Almanack Contributor Paul Hetzler

Paul Hetzler

Paul Hetzler has been an ISA Certified Arborist since 1996. His work has appeared in the medical journal The Lancet, as well as Highlights for Children Magazine.You can read more of his work at PaulHetzlerNature.org or by picking up a copy of his book Shady Characters: Plant Vampires, Caterpillar Soup, Leprechaun Trees and Other Hilarities of the Natural World


Sunday, September 25, 2022

Tree Slime – Who You Gonna Call?

Cast members of the new Ghostbusters film aren’t the only ones getting slimed – trees sometimes get slathered in slime flux as well. Many kinds of trees are subject to sludge assaults, with elms, apples, oaks, maples, and walnuts being among the more vulnerable species. Tree-goo, unlike the Psychomagnotheric Slime in Ghostbusters, is basically harmless. In fact, it can be beneficial. Also known as bacterial wetwood, slime flux is pretty much what it sounds like: wet nastiness that oozes from a bark crack, V-shaped trunk union, or pruning wound like an eternal fountain of fetid foam.

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Thursday, September 15, 2022

Secret Language of Mushrooms

Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland was chock-a-block full of whimsical characters such as a hookah-smoking caterpillar and a bloodthirsty Queen of Hearts playing-card. Although animals and some objects in the story are able to speak, somehow the idea of a talking mushroom was too far-out even for Carroll’s rich imagination. The book depicts a colorful hallucinogenic Amanita muscaria mushroom on which Alice dines (without so much as a parental warning) to become large or small. But while the Cheshire cat is chatty, the mushroom remains mum.

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Monday, September 5, 2022

Reading Bug Tracks on Tea Leaves

From palm-reading to watching Fox News, humans throughout the ages have sought knowledge through some decidedly irrational means. But every now and then, superstition pays off. For example, studying the pattern of coffee grounds in the bottom of one’s cup, a practice known as tasseomancy, will nearly always reveal that someone forgot to put a filter in the coffeemaker basket. And haruspicy, the study of the fresh entrails of a gutted animal, is consistently right in concluding the animal is dead.

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Thursday, September 1, 2022

Tree Sign Language: Early Fall Color

Deciduous trees, ice-cream stands, and marinas close each fall for the same reason: as daylight dwindles and cold creeps in, they become less profitable. When income dips down to equal the cost of doing business, a wise proprietor will turn out the lights and lock the doors until spring. Some enterprising holdouts stay open longer. Perhaps they have less competition, or a better location. Conversely, a few close shop at the first whiff of autumn. Those are the ventures which just scrape by at the height of summer. I’m talking about trees here, of course. Trees whose leaves show color ahead of their same-species peers are doing so because they are barely breaking even.

» Continue Reading.


Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Anarchy is Bad for Picnics

I’m not one to shed a tear when authoritarian rulers die, but once they’re gone, picnics become a lot more dangerous. As summer wanes, the original queen in every yellowjacket wasp colony dies – having a few thousand babies in the course of one season is enough to tire any Queen Mum to death. The colony raises new queens as the old one starts to forget the names of her offspring and where she left her reading glasses. But when the feisty new regals emerge, the young queens run off with the nearest male wasps for an mating orgy, after which they hide in rotten logs or nearby attics for the winter. With no one to keep the kids in line, social order disintegrates within the colony.

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Wednesday, August 24, 2022

Mind Control

If you believe we’re the master of our actions, think again. Better yet, have a fungus, bacterium, or protozoan tell you what to think. Jedi mind tricks are nothing compared to what microbes can do to animals, human and otherwise. You’ve likely heard that mice and rats infected with Toxoplasma gondii, a protozoan parasite that causes toxoplasmosis, lose their fear of cats because the pathogen initiates “epigenic remodeling.” In other words, T. gondii changes the expression of rat DNA to its advantage. As a result of this “remodeling,” infected rats and mice become sexually aroused by cat urine and seek it out, to their detriment obviously. In this way, T. gondii infects more cats.

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Friday, August 19, 2022

Security Lights Threaten Faerie Lights

As a kid, many a June twilight was spent trailing the beacons of fireflies in the deepening dusk to try and catch them in my hands. I was endlessly enthralled. Endlessly until Mom called to clean up for bed, at least. It pleases me that my own two children went through this phase, presenting me with Mason jars of flashing green magic before they released “their” fireflies outdoors. For the longest time, I remained enchanted by those shimmering, summer-night faerie lights. These days I’m charmed only by the memory of such. They’re nearly gone from our farm now, a paltry few flashing in a meadow that once hosted a Milky Way of moving lights.

 

With 2,000 known species, fireflies are native to both the Americas and Eurasia. In the larval stage, they’re carnivorous, and eat many insects we consider pests. You may see young fireflies, grub-like “glowworms,” in the lawn or flower bed. Larvae also feed on worms, slugs and snails before wriggling down into the soil or other protected space to overwinter. After a short pupal stage, they emerge to mate. Adults mainly subsist on pollen and nectar, though a few don’t eat at all in their brief grown-up phase.

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Monday, August 1, 2022

Saving Face

Apparently, if you suck face for too long, you can become part of that visage, fused forever. And by “you” I mean all the Demodex folliculorum skin mites that read this essay. It was news to me that our faces are like high-rise condos for microscopic skin mites which live in our hair follicles and suck out the yummy, gummy skin flakes that accumulate within. I guess they’re like remoras for people. As if that was not unsettling enough, these tiny critters haul themselves out of our greasy pores at night to crawl across our sleeping mugs and fornicate.

Unlike all other mite species, the male D. folliculorum has a penis in the middle of his back, toward the front, like a wee dorsal fin. The menacing score from the film “Jaws” would set the stage perfectly as a male emerges under a female mite in slow-motion (which happens to be their top speed) and does the mite-baby dance right under our nose. Literally, in this case. Outside of the unfortunate detail that you’re now aware of these facts, Demodex folliculorum generally do not cause us any harm. Although in rare instances people can develop an allergy to them, scientists think skin mites actually help us by keeping pores open.

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Friday, July 29, 2022

Daycare Forests

Although the Grimm Brothers’ tale of Hansel and Gretel surviving alone in the woods after being abandoned by their parents is based on a grim reality – the famine of 1315-1317 – there are compelling reasons to take kids into a forest today. As long as they are kept out of the clutches of evil witches, and are brought to their respective homes right afterward. Research on the health benefits of being in a forest environment is so compelling that urban daycares in Finland “built” forests for kids to use.

 

As part of a study on childhood immune systems and overall health, these ersatz woodlands were made by spreading topsoil over play yards, which had been either gravel or concrete. The soil was then planted with native trees, shrubs, and flowers. For obvious reasons, gingerbread houses were not included in the forest plots. The idea that immersion in nature helps us feel good is old news, of course. Patients in rooms with tree views have shorter hospital stays and report less pain as compared to those who do not have access to a natural vista.

» Continue Reading.


Friday, July 22, 2022

The Giant Joro Spider

First your car catches fire, and then your house. Worse yet, your date kills you and devours your flesh without so much as an apology. Yeah, spiders are creepy (I’ll explain). Arachnophobia, the fear of spiders, reportedly affects from three to six percent of us worldwide. In fact, it’s the most common phobia among humans (I assume the fear of humans is the most prevalent phobia among other animals, spiders included). Experts aren’t sure why we’re so scared of web-spinning arachnids, although evolutionary selection and family genetics are likely involved.

Cultural conditioning plays a role as well. In the US, for example, up to 15% of the population have some degree of arachnophobia, more than twice the global average. And a 1991 study in the UK found that 78% of Londoners surveyed expressed a general dislike of spiders. Here in the northern latitudes, we currently have no resident species of venomous spider, although that may eventually change as the climate warms. On rare occasions, the northern black widow (Latrodectus variolus) has been found as far north as southern Ontario and Québec. But the northern black widow is not aggressive, and its bite, while unpleasant, is not deadly.

» Continue Reading.


Monday, July 18, 2022

Nature’s Dental Plan

The vast majority of people have no dental coverage, or at best have a less-than-stellar plan which only pays if you use their provider in the Outer Hebrides who works on alternate Tuesdays in April, although you’re still on the hook for a $5,000 deductible. Given a few recent discoveries, however, it looks like insurers could give us perfect teeth and yet save piles of money in the long run by taking cues from nature.

With a single up-front procedure, we could get self-replacing or unbreakable teeth like those found in certain animals. Of course, this would require the use of a gene-editing tool such as “Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats,” or CRISPR. The acronym is fitting: one of its first miracles was an apple that stays crisper even if sliced and left out for ages. Nature’s answer to the Twinkie, I suppose.

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Thursday, June 23, 2022

Ginseng: The Root to Health

The media trope of an aged character with their nightstand chock-full of pill bottles may be an unfair cliché, but observing family and friends in their 70’s and 80’s, I’d say it has at least some validity. I’m sure anyone who take numerous meds would like a single fix-all product, a universal remedy. For over a thousand years, an assortment of aches and ailments have been treated by such a panacea, the root of a medicinal plant we know as ginseng. This term is derived from Chinese words for man-root, a reference to its typically forked shape, though Western taxonomists dubbed it Panax, “cures all.”

The genus Panax comprises about 17 species (there’s some dispute), nearly all of which are found in the northern hemisphere. While Korean ginseng is often stocked in health-food stores, our American ginseng is equally good. As for its properties, claims run the gamut. Maladies which could be managed through ginseng include cancer, diabetes, hepatitis, chronic fatigue, dementia, heart disease, arthritis, and immune deficiency. Controlled studies prove ginseng enhances cognition, reduces inflammation, improves stamina, and lessens the severity of the flu. Evidence hints at other possible benefits such as erectile function, but researchers need to apply more rigor to say for sure. Scientific rigor, I mean.

» Continue Reading.


Friday, June 10, 2022

Wildflower PR Failures

Monarchon Milk Weed (Diane Chase Photo)

Some beneficial wild plants suffer from reputation: To nettle someone means to annoy them, and nettle plants are in fact covered with hollow micro-spikes that inject a skin irritant. But nettles are also an early-spring cooked green par excellence. 

Other plants are victims of poor branding. Critical to the survival of monarch butterflies, milkweed is delicious when cooked. Jewelweed, native to wetlands, contains a sap which counteracts poison ivy, and its orange or yellow orchid-like flowers attract hummingbirds and butterflies. Yet both plants have names which define them as undesirable. 

» Continue Reading.


Friday, June 3, 2022

Trees for a Changing Climate

My ex-wife gave me a shirt that reads “Change is Good. You Go First” when our divorce was finalised, a much-appreciated bit of humour in the midst of a challenging time. It’s hard to find the mirth in some changes, especially when we don’t have a say in them. Climate change is a good example.

Global temperatures are rising at an ever-increasing rate. Extreme weather events are becoming more frequent and severe with time, and no amount of denial will make it go away. We have to learn to roll with this one. We can’t stop climate change tomorrow, but we can “trick” it by updating the kinds of trees we consider for home and community planting. A warmer world affects trees in a myriad ways: Record wet seasons like in 2013, 2017, and 2019 allow normally weak foliar pathogens to spread and flourish, becoming primary agents of mortality.

» Continue Reading.


Thursday, May 19, 2022

Call the Dogs off the Lions

Why do we hate lions? For reasons that are beyond any logic I can see, we have been convinced that dandelions are posies non grata in our landscapes. Yet they are a critical food source for native pollinators, vitamin-packed culinary delights, and multi-purpose herbal remedies. I’d say that’s not bad for a “weed.”

In fact, dandelion is so well-respected that it bears the Latin name Taraxicum officinale, roughly meaning “the official remedy for all disorders.” It has many reported health benefits, including as a liver support, for alleviating kidney and bladder stones, and as a poultice for boils. I don’t pretend to know every past and present medicinal use of the plant, and I recommend consulting an herbalist, as well as your doctor, before trying to treat yourself.

That said, the University of Maryland Medical School website says this about dandelions: “Preliminary animal studies suggest that dandelion may help normalize blood sugar levels and lower total cholesterol and triglycerides while raising HDL (good) cholesterol in diabetic mice. Researchers need to see if dandelion will work in people. A few animal studies also suggest that dandelion might help fight inflammation.”

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