The Wonders of Pokeweed

Flora and Fauna Fridays

A weekly entry about the life of our estuary and watershed.

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by Erik Baard

Imagine a common wild berry that not only feeds and protects wildlife but is potentially the next big thing in solar energy. Ah, the wonders of American pokeweed!

American pokeweed (Phytolacca americana),¬†flowers in summer and its purple berries are ripe in autumn. So why write about it now? HarborLAB harvests pokeberries in late February when they’re dry and less messy, and birds have had a chance to subsist on them through the winter. Besides, few native plants have given us a better weekend song than “Polk Salad Annie.” ¬† ūüôā

 

The song name derives from the traditional dish, “poke sallet.” The lyrics offer a great description of pokeweed, except that composer¬†Tony Joe White¬†mistakes the species for being specific to the South. This hardy perennial grows at forest edges and in sandy beaches across all but eight of the 48 contiguous states. It thrives even in eastern Canada, far from White’s home state of Louisiana. HarborLAB grows it at our GreenLaunch on the Newtown Creek, and we’ve encountered it on shores from Staten Island to South Brother Island. We make pokeweed seed balls and distribute them in areas where city, state, and federal park ecologists determine 8′ high bush’s deep tap root can stabilize shorelines and dunes, and protect the interior from storm surge.

As a central part of our GreenLaunch habitat area, the white flowers are a favorite of beneficial insects like our favorite pollinators, bees and butterflies. The leopard moth feeds on the plant during its larval stage. Northern mockingbirds, gray catbirds, northern cardinals, mourning doves, cedar waxwings, brown thrushers, and other birds eat the berries. Our resident raccoon can enjoy noshing on a bit of pokeweed too. Few mammals are so lucky, and for some the plant is deadly. Humans must strip young stems and leaves and boil them three times and toss the water after each cycle. After boiling removes the toxins, many fry the soft greens. “Poke salad” remains part of African American and Appalachian cultures of the South, taught earlier by American Indians, who also used the plant for herbal medicine.

Pokeweed, especially its berries, should be handled with care because it causes rashes on some people, and the poison can be absorbed through skin or open cuts. Never eat the berries and roots, which cause severe vomiting and even, in rare cases, death. Infants are especially vulnerable. Crushed seeds release the greatest toxic loads. Longer-term concerns like mutations and cancer are suspected, according to the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center.

On the bright side, literally, Wake Forest University Center for Nanotechnology and Molecular Materials Director David Carroll was inspired to test pokeberry juice as an “agrisolar dye.” Purple pokeberry ink would replace the silicon normally sandwiched between the plates of a photovoltaic panel. Carroll envisions this as a cheap way for developing nations to produce solar energy hardware locally, even in poor soil. That’s a prescription for either growing a solar revolution or unleashing an invasive organism.

 

 

 

Raccoons’ Amazing Use of Water

 

Flora and Fauna Fridays

A weekly entry about the life of our estuary and watershed.

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by Erik Baard

HarborLAB volunteers (including a little one, Lily) recently spotted snow tracks at the GreenLaunch. Not our usual guard cat prints. The fingers weren’t webbed. At first we thought we might have fresh evidence of our resident muskrat. The tracks led up and down our growing native habitat slope from the water to the uplands, so that made sense. Ah, but there was no tail line. That leaves us with¬†raccoon!

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Similar animal tracks. Credit: Lawrence Wade, The Old Naturalist. 

 

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Raccoon forepaw. Credit: Gaby Muler via Wikimedia Commons. 

The lack of webbing is very unusual for mammals in the order¬†carnivora. What makes raccoon paws absolutely unique, however, is their sensitivity. More than 60% of the sensory perception areas of the raccoon’s cerebral cortex is given to touch. A raccoon’s dexterous fore paws are covered in tiny sensory spikes. The density raccoon pressure sensitive cells¬†(called mechanoreceptor cells) is quintuple that of most mammals, matched only by primates like humans.

The primacy of their fore paws is reflected in the species’ names, including proto-Algonquin via Powhatan ahrah-koon-em¬†(“one¬†who¬†scratches or rubs with its hands”) and part of the Latin one given by Carl Linnaeus (lotor¬†or “washer”). The myth that raccoons wash their hands or food is rooted in amateur observations of their actual use of water: when submerged the sensory micro-bristles soften and become even more sensitive. A raccoon dips objects in water, fully submerging its paws, to even more acutely feel its surfaces. This video¬†of a raccoon accidentally dissolving his treat of cotton candy is for only the most stone-hearted.

Even prolonged time in cold water doesn’t seem to diminish this sensitivity. Naturally this helps them to find small creatures, eggs, and some plants to eat in aquatic or muddy environments. Their fur is also well adapted to repel water.

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Once raccoons have learned of food sources, they won’t soon forget. In laboratory tests they remembered complex tasks for years afterward. Their ability to recall, problem solve, and think abstractly ranks them with Rhesus monkeys in evaluations of animal intelligence. So, say hello to our smart new neighbor! Maybe a furry new volunteer?

Naked Gobies in Newtown Creek

Flora and Fauna Fridays

A weekly entry about the life of our estuary and watershed.

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Naked Goby. (Smithsonian Environmental Research Center.)

 

by Erik Baard

Skinny dipping in the Newtown Creek Superfund Site might seem unwise, particularly in February, but it’s a way of life for naked gobies (Gobiosoma bosc). These very small, bottom-dwelling fish of the Eastern Seaboard and Gulf states are extremely common yet rare to see. That’s a shame because gobies — one of the most diverse families of fish, with over 2,000 species — have rich and fascinating lives packed into typically less than four inches and four years.

Ecologists for city, state, and federal agencies did encounter naked gobies in early studies to profile the life and pollutants of what became HarborLAB’s home waterway. They discovered an abundance of goby eggs at the mouth of the creek but not further in, indicating that spawning happened where cleaner East River waters swirled in with each tidal cycle. No surprise given that naked gobies and their eggs and spawn are often found in the fish-protecting screens covering intake tubes at the nearby Ravenswood Power Plant. Bear in mind, however, that this is opposite of the natural state of affairs. Fish normally lay eggs and spawn in sheltered areas outside the swift main channel of waterways. The East River is dredged, constricted by landfill, and edged with bulkheads that make for even faster currents. The slower-moving four-mile stretch of the Newtown Creek should by rights be the East River’s nursery.

As it is, only adult “gobies were prevalent in the mid-section of the Creek,” according to the Fish and Wildlife Service report linked above. Still, what a testament to this species’ hardiness, given that the creek bed (commonly described as being like “black mayonnaise”) is sedimented with toxins and stripped of naked gobies’ natural habitat of oyster beds and salt grass clusters. Females prefer to lay their amber-colored eggs into empty oyster shells. In the Newtown Creek, they make do with rock, crumbled concrete bulkheads, partly interred plastic trash, bottles, and other debris. In the winter, they bury themselves into that poisonous black mayonnaise.

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(South Florida Water Management District)

Naked gobies feed on worms and small crustaceans, which concentrate in their tissue the toxins of a century of oil spills, refinery and tannery effluents, ¬†and illegal dumping. ¬†Cloaked by the muck and the murk, these “naked” prey fish for better known species like striped bass, eels, and bluefish¬†are still taking no chances. The species is scaleless and camouflaged in green and brown blotches. Their eyes are close together, atop the head. At a glance they look like lizards. The young are translucent.

Naked goby pelvic fins have evolved to fuse into suction cups, a neat trick for anchoring themselves. Scientists have noted that gobies can remember how to navigate complicated obstacle courses for at least 40 days, and judge and remember spatial relationships, useful for hopping from tidal pool to tidal pool. Some cousin species of goby have also evolved complex behaviors and symbiotic relationships. For example, one species climbs waterfalls that to human scale is the equivalent of climbing Mt. Everest three times over — check out this video!¬†Others groom the parasites off larger fish. Another enjoys an “Odd Couple” relationship with a large burrowing shrimp. The fish and crustacean cohabitate and deposit eggs in the same burrow. They touch each other (with tail and antennae respectively) constantly to know if the other is agitated or retreating, relying on each other’s complementary senses. And we are still discovering new species of goby!

 

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Naked Gobi range. 

H2O2: Bubbles Without Troubles

Water Wonk Wednesdays! 

A weekly column on water news, tips, and innovations.

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Even the simple act of cleaning can be chemically problematic! This is especially the case for HarborLAB because we plan to reuse “gray water” to nurture orchard trees, fruiting vines, and native plant areas through underground irrigation hoses.

The antibacterial agent triclosan became nearly ubiquitous but ran afoul of regulators because it does little for human health, disrupts the endocrine systems of marine organisms, and encourages the evolution of antibiotic resistant strains of microbes. Chlorine bleach lasts a long time in our waterways and is toxic at every stage of its existence, emitting pollution in production and forming compounds like dioxin (a carcinogen) with the chemicals it encounters in our estuary. Phosphates can spur algal overgrowth that snuffs out other marine life. Traditional soaps can contain salts, which over time ruin upland soil for plants not evolved to tolerate high salinity.

Here are our recommendations for simple cleaners that will keep soil and water healthy and happy:

Hydrogen Peroxide (H2O2) Solution: Sunshine can fade many stains, and for tougher ones this kissing cousin of water does a great job. Its reaction with the organic compounds of stains — especially the catalase present in living things — breaks chemical bonds and results in molecular oxygen (O2) bubbles that lift particles away. The other product is water.

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Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps: For simple scrubbing and bathing, the liquid line of this old standard is powerful and safe, according to California-based Ecology Center, which developed a great list of “dos and don’ts” for grey water management.

White Vinegar: You can combine this kitchen staple with hydrogen peroxide and soap to amplify their effectiveness. One trick is to spray surfaces with H2O2 and then white vinegar (acetic acid, or CH3CO2H, made by bacteria) before wiping. The acid neutralizes quickly and leaves no harmful traces. You can soak stained, smelly, and rusty objects in it too.