Friday, May 24, 2024

The Great Aurora Storm of May 10-11, 2024

Best Auroras in decades! Amazing! When charged particles from the sun (and rarely other sources) encounter the Earth, our protective magnetic field diverts and traps them, eventually funneling them into the upper atmosphere near the planet's poles. At least, that is the simplified normal story. Friday night almost the entire planet could view auroras -the system overloaded! This was the view from Emigrant Gap Scenic Overlook on Interstate 80 Westbound in California (taken with my far-from-top-end cell phone) - this is about what it looked like to the naked eye:
With a bit more dark adaptation, and a better camera (still nothing fancy) on a tripod, it filled the sky! I am still constructing a whole-sky image from individual frames, but this is a single 18mm lens frame on a DSLR
It was clearly visible through city light and household lights in the suburbs east of Sacramento, California:
The Aurora was also visible from Namibia in Africa, The Grand Canyon, and The South Pacific! This movie was captured from the website showing the last 24 hours of auroras on May 11th (PDT) sweeping around the planet's North pole:

There is a lot of information here!

Each frame has the HPI (Hemispheric Power Input) in the upper right along with the lead time (most are forecasts for about 30 minutes in the future). Notice that the normally encountered range of powers are 5 to 200 Gigawatts (GW). For comparison, the California ISO normally peaks in late Summer with the entire grid of California requiring about 50 GW of power. Much of this video is over the top or in excess of the 200GW power number. This is a lot of power!

In the upper left corner is the time of the prediction in Universal Time (UTC). California during Daylight Savings (now) is 7 hours earlier than the UTC time (UTC - 7 hours = Pacific Daylight Time).

The unusual electrical activity in the upper atmosphere also created voltages on the ground - there is a fantastic map here produced by the USGS nd NOAA. Not everything in the photos I took appears to be an aurora, however! Some of it appears to be STEVE, a supersonic flow of superheated air in the thin upper atmosphere - the emissions are thermal, not driven by ion impact! There is a broad red band across the center of the image, looking roughly due west, with the moon in the center (the bright white thing in the center).

Monday, May 6, 2024

Asymptotic Chicken Soup

Chicken Noodle Soup is a classic - we have many versions, this is one of our favorites:

The recipie is fairly simple:

  • 2 large yellow onions, chopped fine
  • Several TBSP of vegetable oil, we use Walnut oil or Safflower usually
  • 1 large head of cellery or 2 medium ones, sliced thin, including leaves
  • 6 to 10 shredded medium carrots
  • 2 pounds of ground chicken
  • 12 ounces of "yolkless dumpling egg noodles"
  • 2 Tbsp of Italian Seasoning
  • 1/4 cup of finely diced peeled fresh ginger root
  • 2 17oz boxes of Chicken Bone Broth (with 9 or 10 grams of protien per cup)
  • 1 Tsp of salt

We do this as a "two pot prep", one large pot for the soup assembly, and a smaller (2 1/2 quart) for the broth.

Fill the large pot with a gallon of water and bring to a boil. Add the egg noodles and return to a boil, then reduce heat, stirring occasionally. Slight undercooking is OK. When done, drain the noodles and rinse with cold water. Set aside in the collander.

Now put some oil in the large pot and brown the chicken in it, working it actively to break up the lumps and provide a crumbly texture, almost like ground taco meat. As it is ground meat, it isn't all going to brown, and some may brown sticking to the bottom of the pot. If this happens, add a cup of water when done browing to deglaze. Remove from heat until veggies and broth mixture are ready.

In the small pot start with the onions: dice them fairly small. The results are best for us if we use a sharp knife and dice by hand, into roughly 1/4" or 6mm (or smaller) chunks. Carmelize the onions in a covered pot (you should start with about 2 quarts of diced onions) over medium heat with stirring every few minutes - this will take about an hour to cook down and carmelize. You are aiming for "light brown and uniform" carmelization, not seared.

While the onions are reducing, shred the carrots using a grater. This seems to work better than slicing or dicing for us. Likewise, using a sharp knife dice the celery into thin slices. Include the leaves and stalks, as the leaves have an excellent flavor. Set the celery aside.

Once the onions are carmelized, add the shredded carrots to the onions and add the broth. Mix and allow to come to a simmer. Add the seasoning. Cook 10 minutes.

Finally, add the celery to the broth. Stir it and bring to a simmer, then dump it into the large pot, covering the noodles. Do not overcook the celery.

Turn over the mixture to separate the noodles and create a uniform mix. Taste the broth after this process, and add the salt (add no salt if you have a salted broth your are using) to taste.

Serve and enjoy!

In the large pot, dump the likely somewhat stuck together noodles on top of the ground meat. Pout the vegetable broth

Thursday, May 2, 2024

Spring and the Dead Horse Arum

Amorphophallus konjac is one of our reliable Spring bloomers. The flower emerges from a giant (like 20 pound) potato-esque tuber without any leaves around the start of April for us. the flower bud rises to about four or five feet tall, then opens. The leaf will show up in about a month...
We have more than one variety of this species, this just happens to be the most reliable bloomer for us (and the one that flowers with the smallest tubers - they don't have to become giant before flowering!). This is this one in bud, when we repotted it with the emerging flower bud compared to another variety of the same species that has a tuber that is still too small to flower every year:
When repotting, generally there are many smaller "offset" tubers that grew from the main tuber the previous season. We pot these up and grow them on to become larger tubers we can sell or give away (excellent surprise value gifting one of these in bud, under the right circumstances and to those who will appreciate the oddity). These are the small propagation tubers found in this repotting cycle. In two or three years time, each will be large enough to flower. This is also handy when growing these as a food crop, as you can harvest the big ones and replant the smaller ones.
Once the flower is finished, it remains Meme-worthy - I don't think I can describe this properly with words:
These flowers are unlikely to grace any florist - they smell like rotting flesh and are pollinated by flies. Definitely an outdoor plant, for a place with neighbors that are tolerant folks! The smell only lasts a few days, and with a little wind doesn't become too strong.

These plants are grown for food - the tubers are processed and eaten. Ever see Konjac noodles or konnyaku in Japanese grocers? Those are made from this plant. Konjac is also made into what translate roughly as "yam cakes", though admittedly plain Konjac is bland (to my taste buds) so appears to be often used as a textural element in food where other ingredients provide the main flavors.

To grow Konjac, the main thing is to keep the root completely dry from Fall until mid-Spring, or whenever the soil is warmed up a bit from Winter lows. It doesn't tolerate frost while in growth, though I know people growing it outdoors in the Carolinas in the ground. We use a commercial cactus mix that we then mix 50:50 or even 1:2 with straight perlite to make the soil airy and to prevent waterogging, even in large pots. Once the flower or leaf emerge, it is a thirsty plant that wants regular fertilizer.

Friday, March 22, 2024

Bambara Nut Planting

Meet another Ground Nut, the Bambara Nut. Bambara are related to peanuts, and are cultivated all over Southern Africa.
These nuts are actually beans with a remarkable pattern of growth, very like peanuts. They grow up as plants and flower in the open air. Once the flower in pollinated, it starts to extend the flower stem (the pedicel) down towards the ground - and then right on into the ground. The seed pod generally contains one seed, and it develops underground connected to the plant above via the pedicel running down from the branching plant above. It takes about four months for the seeds to ripen. There are more than food values to them - they are part of Traditional Medicine in some locations, though the details are a separate topic. We are growing them to eat.

Harest involves pulling the entire plant out of the ground (after it turns yellow at the end of the growing season), doing so very carefully - all those Banyan-tree like structures running down from the plant stems are not roots, each is a pedicel and leads to a subterranean seed pod. Pull the pods off gently and allow them to dry in an airy, shaded location. Seed storage is normally in the pods to protect them from weevils and other bugs. Shelling them just before preparation is normal.

Getting them started is a matter of soaking them overnight, then rinsing them well and planting them in a suitable soil. We are starting our first crop with seeds purchased online as food, and starting them in 3" square and 9" deep tree pots. We fill them with soil and plant the soaked seeds four to a pot and about 1" deep, covering with more soil. A cactus mix might work well instead. It has taken them two weeks to sprout, and they are sprouting at a good rate.

We are growing them in mounds of a pearlite-sand-coir-bark mixture that we use as an all-purpose soil for growing seasonally dormant bulbs, but that is fancier than needed - these are specialists in poor soils that fix their own nitrogen from the air. Sandy and not waterlogged are very useful traits for the growing soil, basically you need to be able to pull the seed pods out of the ground when the plant is ready without breaking the somewhat fragile stem leading to the pod. We will post again when we harvest!

Usually, these are grown for consumption in the same household where they are grown. The nuts are a complete food all by themselves. In the latin naming system, these are Vigna subterranea. There are many common names used for these nuts, each of which tends to be localized to a specific region. A decent list of regional names can be found here.These names are encountered in South Africa:

  • Jugoboon
  • Ditloo-marapo
  • Izindlubu
  • Indlubu
  • Jugo bean
  • Nduhu
  • Phonda
  • Ndlowu
  • Njugo
  • Tindlubu
  • Inhlowa

The South African Department of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries has produced a solid introductory document about Bambara Nuts, which is a good place to start further reading: A much more detailed view is available from the 2022 book Bambara groundnut: Utilization and Future Prospects by Jideani and Jideani.

Thursday, March 14, 2024

Late Winter Mushroom Foraging and the Black Chanterelles

It has been a wonderfully wet Winter in California this year - that means mushrooms! A gem that we never get enough of is flourishing this year, the Black Chanterelle.
These unexpected looking mushrooms are Craterellus cornucopioides, variously described as "black petunias" sitting in the duff, or "holes in spacetime that you cook Risotto with" (ok, that one is mine). We usually have a few each year, however, this year we have enough to cook with!

There are very few mushrooms these can be confused with, though the list isn't empty! If you want to pick and eat your own mushrooms, always start by joining your local mycological society and going on some of their forrays. We are long time members of the Mycological Society of San Francisco (at and it is an eclectic and fun group. Local knowledge is essential, and your local mycological society will have experts on the local ones that are safe to start with, and the ones best left for photography rather than culinary purposes. You can die from eating the wrong mushroom, plant, or animal - if you are going to forage, then "apprentice" to local folks doing the same to learn how to do it safely. My first finding of a tasty edible was about a quarter century ago, and when I brought it to the gentleman doing the identification, he joked "I'll tell you what it is if you give me half and tell me where you found them"... coming from a chef, I sort of had my answer... he even helped me confirm the identity of the mushrooms without actually asking for any.

Rocket Fuel and Mushroom overlap! Helvella dryophila makes rocket fuel as a toxin to prevent its being eaten! The Oak-loving Elfin Saddle has a much longer season than the Black Chanterelle while being an even more improbable looking beastie:

This is a distant relative of the famous Morel mushroom, and others in this group have amazing properties - while some folks consider this "edible, but not worth the trouble" since it must be cooked thoroughly, the very thing that is being driven off is rocket fuel. Yes, this is a mushroom that makes toxic rocket fuel to prevent its being eaten. The material in question in monomethyl hydrazine. Really. I tend to cook these thoroughly (see hydrazine - not food) and put them into my eggs (cook before putting in the eggs!) before scrambling them. Eat entirely at your own risk - I strongly suggest going to some mycological society forrays and talking about the different perspectives on Gyromitrin and some of the other toxins in this group, how to mitigate and remove them, and whether it is worth the effort at all. Wikipedia has a short article on this mushroom's kin:

How about some tea on a cold evening? Probably not the tea made from this mushroom, yet it is an important element of several First Nations traditional medical practice, as well as being commercially available in several forms, generally from Traditional Chinese medical practicioners, though I've even seen tea containing it show up in some local specialty shops. Meet Trametes versicolor, a common mushroom on fallen oak and tanoak logs. Locally it is called Turkey Tail and several other names. Once again, join your local mycological society for experienced guidance on how, when, and where to collect and use this if you are inclined to try, or just go with the farmed commercial material. This is however able to be found almost year-round in our local mountains, most frequently in the deep, moist woods and on fallen hardwoods. It is a delightful and beautiful sight, stumbling across a log or stump covered with these.

Read more about Trametes here:

Here are a few others from recent walks. These two are different types of Waxy Caps (not food):

Below is a member of the Club Fungi, I think Ramariopsis but am not certain (not food):
For a few years during the recent drought, mushrooms became rarer encounters. It feels great to have all these old friends popping up when I explore the forest again! Get out into the Santa Cruz Mountains and the Open Space preserves and such this month and you may well meet amazing mushrooms and fungi - if you are wanting to collect some, try Point Reyes National Seashore and follow the rules.

Thursday, January 4, 2024

The Mockingbird and the Bulbine

Animals have opinions of things just like people do. Evidently we have a Northern Mockingbird that has it in for some plants we grow called Bulbine mesembryanthemoides. Bulbines are succulent lily relatives, with most of the ones we grow coming from the Winter rainfall regions of South Africa. They die back to the ground when the weather gets hot and dry. The ones we like a lot are also "picture leaf" succulents, with leaves that push their transparent tips above the sand and gravel, then most of the leaf is hidden in the ground, yet photosynthesis happens largely underground in the burried green part of the leaf. This is what they look like in cultivation with a bit more of the leaf exposed than is always the case in habitat:
However, the Mockingbird has reduced this to a "hopefully it will live" condition:
Another species is Bulbine haworthioides, which looks like this in cultivation for us:
It hasn't been pecked with the exuberance of some of the other species, yet has taken damage from our Mockingbrid:
Yet another species under attack is Bulbine bruynsi, this one shows light damage and is the least damaged photo I have from this year:
B. bryunsii after Mockingbird attack is a lot less photogenic, and I worry whether it will be able to set seeds:
Birds do not sit still and pose for my photography the way plants do, so the image quality of my photo of the culprit is a wee bit "Loch Ness Monster" quality:
I have questions: This bird and this plant have no natural range overlap - what is the bird getting from the plant? Is this medicine, or a treat, or something it feels some way about? Mockingbirds drink dewdrops, and one idea is that the plants with their crystalline looking leaves appear to be constantly covered in dewdrops. Once pecked, the leaves are clear gel much like from an Aloe vera leaf, so the bird gets a drink as it expects. Now to practical matters: Defense of the plants. I purchased a fistful of 3/16" diameter 3' long dowel rods. I cut them into bits that fit the tray length, and used the remainder of the 4 dowels as verticals. I cut four crosspieces from two more dowels (each about 12" long). I also bought a bag of wooden beads from a craft shop and used a drill press to turn them into vertices of the structure (3 holes at 90 degrees to each other). I assembled this into a rectangular frame that I could fit over the plants, and draped mesh over it. So far, it is working.
I'll update if this continues to work to protect these plants. With luck, they can set seeds successfully in here as well.

Monday, November 21, 2022

Picking Saffron

See those orange threads in the centers of the these flowers? Those orange threads, when separated from the rest of the flower, spread out and dried, are the spice Saffron! It turns out growing Saffron is not that hard. Picking it is a bit different, especially in our yard where it isn't gardening or farming, it is "feeding the deer" far too often. The critters in the forest really love almost everything we plant, so fencing becomes important. Saffron is actually a crocus that flowers in the Fall. These small bulbs are from the eastern shore of the Mediterranean sea, where the Summers are hot and rainless, and the Winters are mild and have some rain. To grow them in California, we plant the bulbs about 4" deep on a well drained sandy slope (thin soil over sandstone). The slope aims west, to the sunsets. There are tall trees to the east, so there is little early sun. There are small shrubs and the ones that do best are right under the driplines of the shrubs. This may be because it is harder for the deer to get their faces into the place to eat the leaves.
They flower in November for us on the San Francisco penninsula, with the leaves coming up with the flowers or just after them. The leaves persist until late Spring, often into early June. Then they want no water at all over the long, hot Summer. This is both a permaculture crop (plant once, harvest many years) and a dryland farming crop. The first commercial Saffron farm in the area is just down by the coast from us. We just grow saffron for our own use. Saffron is a great plant for California as it works on rainfall alone - we do not irrigate our Saffron. In drier years it may not flower as abundantly, though it will still flower.