Oct 30, 2011

Outdoor Hour Challenge: Yes, You Can Compare Pears!

Our weekly nature study with the Outdoor Hour Challenge Autumn Series 2011 was to compare a pear! Or several! And against apples! Well this was a tasty idea, and worked out fine with the upside-down weather we've been experiencing. No need for a sunny day. We can just pull up to the kitchen counter for this one.

Storm damaged Bradford Pear. The dog loves the fruits.
Truth-be-told, I spent every walk over a couple of weeks looking for SOMEONE who just might have a pear tree in their yard. The closest things were Bradford Pears --those over-planted hybridized freaks that, like so many vain celebrities, are all show but no substance. Bradfords were developed in the lab to be the "perfect" shade tree: compact to be plantable along sidewalks, showy to enhance suburban streets, and fast-growing. What they WEREN'T supposed to do is snap in two after 20 years! Their bio-engineered bodies are top-heavy and one simple storm can send them to the ground. We now know first-hand as we added one of a pair (no pun intended this time) to the mulch pile just last spring.
Anyway, though there were no true pear trees, there were plenty of the edible fruits coming into season at our local grocer. We also picked up several varieties of apples to com-PEAR.  
Following the Autumn Challenge guidelines, we first went to the internet and found some great educational pages on pears. (California is very proud of their pears; a-pear-antly, they make it part of their school curriculum!) We read about their surprisingly interesting history (really? pears?). Here's what the Fact Sheet had to tell us:
  • The Bartlett pear was developed in England in the seventeenth
    century by a schoolmaster named John Stair. He
    sold some cuttings to a horticulturist named Williams, who
    further developed the variety and renamed it after himself.
    Early Americans brought pear seedlings across the Atlantic
    to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In 1812, nurseryman
    Enoch Bartlett discovered the pear variety and, unaware of
    the pear’s true name, distributed it as a “Bartlett.” However, it
    is still known as the “Williams” pear around the world. Bartlett
    cuttings eventually came west when the forty-niners headed
    for the great California Gold Rush and continue to grow in
    California today.
Then we found this site that got our mouths watering as we viewed and read the delicious descriptions of about a dozen varieties, some of which I've never seen in stores.
Our sacrificial apple revealed its star-shaped seed cavities.
Now it was time for the scientific part of our study: observation and DISSECTION! Mei went through the less exciting part of describing the outside of both pear and apple. "Firm," "bruised," "spherical," and "mottled" were some of the better adjectives she came up with. Splitting the pear open she was intrigued with the cavities that held the little "white, tear-dropped" seeds. She also pointed out the flower-shaped arrangement of the cavities and delightedly perceived the same order in the apple.
Inhaling the scent of the "gift of the gods."
Finally the time had come for the tasting party. Like any wine fancier would tell you, you must first inhale the bouquet. She found the pear's fragrance to be "sweet and sower (sic)" compared with the apple's overall sweetness. She did not detect a great difference in flavor, but maybe she just wanted to get on with EATING!
Below is a notebook page Barb included in the Autumn Series Challenge for pears. Now to get some new pear recipes to use on all those varieties I saw in the store this week!

I see some words to add to the spelling list, but she gets an A for effort.

Oct 29, 2011

Outdoor Hour Challenge: Milkweed!

I love milkweed. I love what milkweed represents: monarch butterflies, the warmest days of summer, weeks at the lake, time spent at the Conservancy Cabin. So I couldn't wait for us to study milkweed with the More Nature Study with the Outdoor Hour Challenge Autumn 2011 .

Go here for more info on Monarch Caterpillars
We are fortunate to live on the edge of the countryside and had no trouble finding specimens for study. Sometimes we find them sprouting right in our flower beds and then I have to wrestle with my conscience  about treating them as "unwanted weeds" because I know they are the ONLY food for hungry Monarch caterpillars.  The highway department works hard enough at eradicating them along the roadsides; should I  jump on the bandwagon? Especially when Monarchs have taken such a hit in the last few years with some record cold in Mexico that killed off so many during their hibernation? But for our study time they were going to seed along a section of horse fencing owned by our neighbors.
Following the questions in the study guide we looked for insects on them and were rewarded (if finding bugs is your idea of a reward; it was ours) by locating Milkweed Bugs (Oncopeltus fasciatus)   all over. They were not sure about being photographed. It took several "sneak attacks" to catch them before they scooted to the other side of a pod or simply dropped off into the weeds. BugGuide.net had these interesting remarks about the bugs:
" Eggs are laid in milkweed seed pods or in crevices between pods. About 30 eggs are laid a day, and about 2,000 over a female's lifespan. In the course of feeding, these bugs accumulate toxins from the milkweed, which can potentially sicken any predators foolish enough to ignore the bright colors which warn of their toxicity."
We then investigated the "milk" of the milkweed. By breaking the weed at any place on its stem, we observed a stream of white juice. The Handbook of Nature Study explains that this milk aids in the healing of the plant wounds.

We experimented with spreading the stuff on our fingers and, sure enough, it dried into a rubbery film that would NOT wash off. A little research on the origins of rubber would be a logical next step. And when tasted, there's no wondering why caterpillars full of it would be noxious to birds!
Mei added drawings of the pod and seed balloon to her notebook page.
 It took a few weeks to find the pods beginning to open. Thankfully the milkweed that we had chosen is along our usual dog-walking route so we could easily keep tabs on it. Here it is a month later. Aren't the silky threads beautiful in the sun?

Inside the pods, we could see the neatly arranged rows of the hundreds of seeds. Hopefully, many of them will find friendly homes to repopulate our roadsides next summer and beckon the Monarchs that love them!



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