Monday, May 29, 2023

Bleeding Heart

As a little girl I was fascinated by a plant that grew in my grandmothers garden, each spring it would be covered in perfect, delicate pink hearts. I could not fathom how such a plant could grow hearts. My grandmother explained to me it was called the Bleeding Heart, and that particular plant came from her own mothers garden, and before that from her grandmothers garden. I could tell this plant was extra special in my grandmother, and her love of what it represented to her was displayed for all to see in those perfect hearts. Nearly thirty years ago, after moving to the farm, my grandmother gifted me a start off of the bleeding heart her family had so lovingly passed from one generation to the next. It is still my absolute favorite plant growing in my gardens. I lost my grandmother a few years ago, but a part of her lives on through those enchanting blooms.

There are several species of bleeding hearts, one variety is native to the United States, but the variety mentioned here is native to China, Korea and Siberia and was later well established in Japan. As early as 1810 this unique plant made its way into Europe, by the then famous Scottish botanist Robert Fortune. It was subsequently lost, until it was brought back in 1846 by the Royal Horticulture Society on exploratory trips East. The unique shape, color and foliage of the plant earned it favor among royalty and commoners alike and was soon planted all over Europe. As more and more people immigrated from Europe and Asia into the newly developing colony states and later the United States, they brought with them many of the plants they so loved in their home countries. Bleeding hearts among them.

The bleeding heart goes by many names, including lyre flower, lady-in-a-bath, and locks & keys. Each name in some way reflects the unique shape of the bloom. They were once included in the same genus as our native Dutchman’s breeches, and it is easy to see why. Both plants have blossoms that grow like pendants hanging in rows under delicate stems. However, scientists now classify them in another family of plants, that includes the poppies. The delicate flower is shaped like our most famous symbol of love, hearts, and varies in color from pink to deep fuchsia. These slightly puffy blooms resemble tiny lanterns with two white inner petals and a stamen peeking out underneath. These inner petals appear to be dripping from the lantern. They have a delicate sweet scent and are showy in any spring garden. They prefer shade to partial shade but will tolerate sun in cooler climates. 

Homeopathic healers recognize the medicinal value of the bleeding heart and often create remedies to treat coughing, dizziness, and skin disorders. May also be used as stimulants or diuretics. However, this plant is considered toxic to humans as well as pets, like dogs and should not be consumed in any way, as it contains isoquinoline alkaloids and may cause trembling, convulsions, diarrhea, and vomiting as well as breathing issues. Even handling the plant should only be done while wearing gloves as the secretions of the plant may cause skin irritations. Leave the home remedies up to the experts.

Several legends surround this spectacular plant, one of which originates in China where it is said a Jade maiden named Si Jun, who was originally a minor deity and considered virtuous as well as beautiful. Si Jun lived in ancient times, in a beautiful valley between the mountains. She was kind, faithful, wise, and had numerous suitors. However, the loyal Si Jun – her name translates as ‘the one thinking of her lord’ – refused all of them. She had her secret love, a beautiful and handsome young man. Her beloved was a soldier, encamped far from her and forbidden to communicate with his love and send her answers in letters. The faithful and patient Si Jun waited for his return. While waiting, she would dedicate herself to embroidery. Once a month, she would embroider a purse she dedicated to her lover. The embroidered purse would hang on the branch of a peony tree by her window. Her embroidery was so beautiful and real, that it tricked bees and butterflies. The bees and butterflies would try to pollinate the artificial motifs on the purse, and it continued for so long that the peony tree gave new, heart-shaped flowers. The gods made it into a new plant, the one Chinese legend refers to as the ’purse peony’. The story of Si Jun inspired a custom of giving this plant as a precious love promise or even a proposal of marriage since the flower has a shape like a bridal purse. The symbolism of the ’purse peony’ in China is similar to that of red roses in European culture. 

Another legend begins in Japan where it is said a noble prince was smitten with a selfish, but beautiful princess. He tried in vain to win her love, he frequently brought her extravagant gifts from his worldly travels. Yet she took no notice of him. Returning from a long journey, bearing with him special gifts, he felt sure would win her heart. First, he gave her two magical pink bunnies (peel off the outer two petals and set them on their side to reveal little bunnies). The princess only sighed, not impressed. The prince did not lose hope and presented her with a beautiful pair of enchanted earrings (remove the two long white petals and hold them to your ear). She happily accepted the gift, but declared she could not love him. Still unable to give up hope he made her a gift of slippers from delicate silk (inner two petals). The princess barely took notice and again declared she could never love him. Defeated and forlorn, the prince had no choice but to give up. He rose up and pulled a dagger from his sheath and stabbed himself in the heart (remaining in the flower is a heart shape with a stamen that appears as a dark green line down the center, hold the heart up and carefully remove the dagger-like line and plunge it though the heart). The princess was overcome by the devotion of the young prince and his unending love for her. She then realized too late that she loved him too. “Alas” she cried out “I have done a wrong, my own heart is broken also, I shall bleed for my prince ever more. Her heart bleeds to this day.
It is said that the bleeding heart plant appeared for the first time at the place where this love smitten man died of a broken heart and self-inflicted wounds.


Try pressing the heart-shaped blossoms between the pages of a book to dry. They will become perfectly shaped paper-thin hearts, any valentine or loved one would cherish in a message of love. The bleeding heart, favored by royalty, steeped in legend both beautiful and tragic is a beautiful addition to any shade garden.

Monday, May 22, 2023

Horse Chestnut

Receiving phone calls or emails from readers with questions or suggestions for topics to write about is one of my favorite aspects of writing. It encourages me to learn new things, and as my grandfather used to say to me “no day is complete unless you have learned something new.” Recently I heard from Don W. in Fillmore, MO. He wanted to know if I was familiar with the Horse-chestnut tree. I told him I was not, and after visiting with him I knew I needed to learn more about this tree. I was able to photograph the tree on his sons property and came to the conclusion it is a beautiful landscape tree.

Horse-chestnuts, also called the Conker tree or buckeye are native to the Balkans, including Greece, Yugoslavia, Turkey, Bulgaria, and Albania. Because of their beauty they quickly became popular worldwide and can now be found in all reaches of the globe. Typically, they grace parks, and tree-lined avenues, or botanical gardens. They are rarely found in the forests within their homeland. These are large trees that may reach heights up to 130 feet and produce beautiful panicles of white flowers tipped in yellow or pink that bloom in May. These panicles may be four to twelve inches tall and contain up to fifty flowers. From the panicle fruit develops, in the form of a fleshy, bumpy husk, with a warty appearance. 


"When the leaves fall in autumn, a perfect horseshoe shape, complete with seven "nail holes" is visible at the end of each stem."

Within each capsule a nut-like seed develops called a Conker. The common name of horse chestnut comes from the observation that these nuts may cure coughs or panting in horses. Which I find ironic for reasons I will mention later. It is also believed the name comes from their similarity in appearance to the sweet chestnut trees, like the American chestnut, Japanese chestnut, Chinese chestnut, and European chestnut. The Horse chestnut shares the same family of trees as the soapberry and maple trees. Whereas the sweet chestnuts are in the same family of trees as oaks and beech.

These trees are related to the buckeye tree, that we are all familiar with, which produces the attractive nut, said to bring good luck to anyone who carries one on their person. (I remember as a young girl being so excited when a fellow student would bring a handful of buckeyes into school to share. I still love finding or receiving buckeyes.) The nut of the horse chestnut is said to resemble the eyes of a deer; thus, the name buckeye became a colloquial name to describe the tree. 

The infamous American chestnut tree, native to the United States is now considered functionally extinct, meaning that while there are some estimated 430 million stems growing in forests throughout the Eastern United States, none of these stems are growing into the adult tree as they should. They are all less than one inch in diameter. Because they cannot reproduce or produce seeds, they are not contributing to the forest ecosystem in beneficial ways. The American chestnut is highly susceptible to chestnut blight, which creates a canker around the tree effectively girdling and strangling the tree. Older, larger trees will succumb to the blight in two to five years, whereas young, immature trees may die in a single season. Scientist are working on a biologically engineered variety of the American chestnut that is resistant to the blight. The end goal is to repopulate our forests with this iconic tree. American chestnut trees traditionally were prized for their timber and for the benefits to wildlife in the form of a food source in the consumption of the nuts. Even humans enjoy eating chestnuts, after all who hasn’t heard the popular Christmas song “Chestnuts roasting on an Open Fire?” They are not called sweet chestnuts for nothing. These tasty nuts are often baked or roasted after a curing period that turns the starches in the nut to sugars. Chestnuts are higher in vitamin C than most other nuts, lower in fat and contain more starch than a potato, which earned them the nick-name Potato Tree. Horse chestnuts on the other hand are considered toxic and non-edible. So how do we tell the difference between a sweet chestnut and the poisonous horse chestnut? The sweet varieties have a sharp spiny bur covering the nuts, and each nut will have a tassel or point at one end of the nut. Horse chestnuts lack this tassel or point, instead they are flattened in shape.


Horse chestnut seeds are reported to cause tremors and lack of coordination in horses. Remember I said I would explain how ironic it was that people fed the seeds to horses to cure coughing and panting. This might be a case of “the cure being worse than the cause.” The FDA has classified this tree as unsafe for consumption. We may not be able to eat these nuts, but we can benefit from them in other ways.

A suitable, inexpensive laundry soap can be made for those of us looking for less chemically ladened products. Simply peel, then grate or chop conkers and soak in warm water for a couple of hours. For a bar of soap put the conkers in a cheese cloth or piece of muslin then squeeze out the excess moisture before pressing into a mold. Use the soaking water as a laundry liquid. For liquid soap blend around 20 soaked conkers in 6 liters of water. If you wanted you could add some essential oils.The resulting laundry or bath soap is reported to be gentle on your skin and even better its free!

Or perhaps, you could play a game of “conkers” named after the seed. This game is played by drilling a hole in one end of your nut (conker) and threading a string through it. Tie a knot and take turns swinging and striking the conker of your opponent. The first person whose conker breaks loses. This game was first recorded on the Isle of Wright in 1821 and grew in popularity throughout Europe and Ireland. By the 1940’s it was played on the street of New York and quickly became popular throughout the Eastern United States where it is still played in some areas today. The name conker translates to “knock-out” which would explain other variations of the game. Each player stands on one side of a wall and chucks conkers at his opponent trying to make bodily contact. This slightly more aggressive form of the game may have come from the word onomatopoeia. This long, complicated word, comes from the two Greek words onoma, meaning "name" and poiein “to make". So, in a literal sense, onomatopoeia means "to make a sound. Such as the sound of the conker seed striking something hard, like a skull! 

  If you don't mind being called a cheater, try aging your conker into something called a laggis. Conkers are left for a year to harden, and the result is the laggis, This almost always guarantees you will have the advantage needed to usurp your opponent. Want to speed up the hardening process? Soak or boil your conker in vinegar or try baking it in the oven. 


Some people claim the saponins within the seeds, can repel spiders. There does not seem to be any scientific proof this works, but saponins are toxic enough to most likely repel insects in areas where seeds fall and these toxins have permeated the ground. Just not sure how effective it would be to keep spiders at bay.

During WWI conker seeds were collected by many people , including children, and turned over to our government. These seeds were valued for their starch content which through a fermenting process could be used to produce acetone, which was then used to create cordate, that was used in the manufacturing of armaments. The conker seed was selected by the US government as a viable starch source. This choice was made to avoid starvation in an already struggling population, which they felt would happen if they used already low supplies of high starch food sources, such as potatoes. However, this particular nut proved to be a poor alternative to other starch rich foods and was abandoned after three months.That did not stop people from reprising this idea during WWII, when once again seeds were collected, and fermented, and cordite was created, and the whole thing was abandoned in short order. Some lessons are never learned, or perhaps these enterprising individuals thought they could succeed where their predecessors did not.

Fan of beer? Before the time of refrigeration, creative individuals in Bulgaria planted the horse chestnut tree near the cellars used for lagering beer. The trees shaded the cellars, and because of their shallow root system they did not damage the caverns within. Because beer was often served near the cellars, the term beer garden was coined and still used today. Although you probably will be enjoying said garden at the top of a high rise patio rather than an outdoor cellar. 

In Amsterdam a horse chestnut, which grew in the center of town was referred to as the Anne Frank tree. In her diaries she mentioned the tree which gave it historical value to the area. In 2010 the tree was blown down in storms, but from the loss came eleven saplings that made their way to the United States. After a lengthy quarantine period, those saplings were later planted in historically significant places, including the 9/11 memorial park and two holocaust centers, which is very fitting for these historically important trees.


Horse chestnuts may not have the culinary value of sweet chestnuts, but they certainly have a rich history and value all their own. They are beautiful landscape trees, and if you are feeling particularly adventuresome you could try your hand at a game of conkers. 


Monday, May 8, 2023


Trunks aren’t just for elephants, there is a unique insect in Missouri called a scorpionfly that has a schnoz any elephant would envy. This appendage contains the chewing mouthparts at the end of it, but why do they need such an exaggerated beak? Maybe it is a thing of beauty in the world of scorpionflies. These insects are not related to scorpions or flies at all, so their name is a bit of a misnomer, as they are in a family of insects all  their own. I personally think “elephantfly” would have been a more fitting name. Their name comes from the scorpion-like appendage at the tip of the male’s abdomen. Females lack this appendage, so the appendage is an accurate way to tell males from females. They cannot sting with their scorpion-like tail, nor do they bite, in fact they are completely harmless.

Maple callous borer
 Another insect encountered in the same area as the scorpionfly is the maple callous borer. It looks so similar to the scorpionfly, mistaken identity is common. 


There are fifty-five species of scorpionflies throughout the Eastern United States and Canada. Most have black patterned wings that are held back over their body. They have a short fluttery flight that rarely takes them more than a few feet away at a time, However, they are wary of disturbances, making them incredibly difficult to approach. 


The species pictured here is Panorpa nuptialis, they may reach lengths up to one inch or a little more. This particular species is found in South Central United States. They are found from central Missouri southward, and I photographed this one at Truman Lake State Park near the lake on some flowers.

They are omnivores and feed predominantly on insects, which makes them beneficial to humans. They will sometimes feed on pollen or nectar. There has been some indication that they will appear on human carcasses. While this is a deviation from their normal diet, if this option is available to them, they will take advantage of it. These insects may be useful for forensic scientists who investigate murders. As they are only known to appear during the first stages of decomposition. Therefore, the appearance of multiple scorpionflies feeding on a carcass, would indicate the body has not been deceased for very long. Forensic scientists have long used insects to help determine the closest approximate date of death to help investigators in solving crimes.

 Scorpionflies have an interesting mating ritual. 


Males will typically offer females a nuptial gift in the form of a juicy insect morsel. Males also emit a pheromone from their abdomen. Females are often drawn to the male by the powerful chemical cocktail that he produces or perhaps his gift is what entices her. Most human females appreciate a good smelling man bearing gifts, seems these female scorpionflies do as well. The scorpion-like tail of the male is used as a clasper for mating with females. In some instances, the males are living life on the edge in the mating game. If a female is not receptive to his advances, she may well make a meal of him. Hence the offering of an insect gift, keep her occupied with eating the “chocolates” he so lovingly brought her, and lessen his chances of losing his head in the process. Mating will occur as the female feeds on her tasty gift. Males will sometimes pose as females in order to "steal" the potential nuptial gift meant for an intended mate. This gives the male a leg up in the mating game. After all, stealing a gift meant for a potential mate, means the rival male has to work harder to replace his gift. 

Females lay their eggs in cracks or crevices in the soil. The larvae feed on dead soft-bodied insects. They will emerge as adults sometime in the fall and will be found from September through November. Look for them on low shrubs and ground cover in densely vegetated woodlands, often near water; grasslands; cultivated fields and forest borders. The adults are usually seen resting on leaves in shaded areas less than three feet from the ground. Adults may emit an offensive odor if disturbed. I personally have never smelled this obnoxious odor, but then again, I’ve never grabbed one. 

Spring is here, and along with the return of warm weather, will also be the return of all those insects. Many people groan at the thought, but I for one am excited at the new discoveries that await me. The diversity in the insect world is as limitless as your imagination.