Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Wild Coffee

Now is a good time to discuss the wild coffee plants, Psychotria nervosa, that we have in our front yard. As the Latin name suggests, there is a lot to discuss here.

The wild coffee and the coffee that we drink (coffee arabica, etc.) are related, both members of the Rubiaceae family. According to legend, coffee was discovered by goat herders who noticed that their goats got frisky after snacking on the bushes. But were those goats munching on psychotria nervosa bushes or some other member of the coffee family? And does the wild coffee plant have any unusual properties at all?

I've read that the word nervosa, in this context, refers to the prominent veins of the plant's leaves, but I am suspicious. Some plants are identified in this way for other reasons (the Hawaiian baby woodrose, Argyreia nervosa, for example, has psychoactive seeds). And what about the word psychotria? Apparently another species of wild coffee, psychotria viridis, is used in combination with a vine in South America to create a psychoactive drink called Ayahuasca, which has been used in religious ceremonies for centuries.

From most accounts on the web the wild coffee in our yard is just a benign bush with no unusual properties, though you can find contrary opinions. I could settle the issue by doing some testing of my own, but I'm just not that interested in spending the day in a South American jungle conversing with some excitable lizard/jaguar/god.

Cheryl and I have always lived quiet lives. We once had a glass of whiskey in Scotland (more like a fourth of a glass) and we have an occasional beer or glass of wine. She, especially, is a naturally silly person, so we have no interest in drugs, recreational or otherwise.

Coffee is another matter. We drink too much coffee. Maybe this is why I have a fondness for our wild coffee plants, and I'm content to allow them some mystery. Some things are better left alone.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

A Milkweed Finds a Home

After my recent character-building failure with the patio, I've turned my attention back to the yard and to one of our newer plants: a giant milkweed (Calotropis gigantea). We got this comical looking guy last spring at a big plant fair. Cheryl picked it out and was optimistic. I expected that it would die soon enough.

Like other milkweeds, the gigantea provides a nice home for the monarch butterfly. We were told that monarch caterpillars would strip this nearly six-foot giant to the stems in a matter of days, only causing the gigantea to come back prettier and stronger. But no monarchs this year--like many migratory animals, it is having a rough time lately.

Because of its size I planted the milkweed in the hottest and driest and most deserted section of our yard, a miserable place where more than a few plants have shriveled and died. With puffy leaves and thirsty-looking disposition, it seemed doomed from the first day. Oh, well. I did say that it had no chance at all.

Our gardening philosophy has evolved to a pretty simplistic approach. If a plant thrives without our constant attention, it is a good plant. Otherwise dig it up and try something else. Eventually, the logic goes, we will have a happy, self-sufficient yard. I know what you are thinking: there is a more scientific approach, with soil analysis and so forth, and this would eliminate the unnecessary suffering of many misplaced and unfortunate plants. (you know, you can be pretty critical sometimes...)

To my surprise the milkweed seems overjoyed with its new home. While most of our plants have the winter blues, the gigantea is sprouting new limbs and showing off. Cheryl was right (curses).

In the meantime, work on my new biobot (the one designed for the good of humanity) is going well. If things work out, I should be able to confront the evil Sri-Lankan biobot weevil very soon. A video is in the works.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Clean Up and Start Over

My idea was simple enough. Pour some grout onto the patio and sweep it into the cracks between the stones. Then spray down the stone, causing the grout to mix with the sand (about one ton of it) that I swept into the cracks when I laid the patio two years ago. This mixture would set and I would have a perfect grout job--and no more weeds.

Funny that you can't find anyone on the web who thinks this is a good idea. Could it be such an obscure process that no one has thought of it? Wouldn't a reasonable person be suspicious--and cautious? Yes, but instead I poured an entire bag of grout onto the patio. Fortunately I did this off to the side in an area not very visible.

Grout is a little like flour: powdery when dry but very sticky when wet. It is designed to stick to tile or stone. As I swept it, the grout turned into a thick film of gray and spread out to cover about 50 square feet. More sweeping, but the surface of the stone was not letting go of the now pasty goo. And I knew that once it dried, the grout would never ever come off.

At times like this we are reminded that enthusiasm and determination are no substitute for practical planning. Back when Bush decided to enter Iraq, for example, against the judgment of some senior military advisers (back before I was in charge of things, by the way), he was practicing what he considers to be his strong suit: shooting from the hip. The image is a disturbing one for those of us who do things better done by professionals.

I grabbed the garden hose to wash off the stones, but already the paste was hardening so I had to scrub with a brush, trying to do a good job but moving quickly. As I washed the stones, more grout would come out of the cracks and deposit a film over the stones. I would scrub, come back, wash, scrub, come back, and after about three hours most of the grout was washed out. Many of the stones still have small areas on the surface where the grout has hardened. In some places, though, it worked pretty well. The picture above shows one of the joints.

It's not easy to admit a mistake. Sometime all you can do is clean up the mess (quickly, to minimize the damage) and resolve to get it right in the future. To pretend otherwise is like turning away and waiting for the rain to wash off a layer of stone.

By the way, I can always grout the patio the way people have done it for thousands of years. But maybe there is a better way...

Friday, December 19, 2008

A Case for Husbandry

Neither a borrower nor a lender be,
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulleth the edge of husbandry

In Shakespeare's day the word husbandry referred to the practice of managing your finances in a sensible and frugal manner. It is a skill that becomes sharp (as he alludes) through hard times and necessity, and this is true for some of us more than others. My mother was a master of husbandry, one of those survivors of the Great Depression who practiced thriftiness as an art form, always searching for coupons, checking for the best deals, worrying that someone might spend too much money on her, especially at this time of year. Being frugal was a passion for her, not a discipline.

But setting the terms of frugality for others is difficult, and I've been struggling about what to do with the car companies. The social system as a whole became addicted to credit and consumption long before I was (put) in charge of everything, so don't blame me if things get a little dicey as I sort things out. I have to find an orderly way to give the auto makers and related businesses a chance to recover. These companies are collections of people, not assets.

I also have to get things wrapped up quickly because I've decided to start a new project and I can't be on my brain phone every 5 minutes with the knuckleheads in Washington. It's not a very exotic or dramatic project, but I am excited. A couple years ago Cheryl and I put in flagstone in the back yard--about 700 square feet. I swept crushed rock in between the stones, and even though the patio has a layer of fabric underneath, great clumps of weeds and grass grow up in the cracks. Here is an ugly, dead bunch of weeds. I will be grouting between all of these stones. More on this to come. Very cool! (If this doesn't get you excited, you aren't living right.)

My mother would get a kick out of this project, mainly because it is cheap and not dangerous. The first step will be to clean up the cracks and pull out all the dead weeds. Mom would say something like you should always keep your crack clean. Willow and I had to laugh at that one.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Bombastic Biobot Warfare

On our back porch we have a pseudobombax ellipticum, also known as the shaving brush tree because of its silky, brushy-looking flowers. Our bombax is young (no flowers yet) and until recently pretty happy in its Talevera pot. But now it has lost almost all of its little branches.

The bombax is related to the kapok tree (Ceiba pentandra, also known as cotton silk tree), and we've got a kapok in the side yard. Like the bombax it has pretty flowers that bloom after the tree drops it leaves, making them conspicuous to birds and other creatures who eat and then transport the seeds to a new place. Pretty good deal.

The word bombastic comes from bombax, Latin for "cotton". The cottony flowers from the bombax tree were used as lining in coats and jackets. A bombastic person might also be called a stuffed shirt.

In a few years the kapok tree may consume the side yard (if not our house) since they can get unbelievably big, with fan-like roots that reach high above ground. Ours is about 5 feet tall now, with a slender green trunk like the bombax and with only a few branches, so it has a long way to go before we need to move to another house.

But back to the unhappy guy on our porch. When I looked under the remaining leaf cluster of the pseudobombax, I saw it--a lone Sri Lankan biobot weevil, so fat and lazy that it just could not be bothered.

I wanted to see our yard as a simple collection of plants and animals living in such a state that my job would be only to mildly discourage those actors whose ambitions grew too large (like the monstrous cactus plant that attempts to devour the orange tree every year). But these biobots are neither plant nor animal. I realized that my approach to gardening was naive.

The CIA was no help, so I decided to engineer my own biobot to control the Sri Lankan devil. I know--the last thing we need is some new, indestructible cyber-organism with pulse laser emitters and the intelligence of a poodle and the ability to reproduce unchecked and destroy the world. But I had no choice.

My first prototype is in development now. Here's a scene from the training camp behind the koi pond.

OK. It's just a silly video, but you get the idea.

Sunday, December 14, 2008


The dinner party went well this weekend despite a close call when a wood nymph (a tinker-bell looking thing) became visible briefly on the table top and then burst into flames, lighting one of the paper menus on fire. Fortunately a candle was close by and no one suspected that anything unusual happened.

Everyone said kind things about our new floors and the window. Liars, but with good intentions. It seems like ages now since I had a good project but I'll need to wait until after New Years to get started on something new, probably something to resolve my feelings about the window's anemic pine finish, which seems pale and washed out and determined to vex me and suck the life out of me every time I walk into the room.

Last night we went to dance recital featuring a good friend. She was great. I promised the secret service I wouldn't publish any pictures of her performance, and I'm trying to get back on their good side.

But the highlight of the night came when a rotund man in a Luke Skywalker outfit danced with princess Leah and battled with Lord Vader. I had to get a few shots with my iPhone.

After a while I realized that what seemed a simple bit of fun was actually a serious allegory of our current status in the world--the United States now older, slower, out of shape, somewhat confused by the dizzying changes as the image of our former selves dances around us as a cruel reminder of what could have been, while the rest of the world waits off-stage waiting to challenge us. And yet we remain upright in the posture, dignity and dress of the hero.

Or possibly it was just an old dude not afraid to have fun and maybe look a little silly.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Merry Bhut Jalokia

Each year at this time we throw a big dinner and the theme this year (OK, every year) is the chili. Cheryl's collection of chili ornaments is no doubt approaching a world record. We have chili lights, chilies hanging on the front door, chilies growing in my garden and chilies in the appetizers, soup, salad and entrees of the dinner.

We, however, are not excessive about chilies. Some people worship the chili to the point of religious fanaticism and pagan fetishism, blurring the distinction between pleasure and pain, abandoning all common sense for a cheap thrill or to demonstrate some semblance of machismo.

Consider the following man who has just eaten, in one bite, a Bhut Jalokia chili, rated 10 times hotter than the habanero:

I like this one. The girl on the right is (perpetually, I suspect) unable to find what she is looking for.

No. We will not be having the Bhut Jolokia on the menu. I need to find some seeds first. I have a perfect spot for one in my pepper garden. I grew the small guys on the front row from seeds we brought back from Sante Fe. The little white one is called a Fish pepper--very hot. I've got a Thai pepper, a habanero and various others. More later on these.

Also, the CIA got back to me on the Euphorbia. It is a Euphorbia lactea, sometimes called candelabra cactus (although it is not a true cactus). The strange little plant that grows underneath is Kalanchoe beharensis, sometimes called velvet leaf.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


After waffling for a few weeks, I finally gave the go-ahead for a partial bailout of the Detroit car makers. You'd think that congress could do something without getting my advice. And now that I have some free time on my hands I really don't have an excuse to ignore them.

I'm reluctant to expand my own gardening theories beyond the limits of my back yard, especially when it comes to notions about economics, but sometimes these analogies are all we have (lacking any formal training in economics). Someone has to decide these things or nothing would get done.

Consider our Euphoribia, at least that's what I think it is (the CIA hasn't gotten back to me yet). (Click on the photo for a better view.) Cheryl and I bought it in Arizona years ago, kept it in a pot in the blazing sun, carried it in the back of a U-haul to Florida, finally put in the ground and now it's over six feet tall. We bought this one from a Hopi woman who claimed it possessed the soul of a extra-terrestrial who visited her over the years and finally died in a burst of flames when he touched the plant. Euphorbia have stickers like a cactus and a milky sap that is extremely poisonous and, apparently, flammable to some life forms.

A strange plant grows in the shadow of the Euphorbia, and I suspect it is the reincarnated Hopi woman, or possibly just an old girlfriend. The CIA is on this. Frankly, I am losing confidence in the new C23X department there. Do I have to do everything?

The Euphorbia loves our sandy side yard but is growing now at a slight angle and is getting so big that I'm afraid it will topple from its own weight. I could tie it up, but it might stick me (and I might explode). Instead I'm trusting that it can survive without my intervention.

Why, then, bail out the auto industry while ignoring my Euphorbia? Because the Euphoribia won't harm anything if it falls over. OK, it might take out the weird little plant.

Sunday, December 7, 2008


The tops of my bamboo plant start to glow just after sunrise. This year three new culms came up, and they are beginning to send out their canopy branches. Bamboo sends out branches out in the winter to provide shade for the next crop of shoots, which grow like crazy in the spring and summer. By spring the canopy will be thick. Next year we may have six or seven new shoots, and they should go even higher (these guys are about 30 feet tall).

These are the giant Bambusa Oldhamii. only two years old now and already a major player in the back yard. Big, fat culms with a nice, glossy green finish.

Bamboo is a social plant. It likes to raise its offspring very close by. Trees, by contrast, like lots of space and are not particular fond of their own children, much less human beings (though I still am fond of them). But Bamboo is no push-over. Like every other foolish organism on earth, it intends to control the world .

As you can see, Willow can barely hide her contempt for the bamboo. She has no interest at all in helping with the yard (except for some random fertilizing), which I believe is a fairly self-centered attitude. Now that we are on hiatus from projects in the house, she assumes that it is my sole job to play Frisbee with her. I suppose I should be thankful she is not digging around the bamboo, yet.

I still am at odds with the Sri Lankan biobots that are chewing up my Turk's cap (and that threaten civilization). The CIA technique for handling this global threat is to place an umbrella upside down under the plant and shake the leaves, then dispose of biobots appropriately. Boy, I feel safer now. I've also learned about a band of vigilantes somewhere in the south who are intimidating the biobots by screaming at them, but that just sounds nutty.

I'm considering a new philosophy for the yard. For now, if the biobots only chew on the leaves and don't chew up the Turk's cap flowers, I will give them a pass. To be honest, I am beginning to be a little afraid of them. They seem to notice me now, which is not good.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Sri Lankan Robots

Late last night I received an encrypted message from the CIA on my brain phone. The plant that I thought was a monk's cap is actually a Turk's cap plant, Malaviscus penduliflorus. It sometimes is called sleeping hibiscus, probably because it always seems droopy and never quite opens up its bloom.

Turk's cap is native to Mexico and South America and is fairly common here, so why am I just now learning about it? (And how many more of these things are there to learn?) I once saw this plant growing along a remote caminho in southern Brazil just outside a house that sold hand-spun yarn. Cheryl and Gisa are like crack addicts for yarn.

The little white bug in the picture, however, is the real concern. It is a Sri Lankan weevil, a brazen pest with a healthy appetite for Turk's cap, citrus trees and just about everything else. Though they will deny it, the CIA suspects that this bug is actually a biobot recently designed by a group of cyberterrorists living in the jungles of Sri Lanka and plotting the destruction of mankind. It is lazy, slow, as gentle as a lady bug, with no defensive mechanisms and no natural enemies. Not even my koi will eat them (they, at least, understand the danger). Diabolical.

If not controlled this bug may destroy everything. I will find its weak spot and defeat it, if only as a patriotic gesture. But no pesticides will be used. We need to maintain our humanity and common sense, even with a threat to the homeland.