Other plants such as Palo Verde trees are well known nurse plants but not as important as Bursage.  This probably is because Palo Verde can't become established without a nurse plant and are not as common as Bursage.  Interestingly, the most common nurse plant for Palo Verde is also Triangle-Leaf Bursage. 

Friday, July 13, 2012

Monsoon Season and the Drought

Across the country we have been facing severe droughts, the severity of which have not been seen for over two decades.  Here in the Sonoran Desert we also have been experiencing a severe drought which has recently been relieved, at least temporarily, by the beginning of monsoon season rainfall.  Drought in the desert is sort of an odd thing.  In comparison with other regions drought is a constant pattern in deserts and actually makes a desert a desert.  What else would define a desert a part from lack of rainfall?   Every year most deserts will go through a period of time where no precipitation falls at all.  In the Sonoran Desert that almost always is late April through June.  The Mojave and Great Basin Deserts go almost all summer without any rain at all.  These differing rainfall patterns are actually part of the reason we have different types of desert.  While drought, or lack of moisture may constantly be a problem in the desert, some years are worse than others.  This year for example has been pretty extreme.  Late winter and early spring rains where next to nothing.  This meant higher temperatures due to the lower humidity causing things to dry out even more.  By the time early July hit the desert around Phoenix had only about half an inch of rain for the year!  This is way less than the typical three to four inches of rain received during the first six months of the year.  Fortunately, on July fourth we received a major rainfall which hopefully began to break this dry spell.  More rain fell on most of the desert than had fallen in the previous six months combined.

Normally, late winter and early spring rainfall helps sustain the desert until monsoon season.  This year however, the lack of rain has taken its toll on nature.  Normally, Palo Verde and Ironwood trees are able to maintain their leaves through June and July.  While it isn't that unusual for Palo Verdes to loose all their leaves it isn't typical in this part of the Sonoran Desert, but this year only a handful of trees held onto their leaves.  Ironwoods very rarely loose their leaves but this year the drought caused the majority of leaves to fall off of the trees.  This also resulted in extremely poor seed production.  The story is the same for nearly all the other plants in the desert also.  As a direct result, many desert birds and animals will also be harmed by the lack of food productivity as well as the lack of water.  Earlier this year I noted extremely poor Wolfberry production which likely had a negative effect on birds.

On July fourth however, three quarters to one inch of rain fell breaking this trend.  Since then we have had two other rainfall adding up to at most half an inch.  This immediately relieved drought conditions, causing a rapid bounce back of the plants.  Within a week the Ironwoods had greened up and added leaves.  Palo Verdes also have sprouted leaves along with Wolfberries.  Cacti also have plumped up as they soak in the extra moisture.  Everything seems to have awaken with the rain, clouds, and slightly cooler temperatures.  So hopefully this early monsoon rain continues.  At least part of the reason for the lack of rain earlier this year was the presence of La Nina conditions in the Pacific Ocean.  In June however La Nina broke and we seem to be trending towards an El Nino to start up in the next several months.  Often this means greater rainfall during the winter months, but only time will tell.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Enteraining, Funny, and True: Where Our Food Comes From

For the past few weeks the "I'm Farming and I Grow It" video has been seen across the web.  So just in case you haven't seen it I'm posting it here.  This is a great video showing in a very entertaining way where our food comes from.  Way too often us suburbanites forget where our food comes from, or even don't really want to know where it comes from.  So this is a great reminder that food comes not from the store, but from the farm.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Where Did All the Saber-Tooth Tigers Go?

Actual picture I took of a Saber Tooth Tiger.  I found him right after I had a nice conversation with Bigfoot.  OK, just kidding.  But really, where did all the Saber Tooth Cats go???
Where did all the Saber-Tooth Tigers go?  And while we're at it, where did all the Wholly Mammoths, Giant Sloths, and other giant mammals of the Ice Age go?  That's a good question, one that no one really knows for sure, simply because there was no one around at the time to write down what happened.  There were people around at this time would have actually observed these extinctions, they just couldn't write at that time.  The odd thing is, when these extinctions were taking place people were moving into, and expanding rapidly across the North American continent.  The obvious explanation might be that these giant mammals went extinct because of all the people moving into the continent.  However, the people were also moving into the continent because of a recent warming in the climate.  So maybe the animals went extinct because of the change in climate.  There are several explanations for these extinctions which scientists have hotly debated for decades.  Lets take a look at a few of the more prominent ones.

The most widely known explanation for the extinction of large mammals at the end of the Ice Age is over hunting by humans who recently colonized the continent.  This is a very simple explanation, humans, new to the continent simply hunted the large mammals until there where no more.  The problem with this hypothesis is that the human population was probably not dense enough to exert such a huge hunting pressure.

A second explanation is the climate change at the end of the Ice Age.  Warming caused a change in the available food for all animals.  This caused starvation of large herbivorous mammals, therefore causing the predators to starve also.

A third explanation is that when humans invaded the continent, they altered the ecosystem so that it could no longer support many large mammals.  Of course hunting played a role in this, but also as humans consumed plants, and used fire to alter the ecosystem.  As humans ate certain plants, animals had to change their food sources.  As humans burned areas with fire, say changing a forest into a grassland, only certain animals could survive.  Basically, humans altered the ecosystem in ways that changed food chains, causing some animals to die off and others to thrive.

A fourth explanation is the most complex.  It is that all three of the above played a role in the extinction of large Ice Age mammals.  Through a combination of a warming climate changing food sources for animals, hunting by humans, and human alteration of ecosystems by use of fire and harvesting of plants and animals, large mammals went extinct.  This seems to be the latest consensus of the scientific community.  Different species of animals would have gone extinct as a result of different factors.  Some may have been hunted to extinction, others died as their food source changed, and others died as their ecosystem changed.

All this has huge implications for our world today.  Today again we are going though a change in the climate.  Plants and animals are having to adjust what they eat and where they live as the weather warms.  Humans also are changing the landscape in very drastic ways, also causing animals and plants to change where they live.  Basically, those that are able to survive and adapt to these changes will survive.  Those that can't will die off.

Oh-ya, there is another explanation for the Saber-Tooth Tiger that a few people support.  That is, that the Saber-Tooth Tiger is still living today, probably hidden away in some remote forest cave as a pet of Bigfoot or the Lock ness Monster.  Hmmm...
A man about to be eaten by a Saber Tooth Cat.  The man has no idea what's coming.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Home Food Production: A Profitable Recreation and Duty

The above advertisement from 1918 is quite surprising.  It can be a bit hard to read, so here is what it says:

"Even the smallest backyard has room for a flock large enough to supply the house with eggs.  The cost of maintaining such a flock is small.  Table and kitchen waste provide much of the feed for the hens.  They require little attention- only a few minutes a day.  An interested child, old enough to take a little responsibility, can care for a few fowls as well as a grown person.  Every back yard in the United States should contribute its share to a bumper crop of poultry and eggs in 1981." 

And my favorite part of the ad:

"In time of peace a profitable recreation.  In time of war a patriotic duty."

I personally have been involved in home food production, including keeping chickens in the backyard for many years.  It can save you hundreds, even a few thousand dollars if done properly and depending on the scale of your production.  Best of all though, it is extremely educational, interesting, relaxing, and healthy  It also has resulted in a lot of quality time spent with my children who love the dirt and chickens.  The benefits of growing your own food are immense.  Society today is not so advanced that growing your own food is an out-of-date ancient history, especially considering these benefits.  Think about it, watching TV in today's society is probably the most common pass time of Americans.  Television is also probably one of the least productive activities someone can engage in.  Gardening is quite the opposite extreme though.