Pumpkin Everything Tuesday, Oct 14 2014 

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Pumpkin biscotti, latte, bread, soup, and even ravioli. This is the season for pumpkin everything. The fruit—yes, botanists consider pumpkins a fruit—play an important role in American fall traditions. Halloween is no more complete without a gutted and carved Jack-O-Lantern than Thanksgiving is without a pumpkin pie.

Some countries, such as New Zealand and Australia, use the term pumpkin to refer to the broad category of winter squash but here it typically means the large orange, round or oblong fruit, although we can find them in an endless variety of shapes and colors.

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It’s estimated that 1.5 billion pounds of pumpkins are produced in the U.S. every year. Illinois is by far the top state for pumpkin production, raising 90-95% of them, mostly for Libby, a division of the Nestle Company. California, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, and Michigan grow most of the remainder.

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Pumpkins typically range in size from less than one pound all the way up to more than 1,000! They are native to North America. Most pumpkins are grown for eating and can be boiled, baked, steamed, pureed, or roasted. They are a good source of Vitamin A. The seeds are often roasted and salted as well.

The tradition of carving pumpkins is thought to have been brought from Great Britain and Ireland where they carved many different types of fruits and vegetables. It wasn’t until the mid-1800s when it is recorded that they were used as lanterns. Catholic children are said to have carved turnips to represent a face, placed a candle inside them, and walked door-to-door begging for soul cakes on the eve of All Saints and All Souls in honor of deceased loved ones.

(Information gathered from mayoclinic.com, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and Wikipedia.)

(Photo of my niece, Kelly, with a giant pumpkin, taken by a friend.)

©2014, Mary K. Doyle

Fall Colors Tuesday, Sep 30 2014 

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Spring blossoms with hope, summer peaks with flora and fauna, and autumn bursts with color.

The leaves are beginning to change in the Midwest. A new splattering of vibrant yellows, oranges, and reds is seen everywhere we look. It’s like fireworks shooting a new display every day.

The process of leaf changing is fascinating. Much has to do with the declining hours of daylight and the types of trees. Aspen leaves turn bright yellow; oaks’ turn red or brown; dogwoods’ turn purplish red or light tan; and some of the maples’ turn brilliant scarlet. Others, such as elm leaves do not change at all. They simply die and fall off.

For the trees with leaves that do change, leaf color is influenced predominately by the shortening of daylight but also by pigments in the leaves and weather. For optimum color, leaves require a warm, wet spring, favorable summer temperatures, and warm, sunny fall days with cool but frostless nights.

During the spring and summer, the trees take in water from the ground through their roots and carbon dioxide from the air. They use sunlight to turn the water and carbon dioxide into oxygen and glucose in a process called photosynthesis.

There isn’t enough light or water in the winter for photosynthesis. The green chlorophyll disappears from the leaves revealing the yellows and oranges that until then were present but unseen. The cool nights of autumn turn the glucose bright reds and purples.

Unlike the tender leaves of deciduous trees, the tough needles of evergreens with their heavy wax coating and fluid inside their cells resist freezing and withstand severe winter conditions.

(Information gathered from the U.S. Department of Agriculture)

©2014, Mary K. Doyle

The Weight of Weather Friday, Sep 26 2014 

Some dispute the effects of weather on the body. For those of us who feel it in our joints and bones, we don’t need any scientific basis for the phenomena. We are our own meteorologist. Many of us can predict the weather by the effect of barometric pressure on our bodies.

Last month we had heavy cloud coverage, rain, and a high mold count in the Chicago area for several weeks that knocked me off my feet. The mold and humidity triggered my asthma and fibromyalgia resulting in labored breathing and pain that made it difficult for me to get off the couch.

More than 5 million people in the United States have fibromyalgia. The Mayo Clinic describes it as a disorder characterized by widespread musculoskeletal pain accompanied by fatigue and sleep, memory, and mood issues. Tension headaches, temporomandibular joint disorders, irritable bowel syndrome, anxiety, and depression are common. There also is an increase in levels of certain chemicals in the brain that signal pain. The brain’s pain receptors develop a memory of the pain making them more sensitive causing them to overact.

Stress and weather, especially low air pressure, are my greatest causes of symptoms. The heavy weight of the air results in great pain.

Air pressure is also called barometric pressure because it is measured by barometers. Barometers measure the current air pressure at a particular location in inches of mercury or in millibars.

High pressure systems moving in often predict cooler temperatures and clear skies. Low pressure systems bring warmer weather, storms, and rain.

Atmospheric pressure is the weight of tiny particles of air molecules exerted upon us. The pressure and its density is related to the weather—the air’s temperature and height above the Earth’s surface.

The Earth’s atmosphere is pressing against each square inch of our bodies with a force of about 14.7 pounds per square inch. The force on a space of a little larger than a square foot is about 1 ton and it is up to our bodies to balance the pressure within us with that outside.

Since the pressure depends upon the amount of air above us, the pressure decreases as we go higher. As elevation increases there is less atmospheric mass resulting in the barometric pressure dropping about 1 inch of mercury for each increase of 1,000 feet. Our ears pop as we move up to balance the pressure between the outside and inside of our ears and we breathe faster to bring more air molecules into our lungs to make up for less air.

I feel considerably less pain on clear days and at higher elevations, so perhaps the solution for me is to keep my sights on the heavens and stay high above the clouds.

©2014, Mary K. Doyle

No Mothballs for Me Wednesday, Sep 17 2014 

Chipmunks rule the land. The cute little critters dig holes all around my house.

My sister suggested placing mothballs—those old-fashioned white, pungent balls grandmas used decades ago—along the perimeter of the house to ward them off. I don’t know how many chipmunks they kept away, but I couldn’t stand the smell and found that I was avoiding everywhere that the mothballs were. I retrieved and tossed them all. Surprisingly, the trash can smelled from them for weeks afterwards.

Mothballs are small balls of chemical pesticide and deodorant used to protect clothes from mold, moth larva, and silverfish. It also may repel snakes, mice, and other small pests. Not only is their smell offensive and overpowering, mothballs pose some serious health hazards. They must be used with great caution around family pets and children.

The ingredients have changed over the years but they continue to be somewhat flammable. They contain a chemical called 1,4-dichlorobenzene. Sometimes packaging lists it as para-dichlorobenzene, p-dichlorobenzene, pDCB, or PDB.

Mothballs are highly toxic when ingested. The US Department of Health and Human Services has determined this ingredient to be a carcinogen. It is a neurotoxin and may cause series illness or death. Large quantities in a basement or living space may also cause respiratory problems.

A better alternative to mothballs may be to spread blood meal or pieces of unchewed sticks of fragrant gum near chipmunk holes.

©2014, Mary K. Doyle

The Sting of Fall Tuesday, Sep 9 2014 

It’s that time of year. The wasps, which seem more active in the fall in the Midwest, have joined our outdoor fun in full force, especially when food is involved.

Vespid wasps include paper wasps, yellow jackets, and hornets. They can be differentiated from bees by their lack of body hair and thin, elongated bodies.

Paper wasps live in colonies of less than 100 and build open umbrella-shaped nests often suspended under eaves. Yellow jackets and hornets have colonies larger than 100. Hornets build massive, enclosed nets found hanging from tree branches. Yellow jackets, the most annoying wasps to humans, also make enclosed nests but build them below ground.

All three produce new colonies each year. Only the mated queens survive the cold winter months. In late summer or fall, the old queen dies, and a new one mates before its siblings die off.

The severity of reaction to a wasp sting depends on our sensitivity and whether we’ve been stung before. Most often, there is a little swelling or itching. If the stinger is visible, it should be gently removed and the area washed with soap and water. A cold compress and a pain reliever, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen, will ease the pain.

An allergic reaction may include mild nausea, intestinal cramps, diarrhea, or swelling larger than 4 inches in diameter at the site. We should seek medical assistance immediately if there is difficulty breathing, swelling of the lips or throat, faintness, dizziness, confusion, rapid heartbeat, or hives.

(Information gathered from mayoclinic.com and about.com)

©2014, Mary K. Doyle

Dr. Bow-Wow Friday, Aug 1 2014 

If you are concerned that you may have cancer, see a dog. Several studies are underway with dogs sniffing out cancers. Some of these studies are federally funded, and they come with great hope for early detection.

The University of Pennsylvania researchers say results are 90% successful in identifying the scent of ovarian cancer in tissue samples. Currently, there are no other effective tests for early detection. The dogs also are used in detecting prostate cancer in urine samples with 98% accuracy, where the traditional PSA test gives a high percentage of false positives.

Dogs are long recognized for their acute sense of smell. They have 220 million olfactory cells in their noses compared with 50 million in humans. The studies found that dogs detect chemicals emitted by tumors referred to as volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. Whether some types of dogs are better than others at detection is still unclear.

The findings of these studies may open up possibilities of use with breath samples to find breast, colon, and lung cancers. There also may be the ability to copy this type of detection with a machine or chemical test. Researches are finding much hope from what they are learning from man’s best friend.

©2014, Mary K. Doyle

Dirty Money Friday, Apr 25 2014 

When I was a child, my mother would tell me to wash my hands after handling money. Since we predominately use credit and debit cards we don’t hear that as often today. But the warning remains important to heed, because cash comes with a little extra.

Researchers at New York University’s Dirty Money Project conducted the first comprehensive study of DNA on dollar bills and found that currency is an exchange for hundreds of different kinds of bacteria. They identified more than 3,000 types of bacteria in addition to viruses, fungi, plant pathogens, and small amounts of anthrax and diphtheria. Only about 20% of the non-human DNA could be identified because the majority have yet to be cataloged in genetic data banks.

The most abundant species on the bills are known to cause acne. Others are linked to gastric ulcers, pneumonia, food poisoning, and staph infections. And to the researchers’ surprise, bacteria can continue to grow on the bills, especially when contained in a wallet on our warm bodies.

The U.S. dollar bill is printed on a cotton-linen blend. The good news is that the bills typically last less than two years. The bad news is that it is a medium conducive to the living bacteria.

Canadian money is printed on sheets of flexible plastic polymer film, which long outlast the cotton-based bills. Although, some bacteria does live longer, significantly fewer bacteria are found on them.

Whether handling money or not, washing or sanitizing hands often, and keeping our hands away from our faces, is our best defense against picking up unwanted organisms.

©2014, Mary K. Doyle

Bunny Hop Tuesday, Apr 22 2014 

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The bunny that hippity-hopped into most of our homes this past weekend was made of chocolate, and once spotted, lost its ears. But if we look out the window throughout the Midwest, it’s not hard to spot the real ones bouncing around gardens and parks as more than half of the world’s rabbit population lives in North America.

Bunny is an informal name for rabbit. Rabbits live in groups and wander meadows, forests, grasslands, wetlands, and even desserts. They are herbivores, feeding on grass and seemingly, all of our favorite garden flowers. They also eat large amounts of cellulose. Interestingly, rabbits are incapable of vomiting.

Rabbits, except for cottontail rabbits, are born blind and hairless and live underground. They are most active at dawn and dusk and will sleep more than 8 hours, often with their eyes open watching for predators. These little guys can live 9-12 years if left unharmed.

Although rabbits and hares are both in the family, Leporidae, they belong to two separate species. Hares are born with fur and good vision and are typically larger, have longer ears, and larger hind legs than rabbits. And they do not burrow as rabbits do. Rather they make nests in grass.

Rabbits are often domesticated but hares are not.

©2014, Mary K. Doyle

Lily White Friday, Apr 18 2014 

The sweet, pungent fragrance of Easter Lilies along with colored eggs, chocolate bunnies, and baskets of goodies signal the season. If it is your tradition to include lilies in your holiday celebration, they are available in nearly every grocery, garden, floral, and gift shop, much like the poinsettia we see at Christmas.

The lily is a symbol of virtue, innocence, hope, life, and the resurrection of Jesus. It is called the milk of Hera in mythology and featured in early artwork of the Virgin Mary to signify the Annunciation and her purity.

The flower is sometimes referred to as the white-robed apostles of hope because it is said that lilies grew where drops of Jesus’ perspiration fell along the way to the cross. Another legend is that when the Virgin Mary’s tomb was opened three days after her burial, her body was not there but the tomb was filled with lilies.

The lily is mentioned in the Bible 15 times. Song of Solomon has 8 references. I particularly like the ones in Matthew and Luke because they are reminders not to worry about our daily needs if we are striving for the Kingdom.

Lilium longiflorum, which is the Latin name for the Easter Lily, is native to the Ryukyu Islands of southern Japan. Bulbs initially were brought into the United States in 1919 by a World War I soldier, Louis Houghton, but the Easter Lily bulbs sold here were imported from Japan until 1941. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, importing ceased and US production took off. The Oregon-California border is now known as the Easter Lily Capital of the World and produces nearly all of the bulbs used in Easter Lily pots.

Production is an exact and demanding science. The process begins with a small growth, called a bulblet, on a mother plant. The bulblet is removed and planted in another field. It is dug up the following year and replanted again in a new field and remains there for another year until the plant is harvested.

When purchasing a lily plant, look for flowers in various stages and an abundance of dark green foliage to signify a healthy, blossoming plant. Remove any paper, plastic or mesh sleeve and also the yellow anthers before pollen starts to shed for longer flower life.

Lilies prefer cooler room temperatures, preferably 60-65°F during the day and cooler at night. Avoid placing the plant near drafts or direct sunlight. Keep the soil moist but well-drained.

After the plant has ceased blooming, it may be cut down and planted outside in a well-drained garden bed. Plant the bulb about 3 inches below ground level and mound up with three inches of top soil. As with the indoor plant, keep the soil moist but not overly wet or dry.

 “Consider the lilies, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the filed, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink and do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well (Luke 12:27-31).

©2014, Mary K. Doyle

(Some of the information for this post was taken from Aggie Horticulture, Texas AgriLife Extension Service, Texas A&M System.)

Hello Spring Tuesday, Mar 25 2014 

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Congratulations Winter Survivors!

According to the calendar, spring has sprung. Now if only we could get Mother Nature to understand that.

I don’t have to tell you that it’s been a tough winter. Most, at least in the Midwest, experienced the toughest season in decades. We had way too many bitter cold days and way too much snow. But we got through it. We’re still here, ready for warmer temps and sunny days. Pat yourself on the back for your outstanding ability to endure, persevere, and move on.

Like the first crocus that pops its head up from the cold, hard ground, we emerge into the new season bright with hope and optimism. Embrace the moment. Before long, we will be complaining about the heat.

©2014, Mary K. Doyle

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