Monday, September 28, 2009

Mysterious Mushrooms

Early yesterday morning my husband and I went birding at the Elm Fork Nature Preserve in Carrollton, Texas. It is a city-owned preserve with wetlands and a pond, and it hosts a wide variety of plants and animals. A small center on the site hosts nature walks and classes for children and scout groups, and a nice mulch trail enscribes a circle through the park. In the past we have seen several types of snakes along the trail.

Unfortunately for us this weekend, the birding was rather lousy, and we couldn't get good looks at any birds. So instead of looking up, I started looking down.

And what do you think I found? Mushrooms!

The Dallas area is just drying out from a week of very cool, wet weather, which was generally welcomed because we were in a drought. A surprise result of this damp weather seems to be an explosion in the local mushroom population. I had already noticed this to some extent in our suburban yards, but that was nothing compared with what I saw Sunday at the nature preserve.

I was excited to see many different varieties of mushrooms almost everywhere I looked. I am not a mycologist, nor am I a mushroom hunter. I don't know the names of most of the mushrooms, nor which ones are safe to eat, so I just look at them and don't touch. Some can be quite poisonous.

Actually, I love to take nature photos, and I think mushrooms are often quite picturesque. Something about them is cute and whimsical, not to mention downright magical in the way they sprout suddenly and then die seemingly overnight. Much folklore has grown to surround mushrooms, from tales of fairies' dancing among them to stories about their use as toadstools. One of my favorite sayings is that mushrooms look like umbrellas because of the wet places they grow!

This one, in fact, does look like a little gnome umbrella.

This round white one looks like a supermarket button mushroom.

These large brownish-yellow ones weren't that attractive, but they were among the largest mushrooms I saw.

I love these three grouped together on a tree like a little family.

Oops! Don't touch that! I think it's poison ivy, which is rampant in north Texas.

This little yellow mushroom was bent over but rather cute.

I think these odd little ones are a type of Bird's Nest fungus. Some look as if they have tiny eggs inside their little brown cups. There were round patches of this fungus dotting the mulch footpath almost everywhere.

These mushrooms had lovely flared edges.

This one looks like a little Art Deco lamp.

Isn't this cozy pair just adorable?

This delicate white one looks like a sea urchin skeleton.

This shiny yellow one reminds me of the big banana slugs in the Pacific Northwest.

This one was luminously white.

I like the spots on this one.

These two look like little flowers.

I even saw this rather ugly but well-camouflaged slug tracking his way through some Bird's Nest fungus. He looks just like some kind of slimy animal dropping.

One severe handicap I faced when taking my fungus photos Sunday was the swarms of mosquitoes that were resting thickly on the shady forest floor. Unfortunately for me, damp weather brings out the skeeters as surely as the mushrooms. Every time I bent down close enough to smell the earthy scent of the mushrooms and try to focus my camera on one, the mosquitoes flew up and started buzzing around my face and landing on my nose.

The hazards of nature photography!

Oh, look ... a swamp! No wonder there were so many mosquitoes!

Next time, we're bringing the industrial-strength bug spray.

For more information about mushrooms, try visiting The Fungus Among Us.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Leapin' Lizards!

Here in Texas we have our share of nocturnal critters, but I think the nicest ones by far are these darling little geckos.

The baby gecko shown here is one I caught in a cup and took a picture of before I let him go outside. I think we must have had a new batch of babies a few weeks ago, because we kept finding little ones in corners and closets in the house.

These cute little lizards are common house geckos (Hemidactylus), which originated in tropical Asia but have now spread throughout the Southern United States and other parts of the world. The ones we get in north Texas are pale, practically transparent, with black-and-white striped tails. We didn't have these when I was growing up in California, but they live there now, too.

House geckos are small and fast, with sticky feet that help them walk up walls and across ceilings. In fact, the only known surface to which geckos cannot cling is Teflon! House geckos love to hang out both inside and outside of homes, especially near porch lights, where they can catch the insects they love to eat. Their nocturnal nature means they hide in little cracks during the day and come out to hunt at night with their keen eyes.

Because geckos eat roaches and other nasty insects, they are usually welcomed inside the home. In Hawaii, geckos are seen as good luck and are a big part of the local folklore.

Our house geckos in Texas are cute as can be, but unfortunately they don't like to be held. In fact, like many lizards, they often drop their tails when frightened so the predator (or little boy) becomes distracted by the still-wiggling tail and the rest of the gecko runs away. (I know this from experience.)

Here in Dallas, our geckos scurry by night around the front and back porches and sometimes hide by day in our mailbox.

As far as I'm concerned, they can stay and eat as many nasty bugs as they like.

Good evening, geckos!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Garden Discoveries

For the past week, we in north Texas have been having quite a bit of rain. It is rather unusual, and the days of rain have left the ground moist and the air humid.

As an unexpected gift, the rain has brought out many kinds of mushrooms. Driving around town yesterday, the kids and I saw many front yards where large, white, saucer-shaped mushrooms had sprouted up overnight as if by magic, leaving big fairy rings in the green grass.

In our yard alone, I saw at least three different types of mushrooms today. I was most enchanted to see these tiny yellow mushrooms peeking out of the drainage hole of a plastic pot. Aren't they the cutest little things? I don't know what they are, but when I looked on the other side, there were more poking out another hole!

I also saw a beautiful red hibiscus blooming. They do quite well here in the muggy Texas summers and add bright spots of color amid the green. Their petals look like a pinwheel.

I spied a little mourning dove that for days has been living under the bushes outside our dining room. It is small and unable to fly, so I think it must still be a juvenile.

I tossed him some birdseed and hope he will soon grow strong enough to fly away safely.

From little mushrooms to little birds, our garden is full of happy surprises.

I can't wait to see what pops up next!

Friday, September 18, 2009

A Hidden Jewel

Gardening is a fun hobby. You never know what surprises you'll see, especially here in Texas.

More than a year ago, my husband planted some clematis seeds out front, expecting them to take off and cover our house with prolific, showy blooms. The garden books say they are "easy to grow" and even "somewhat aggressive."

But things don't always go according to plan.

Our little seeds did almost nothing for a long time, then finally started growing into shy little vines. I wasn't even sure if they were clematis because it had been so long since the seeds were sown.

But guess what! A few days ago I happened to look down and there, in the flowerbed, on a foot-long vine, was a beautiful, perfect, purple flower! I don't know what variety of clematis ours is, but it proved it is "The Little Vine That Could."

I love taking pictures of my flowers, and it's a good thing I do, because this bloom didn't stick around. Maybe next year we'll get more than one flower. In fact, I'm looking forward to it.

Gardeners are eternal optimists!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Home Is Where the Heart Is

"Give a little love to a child, and you get a great deal back."
-- John Ruskin (1819-1900)

Last month we visited relatives in Indiana, and we had a great time geocaching, going on nature walks, picking blackberries and birding. On one of our little walks, my youngest found this rock and gave it to me. I just had to share it with you. Isn't it cute? I placed it in my flowerbed as a new steppingstone by the outdoor faucet.

Of all my souvenirs from Indiana, I think this one is my favorite. It won't ever wear out or go bad, and it will always remind me of a little person who saw a heart and thought of me.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Clean and Green

There's a new "green" trend these days, and like many "green" trends, it hearkens back to the past as a way to make the future more environmentally friendly.

Since my college days, I've dutifully recycled my paper, cans, boxes and used motor oil, kept my shades down in the summer, walked or biked when possible, conserved water and even tried cloth diapers and composting. But a couple of months ago, my husband challenged me to cut back on our clothes-dryer use, and he hung up a simple line in our back yard.

Now, I have memories of hanging out and bringing in clothes from our backyard line when I was a kid, but I admit I wasn't thrilled at the prospect of adding more housework to my current list. With three very busy kids (and two in football), we go through a lot of stain remover, and I wash about one (BIG) load a day. Yet I knew I had to "walk the talk" and give this a try.

After stringing up more line (so I can actually hang at least one full load) and buying more clothespins, I started hanging up all our laundry, and I've found I actually like it.

There are many good reasons to eschew the clothes dryer. Not only does hanging your clothes out save money and energy (clothes dryers account for up to 15 percent of the energy used in the United States!), but it uses fewer chemicals (no fabric-softener sheets) and is easier on your clothes (less wear on your clothes means less lint in the lint trap). It only takes a few minutes' more work, and your clothes and linens end up with a fresh, natural scent that isn't from a bottle.

Sure, there are some drawbacks. One of my children complains about his now-crunchy underwear, and the birds have left a few small "calling cards" now and then. But overall, I find my new ritual rather relaxing and enjoyable. For a few minutes, I get to escape our noisy house and think my own quiet thoughts amid the birdsong and airy breezes. And that nice, fresh scent is really soothing when you climb between your sheets.

Now you've probably heard that you should never air your dirty laundry in public, but what about your clean laundry? Throughout the world, clotheslines have been the norm for thousands of years. In many parts of the world, electric clothes dryers are still considered a luxury. Only in the United States has the once-ubiquitous clothesline now become so old-fashioned that it is actually outlawed in many locations for "aesthetic" reasons. Think about it: In how many upscale neighborhoods do you now see clean clothes blowing in the wind? It's another one of those time-honored traditions that could be in danger of being forgotten if not for its preservation by a few nostalgic and practical folks.

With all the talk now about global climate change and energy consumption, it's nice to know a simple alternative such as air drying your clothes can be an effective way to fight pollution and save energy. It is estimated that if we all hung our clothes out to dry, we'd save enough energy to shut down several power plants. Isn't that a worthwhile idea?

One movement that is trying to do just that is called Project Laundry List. Its website is a great resource for all questions relating to air drying, and its members are lobbying the public to turn off their clothes dryers as a way to help the environment.

Here in Texas, it's so easy to use a clothesline. We have more hot summer sun here than we could ever want or need, and on a dry, 100-degree day, my clothes are done in less than an hour. Luckily I have no community regulations against air-drying my clothes, and I like the fact that I'm actually using some of that dang-blasted heat for a good purpose.

I've found a darling little book that tells all about the history and use of clotheslines. Called "The Clothesline," by Irene Rawlings and Andrea Vansteenhouse, it is packed with photos, anecdotes and antique images. It's a fun read, and it recalls the days when every housewife had a weekly laundry routine, and nosy neighbors judged others by the way they hung out their clothes. Like aprons, fresh-baked bread and homemade quilts, clotheslines are a symbol of humble simplicity.

It's wonderful to know that even in these modern times of traffic, TV and electronic gizmos, it's still possible to refresh your laundry and your mind by the little task of hanging your clothes on a clothesline.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Our New Picket Fence

We live in Texas, where the wind blows almost ceaselessly and sometimes turns violent. Straight-line winds frequently rival tornadoes in their intensity, and fences around here usually die a catastrophic death before they succumb to old age.

Last year a particularly strong storm swept down our street and felled limbs and trees for half a mile. It even crumpled a giant electrical tower only a block from our house. We were lucky; the wind only knocked down one of our fences.

It turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

After the storm, my husband dragged the flattened fence to the curb. Lo and behold, we were surprised to see a transformation in our yard. We liked it even better than before! The old fence was boring and ugly, blocked our view and made one corner of our back yard a desolate dead-end. So instead of replacing our old fence with another just like it, we decided to do something old-fashioned, yet rather radical for our cookie-cutter neighborhood, which sadly is characterized more by nine-foot "privacy fences" than by wide open spaces.

We built a picket fence.

My engineer husband designed the fence, and all three kids helped us paint it, a la Tom Sawyer. Paint got everywhere, but they had fun. (This is not recommended for those with perfectionist tendencies.) The new fence is white, airy, and such an improvement.

When I was a girl, my great-grandparents lived in a little white house in a small town in California. I remember visiting their home and thinking it was the most adorable little house that ever was. It had a large porch with a place to visit, a giant hydrangea beside the porch, a rose garden along one side, a cool basement housing preserves, and a white picket fence with a little gate out front.

I loved visiting their house, and I always wanted a white picket fence of my own someday. Now I finally have one, and I love it! Its low profile opens up our yard so we can enjoy it more, it frames a pretty view, and it adds charm and personality to our red-brick home.

Picket fences have long been a symbol of Americana, and for good reason. Their quaint good looks dress up even the plainest front yard, and they look great with flowers peeking through the slats. Since we built our picket fence, we've enjoyed gardening, birding and just relaxing along that side of our yard. We've even seen more birds visit our backyard feeder because the increased spaciousness and visibility have made birds feel safer and more welcome. This summer we had a family of mallard ducks slide through the fence every day to forage under the feeder! We know that never would have happened if we'd still had up our tall wooden fence.

With just a little bit of initiative, we've revived a little bit of history, and we think our new fence is not only more appealing, but more practical than its predecessor.

Now if I could only get my hydrangeas to grow as big as Granny's!