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Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The perfect day


I went out in the yard today and exclaimed "oh wow" and turned around and almost ran inside to get my ultralight spinning rod and little box of lures. Seventy two perfect degrees, no humidity, after a long hot summer, these first perfect days of fall are breathtaking. Unfortunately there's also that nasty problem of making a living so I didn't have much time. So I headed straight for the bridge. Ten minutes from the house the Little Miami runs under an old bridge and is perfect for a short jaunt on the river. It was so nice I really didn't care if I caught a fish or not, so in the funny way things like that go I caught fish like crazy. After eight or ten fruitless casts with a small crankbait I switched to a smoke metalflake grub on an 1/8th ounce jig and it was game on. Fished slowly in the eddy under the bridge there would be a thump then the throb of a smallmouth on the line. This went on for an hour. A just reward for seizing the day I told myself and the kind of thing we hope for at the start of all those other trips that never quite pan out. Finally after catching a nice smallie pushing three pounds I sighed and headed back to that other world and work...

Monday, September 27, 2010

Bad Sci Fi


Last night while flipping thru the channels I was stopped by the intriguing title "Mandrake". Expecting some malcontent serial killer hermit that knew the woods well enough to poison his victims with plants I eagerly changed the channel. Instead Mandrake turned out to be some twisting turning vine that grabbed and penetrated people in places that would make Larry Flint blush. After a couple too many minutes of that, (another ten minutes of my life wasted that I'll never get back)I turned off the TV and looked up mandrake (mayapple is the more common name) in that great book, Edible Wild Plants by Elias and Dykeman, a now beat up and ragged little book, made that way from being thrown in my backpack on too many springtime walks. In typical clinical fashion the book states: "leaves and particularly the roots contain a resinous compound known as podophyllin that can cause violent cathartic reactions. Consumption of small quantities will produce severe gastric upset and vomiting. Death mat occur from larger quantities." Mayapple or mandrake is only in the book because the fruit, when ripe and yellow in summer, is edible, though when green the fruit like the rest of mayapple is poisonous. I've tried a bit of the fruit and must say it's not exactly like eating strawberries. The old timers called this aptly the "devil's apple".
What the book does fail to reveal is the great lore behind the plant, Indians used the plant in a variety of ways including ingesting large amounts as a suicide potion, though considering the above quote about "severe gastric upset" I could hardly recommend it as a peaceful way to go. Supposedly the Penobscot Indians used mayapple to cure warts and the Cherokee used a watered down potion of it to cure worms which does seem quite feasible. The roots were also used, crushed and added to water I'd imagine, by Indians as an insecticide on crops. Around 1820 a cream made from Mayapple was touted as a cure for venereal warts, something to keep in mind if your just too embarrassed to go to the doctor I guess. Mayapple was used as an ingredient for preparing laxatives and sold over the counter as a medicine known as ‘Carter’s Little Liver Pills”. I remember finding one of the old hand blown bottles embossed with Carter’s Little Liver Pills and a spiel on it's effectiveness in an old dump just upriver from the King's Powder Plant as a kid, I hear that bottle is worth quite a bit of money now, I wonder where it went? Mayapple or Mandrakes real claim to fame in the future may be as a treatment for cancer, already the plant is being used as a treatment for testicular cancer after chemotherapy has failed. Research is being conducted testing the plants use in treating a bunch of things from cancer to tumors and polyps to herpes.
Wild Mandrake or Mayapple spreads readily from it's rhizomes or roots and the one plant I brought home because it's such a pretty landscape plant has now formed a small colony in the shade of the backyard swing. In early summer patches of the umbrella-like leaves are a fixture in the woods here along the Little Miami, while in the fall the dying leaves turn bit by bit trying not to give up the ghost and sometimes take on a lovely though bittersweet aspect not unlike fall itself.


Saturday, September 25, 2010

Running Cedar

In my eye one of the most beautiful plants in the woods is running cedar. Running cedar makes a thick carpet as it spreads from it's rhizomes which spread out over the top of the forest floor under the leaf litter.


Running cedar has leaves that look like some kind of pine but its actually a kind of overgrown moss. I guess the average height is somewhere around six inches and most patches I've found in the woods range from the size of a room to seventy five feet across. This time of year tiny cones are sent up another few inches on threadlike stems that release a yellow dust of spores when you walk thru a patch. My boots end up coated a dusty yellow. This dust called lycopodium powder is extremelt flamable and was used by old time photographers in their flashbulbs. Next time your watching a western and see the old time photographer with the giant camera on the tripod and see the big pop and cloud of dusty smoke when his flash popped you will know what caused it. Lycopodium powder was also sold by magic supply stores under the name Flash Powder as a pinch thrown over a flame like a candle would create a mimi fireball in the air. Most colonies I've found seem to be at the base of moist hillsides in deep undisturbed woods which seem to add to the air of mystery and the feel that you have found a special hidden place.


Monday, September 20, 2010

This week in pictures...


Thursday, September 16, 2010

A rare little fish


This is a photo of a cool little fish that I took in a riffle on the Little Miami. It's called the variegate darter and is found nowhere else on earth but in rivers that flow into the Ohio River. Male darters stake out a rock in a riffle and defend that rock against other darters. In breeding season male variegate darters are the most colorful fish in the river and even blow away most salt water aquarium fish. Darters are very sensitive to pollution so they are an indicator of good water quality. All the tiny usually unseen fish like the variegate darter are one of the most important links in the food chain. Darter feed allmost exclusively on tiny insects and immature bugs like midge larvae and are in turn themselves fed upon by larger fish like smallmouth bass and channel cats.

Monday, September 13, 2010

This week in photos...

Spent this week trying to get a few last ginseng hunts in before the plants die down completely for the year but managed to snap a few pics along the way...










Friday, September 3, 2010

The oldest ginseng plant on earth...

this is the story of Renshen(chinese for man root)....

In the year 1781 the woods along the Little Miami River were a wonder. Here the steep hillsides cut by the melting of the last ice age were covered in a rich cove forest. A small unnamed creek spills from the flat woodland above the gorge of the river cascading in tiny foot high waterfalls down the hillside. Here under these mighty trees scattered among the bloodroot and goldenseal were yellowed leaves glowing in the fall sunshine. The yellow belonged to ginseng. Hundreds of plants ranging in age from just a year or two to close to a century dotted the rich slope of the cove.

Among the dried browns of the early fall woodland floor another yellow was present besides the golden ginseng. This yellow flitted along catching small insects. It was a small warbler feeding and fueling itself as it headed south during it's fall migration. A small green inchworm measured along the stem of a big four prong ginseng plant. The slight movement caught the eye of the warbler and in an instant it was at the base of the plant hopping and jumping at the little worm. Fluttering up catching the inchworm it dislodged some of the bright crimson berries barely holding on. A berry landed with a plop right at the small birds feet. Allmost without thinking the warbler gulped the seed down.

The next morning was cold and wet and windy. The lovely little bird spent the day resting and feeding nearby, taking a well deserved break from it's long journey. Late that evening the weather cleared and the sun came out. On a steep cliff small wasps gathered in the sunshine and drank from the wet soil of the cliff. The warbler flashed in catching a wasp and perched on a tiny rock outcropping devouring it's meal. Right before leaving it made a little room for the meal by depositing a dropping containing the ginseng seed on the steep cliffside.

Two days later another rain came washing the seed down the rocks into a small pocket in the rocks. There the seed sat all that winter and the next. The thick shell that protected the seed from being digested inside the bird meant that it took two years before the seed would sprout. Finally the next spring the seed sprouted and Renshen was born. A small plant Renshen was then just an inch or two high that year, looking like nothing more than a stray bean sprout from a salad. Renshen shared it's tiny pocket in the cliff with a small fern and some moss, there really wasn't room for more. Large trees hung out over the little cliff and the steep hillside shading Renshen. Alone on the cliff Renshen was safe from disease from nearby plants and safe from the digging of small animals. In its airy perch Renshen recieved even the slightest of breases even when the rest of the woods was still. This prevented any mold or fungus from bothering Renshen.

Slowly Renshen grew, the fern died of old age and rotted providing a tiny burst of compost into the tiny pocket. In 1793 Renshen was a small plant barely six inches high with two small prongs. In the rich woods thirty feet away a ginseng plant two years younger than Renshen was a hearty three prong a foot tall. That year Renshen produced two seeds that fell bouncing down the rock face to the forest floor below. In the year 1800 Renshen was still a small plant with a small root barely two inches long but finally a three prong while the big plant thirty feet away in the woods was dead. There Renshen sat barely growing at all, not even sprouting in 1808 during a very dry spring, just lying there dormant waiting.

In 1812 a mouse nested in a rotting log on the clifftop above Renshen. In july a grey fox smelled the strong scent of the mouse and began to dig at the rotten log. Small pieces of rotten wood began raining down the cliffside and several caught just right filling Renshens little hollow. That fall Renshen produced twenty seven seeds the most it would ever produce. The next spring Renshen turned thirty, each year marked by a tiny scar that built up one on top of the other as a little neck above the bulblike shape of the root. This was the first year the little neck of scars was longer than Renshens actual root. There were still older plants in the woods but not many. Though about a hundred yards away on another very steep spot grew several plants between fifty and a hundred years old.

There Renshen sat, year after year, decade after decade. In 1843 Renshen turned sixty and the woods rang for the first time with the loud whistle of a train down the hillside by the river. Renshen was then the oldest plant anywhere around as men had been for a while taking time off from the hard work of farming to spend an afternoon digging ginseng for some much needed extra money. Ginseng had been dug and traded with far a way china for over a centery even then.

Over the years the wooded hillsides around Renshen were selectively cut so that eventually even the trees in the forest were younger that Renshen. Protected in it's rocky perch, the hardy plant sat, not even sprouting in two hot springs right after the closest trees were cut. In 1883 Renshen turned a hundred and up along the neck of scars another tiny bulb of a root began to grow. In total with the three inches of neck and two root bulbs Renshen weighed allmost an ounce. That year a jack in the pulpit sprouted alongside Renshen in the crevice. The jack lived for a decade with Renshen on the cliffside before leaving Renshen alone again.

In 1983 the train whistle stopped as Renshen outlived even the railroad and the next year Renshen turned two hundred. Renshen was now the oldest ginseng plant in the world as the only ginseng plant older was bulldozed off a mountaintop in West Virginia in a coal mining operation.

It's now 2010 and Renshen lives on in it's rocky home, protected from man and beast and disease. Ginseng doesn't seem to die of old age, it takes something like a landslide or a man or a disease to kill one. Over ten inches of tiny age scars twist and contort in Renshens little pocket of soil. If Renshen was found and dug without being broken how much would it be worth? Old roots, ancient old roots over a century old have sold at auction with less than a dozen bringing hundreds of thousands. Renshen? The first million dollar ginseng root? Hopefully we never find out....

A three ounce fifty year old..