Almost a Normal Week, kind of sort of

Like most people, I have lost track of how long we have been living an altered life style. But last week I had what almost resembled what I would have considered a normal week at one point.  So I will recap it here as a reminder that, with adjustments and care, we can sort of move forward a bit.

Podolsky Prayer for Justice and Peace
Prayer for Justice and Peace, 2020, Mixed media on paper mounted on canvas, 3′ x 6′, Hickory Museum of Art Raise Your Voice Project

Monday – I installed my piece Prayer for Justice and Peace on the Raise Your Voice community mural at the Hickory Museum of Art.  The mural is a 75 foot long, 9 feet high piece of canvas installed in the museum’s main gallery. They invited people to submit their ideas on social justice. They graciously accepted my proposal but I choose to work on my section at home on a large sheet of paper (6 feet x 3 feet) and then mount it on the canvas when it was complete. So on Monday, I went to install my section.  It was a wonderful experience and I felt very safe the way they arranged for every person participating to be there at different times.  Of course I wore a mask as did the gallery manger. The other pieces installed were extremely powerful but museum policy is that I can only share my own work at this time. When the museum photographs the project, then I will be able to share their links. (Note – since this post was written a time lapsed version of Phase 2 of the mural installation is now available here)

Getting near the end of the tomato harvest this year

Tuesday – Tomato harvest day. At 6:45 a.m. I headed over to my friend’s “garden” which consists of 350 tomato plants and an odd assortment of okra, cucumber, and who knows what else that he decided to plant this year.  After all, he is cutting back (so he says). Now this is a man who spent his entire life farming.  He is now 92 and growing things is what keeps him going so his daughter and I talked him into planting a few tomato plants this year. Of course this was before we knew about a pandemic and our idea of a few plants was maybe 50 tomato plants and a few other odds and ends.  Well so much for plans. In his mind, what he planted is scaled back from whatever he did at another point in his life. Everything is relative.

Wednesday – I had a Zoom meeting with artist friends from the Plastic Club, an historic artist club from my old home town. We were going over the details of a program I will be presenting. I am still of the opinion that, on the whole, more good things are coming out of this goofy situation than bad things.  Lots of new ideas, ways of approaching things that I think will be useful when this is far behind us. But what is most interesting about this Zoom meeting is that not only have I connected with many people I have not seen in quite awhile but have managed to make new artist friends. Wonderful!

Thursday – not really memorable. I seem to recall being aggravated by something that I now cannot remember so that goes to show it was not worth being aggravated over to begin with. Note taken for future.

The great herbarium trade off
The Great Herbarium Exchange

Friday – I had an appointment to go to the herbarium where I volunteer in order to pick up work to bring home.  Right before everything shut down, the herbarium was given an enormous amount of collected plant specimens that needed mounting. Having the plants sit around waiting to be mounted is not a great thing so these arrangements were made. I was not allowed in the building so the staff brought everything out to my car. It was really wonderful to see “the gang” at the herbarium – Lenny, Stefanie, and Dr. Jim Matthews, who the herbarium is named after. The herbarium is one of my earliest social encounters in North Carolina and will always hold a dear place in my heart. I have posted other articles on collecting specimens that you may have read. The only mishap out of this was that the glue we use spilled on the floor of the back of my car. Oh well!

Saturday – we steamed cleaned the carpets. I am not fond of our carpets but since we live in an apartment I have little choice. After we had done the entire apartment we realized the plug was faulty. Of course, I still worried over this after-the-fact event. Anyway, the carpet is greatly improved and we have decided to hire someone in the future.

Sunday – Today we had an earthquake.  Like I said, it was almost a normal week.

Observation is better than your smart phone

Solanum carolinense (a.k.a. Carolina Horse Nettle)

When I used to walk around my old neighborhood looking for sidewalk weeds, one that I came upon often was Carolina Horse Nettle (Solanum carolinense) and Eastern Black Nightshade (Solanum ptycanthum). These plants, though pretty, are considered nasty weeds by many gardeners and home owners. Adding aid to that general consensus are the facts that they are also prickly to touch and poisonous.  Anyway, I always thought they were very pretty flowers and spent a great deal of time studying the flower’s star shape and how the color of the stamens and pistils contrasted nicely with the petals and how they protruded added more interest to the overall flower shape.


Fast forward a few years and I found myself working as a farm hand in North Carolina helping to farm, mainly, tomatoes.  When you tend to approximately 2,000 tomato plants you kind of get familiar with them.  One day I noticed that the flowers of the tomato plants had a very familiar look.


Tomato plant

I saw the same star shape as the nightshades plants mentioned above and the same type of protrusion of the stamens and pistils.  Because there were several waste fields around where I farmed, it was not difficult to pluck and few flowers from each plant and compare them up close to one another.   When I went home, I looked in my field guides and learned that Tomatoes are also in the genus Solanum.  As the summer went on and I watched some of the other crops flower and fruit, I saw a few other versions of this same flower on plants like potatoes and bell peppers.  My point is this:  observation is a far better tool than calling something up on a smart phone, which you will probably forget two seconds later.   This is why drawing is also a valuable exercise to really learn what something looks like.  So put away your smart phone. Use your eyes, nose, and ears and maybe even a pencil and pad of paper to learn about nature in a truly meaningful and unforgettable way.

Below are the photos above with a few others views so you can see a side by side comparison.

Basic Plant Identification: Part 2

Star of Bethlehem
What am I?? My key number is 6 – 2 – 3

It has been a while since I have seen this flower and I could not remember what it was.  Since it was plentiful I dug one up and examined it.  The base reminded me of an onion type plant:  white, bulb like, with thin green leaves coming from the base. But the flower was not typical of onions which are more like a puff ball. If you ever grew chives and let them go to flower, then this will sound familiar to you.

So I decided to key out the plant and fortunately, this was a very easy one to do.  Using my Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide that I discussed in an earlier post, I had to look up three characteristics of this plant and apply the appropriate “key” number for each characteristic. 

Key from Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide

First, what is the type of flower.  This type of flower is “regular”, meaning it is radically symmetrical. If you cut the flower in half, each half would look the same. Think of a young child’s drawing of a flower with a center and petals coming off the center. Because this flower has six petal, the key tells me to assign a number “6”.

Next they ask what is the plant type.  It is a wildflower but this category also asks about the plant leaves. They are not opposite or whorled as discussed in part 1.   The leaves seem to be growing out of the bottom of the plant. These are called basal leaves. Another great example of basal leaves is our friend the dandelion. Next time one creeps up in your yard, take a look at the leaves growing out of the bottom. The key above tells me to assign my second number which is a “2”.

The last characteristic the key asks about is the type of leaves. They are not toothed or lobed like the henbit or purple dead nettle in part 1.  They are entire (no teeth or lobes) like the ginger leaves of a previous post .  So the key tells me to assign another number “2”

key 2
Key descriptions from Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide

So my three number key is “6 – 2 – 2” .  Now I find that number.  The key number gives me several other choices. Fortunately, there are not that many with this particular plant. The first description under that key number asks if the leaves are narrow. Since they are, I go to the descriptions under “narrow leaves” and it gives me a choice of flower colors. I go to the choice that says ‘white, pink, or greenish flowers’ and then look at that page. On that page, a number of flowers are depicted and my flower was among them. It is a Star of Bethlehem:  Ornithogalum umbellatum.  Now at the beginning of this post, I mentioned that when I pulled the plant the base reminded me of something onion related. Well, our Star of Bethlehem is part of the Lily family (Liliaceae) and so are onions.


Basic Plant Identification: Part 1

Henbit and purple nettle
To the left, Purple Dead Nettle (Lamium purpureum) and to the right, Henbit (Lamium amlexicaule)

A few weeks ago when I was talking about my love of sidewalk weeds and identifying plants, some of you had written to me saying you wanted to learn more.  In my last post on this topic we talked about some characteristics of plants but I was unable to show examples due to the time of year and the slim pickings of available plant life.

So let’s start with the photograph at the top of this page. These plants seem to look almost the same at a quick glance and many times people either mistake the one for the other or do not realize at all they are entirely different plants.  They are common lawn “weeds” so you have probably seem them before. They are in the same family (Lamiaceae) and the same genus (Lamium)  but are different species.   As I mentioned before, it is often difficult to be able to key a plant down to the species. If you (as an amateur like myself) get to the genus that is pretty good but if you can actually just look at a plant and identify the family, that is excellent.

Example of “opposite” arrangement of leaves

For these plants, lets start with the leaves.  The example above is called opposite leaves because the leaves are directly across from each other along the stem.  The example below show leaves that are called whorled because the leaves surround the stem (think of it as lots of opposite leaves together rather than just two).

Whorlled leaves
Example of “whorled” arrangement of leaves

Another characteristic of leaves that is important are the edges of the leaves. The examples we have here (see below for a close up) fall into the category of toothed edges because the edges of the leaves have little teeth (as opposed to being smooth).  In out last post  on this topic, we looked at wild ginger leaves that had a smooth edge and that was called an entire leave.

toothed or lobed edges
Examples of “toothed” edges of leaves

Here is another characteristic to look for: the shape of the stem. Notice in the close up below that the stem is square (I just am showing one but both these plants have a square stem).

square stem
Square stem

So now you know what a Toothed leave is.  You also know two very important characteristics (opposite or whorled leaves and square stems) of a very common plant family: Lamiaceae.  Why should you care? Well, the family Lamiaceae is more commonly known as the mint family.  Next time you tend to your basil, oregano, thyme, or rosemary plants take a look at the position of the leaves and feel the stem.  Now there are other characteristics that make these plants part of the mint family. It is important to know that because there are also other plants with opposite leaves and square stems that are not part of the mint family and perhaps we can look at those characteristics another time.  But for now, pat yourself on the back for getting to know the members or your herb garden on a different level.