(picture is nightshade)
By Bob Quarteroni
“Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.” Henry David Thoreau
He’s right. You can find endless, fascinating examples of the natural world in your own backyard, or front yard, or even growing out of the cracks of your sidewalks.
To illustrate this, a look at five examples of nature at our doorstep, all found around my house at New Sullivan Street in Swoyersville, showing that you don’t have to look far to find nature, you just have to look at what’s at your feet.
This ordinary looking weed taking over my sidewalk looks just like another unwanted guest to be pulled or zapped.
But looks can be deceiving. This is purslane, a gourmet delight.
Listen to the New York Times: “It’s not a summer icon like sweet corn, but you don’t have to wait for purslane, with its pleasant crunch and lemony tang. (It is) delicious, versatile, inexpensive and packed with nutrients like vitamin C and omega-3 fatty acids.”
And the Eat the Planet blog gushes, “The plant has many culinary uses, just about anything you can think of. It can be eaten raw or cooked. It can be put it salads, and sandwiches…. The taste is slightly savory and sour so it goes well with many dinner and lunch foods, like vegetables and meats.”
I have several mints in my yard – especially gill-over-the-ground which has essentially taken over the lawn despite my best efforts – but my favorite is heal all.
True to its name, heal all has been revered as a medicinal herb for centuries. it has been used for everything from minor cuts to internal bleeding, from treating diarrhea and high blood pressure to fevers, weaknesses of the heart and liver and even internal bleeding.
Today, a tea made from its leaves is used as a folk remedy to treat anxiety, depression and mood swings.
Scientific analysis has revealed that it has an antibacterial action and studies are being conducted to see if it could be used to treat diabetes, AIDS, and cancer.
No, this is not what it looks like.
What this frothy little mass is is a home for a bug – a true bug – named froghopper or spittlebug. Froghoppers are small, brown insects. Their larvae are more commonly seen coated in a mass of froth – referred to as cuckoo spit – on plant stems, as this one in my yard. This froth protects the larva from predators as it feeds on young leaves and shoots, and it also stops it from drying out and it does little damage to the plant.
But when the bugs emerge, they are, according to National Geographic News, the “World’s Greatest Leaper.”
‘It has more jumping prowess than fleas, out hops the springiest grasshoppers, and clears the high bar more quickly than bush crickets…It is a mere 0.2 inches long but employs a novel catapult mechanism to launch itself upwards of 28 inches into the air,” the News said.
When you find out that a plant draped over your fence was used in England to counterattack witchcraft, it makes it a lot more interesting.
Although not the same plant as the legendary and highly toxic deadly nightshade or belladonna, bittersweet nightshade is somewhat poisonous and has caused the death of pets and livestock and, though more rarely, sickness and even death in children who have eaten the berries which, along with the leaves, contain the toxin solanine.
But as for that bittersweet name, the Poison Garden website begs to differ.
“On the two occasions I have chewed, but not swallowed, a single berry, I found the bitterness to be extreme…. I am led to speculate that anyone who succeeds in being poisoned…must have had some impairment of the sense of taste.”
To live here is to know – far too intimately -– garlic mustard, which is relentless in advancing and taking over large swaths of land.
That’s because garlic mustard releases compounds from its roots which prevent the growth of grass, herbs and seedlings. Utilizing this tactic, it has been reported as advancing 20 feet a year in some spots.
It was introduced here by Europeans for food in New York in 1868. It was originally used as a vegetable because of its high concentrations of vitamin A and C. It lends a garlicky flavor to food and its juice has antiseptic properties.
However, “Its crushingly negative impact on native plants and native forest ecosystems renders these very minimal uses quite trivial and unimportant,” according to the Penn State Kensington Virtual Nature Trail page.