Monday, July 27, 2009

Black Rat Snake

Black Rat Snakes (Elaphe obsoleta obsoleta), are one of my favorite snakes. They are abundant and probably one of the most commonly seen snakes in Missouri. As young they look completely different from their adult counterpart. They are grayish-tan with darker patterns. As they age they take on their trademark glossy black coloring. The pattern fades to a somewhat reddish tint, then disappears almost entirely in older snakes. They are a rather large snake reaching lengths of up to 6 feet. They are relatively tolerant of people and tame down easily. Baby black snakes will bite and act aggressive, as is typical of most baby snakes. Seems they haven't learned what is dinner and what isn't, and bite at everything. They use that aggressiveness to defend themselves as well. I suppose if someone or something 50X larger than me grabbed me I would bite too.
Another defense mechanism they will implement is to shake their tail in dried grasses or dry leaves, this rattling sound mimics the dangerous rattle snake and may afford them some protection from predation or from being captured.
Last Tuesday I received a call at work from my mother, exclaiming that she couldn't get into the church where she was due at a meeting. I asked her "why not". She kind of laughed and said there was a snake sitting by the door and would not let her pass. Now you have to see the humor in this situation....a snake at church keeping members out? Hello...Adam and Eve all over again?
I told her I would be right there...I wasn't missing this for anything. I got to the church to find my mother and two other ladies standing on the sidewalk several feet away from a 4 foot long black rat snake. One of the women held a hanger ( was she planning to hang it out to dry?) The situation was humorous, but these ladies were trying their best to be brave; as well as get this snake away from the church. I moved it further down the sidewalk thinking it would leave the area once it realized it wasn't welcome. Oh couldn't be that easy. This snake decided to climb the wall of the church and try to enter through a dryer vent. "You've got to be kidding me!"
So I pulled him out of the dryer vent and ask if I could borrow the woman's hanger. I used the hanger to lift his head and I grabbed his tail and carried him a block away to a field of tall grasses. Hopefully he stayed put. He sure seemed determined to go to church!
I guess the congregation had a few laughs over the situation. One even suggested an exorcism of the church. The snake came on the tail end of finding a mouse and a bat in the church. Maybe a priest needs to be called?

I personally like snakes, and have two for pets that I use on a regular basis for educational programs. I find it gratifying to change peoples attitudes about these often misaligned creatures. With so much myth and mystery surrounding snakes, they are often mistakenly labeled the "bad guy" and destroyed needlessly. They are creatures to be viewed with a certain amount of awe. One game I like to play with the children at my programs is the "snake race". I ask for volunteers who wish to pretend they are a snake. After several children all excitedly come forward, I have them lay down on the floor, and place their arms and hands straight down their sides. Their legs have to be stretched out straight. In this prone position I tell them they have to race ( a predetermined distance) without using their arms, hands, legs or feet. No elbows, no knees. If they use any of these appendages, they are out. The last one left that crosses the finish line wins. They get to see just how hard it would be to move like a snake. Then I tell them how snakes are specially designed with hundreds of very strong muscles, and moving like a snake is natural to them. There is much laughing and cheering every time we play this game. The two black snakes pictured here were photographed on our farm. I love seeing them, and knowing what a great service they are performing by eating all those mice and rats residing on our farm as well.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009


These tiny Daisy-Like flowers are Common Fleabane (Erigeron annuus) also sometimes called Eastern Daisy Fleabane. They are native to the United States and can be found in a wide variety of habitats. Look for them on roadsides, ditches, open fields, meadows, prairies, waste ground and near stream sides. They can grow up to 5 feet tall, but the flowers are very tiny at 1/2 across. These flowers are generally white, but sometimes can take on a pink tint. They are in the same family of flowering plants as Asters. Daisy's have long been a favorite flower of mine, so their daisy-like appearance appeals to me. I have them coming up in my flower beds and I leave them. There is something so innocent and refreshing about daisy's.
Fleabane usually starts blooming in June and will continue to bloom until October. Their name of fleabane comes from the ancient belief that they could keep the scourage of fleas at bay. Domesticated sheep will eat this plant and can help keep it under control in areas where it grows and the sheep are allowed to graze. Deer will also eat the foliage, which helps keep it from becoming to invasive in some areas. This plant is considered by many to be a nuisance and nothing more than a weed that needs to be destroyed. I for one appreciate their simple beauty. Afterall one person's weed is another persons wildflower.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Feral Hemp

Feral Hemp, also know as "Ditch Weed" grows wild throughout much of the Midwest. According to a DEA report 99% of all marijuana destroyed by federal agencies was this wild variety and not cultivated marijuana. We have wild stands of this plant coming up in ditches and along fence rows on our farm. We spray it to kill it, and it seems to come up in other areas. This wild hemp was grown legally as a commercial crop for its fiber content. The government spends tax-payers money to eradicate the wild remnants of this plant, even though most of it is never harvested or presents any threat to public safety. In 2003, 4.5 million plants were destroyed in Missouri alone. More than 50% of all the States do not report their ditch weed eradication totals. Wild populations of this plant contain less that 0.1% of THC, which is the chemical property found in cultivated marijuana. This basically means that ditch weed is truly feral, having reverted back to an untamed state. More than 50 years ago this plant was grown for the fiber, it was used to make rope for use during WWII. Almost all plants found in the wild now are leftovers from those previously cultivated crops. I suppose some enterprising people would try to use this plant for the intention of getting high, but most likely it would be to no avail, as the chemical make up is different from plants grown for this purpose. I tease my in-laws about the wild ditch weed growing around our farm, telling them they better hope the authorities don't find it. I love it when they stammer and say "well we spray it all the time" LOL.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Soft Rushes

This plant mysteriously showed up in one of our farm ponds in Fillmore, MO. My brother-in-law had no idea where it had come from, or what it even was. It is an attractive plant, so it prompted me to ask around. Thanks to Scott Ryan one of the fisheries biologist at MDC I now have an accurate ID. This aquatic plant is called Soft Rush (Juncus effuses). In certain areas this plant could become invasive, but generally speaking it poses no threat of taking over your pond or other wet areas. They can be found in a wide variety of habitats, but almost always moist areas, near ponds, wetlands, marshes, and stream sides. This plant is beneficial to wildlife, the stems are used by muskrats to make their homes. The seeds are consumed by muskrats, squirrels, rabbits, songbirds, waterfowl gophers, and quail. This plant is also safe for humans as well. The shoots can be eaten raw, roasted or boiled. The seeds are also edible. Clusters of this plant provide cover for a variety of amphibians and waterfowl. This plant has also been used by the Japanese to weave their Tatami Mats. People have also used them to weave baskets. We will leave this plant in the pond and enjoy all the critters that will be attracted to it. Including the dragonflies who like to perch on its stems. I'm sure we will ponder for some time as to how it came to be in our pond. Perhaps the songbirds evacuated the seeds, or maybe a mammal did the same. Maybe waterfowl carried the seeds in on their webbed feet? Not sure how it came to us, it is one of those mystery's of nature, but it makes a nice attractive addition to the pond.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Honey Locust tree

Honey Locust (Gleditsia triacanthos) trees are native to Eastern North America, and are found in many types of habitats, but they seem to prefer moist river valleys. Growing to around 100 feet, they are a large tree. Probably the most impressive aspect of this tree is its thorns. These thorns can reach lengths of a foot, and are very painful if you happen to get stabbed by one or step on one. One spring a few years ago I was cleaning the remaining firewood off our porch, not realizing that my husband had been using honey locust trees to burn in our wood stove. As I was sweeping the bark and sawdust up I stepped back and ran one of these thorns through my shoe and about 3/4 of an inch into the arch of my foot. It was instant, excruciating pain! Having your foot impaled by one of these wicked thorns is an experience you won't soon forget. My foot swelled and hurt for weeks afterwards. One of the local trails where I regularly lead trail hikes for children has numerous honey locust trees, or thorn trees as they are often called, along the edges of the trail. I am always careful to point these trees out to the children and warn them to be careful where they step, sometimes the thorns are on the trail. When the thorns first appear they will be green, as they age they turn reddish, older thorns are gray and brittle (pictured). These thorns are most likely a form of protection for the tree. Not much can get past those thorns. Birds nest in the clusters of thorns with no fear of being bothered by mammals or snakes.
All is not evil with this amazing tree though. The seed pods are fascinating, they grow to about 7 to 8 inches and the pulp inside is where the tree gets its name. It is sweet and edible, akin to honey. The beans are said to taste like young peas. The Native Americans used it as part of their diet. It can even be fermented to make beer. The beans can also be used to form a type of coffee. A cousin to the honey locust tree is the black locust tree, the pods on this tree are poisonous, although the flowers are edible and are considered a delicacy, especially when they first appear and are fresh. Later blooms will be bitter and not as yummy. The seed pods on the honey locust tree were used to entertain toddlers many years ago, when they dry out the little beans inside will rattle when shaken. So in affect you have a nature-made rattle. These seed pods are a staple for squirrels and other small rodents who love the little beans inside. I often find these pods with holes eaten in them and all the beans gone. Honey Locust trees are a short lived tree, many only living 120 years, with a few specimens living to 150. This doesn't stop them from being plentiful, they spread exponentially. It doesn't take long for these trees to take over in a given area. We have many of them on our farm, and as I mentioned above my husband uses them as firewood, they burn hot and make a good overnight fire. Many landowners use them as fence posts because of their resistance to rot. The thorns of younger trees can even be used as nails in a pinch ( I can attest to this after having my shoe nailed to my foot). Many cultivars have been created from his tree and are planted as an ornamental. They are used as wind breaks, and in urban areas, near parking lots and sidewalks, where other trees have a hard time establishing themselves. They are also used in erosion control.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Gray Tree Frog

Tree frogs are one of my favorite frogs. There is something so darn cute about them. Pictured here is the "Gray Tree Frog" (Hyla versicolor). The species name comes from their ability to "change" color, just like a chameleon. Depending upon their environment they can change to varying shades of green or gray, white or even brownish, allowing them to blend in with their surroundings. Unlike the Chameleon the color change is slow, if you locate a dead or decaying tree frog chances are it will be predominately gray. The one pictured here in the bird house may actually be the same specimen. When I first spotted him Saturday he was gray, then yesterday he appeared again in the same house looking very green. So I am unsure as to whether I have two individuals that have taken up residence in the bird house or if it is the same one, and he is changing his color to suit his mood. The first picture is one that I spotted in a flower pot on our front porch and as you can see he is very green. The picture beside it is a baby I found on our grapes, she too looks very green, much like the leaves. One can assume this color changing ability gives them protection from predation. Like all frogs their life begins in water, for the tree frog tadpoles their life cycle is rather short, often times being complete in as little as two months. The newly emerged frogs are almost always green. In about 2 to 4 days they will take on the trademark gray color. These are a relatively small tree frog, reaching lengths up to 2 inches. The baby pictured here was about an inch long. A distinguishing characteristic of this species is bright yellow patches of color on the inside of their hind legs, this yellow is usually only visible when they crawl or hop. Tree frogs have toe pads or suction-cup-like pads on their toes to allow them to climb. Being boreal by nature you will find them near timbered areas, especially if a ready water supply is nearby. In our yard we have them hiding out behind the shutters on our house and living in bird houses near our goldfish pond. This particular species is found throughout the Eastern United States and into Texas. Another tree frog called the Copes Tree Frog is so similar the only accurate way to tell them apart is their call. Plus the Copes Tree Frog tends to be more of a southerly species. These frogs are predators of many types of insects, and are nocturnal in their habits. After a rain look for them in shallow water holes, often calling out for mates. Mating occurs throughout the spring and summer. When a receptive female is located she will give the male a nudge to indicate she is approving of his attention. He will then commence with mating by climbing onto her back. After breeding, the female will lay up to 2000 eggs in a shallow body of water. In approximately a week the eggs will hatch and in about 2 months the new little frogs will begin to appear. These little frogs make excellent pets. They require very little in the way of attention. A ready supply of water and crickets, a 10 gallon aquarium and a daily misting is all that is required. An old wives tale stated that these frogs were poisonous if handled, this is not true. All frogs secrete substances from their skin, and there are species of frogs found all around the world that are potentially harmful to humans or even fatal. These frogs are not one of them, they are harmless. Each evening as we sit outside we hear these little Romeos singing their little hearts out looking for their Juliet. Truly one of the sounds of summer that I look forward to each year.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Poison Ivy, Virginia Creeper and a cure

Summer fun and poison ivy seem to go hand in hand. With hiking, camping and other outdoor activities becoming more and more popular more people are venturing into areas where this noxious plant grows. Seems in no time it can take over an area and grow to huge proportions.
As a child we learned a rhyme to help us keep clear of this plant.

"Leaves of three leave it be, leaves of five let it thrive"

Many of us know that poison ivy has three distinct leaves in a lovely shade of green, but did you know it can grow not only as a vine, but as a bush? Sometimes it will take on such huge proportions that it will look like a tree. In Missouri poison ivy grows state wide. Two other potential problem plants that grow in some parts of the state are poison oak and poison sumac. In Northwest Missouri where I live we do not have poison oak or sumac. Many people hack away at vines containing five leaves mistakenly believing this to be poison oak, it is not. Ivy and Oak both have 3 leaves. Sumac has 7 or more. These poisonous vines do not have 5 leaves. This harmless vine is Virginia Creeper. As you can see the Virginia Creeper and the Poison Ivy look very similar, if one didn't look closely one could assume it was poison oak or ivy. What causes the itchy rash? It is a substance called urushiol, this oil is very potent and a minuscule amount can cause a reaction in most people. In fact an amount as tiny as a pin head would be enough to cause a rash in 500 people. I've heard people say "I'm just not allergic to poison ivy" I say to you..."just wait". Your day is coming. I used to say the exact same thing, then I turned 35 and all that changed. I now get it on average 10 or more times per spring and summer season. While out mushroom hunting in April I accidentally brushed against a tree with poison ivy vining on it, and I ended up with one of the worse cases I've ever had, and now have two lovely large scars to show for it. While this plant is no ones favorite, all is not bad though. There is something quite pretty about the vine, especially in the fall when the leaves turn a pretty shade of red. The birds love it, the white berries are very tasty to them. Animals are able to rub against the plant with no ill effects and many species dine on the berries and suffer nothing more than a full stomach. Many people get a rash and have no idea how they got, claiming they had not been anywhere that the vine grows. Do you have pets that roam? If so, you can thank fluffy or fido. They pick the oils up off the plant as they pass through it and bring it home to share as they climb into your lap for nice little back scratch. The rash cannot be spread person to person except when the oils are still present. Therefore no need to worry if you accidentally touch someone with an obvious case of ivy rash, most likely the oils are long gone and all that remains are the blistery bumps and red rash. If you are burning wood and know that poison ivy was on the wood, STAY AWAY! The oils are released in the smoke and can be inhaled for one SERIOUS case of internal ivy rash.

Mother nature provided for us though, one plant is known to counteract the ill effects of poison ivy, and that plant is the Spotted Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis)(pictured). This plant generally grows in the vicinity of poison ivy, so it is a nice handy little cure if you know what to look for. Jewelweed is a smooth annual; 3-5 ft. tall with oval, round- toothed leaves; lower ones opposite, upper ones alternate. A bit trumpet shaped, the flowers hang from the plant much as a jewel from a necklace. Jewelweed blooms from May through October in the Eastern portion of the United States. It is often found growing near poison ivy or nettles. Breaking this plant open and rubbing the sap from the plant on skin that has been exposed to ivy, oak, sumac or other skin irritants can reduce your risk of an outbreak. If you already have a rash this plant can go a long way in relieving the itching and redness. Don't let the threat of this vine keep you from getting outside and exploring. After all being outside and having adventures makes life fun and exciting. Just be aware of what is around you and act accordingly.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Timber Rattlesnake

This menacing looking snake is the Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus). Don't you just love the species name? Horridus? Hinting at how horrible this snake can be? This is one of five venomous snakes in Missouri.
The other four are the 1.) Western Pgymy Rattlesnake (Sistrurus miliarius streckeri), 2.)Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake (Sistrurus catenatus catenatus), 3.) Osage Copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix phaeogaster), and the 4.) Western Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus leucostoma).
The timber rattlesnake is the largest of all the venomous snakes in Missouri, reaching lengths up to 5 feet. The largest recorded specimen in Missouri was 47 inches long. The all time record for this species in one recorded in Alabama, at a length of 6 feet 2 1/2 inches and weighing in at 5.5 pounds. That would be one seriously large timber rattler. They are a thick bodied snake and often times have a girth the size of a grown mans forearm. These are a beautiful snake, and they are highly variable in their coloration. They can have a base color of yellow, gray, tan, or brown with dark brown to blackish markings. The markings are like bands or v-shaped lines along the mid-body. Often there will be a rust colored dorsal stripe running the entire length of the body.The tail is black. The top of the head is gray, light tan or yellow and unmarked. As with all pit vipers they have deep pits on either side of their head. These pits are sensory pits and used to hunt prey. They feed on mostly mammals, but will also eat birds, frogs and other snakes. While they are capable of eating other venomous snakes they typically eat garter snakes. These are potentially one of the most dangerous venomous snakes in North America, largely due to their very large fangs and copious amounts of venom. Thankfully they are mild tempered and generally give plenty of warning before striking. The one pictured below that is very well camouflaged was found on our farm in Fillmore Missouri. Yesterday my husband and I were there so I could do some bug hunting. We are aware that rattlesnakes reside on this farm and were being very careful as we walked through the tall grasses. I walked by a tree that had a small pile of yellow limestone rocks near it. It looked like a good spot for a snake to sun itself after a cool night like we had the night before. I noticed nothing. My husband walked right behind me, and said "There is a snake" I turned around and noticed he was pointing to the rock pile I was just near. I went back to the pile and sure enough there was small timber rattler laying in the grasses near the rocks. These snakes have amazing camo. I walked within 3 feet of him and never spotted him. He was about 2 feet long. Joey got a stick and gently nudged him so we could see where his head was, and it took off behind the tree and disappeared. He showed his head for about 1.1 second, certainly not long enough to get a picture. I at least got a picture of how cryptic their coloring is, and I found out how very easy it is to walk right past one and not know it is there. He did not rattle at any time, nor did he show any aggression.
Unfortunately these snakes are in sharp decline in much of their range, and have disappeared entirely from numerous counties throughout Missouri. Largely this is due to loss of habitat and persecution by people who fear being bitten. They are state protected and should be left alone. While I would not want to find one in my back yard, I certainly can appreciate them in the wild where they belong. I often try to educate people about their importance to an ecosystem and that losing them could cause untold amounts of devastation. Fear of snakes is so deeply rooted in many people that they feel the only good snake is a dead snake, and this tends to be doubled when it comes to the venomous variety. I could find no records of any deaths in Missouri due to this snake or any other venomous snake. Most bites occur in men ages 18-25. My guess is alcohol is involved. If you are inebriated, and out messing with a creature that you KNOW has the potential to bite and kill you, you deserve to be bitten! Leave them in peace and they will leave you alone. Above all else, if you want to see one of these snakes in the wild, leave the alcohol at home! If one can look past their own fears, to the beauty of these misunderstood creatures, they would see an animal that is fascinating in its creepiness and beautiful in its lethalness. Maybe next time I will find one and get a better picture.

References: Wikipedia
The Amphibians and Reptiles of Missouri By: Tom R. Johnson
First photo borrowed from

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Please come out and play

This little squirrel is one we raised. Our cat, Casey was put outside while the squirrel was allowed to run and play. Once contained in its cage, Casey could come back in. In this picture the squirrel discovered the window, and the cat jumped onto the bird feeder and peeked in at the squirrel. The cat is looking so longingly at that baby squirrel, as if to say "Please come out and play". The squirrel is looking at Casey as if he would like nothing more. We frequently take care of abandoned or orphaned squirrels, often having as many as 10 at one time. They are so much fun to raise and release.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Tractor Parade

I thought I would take a departure from all things "natural" and share with you what is fast becoming a Northwest Missouri tradition, the annual "Show-Me Tractor Cruise". The tractor parade was held June 27th this year. Three of the past 4 years it has went by our farm. We enjoy sitting out in the yard and watching all the different tractors go by. Generally speaking there are well over 300 tractors present. John Deere, International, Massey Fergusen, Massey Harris, IHC, Oliver, and many others all make a showing. It is great to see so much of American history all together in one spot. Many women show up to ride along as passengers, but many also drive their own tractors. The young girl pictured here on the John Deere is a friend of my daughter's her name is Lindsey. She looked like she was having a blast. One tractor driven by a woman even depicted a sign stating "Yes, Girls drive tractors!" Go Girl Power! The parade starts in Savannah, MO at Derr equipment. The route varies each year after they leave Derr's. This year they went east towards Helena, MO where they stopped at the celebration of Helena's 100th park opening. After they left there they headed to St. Joseph, MO and stopped at Word of Life church for an extended break. From there they went north to the Village Shopping center for another break. Then it was back on the road to Savannah, where they were treated to BBQ picnic at Derr Equipment. Each year Joey says he will enter some of our tractors. I think he should. So many of these tractors represent a bygone era of agriculture. As farming becomes more modernized, just like so many other things these days, these tractors are considered by many to be outdated dinosaurs. What a wonderful way to show our pride as midwesstern farmers and lovers of tractors!