Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Caiophora chuquitensis

The Caiophora chuquitensis plant at UConn is starting to produce salmon-orange flowers, about 4 cm in diameter. The blooms are nice, if not as extravagant as the flowers on some other members of the family Loasaceae. The plant reached maturity at only a year old from seed, which leads me to suspect that, like some other plants in the family that I've tried to grow, it is naturally short lived. I'll give it some extra fertilizer and try to keep it going for as long as possible.

Closeup of Caiophora chuquitensis leaf, showing trichomes.

Apart from intricately beautiful flowers, the family Loasaceae is known for its wicked stinging hairs. I've brushed up against the Caiophora once or twice, and it's not as bad as a bee sting, but more painful than stinging nettle. As with stinging nettle, the trichomes in the Loasaceae sometimes have cell walls impregnated with silica (glass, more or less), which break on contact and act like a hypodermic needle to inject toxins.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Maple Sugaring Wrap up

This year's maple syrup harvest; from left to right: week1-2, week 3, week 4, Red Maple syrup from week 1-2.

The sugaring season is officially over; I did my final boil on Monday and pulled out the taps. The last batch was quite dark, with quite a lot of sugar sand (a silty, bitter-tasting precipitate that needs to be filtered out). The local commercial sugar shack, River's Edge Sugar House, shut down its operations this past weekend. They had a relatively short, low-productivity season too, but made enough syrup to make the effort worthwhile. Apparently, they have vacuum systems on the sap lines in some of their larger sugarbushes, which enable them to harvest decent quantities of sap even when the weather is less than ideal. Vacuum or no, the weather forecast for the next 10 days doesn't even predict any frost, and the tree buds are swelling, making any further sugaring impossible.

My experiment with tapping a Red Maple (Acer rubrum) was kind of a flop; I can see why people generally don't bother with them. Sap flows were low compared to the Sugar Maples, and just about stopped towards the end on February, two weeks before the Sugar Maples quit. The final results for the Red Maple boil were 12 cups of sap to 0.25 cups of syrup, or about 50:1 (Sugar Maples yield something closer to a 40:1 sap to syrup ratio, though some sap runs were a little more watery this year).

It's time to start thinking about this summer's outdoor, vaguely-self-sufficiency-related project: beekeeping. I've acquired and assembled most of the hardware, taken the Eastern Connecticut Beekeeper's Association bee class, and my girlfriend has a couple of packages of bees on order from Anarchy Apiaries. The bees should arrive in early May, and I'll have some updates then.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Signs of Spring

The weather the past few weeks has been pretty poor for sap flow (mostly too warm at night), and even the good days, with nights in the teens and sunny days with temperatures well above freezing, have produced mediocre sap runs. There has been nothing even approaching the one-gallon-per-tap days that were pretty frequent last year. I've gotten a few cups of maple syrup by boiling down what little the trees have produced, but it's going to be a crumby year for sugaring.

The Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) has been up and blooming for a while now, in low soggy places in the neighborhood woods. Symplocarpus is always the first native plant to show signs of activity in late winter; the inflorescences famously produce their own internal heat, and sometimes melt their way up through a fair amount of ice and snow. It's a member of the family Araceae, like the Titan Arum, another "warm-blooded" plant. This photo was taken on leap day, when we had a little slushy snow.