History Lesson, Part II — Pokeweed Ink

A couple of months ago, my son and I had great fun making Pokeweed Ink from the pretty but toxic Pokeweed plant. We made the ink and let it ferment in a dark cabinet and then promptly forgot about it.

pokeweedinkd09-13-10.jpgBut making the ink proved to be fortuitous, as recently my son was given a Social Studies research project at school — of all the colonies, he ended up with Pennsylvania, the state in which both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were written. The rumors around the Internet were that these documents were written in Pokeweed Ink. (Edit: These proved to be inaccurate, however — thanks to Dana R., we know from the National Archives that iron gall ink was actually used. Iron gall ink was the ink of choice for many, many centuries — I’m going to have to experiment again!)

pokeweedinka11-28-10.jpgMy son’s been working hard on his report and presentation on the Pennsylvania colony, and we remembered that we had that bottle of pokeweed ink, which luckily was still in good shape — apparently it fermented well (in fact, it smelled like either really old grape juice or very, very cheap wine). Whether a historically accurate ink or not, he could use it to create a document of his own.

pokeweedinkb11-28-10.jpgSo today we had fun practicing calligraphy with both modern pens and with pen nibs dipped in the pokeweed ink. It’s a lot harder than it looks, using a nib dipped in ink — a modern calligraphy pen is so much easier, alas. But it’s not as cool as using ink the old-fashioned way! However, for this particular project, we realized that doing any fancy writing wasn’t really going to work, so my son stuck with cursive writing.

pokeweedinkc11-28-10.jpgMy son prepared a sample Declaration for his presentation. He also took the bottle of ink with him to school. Science, history, art, fun!


What’s pretty neat, too, is that as the ink dries, the color darkens from the reddish look in the “Pokeweed Ink” text above to the darker in shown in the writing in the corner. Nifty, nifty! 

An Autumn Hike Through Walnut Creek Park

We regularly join up with friends of ours to take a weekend hike with our wolf pack (five dogs between us) and all our kids (as of this week, five kids between us — congrats, Stepan and Jen and family on your new baby!). Last weekend, a few days before baby came, we ventured to our very favorite Walnut Creek Park, a 300-acre wooded habitat in north Austin. A mockingbird greeted us along the way.

mockingbirdb11-14-10.jpgNot only is Walnut Creek Park beautiful in all seasons, it’s a leash-free zone, which means that all our dogs except our obnoxious husky get to run free (the husky gets to hike but must be attached to a human at all times). It’s also a great place for beginning to advanced mountain bikers, being covered in a maze of criss-crossing trails and creeks. In fact, there are so many trails that it’s easy to get somewhat lost if you are new to the park. Fortunately, there are usually plenty of visitors to point you in the direction you need to go.

walnutcreekd11-14-10.jpgOh, and it’s a great place to break your arm, as two of the four people in my family have done, along with countless mountain bikers at the park, I’m sure. At least there’s a hospital close by, if you do manage to get hurt.  🙂

Right now, it’s autumn at its finest at Walnut Creek.


All around, the leaves of Red Oaks and other decidious trees are turning red among the evergreens.

I’ll admit that I was a bit slower than usual on the hike — there were a lot of other natural beauties that I just had to capture a picture of.

Along one trail, the branches of dead snags poked out among younger Ashe Junipers and created an ominous effect. I so wanted a group of vultures to fly down and let me take their picture.


Agaritas could be found among the understory plants. This sharp-leaved shrub offers protection to young fauna, earning it the nickname, “Babysitter Bush.”

The beautiful blue berries of the evergreen Ashe Juniper made a striking color combination with Red Oak leaves. The berries are a favorite of local birds.


I also love the exfoliated bark of old Ashe Juniper trees, as do birds for their nests (me, I just enjoy cool-looking bark). For more information on the wildlife value of Ashe Junipers, please enjoy a read of my most recent post at Beautiful Wildlife Garden.

The spiny Prickly Pear had a soft green look against the autumn foliage.


And the petal-less remains of spent flowers made dried-flower bouquets along pathways.


All around the woods, Flameleaf Sumac was changing from green to red foliage.


Its bright-red fall foliage proves that Flameleaf Sumac is very aptly named.


Will this be the year I give in and plant Flameleaf Sumac? I’ve been hesitant in the past, because I know it can make a thicket — but maybe it will be the key to preventing my neighbors’ nandinas and chinaberries from taking hold in my yard again. Plus the sumac berries are high in Vitamin C — might be worth a try! You know, I think I just convinced myself… if I can find it available at a local nursery.


flamesumacd11-14-10.jpgThe hollies were showing off their red berries, Yaupons and Possumhaws alike.


If there’s a downside to the park, other than the breaking of arms, it’s that there’s quite a lot of poison ivy around — vines and bushes alike. There unfortunately is also a serious invasion of invasives, such as evergreen Ligustrums, all the more noticeable in the fall. I tried to do my best to ignore them on our hike, but I pretty much failed, as they were everywhere. I’ll take poison ivy over Ligustrums any day, as long as I don’t have to roll in it. 


And here’s one of our favorite areas of all — Walnut Creek itself. We call this particular spot along the creek “Broken Arm Crossing” because it’s where I broke my arm on one fateful dog walk. I hold the area no ill grudge, as it is such great gathering spot for water-loving doggies. The other spot in the park where my husband broke his arm during a bike ride is now nicknamed “Michael’s Folly,” or “Michael’s Fall-ee.”


My oldest son was particularly fond of the colorful moss along a section of the creek.


I don’t know what the name of these next plants are, but the seedheads made a gorgeous scene along a few prairie paths.


They might look soft, but don’t be fooled.


 And one of my favorites, Wafer Ash (Hop Tree) is in full seed mode, as well.

waferash11-14-10.jpgI looked everywhere on the Wafer Ash trees for Giant Swallowtail caterpillars, but alas not a bird poop-looking cat was to be found.

Oh well, it was a wonderful hike all the same. One can’t always find bird poop caterpillars, you know.

5,000 Gallons of Rainwater

It’s been a very busy but exciting week at school. Our big 5,000-gallon rain tank was installed!


It will collect water off our big metal roof, and the water will be used to support our wildlife habitat.

raintankb11-17-10.jpgI was giddy, to say the least — this project has been in the works for several months now, and it was so rewarding to finally get to the big day. And lots of kids got to watch the process. I have to say that it was very cool to see that tank in the sky.


There’s still some landscaping and painting and whatnot to do, but the tank itself is completely installed. Now we just need rain!

Emergency Bug Hunt


bughunta11-14-10.jpgA thousand times ewwww…

bughuntb11-14-10.jpgWhen you discover swarms of bugs in your garden and you need helpers to go after them, what better way to inspire a bunch of boys to go on the hunt than to offer video games of choice to the winner. Good thing we had a sleepover last night!

bughuntd11-14-10.jpgCups of soapy water in hand, the five of us lined up for a fall pest-bug version of an Easter Egg hunt.

bughunte11-14-10.jpgThe bugs were everywhere, and apparently many of my plants have been suffering, including Turk’s Cap, Passionflower, Salvias, and more.

bughuntk11-14-10.jpgEntomologist Mike Quinn helped me out with the ID on the black bugs and the long bug with the orange outline. They are Largus bugs (Largus succinctus) in the Bordered Plant Bug family, in the same suborder as the Box Elder — the black bugs are the instars. And there’s a Brown Stink Bug in the mix. Good to finally know what these bugs are. Thank you very much, Mike! Reading more about them, they are not considered major pests, but the numbers in my garden are out of control, and the plants are clearly affected — so no guilt about the bug hunt here.

Look, a bug snow globe!

bughuntc11-14-10.jpgSometimes we were tricked by dark berries that looked like the pest bugs, like these berries on the Firebush and the berries on the Texas Lantana.

bughunth11-14-10.jpgWhen we all got too cold, we came inside to count our Easter eggs, I mean bugs. First we poured them into a paper-towel lined collander. Yum!

bughunti11-14-10.jpgAnd then counted them up.

bughuntg11-14-10.jpgAll in all, I think we caught some 200 bugs. We’ll do a round again later when it warms up. We were all winners and everyone got to play video games (well, except me, who got to do a blog post instead — yay!).

FYI, that chrysalis I intended to move after my last post is still in its precarious spot on the backdoor frame. I’m guarding it from the dogs, but I need some peace and quiet around here in order to perform such a delicate transplant!

Nectar of the Gods

This post is dedicated to my father in honor of his birthday tomorrow, November 13 — he thought this plant was just as beautiful as I did when we were in Mexico last year for my sister’s wedding. Sure, it might be weird to dedicate a post about a plant called Exotic Love to one’s father, but whatever. Happy Birthday, Daddy!

exoticlovevinea11-12-10.jpgThe Exotic Love Vine (Ipomoea lobata) is proving to be the most vibrant and heavy bloomer in my fall garden — just when I think it can’t possibly get any better, it does.

exoticlovevineb11-12-10.jpgNative to Central America and South America, this vine grows like crazy with nary a bloom until fall, when it explodes with eye-popping stalks of cascading red, yellow, and white blooms.

exoticlovevinec11-12-10.jpgThis vine is also Firecracker Vine and Spanish Flag with good reason, but I seem to prefer calling it “Exotic Luvvvvv Vine.” I’ve also had the theme song to “Love Boat” stuck in my head while creating this post, with my own version, “Love Vine.” Sing it with me now, The Love Vine… promises something for everyone…. (I’m happy to report that I did not actually know all of the original lyrics… just, uh, most of them.)

exoticloveviner11-12-10.jpgWhat is thrilling me right now is that the lower blooms have opened up, creating little cups that I like to imagine are filled with the nectar of the gods.

exoticlovevineg11-12-10.jpgFrom dawn to dusk, there are bees all over, seeking the sweet liquid provided by the nectaries.

exoticlovevineq11-12-10.jpgI haven’t seen this many happy honeybees since I was growing cantaloupe, when they were all abuzz for the pollen. Now it’s a sugar frenzy. Somewhere nearby, there must be a hive with some really yummy honey in production.

exoticlovevinei11-12-10.jpgWhen the blooms are spent, they dangle like little lanterns.


The bees, of course, take advantage and lap up the sweet liquid.


exoticlovevinek11-12-10.jpgWasps are other eager drinkers, and they’ve been playing nice with the honeybees. I just wish that the blooms had come earlier in the season so that I could have seen hummingbirds at the flowers, too.

exoticlovevinep11-12-10.jpgSeeds are in production, and I plan to collect them and share with my local gardening buddies. I hope to grow this lovely vine year after year after year…

exoticlovevinel11-12-10.jpgThis year, the vines decorated an obelisk-type trellis and made a rather impressive shrub-like shape, hiding the trellis deep within.

exoticlovevinen11-12-10.jpgBecause the vines had reached the top of the obelisk, they wrapped around one another, creating a nifty rope.

exoticlovevinem11-12-10.jpgNext year, I’m thinking it will be fun to see how tall the vines can grow — wouldn’t it look pretty as a blooming wall of the house?

In other news, I have a really cool chrysalis hanging in a very terrible spot — the middle of my back door’s door frame. I’ve got an idea of the species, but if I don’t move the chrysalis, my high-maintenance husky is likely to destroy it in one of his endeavors to scratch his way into the house if he’s been outside too long. Tune in for the next post when I document my first-ever “Chrysalis Movin’ and Gluin’.” Unless the husky gets there first…

Happiness Is a Smiling Dragonfly

Ohhhhhh, I’m a zombie. Two days of hard physical labor, and one mortared limestone-block retaining wall later, my friend Richard and I hobbled to our respective homes, sore and broken. We built the wall, along with my husband’s help on Sunday, in preparation for the pending arrival of a 5,000-gallon rain tank at my son’s school. We also built and mortared two benches for the school’s butterfly-hummingbird garden. The results are wonderful, but we’re paying the price physically.


Today is the first day I’ve been able to think and move again. It seems like ages since I visited my own garden, camera in hand. But this morning I ventured out, and I was pleased to see a friendly face.


This little dragonfly smiled at me while it rested on the spent blooms of a Mexican sage. I can’t tell you what kind of dragonfly it is, other than a very sweet little flyer that warmed my heart as it warmed its wings.


Thanks for the smile, little dragonfly. I sure needed it!

Elsewhere in the garden, the frogs were busy doing happy frog things in the pond, and though I’m seeing fewer butterflies as fall progress, I was still happy to see fluttering skippers, fritillaries, Queens, and Monarchs this morning. I even found a large Giant Swallowtail caterpillar on my hop tree, about to go to chrysalis stage.

And this little guy — one of many all over my garden, the school garden, and Austin gardens everywhere — munched away on an Esperanza.

saltmarshcat11-10-10.jpgThis one is likely a Salt Marsh caterpillar, a type of Arctiid and as such commonly referred to as a Woolly Bear. I remember as a child seeing some of these caterpillars by the hundreds when I lived in Corpus Christi, and I remember as well that we kids looked out for one another, teaching our friends that you shouldn’t ever touch fuzzy caterpillars. In this particular caterpillar, the hairs have been known to irritate skin, even causing a rash.

I don’t see a smile on this caterpillar’s face, but it still gave me a warm and fuzzy greeting, all the same.  🙂

Nice to be back in the garden!  🙂

How Much Do You Love Dirt?

Would you rub your face in it?

mudshowa10-31-10.jpgOr would you swan dive into it?

mudshowb10-31-10.jpgAnd then do this?

Is this where the saying “dirty old man” comes from?

mudshowc10-31-10.jpgTechnically these guys are enjoying dirt and water… a.k.a. MUD. They are the Sturdy Beggars of the Mud Show at the Texas Renaissance Festival. A classic show, and always entertaining.

But I realized that I’ve really become a gardening geek when I found myself thinking — “that mud just doesn’t look good for plants. Needs more compost.” I even found myself drawn to the artificial flowers they stuck in the mud, wanting to decorate with more real flowers.

Geek. That’s me. On the other hand, I don’t rub my face in mud.

How about this 12-foot tall Walking Tree Man?


The honeycomb and bird’s nest are a nice touch.