Wildflowers: Spiderworts

 , By Ronald Howard Livingston
on Wednesday, August, 10 2011 06:37:43 pm   , 1075 words  
Categories: Uncategorized , 54521 views


Though I have in years past noticed spiderworts, I have only recently been paying particular attention to these fascinating and beautiful plants. I have never really done much in the way of research on them; however, the wildflowers here in the coastal region of Texas this year* have been truly spectacular, and I have been trying, rather unsuccessfully, to capture their beauty in pictures. Likewise I have been attempting to identify these plant species from a favorite reference book I have on North American flora and fauna. I found the plant illustrated and described therein, and one fact stated about spiderwort blooms so amazed me that I just had to know more!

Despite my study, I'm still not certain if the spiderworts growing locally are specimens of Tradescantia humilis, commonly called "Texas Spiderwort," but the ones I've been seeing here in open prairie areas thriving quite well in full sunlight are all of the same species and are very pretty. While these local plants have bluer blooms than the slightly purplish-pink Texas Spiderworts depicted on internet sites, various references state that bloom color variations of certain spiderworts may be dependent upon soil ph. Texas is home to several species of spiderworts, including the widespread Tradescantia ohiensis, also known as "Bluejacket," which grows over much of the eastern United States. There are six species native to the area around Austin.

Spiderwort is a rather peculiar name for a flowering plant, and explanations for it differ from one reference to another.  The genus name (Tradescantia) is in honor of John Tradescan, Senior, head gardener for King Charles I of England. Tradescan was a renowned collector of garden plants and he and his son, John, Jr., who after his father's death in 1638 was also head gardener to King Charles I, were responsible for introducing many species of New World plants to the gardens of Europe. The latter part of the common name of spiderwort (or spider wort) comes from the Anglo-Saxon word "wyrt" meaning "herb" or "root".  The "spider"-part of the name is less definitely attributable. One explanation is that it is due to the way in which the blooms (each of which lives but one day) hang like spiders as though on a web. Another attribution states that there was a belief that certain parts of the plant would cure spider bites. (Sap of the plant can be used to soothe scrapes and scratches.) Still another explanation has it that the name comes from the spider-web-like hairs (chains of single cells) that emanate from the stamens of the blossoms of some species.

Yet another explication attributes the name to the web-like streams of mucilaginous substance that effuse from torn and separated stems or leaves. These strands dry very quickly upon exposure to air, creating threads like the strands made by a spider. This characteristic of the plant is also responsible for another common name of the plant, "cow slobber."

While a bouquet of cow slobber may not sound too appealing, consider that cow slobber plants are also edible---Yum, cow slobber!---(stems, leaves, and flowers, can be eaten raw or added, like okra, to stews as a thickening agent). One source states that spiderwort tastes like spinach. Another points out that the blossoms make a colorful garnish for salads. (There is an interesting YouTube video on the preparation of spiderwort: "EatTheWeeds: Episode 15: Spiderwort, Tradescantia.") Sources vary on the degree of edibility of different species of spiderwort, thus, I'd recommend careful research and consultation with local experts before ingesting any wild plant. One website source that gives this caution also states that Tradescantia virginiana is edible, as do many other websites, and yet another states that it is not edible but has medicinal properties.

There are 71 species of the Tradescantia genus. Representatives of this monocotyledonous plant range throughout much of the Americas from southern Canada to northern Argentina.  The first species collected for John Tradescan sometime before 1629 (when it was introduced to the gardens of England) was the Tradescantia virginiana. The first fully scientific description of the plant was made in 1898 by John Small a botanist and curator at the New York Botanical Garden.

Spiderworts hybridize easily and partly for this reason have long, since the time of Tradescan, been a garden favorite. Attribution of species in the wild is often compounded due to this tendency to hybridize. Being monocots (plants like grasses whose seeds sprout with one leaf, or cotyledon, as opposed to dicots, which have two cotyledons), spiderworts possess three pedals. (The bloom pattern of monocots is flowers of three, six, or nine petals.) The blooms in the wild are usually blue or a variant thereof.  There are six stamens, ending with a yellow or orange tip. As stated, the stamens have fine hairs that are often quite showy. There is a quality about the blooms and stamens of spiderworts that is quite amazing. Spiderworts are more sensative than most of the instruments that exist for the detection of low levels of radiation. The cells of the stamen hairs, which in most varieties are blue, change by mutation from blue to pink when exposed to even the most minute levels to ionizing radiation. Likewise they react in the same way to increased levels of environmental pollution.

Wild spiderworts are often welcomed as garden plants whenever they appear as "volunteers." Wild and domesticated varieties are often used as border plants. They can be grown from seed, from cuttings, and from transplanting of entire plants or their roots. The plants can grow in full sun with little or no shade but need plenty of water for consistent flowering. Each bloom lasts only a day, and if touched in the midday sun, a flower will wither into a sticky blue fluid, especially after the bees or other insects have fertilized it and it has begun to wither. Spiderworts will bloom for several months depending on the varety and locale. In Texas, the flowers can be seen from March to June. (In its home range Tradescantia virginiana blooms from May through August.) The flowers appear in clusters atop the stem and bloom successively over several months. There are many domesticated spectacular varieties of spiderworts and they (as well as their wild cousins) are a beautiful, suitable, and colorful addition to any garden.



Spiderwort (possibly Tradescantia humilis, Rose) in Brazoria County, Texas.

John Tradescan, Sr., head gardener to King Charles I of Great Britain.

(*This article was first published 8 April 2011.)

From Plastic and Biomass Refuse to Oil

 , By Ronald Howard Livingston
on Monday, July, 18 2011 11:56:00 pm   , 829 words  
Categories: Uncategorized , 68599 views

Over the last few years, as costs of motor fuels climb ever higher and as concerns grow over the carbon footprint of waste products ranging from sewerage to plastics, the process of thermal depolymerization (the breakdown of complex  macromolecules which consist of repeating structural units into monomers or simple molecules capable of bonding to form polymers) has been increasingly applied as a solution for dealing with waste and thus has been increasingly in the news.  Through pyrolysis (the decomposition or transformation of certain compounds using heat in the absence of oxygen), polymers can be broken down and made available for reformulations.  Anhydrous pyrolysis which takes place in the absence of water is generally referred to simply as pyrolysis. (An industrial process for making charcoal from wood is an example.) The process of hydrous pyrolysis uses water in breaking down polymers into monomers.  Though plastics and waste-biomass pyrolysis will not take the place totally of petroleum drilling and refining for acquiring components for polymers for fuels and manufacturing, such recycled use will reduce the negative environmental impacts of these organic wastes. One tremendously important positive of depolymerization of plastics, for example, through pyrolysis is the elimination of CO2 and toxin emissions in their utilization as fuel.

Recently reported in the news and the subject of a YouTube sensation was the creation and use of a safe and effective relatively small machine that converts plastics to oil useable as a simple fuel for stoves and generators. This same oil can be refined for use as motor fuel.  The company that has developed and manufactures the machine (Blest Company of Japan) makes one of its machines available at about $12,700 (U.S.). This small machine is the one demonstrated in the YouTube video which at this writing has had 1,689,345 views. YouTube lists other videos on this particular machine and several more on the process it uses in general.

A similar process (using infrared energy for heating the plastic waste) is utilized by Envion which has established a $5 million facility opened in September of 2009 in Montgomery County, Maryland. The plant is capable of processing 6,000 tons of plastic annually into about one-million barrels of a light crude oil. Blended with other components the product can be sold as diesel or gasoline.

Researchers at the University of Warwick in Coventry, United Kingdom, have developed a process utilizing pyrolysis wherein various types of plastics can be broken down into a number of useful components, retrievable mostly through distillation. Processing plants envisioned by the Warwick researchers are projected to be able to deal with 10,000 tons of plastic waste per year and be very commercially profitable.

Not only plastics can be transformed into monomers for commercial purposes through thermal depolymerization but biomass as well. One of the most innovative uses of the technology is in the conversion of plant and animal refuse into oil. A commercial processing plant has been built by Renewable Environmental Solutions near the ConAgra Foods Butterball turkey plant in Carthage, Missouri, to process slaughter waste. ConAgra produces about 200 tons of waste daily from the slaughter of 30,000 turkeys. The thermal depolymerization plant built nearby is a joint venture of ConAgra and Changing World Technologies (CWT) of West Hempstead, New York. Estimates are that the plant can convert the waste into 500 barrels (21,000 US gallons) of oil daily.

Thermal depolymerization process (TDP) has been considered as an alternative for sewerage treatment in the United States, according to a 2007 article in USA Today.  Similarly,  a University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign) research team, lead by Yuanhui Zhang, an agricultural engineering professor there, has been able to produce oil from hog manure through the use of a small-scale thermochemical reactor. Heat and pressure applied by the reactor decompose the long-chain hydrocarbons into shorter ones, rendering oil, methane, carbon dioxide, and water.  As the price of a barrel of imported oil gets higher, the more economical the production of thermal depolymerization of hog manure becomes, not only rendering valuable fuel but saving farmers an expensive waste-elimination problem and saving the environment from pollution. It is estimated that during the production cycle of one pig enough manure is excreted to be converted into 21 gallons of crude oil.

One of the limitations to the economic efficiency of the process of thermal depolymerization is the lack of sufficient cheap feedstocks. Agricultural plant and animal waste is often utilized in fertilizer, feeds, and feedstock for other industries. The current trend to develop and exploit certain high yield energy crops holds potential as feedstock for thermal depolymerization process oil.

The benefits of producing oil through thermal depolymerization are many. Besides the production of oil, there is the rendering of useful and mostly valuable by-products. To these benefits the positive environmental effects of utilizing and diminishing pollutants from our landscapes, our oceans, and our landfills can be added.  While the industry is not without some criticism, these negative concerns are mostly aimed at the environmental effects of human industrial activities in general.


[This article first appeared on Xomba in February 2011.]

What to Do for the Sleep You Deserve

 , By Ronald Howard Livingston
on Friday, July, 08 2011 04:40:00 pm   , 1056 words  
Categories: Uncategorized , 116350 views

Part 3 [Part 1 , Part 2]

Except for times like my recent* bout of fibromyalgia (or whenever I inadvertently come into contact with the compounds I've been describing), I really have little trouble falling asleep---which is not to say that I always retire early and follow a rigid sleep schedule. Sleep for me now is more a matter of my desire or need for it.

Although I have some things I do to fall asleep fast or to reset my biological clock from time to time, by in large such steps are no longer a big concern for me now. About the most effective thing I do now if I'm not drifting off to my satisfaction is to take a spoonful of honey. Sounds almost silly and just too darn simple, but it does work, quite well in fact. Honey contains several forms of very simple sugars (chiefly fructose and sucrose), and sugars are soporifics (anything which causes sleep). True, sugars are important energy foods, but their soporific effect is felt by the body way before the sugars reach the cells where they are metabolized to release energy [1].

Angelic* noted that chamomile is a very popular herb in Greece and something she takes to help her fall asleep. It's a natural sleep aid I've used for years, but the taste is kind of strange. It has a scent like apples, but I swear I detect a taste or smell of old inner tube as well. I put a spoonful of honey in it (or if I don't have it, just regular granulated sugar---which is also soporific).
Something that I often take with the chamomile tea (that is, mixed into it) is a few drops of valerian root extract. I like the extract much more than the capsules because the latter upset my stomach. So I get the effect of three sleep aids all in one cup (chamomile, valerian, and sugar or honey). (I worry a bit about the sugar and so brush my teeth with a bit of baking soda, which leaves no residue that I can't tolerate, as would fluoride, which I mentioned was one of the compounds that caused me sleeplessness. Also, I don't miss using fluoride anyhow, because a lot of people are still convinced that it is carcinogenic. I'm not arguing either way, but I'd rather err on the side of caution.) When I don't have any chamomile to put the valerian root extract in, I put a few drops into half a glass of Sprite or 7-Up. It doesn't exactly "dissolve" well throughout (as it does in the tea), but I just drink it on down anyhow. Incidentally, 7-Up was reformulated in 2006 when calcium disodium edta was taken out (hooray!) [2].

Shelli* mentioned aromatherapy, and sent a website url [3] for some articles on aromatherapy and lists of scents popular for thus treating insomnia. I've never tried any of the scents mentioned therein, but I do recall trying one (probably real unusual) thing that I had heard about on t.v., and it worked: onions. (Yep, sounds silly, but I took a little piece of an onion to bed and just sniffed it every now and then and darn if I didn't dose right off.) A bit of internet research just now reveals that Pliny the Elder wrote about the value of onions in inducing sleep [4].

Another often recommended tip for falling asleep is to drink warm milk (hmm, wonder why it has to be warm?---yuk!). Drinking a bit of milk has helped me, but because I have acid reflux and am a bit lactose intolerant (must be the Cherokee in me!), I really need to be careful (and it is thus something I wouldn't recommend---ever woke up choking on stomach acid in the middle of the night?---scary). Milk has calcium which has a calming effect on the body. It also has tryptophan (as do foods such as brown rice, peanuts, turkey, and soy [5]---the last of which I am sensitive to, in spite of its having something useful for sleep) which is well known to have a calming effect (in fact, L-tryptophan tablets were a quite popular in the late '70's and early '80's before some glitch in their manufacture caused health concerns about taking them.)

Tish* commented on the hormone melatonin and its role in establishing and maintaining the circadian rhythms of the body. She pointed out that it is made in the brain by the pineal gland. There melatonin is created from the amino acid tryptophan in the synthesis of serotonin. Interestingly, serotonin deficiency is associated with several disorders including fibromyalgia, migraine headaches, and tinnitus. Serotonin plays an important role in the regulation of sleep [6]. Tish also pointed out that because melatonin is made by the pineal gland, it is made available for sale in a natural form (made from the pineal glands of animals) and a synthetic form. I share her concerns about taking the natural form due to possible viral contamination.

Lastly, speaking of circadian rhythms of the body (basically the body's "clock"), there is a condition, known as S.A.D. (Seasonal Affective Disorder, also known as winter depression), that affects some people north of 30-degrees N latitude and south of 30-degrees S latitude. It is a depression related to the limited amount of daylight and also to lower amounts of melatonin and serotonin. Sunlight produces in humans a form of Vitamin D (called solitrol) which is more effective than the form found in milk and fish. This form, solitrol, is involved antagonistically with melatonin in producing changes in mood and maintaining circadian rhythms. So, especially in winter, it is very important that we spend time (even during cold spells) outside so that our skin can produce in abundance the form of Vitamin D we need to set and maintain our "body clocks." Staying indoors frustrates that rhythm [7]. One need not be out in open sunlight, but really in winter that shouldn't be much of an issue---it's not like your going to get burned to a crisp as you would on a beach in mid-summer.


1) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Honey


2) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/7-Up



4) http://onions-usa.org/all-about-onions/history-of-onions


5) http://www.cocoonnutrition.org/catalog/page_tryptophan.php

6) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Melatonin


7) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seasonal_affective_disorder





*This part of this series on insomnia and sleep first appeared on February 7, 2007, as a blog entry in my Y!360 social-networking blog. Names cited herein are of contacts who had commented to part 2. [Part 1 , Part 2]

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