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


Monday, June 14, 2021

Money Trees

nickel treeIf money grew on trees it seems that could result in vast monocultures, with ruinous environmental impacts. I suppose it depends on currency. If the money tree produced only Iranian rials or Venezualan bolivars, we’d likely consider it a noxious weed.

On the South Pacific island of New Caledonia, there’s a rainforest understory tree that doesn’t bear money; it is money. More or less. The milky sap of Pycnandra acuminata is 25% nickel, the exact same percentage of the shiny metal that the US has been putting in its nickels for the past 155 years (for perspective, nickel ore of 2% is high). To me, the fact a tropical tree can bleed money is nowhere near as strange as the fact that the thing is alive at all, given that even small amounts of nickel – we’re talking below one percent – will kill most plants.

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Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Construction Damage: the Root of the Problem

rootsIf April showers bring May flowers, then May flowers bring backhoes. Sure it doesn’t rhyme, but as posies push up, construction crews and equipment also emerge, so maybe it’s true.

Those considering an outdoor project this season should be aware that for landscape trees, soil compaction or/ and disturbance is the root of all evil. I suppose chainsaws and forest fires aren’t exactly kind to trees, but when you spot a sickly tree in a park, yard, or on the roadside, root damage is the ultimate cause in nearly all cases.

It takes minutes to inflict lethal damage to a tree by adding soil, driving, or excavating within its root zone. But several years can pass before the tree gets the memo that it’s dead, as fatal root damage shows up over time.

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Monday, May 31, 2021

Fairy Lights and Princesses of Darkness

fireflyThey’re devilishly intriguing, but fireflies, or lightning bugs as they are sometimes called, are angelic to watch. I have yet to hear of a single person who isn’t fascinated by the show that these glow-in-the-dark beetles put on. In the right location it can seem like a swirling, blinking Milky Way has come to visit. They are able to generate their cold-light flash thanks to a pair of chemicals they produce called luciferin and luciferase. Aside from the obvious and unfortunate name association there, the two light-emitting molecules are exemplars of morality and goodness in the chemical world.

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Monday, May 24, 2021

Meaty Matters: Mushrooms that eat animals

oyster mushroomsThe more we learn about nature, the more distressingly clear it is that nature doesn’t pay that much attention to the stuff we’ve spent decades writing about it. Recently it was established that animals play for sheer enjoyment – it’s not an evolutionary ruse to get them to practice real life, as we asserted for hundreds of years. Real life includes jubilant fun for the majority of animal species.

We once held up “mate for life” critters like penguins and swans as exemplars of marital fidelity, only to later realize that while couples do stay together, you can bet the farm that in nesting season, both partners are slutting around like James Bond on ecstasy. And whitetail deer jumped out of the “herbivore” box we assigned them, caught on video with mouths full of carrion, or pulverizing mice to death for a snack. Despite lacking decent equipment to kill and consume prey, hippos, giraffes, and other “strict herbivores,” as we had described them, routinely break their vows of vegetarianism.

Fungi, whose job it is to decompose organic matter, also flunked biology class, because many common species hunt or trap live prey and then eat them. If I was vegan, I’d worry that chicken-of-the-woods (Laetiporus sulphureus), which has a texture and flavor similar to that of chicken, or beefsteak shelf fungi (Fistulina hepatica), with the look and feel of raw beef, might be gateway foods back to meatland. What would really blow my mind, though, would be deciding whether it was OK to eat mushrooms that thoughtlessly kill and consume animals.

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Thursday, May 13, 2021

Gypsy moths: The destroyers

Gypsy mothLike a B-grade horror film sequel, the aliens have awakened once again. Perhaps we felt a glimmer of hope at the end of the 2020 version when an entire generation of ruthless monsters died off in droves and left us in peace. But remember that closing shot of their disgusting, furry egg-mass blobs cleverly hidden out of sight? Well they’re hatching now.

If you missed last year’s gypsy moth performance, you have a better chance of catching it this season. Unfortunately. Based on egg-mass sampling, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation predicts that areas in central and western NYS which saw moderate to severe gypsy moth outbreaks last year can expect heavy damage this year. NYSDEC’s gypsy moth page can be found here.

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Saturday, May 8, 2021

Nettles: Not Just for Breakfast Any More

One of my favorite plants is either highly versatile, or confused. On one hand, professional herbivores like deer refuse to touch it, but many people, myself included, gladly eat it every day it’s available. While contacting it is painful, it has been proven to relieve certain chronic pain. It is steeped in over a thousand years of folklore, at one point imbued with the power to cleanse away sin, yet medical science recognizes it as a legitimate remedy for many disorders. Some gardeners consider it a bothersome weed, while others cultivate it.

The stinging nettle, Urtica dioica, is native to Europe, Asia, and northern Africa but has been widespread throughout North America from northern Mexico to northern Canada for centuries. Experts disagree as to the number of species and subspecies worldwide, as nettles freely hybridize.

Nettles sprout little hypodermic needles on stems, leaves, and even flowers. Called trichomes, these glass-like, silica-based needles inject a mixture of irritating chemicals upon contact. The cocktail varies by species, but usually includes histamine, 5-HTP, serotonin, formic acid and acetylcholine.

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Monday, May 3, 2021

When it comes to garlic mustard, doing less is more

Until recently, ignoring problems in hopes they’ll go away hasn’t served me well. However, a decade-long study done by Cornell University researchers has clearly shown that avoidance is the best way to manage garlic mustard (Allaria petiolata), a pernicious exotic plant. Evidently I’ve been doing a great job in the fight against this aggressive and troublesome invader.

Native to most of Europe and parts of western Asia and northwestern Africa, garlic mustard is in the cabbage and broccoli family (Brassicaceae), and indeed was imported to North America as a culinary herb in the early 1800s. It’s not entirely evil, as it has the spicy tang of mustard with a hint of garlic, and can be used as a base for pesto and sauces, and to flavor salads, soups and other dishes. Unfortunately, eating it has not worked well as a control strategy.

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Monday, April 26, 2021

Hey bugs! Fear This!

colorado potato beetleNo offense, but Franklin D. Roosevelt should maybe bug off with his assertion that “…the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” because fear is good for gardeners and farmers.

According to entomologists Nicholas Aflitto and Jennifer Thaler of the Cornell University-based New York State Integrated Pest Management Program (NYSPIM), it can be harnessed as a weapon against destructive pests. Turns out it’s possible to scare harmful insects out of gardens and crop fields.

Ascribing human feelings to bugs may be a stretch, but if something makes the critters run away and hide, it seems fair, not to mention simple, to call that fear instead of “a consistent generalized avoidance response in reaction to certain stimuli” or some such thing. After all, it took biologists a few hundred years to establish that various animals from elephants to birds and turtles really and truly play, and for no other reason than to have fun. Perhaps one day we’ll figure out that invertebrates have emotional lives, too. I suppose that might raise ethical issues around pest control, but let’s not go there just yet.

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Saturday, April 17, 2021

Samurais and Stinkers

Adult male stink bugIn general I’m rather positive about immigrants, but not the six-legged kind. Many of the insects which have made themselves at home here over the past few decades show up with interesting and colorful names like emerald ash borer, velvet longhorned beetle, and spotted lantern fly. Amusing monikers or not, this is a ménagerie of mischief-makers, and one of the more recent arrivals is quite a foul character indeed.

Native to eastern Asia, the brown marmorated stink bug (Halyomorpha halys), or BMSB to its pals, made its North American debut near Allentown, Pennsylvania in 1998. The BMSB sucks the life out of many fruits and vegetables with a stout, straw-like rostrum or beak, leading to heartbreak for home gardeners and severe economic losses for commercial growers. Not only is the BMSB hard to control with pesticides, it has no effective enemies here, and as a result its populations can build up rapidly under the right conditions.

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Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Science is Lunacy

full moon provided by champlain area trailsAs if today’s war on science wasn’t bad enough, it seems researchers have been courting further bad press by admitting they’ve spent countless hours on lunacy studies. To clarify, this research is on lunar effects on our behavior and sleep – I don’t know of any work being done to analyze sheer foolishness and irrational acts, the other kind of lunacy. Given the events that dominated the news this January, though, maybe that would be a fair line of inquiry.

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Sunday, March 21, 2021

Bored with being bored

bored dogFor some time now I’ve been seeking that perfect niche job where my talents can be used to their fullest. In the news not long ago, a great possibility emerged:  it turns out that Toronto’s York University has an actual Boredom Lab. I’d hoped they might want a research associate they could observe who’d kick back all day, drink coffee and play solitaire, but alas, they never returned my call. However, I discovered some pretty stimulating things about human boredom, as well as how it affects other animal species.

First off, boredom is not what most of us think it is. Dr. John Eastwood, who directs the aforementioned lab at Canada’s third-largest university, explained in a CBC “Quirks and Quarks” radio episode aired in January 2021 that boredom doesn’t mean there’s nothing to do. Many of us are occupied with plenty of stuff, but if we’re not invested, it’s naught but a dull pantomime – we’re reduced to going through the motions.

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Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Tree Buds: Honest Friends

winter treesHow to distinguish one leaf-bereft hardwood from another in winter is more of a challenge than summer tree ID, but there are practical reasons – and a few offbeat incentives – to tell one species from another in the dormant season. Hikers and skiers can benefit from such a skill, and in survival situations, hydration and warmth may depend on it. And if you’re among those who adore wintertime camping, you can have more fun when you know common woody species.

In late winter/ early spring, a pathogen-free beverage flows from sugar, silver, and red maples when temperatures rise above freezing in the day. A bit later in the spring yet prior to leaf-out, our native white (paper), yellow, black, grey, and river birches yield copious, healthful sap as well. The same can be said for wild grape stems, although it’s crucial that one can recognize other vines out there like Virginia creeper and poison ivy.

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Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Maple Sap Runs on Gas

Some foods give you gas, but March is the time of year when gas gives you a delicious food. Maple syrup, which is nutritious enough to be listed by the US Department of Agriculture as a food, is carbon dioxide-powered. If it wasn’t for a bunch of little gas bubbles in the wood or xylem tissue, maple sap would not flow. Who knew that trees were carbonated?

A mere two decades ago, biologists and arborists were at a loss to explain what causes maple sap to run. They’d typically mumble something about vacuum and straws before changing the subject. Everyone was aware that below-freezing nights followed by warm days led to sap flow. But it wasn’t until recent years that the mechanism behind sap flow was better – although still not perfectly – understood.

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Sunday, March 7, 2021

National Groundwater Awareness Week is March 7-13

well pumpIt’s a no-brainer that acing a physics exam won’t affect one’s grade in history class, yet it’s frequent to assume that a water test, not otherwise specified, covers all the potential bases. A common water test is for coliform bacteria, the presence of which would indicate a leaking septic field, or/ and manure runoff. If the lab gets back to you with a result of ND or “non-detect,” it’s great news, but it is by no means a clean bill of health.

Wells, no matter how deep, are vulnerable to contaminants that originate on the surface. Pesticide residues, nitrates from commercial fertilizers, benzene and other dissolved-phase petroleum compounds, and commercial degreasers are but a few of the things that can end up spewing from our faucets.

Across northern NY State, around 40% of residents rely on wells for drinking water. We are very fortunate in our little corner of the planet to have such easy access to fresh water. Broadly speaking, aquifers in our region are shallow, with the water table less than 50 feet below ground. In fact, dug wells still exist at some rural homes.

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Sunday, February 28, 2021

Snow Jobs: The white stuff makes for good growing

Where agriculture is concerned, dairy is king (or is dairy queen?) in northern NY State. Looking out the window now in late February, though, it looks like we should be growing snow peas or iceberg lettuce. Actually, for farmers, maple producers, foresters and gardeners, there is an up-side to having plenty of winter white stuff.

Snow has been called “the poor person’s fertilizer” because it’s a source of trace elements and more importantly, of plant-available forms of nitrogen, a nutrient often in short supply. When snowmelt releases a whole winter’s worth (i.e., almost six months) of nutrients in a short time, the nitrogen value can add up.

Since air is 78% nitrogen, you’d think plants would have all they needed. But atmospheric nitrogen, N2, is a very stable, inert molecule that plants are unable to use – you might say that for plants, nitrogen gas is broken. Fortunately, some soil bacteria can “fix” gaseous nitrogen, converting it to water-soluble forms that plants can slurp up. Lightning also turns nitrogen gas into plant “food.” But this only accounts for a small percentage of the nitrogen found in snow.

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