WIU – School of Agriculture Blog

Ubiquitous Rubber by Dr. Marietta Loehrlein – Professor of Horticulture and Landscaping
October 4, 2013, 10:07 am
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When you took the rubber band off your newspaper this morning, you probably didn’t think much of it, did you? The same is probably true of the many other rubber objects that permeate our lives – objects like gaskets, hoses, car and bicycle tires, wire insulation, latex gloves, rubber erasers,  carpet pads, yoga mats, and door stops. They are prevalent and ordinary: we take them for granted. Even the scratch-off part of a lottery ticket is made from rubber. Back in the 1700s, Joseph Priestly noticed that he could use this material to remove pencil marks on paper, simply by rubbing it over the writing, giving the material its new name, “rubber”.

Anyone who grew up in the 1960s might have had a yellow slicker, and maybe even matching rubber boots – articles that spent much of their lives in a closet under the stairs at my house – but came out during rainstorms. I also remember those bumpy-textured rubber-soles (called crepe soles) on shoes back in the ‘70s. And who could forget Ernie’s endearing song to “rubber ducky” on Sesame Street? Or that hit of 1966, “Red Rubber Ball”?

The rubber that makes these many familiar objects comes mainly from the rubber tree, Hevea brasiliensis. Prior to European interest, native Amazonians made stiff pipes, dishes and implements from the boiled and stretched latex sap of these trees; it is thought that they also treated their coats and hats with this material to waterproof them. The Mayans even invented the rubber ball, and a game using the ball dates back at least three and a half millenia.

The story and history of the interaction of humans with rubber is long – having epic proportions, international intrigue, and tragedy such as is found in great drama. It may be said that rubber has saved lives, and cost them. Author of the book “1493”, Charles C. Mann, asserts that rubber helped bring about the Industrial Revolution, “the transition from an economy based on manual labor and draft animals to one based on mechanized manufacturing”. Quoting Susanna Hecht, of UCLA, “three fundamental materials were required for the Industrial Revolution: steel, fossil fuels, and rubber”.

Ironically, rubber production from natural sources requires intensive manual labor. Individuals tap around 300 to over 600 trees – usually in the morning, when sap flow is greatest – then come back and collect the rubber from containers they have hung on the trees – coconut halves, glazed pottery, or other cuplike implements are used. Once limited to regions of South America where temperatures remain above freezing, particularly Brazil, rubber trees are now grown in Thailand, the Philippines, Viet Nam, Malaysia, Indonesia, and a small region in China.

Nowadays, synthetic rubber is used in about half of all rubber items. Recycled rubber, coming mainly from used car tires, is commonly used in landscape products such as playground surfacing, rubber mulch and as a base for artificial turf sports fields. For those who are allergic to rubber, a plant native to the southwestern U.S. and Mexico, known as guayule (pronounced wye-oo-lee), produces a latex sap that is hypoallergenic. Guayule also produces latex that is highly resistant to the extremely high temperatures that airplane tires are subjected to during take-off and landing.

You can view rubber harvest and production on YouTube, as well as the making of rubber bands, rubber gloves, and other rubber products. (Rubber bands are made from tubes of rubber which are subsequently sliced.) After viewing these videos, I bet you won’t look at those ubiquitous rubber objects quite the same any more.



The Other Bees by Dr. Marietta Loehrlein – Professor of Horticulture and Landscaping
April 16, 2013, 1:39 pm
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Ahhhh, Spring! This is the time of year that I always notice the busy activity of some ground-dwelling bees that live near our house. They never bother you as you walk by, even though they are quite numerous. A few years back when I was installing some steps in that area, I noticed their small holes in the ground. That’s when I was reminded of the solitary bees I had learned about in beekeeping class many years ago. Most people are aware of honey bees, and more are becoming aware of their economic importance in pollinating commercial crops. But most people have never heard about the native bees that just don’t have the rock-star status of the non-native honey bees.


It so happens that there are over 4,000 species of native bees in North America – and, bees are the most important pollinator in most ecosystems in the world. Seventy-five per cent of the flowering plant species in the world are pollinated by bees. Even commercial crops that rely on honeybees for pollination are also visited by wild native bees and other pollinators. Without pollination, flowers cannot develop into seeds and fruits, which feed many birds and mammals large and small. As a matter of fact, fruits and seeds derived from insect pollination are a major part of the diet of approximately 25 percent of all birds, and of mammals ranging from red-backed voles to grizzly bears.


Most native bees live solitary lives rather than in colonies, such as honeybees do. And many live in the ground. So they go mostly un-noticed by people most of the time. Unfortunately, wild bees and other pollinators are experiencing declining populations, and possible extinction. According to the Xerces Society, “Many of our native bee pollinators are at risk, and the status of many more is unknown. Three bee species: the rusty-patched, the yellow-banded and western bumblebee, have dropped in number over the past decade. A fourth species, Franklins’ bumblebee has only been seen once in the past several years. Habitat loss, alteration, and fragmentation, pesticide use, climate change, and introduced diseases all contribute to declines of bees.


To attract native bees and other pollinators to your yard, add some food plants that provide pollen and nectar. Grow a diversity of plant species to attract a diversity of pollinators. And try to have something in bloom over a long period of time to provide a continual supply of food. If you want to help the wild bees gain in social status, you can go online and vote for them. Yes! You can vote for the rusty-patched bumblebee to be featured on an Endangered Species Chocolate bar wrapper. But, hurry, you only have until Sunday, April 21. (Go to www.xerces.org for details). After voting, go back to the Xerces Society website and take the “Pollinator Pledge”. There, you can also learn more about the wild native bees, some of whom may inhabit un-noticed areas in your own backyard.

What’s Plain About Vanilla? by Dr. Marietta Loehrlein – Professor of Horticulture and Landscaping
January 14, 2013, 2:49 pm
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It would probably come as no surprise that vanilla is the most popular flavoring in the world. The subtleness of its flavor cause some people to not really think of it as a flavor at all, but rather as the basic taste of such foods as cupcakes, cookies, ice cream, and other confections. Anyone who has baked cookies and cakes is familiar with that ingredient, vanilla flavoring.


It hasn’t always been that way, though. When vanilla was first used alone as a flavoring by the British apothecary to Queen Elizabeth of England, she was so taken by its flavor that she had it added to everything she ate or drank. The French soon began adding it to other items, such as ices, tobacco and perfumes.


The American connection to vanilla occurred back in 1789 when Thomas Jefferson had tasted it in France. He wanted some after he had returned to Philadelphia, only to discover that no one knew what it was. After ordering some from France, he enlightened his friends and acquaintances about it. It eventually found its way into ice cream, pharmacies (as a stomach sedative), and as an extract.


But, like so many now-common pantry spices and flavorings, vanilla didn’t originate in Europe. It was brought there from Mexico by Cortes, along with cacao, indigo, and cochineal dyes.


Vanilla flavoring comes from the pod-like fruit that has come to be known as a vanilla “bean”. The Spanish word “vainilla”, means “little pod”. The plant itself is a vining type of orchid with large, thick waxy leaves. Like many orchids, it grows on trees in shaded places, with thick, fleshy roots grasping the bark rather than growing in soil like most plants do.


The orchid is large and showy, creamy greenish-yellow in color, and about 2 to 3 inches high and wide. In order for a fruit to form, the flower must be pollinated. But this is no small feat, given that only that one species of the small melipona bee, some ants, and hummingbirds pollinate the flower in the wild. Natural pollination produces too few pods for commercial production. Thus, people are required to perform the task in order to ensure fruit set. The Totonacs of ancient Mexico discovered a method by which to accomplish this, but they kept it secret, thus allowing themselves a monopoly on vanilla beans for several hundred years.


The Totonacs not only used vanilla to flavor their food and drinks, but they also considered it to be an effective medicine, and aphrodisiac (as did Europeans of Renaissance times), and an insect repellent.


The process required to turn a vanilla bean into vanilla flavoring is so complex, it is a wonder anyone ever figured it out. But the Totonacs did – at least a thousand years ago. The method was kept secret for a long time, and involved brief scalding, “sweating”, sun drying, and fire-drying. The pods themselves had to be picked at the proper time – not too green, but before splitting open and releasing the thousands of tiny seeds contained inside.


The French taste for vanilla led to plantations in many French-held tropical colonies. But it wasn’t until a couple of scientists were able to learn what the Totonacs had long known about pollination and cultivation of this curious orchid that world production outside of Mexico could flourish.


Nowadays, there is vanilla extract and artificial vanilla flavoring. But, you can still flavor foods with vanilla the “old-fashioned” way – by stewing the vanilla bean in milk for custard or ice cream, or kneading the split bean with dough for sweet bread. This is really the way to go if you want to enjoy all the aromas and flavors that vanilla has to offer. Once you’ve tasted it, you’ll agree. There is nothing “plain” about vanilla.

How The Peppermint Got Its Stripes Dr. Marietta Loehrlein – Professor of Horticulture and Landscaping
January 14, 2013, 2:46 pm
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Think fast – what color is peppermint? Red and white, right? I mean, a lot of times that’s how you know something is peppermint flavored – by the red and white stripes. But I have peppermint growing in my garden, and there’s nothing red about it – not even the flowers!

Every year around Christmas I think about writing a story about peppermint. It is amazing that such an unassuming garden plant enjoys the kind of popularity it does. Not that its flavor isn’t outstanding, but that it is so easy to grow: seasoned gardeners sometimes even avoid it due to its tendency to spread beyond its intended place in the garden. Nevertheless, the oil extracted from mint is the most valuable of all the essential oils worldwide.

But the candies that bear its name have a personality of their own. Whether cane-shaped or little round mints that you sometimes get at the end of a meal, the red and white stripes are synonymous with the candy. These hard candies are crushed and added to ice cream, or used as toppings on chocolate-dipped pretzels, cookies, and cakes.

So, how did the peppermint get its stripes? And, by the way, why is peppermint so strongly associated with Christmas anyway? Well, the cane portion of the story occurred much earlier than the stripes or the peppermint flavor. The popular telling of this part of the story is that in 1670 a choir master in Germany wanted to appease children in the living Nativity scene he was managing and so provided them with white sugar sticks. He wasn’t sure parents would approve of this practice, so he requested that the candy maker add little crooks to the top of the candy stick, bringing an air of authenticity to the candies. The choir master is said to have used the canes to teach the children the story of Jesus’ birth.

Many years later, in 1847, a German immigrant to America decorated his Christmas tree with the white canes, thus beginning a new holiday tradition. Unfortunately, details seem to be lacking on exactly how or why the candies got their stripes and their peppermint flavor, but both happened around the turn of the 20th century. Illustrations on cards before 1900 showed pure white candy canes and those afterwards have striped ones.

Peppermint itself is a hybrid between two different species of mint, water mint and spearmint that apparently occurred spontaneously in 1696 in a British garden. Apparently the mints hybridize quite easily in the wild, and hundreds of varieties have been reported.

Mint is believed to have been used and grown since at least Roman times. The Romans are said to have introduced mint sauce to British cuisine. Peppermint oil that is extracted from the plants is used to flavor the popular sweets. It contains menthol which creates a cool sensation in the mouth, and also has anesthetic qualities. The liqueur crème de menthe is made from this oil. Mint was a popular garden herb during Medieval times, and peppermint tea remains a popular herbal tea. Spearmint lacks the menthol, and its oil is used to flavor toothpaste.

Sometimes you can find green and white striped candy canes, and these may be wintergreen flavored. But then, that’s another plant – and another story that will have to be told another day. In the meantime, enjoy your holiday treats (in moderation, of course) – and have a Happy and Healthy Holiday Season!

Sweet Potatoes! by Dr. Marietta Loehrlein – Professor of Horticulture and Landscaping
November 29, 2012, 3:36 pm
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I love vegetables: from home-fried potatoes in garlic and rosemary, to fresh salsa from homegrown tomatoes, onion, and chile peppers, to yellow summer squash gently cooked in butter – just thinking about summer’s bounty makes my mouth water. If I had to pick a favorite vegetable, the answer might surprise you, but when you examine all the virtues of this unassuming root crop, perhaps you’ll agree with me: I choose the sweet potato.

Some of the virtues of this South American native are its ease of culture, high nutritional value, and culinary versatility. I grew over 100 pounds of sweet potatoes this year, and I am looking forward to cooking them in as many different ways as possible.

To start your own sweet potato “slips”, bury the sweet potato’s tuberous root in a well-drained pot filled with potting soil. After a while, sprouts will shoot up and these will easily root when planted in the ground. If left long enough, the sprouts will develop roots while still in the original pot. You can even allow them to root by placing them in a jar of water. From one sweet potato you can get dozens of plants. In the garden, plant them out in individual hills or a long mounded row, with one to two foot spacing in the row. Long, trailing vines will eventually cover the area. Tuberous roots should be harvested before frost in late summer-early fall.

One of the more interesting ways I have prepared sweet potatoes, is mixed in with my potatoes, dicing and then sautéing in olive oil, adding some garlic, rosemary, and a little salt. You actually have to start the potatoes early and then add the sweet potatoes, because they don’t take as long to soften. You can also bake a sweet potato, just as you do regular potato. They are more convenient, though, because they don’t require as long a cooking time. If using the baked potato button on your microwave, you should check the sweet potato for softness after half the elapsed time. I have eaten sweet potatoes this way without any butter, sugar, or cinnamon, and they are absolutely delicious.

Another exciting culinary adventure I have taken with sweet potatoes is to substitute them for butternut squash in a soup recipe. You must try it. The subtle flavor and rich, creamy texture are remarkable. It is very simple to make: just cut the sweet potatoes into manageable chunks and cook them in water until they are softened. It is very easy to remove the skins at that point. Use the water as your broth in this proportion: for every pound of sweet potatoes, use 2 cups of broth. You can other seasonings if you like, but it is not necessary. After they are cooked, blend the soup till creamy.

Sweet potatoes can be made into French fries or baked or fried as chips. They are also wonderful in that Japanese delicacy: tempura (batter dipped and deep-fried). They can be dehydrated for later use, and then added later in making the soup recipe above, or as a thickener other soups. When cooked and mashed they can replace pumpkin in a pie, or used similarly in sweet potato casserole. Ingredients that go well with sweet potatoes are cinnamon, brown sugar, and pecans.

As for nutritional value: sweet potatoes have more vitamin A than carrots; have a similar amount of potassium as, and a greater amount of phosphorus than potatoes.

Armed with this knowledge, you may want to strike out on your own culinary adventures with sweet potatoes – sweet potato cookies? Or bars? Ice cream? Smoothies? I think they would work well in all these foods.

Giving Thanks for the Small Things by Dr. Marietta Loehrlein –Professor of Horticulture and Landscaping
November 29, 2012, 3:33 pm
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Fall is hard upon us, the trees are nearly stripped bare of their glamorous autumnal leafy robes, and the sky is filled with the raucous sound of migrating geese. It is time to turn our thoughts to domestic matters and the upcoming holidays.

Much has been written about the first Thanksgiving, and the foods that were enjoyed there. So, too, much has changed over the years, and modern Thanksgivings differ from those celebrated even twenty or thirty years ago, with such staples as broccoli casserole, Mama Stamberg’s cranberry relish (containing horseradish), and crispy kale chips adorning many tables during the holiday season.

I was thinking recently about the small things that give our favorite foods their special flavor – the spices. And I was thinking particularly of the spices that go into a good apple or pumpkin pie: cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and allspice. 

Cloves are actually unopened flower buds of a tree that is native to Indonesia. They were exported and used in China as early as 2200 years ago. A major use during the Han Dynasty (220-206 B.C.) was to combat halitosis. The name clove comes from the French word clou, meaning nail, due to their resemblance to that piece of hardware. They are used in such a manner in cooking ham. They are also used as a flavoring in chewing gum, cigarettes, herbal tea, and the mixture of spices known as Garam Masala.

The bark of several species of Cinnamomum trees are the source of our cinnamon. It has been in use for at least as long as cloves. Sri Lanka (Ceylon) is the native land of true cinnamon, Cinnamomum verum. Other types of cinnamon are commonly called cassia, which is also known as Saigon, Chinese, or Indonesian cinnamon. Cinnamon production is a fascinating process. When trees are two years old, they are cut back to a stump and covered with soil. This process is known as coppicing. It has the effect of causing the tree to send out numerous sprouts. These new young shoots are harvested and laid out to dry, at which point they curl up into the cinnamon sticks that we know. These sticks, or quills, can be ground up to make the familiar cinnamon powder. Cinnamon is an anti-oxidant, which may help fight cancer. But it also serves as a blood thinner, and should be used in moderation.

The nutmeg tree actually produces two spices: nutmeg and mace. The nutmeg portion of the fruit is larger, and so mace tends to command a higher price. Nutmeg has a fascinating history that figures into the purchase of Manhattan from Native Americans by the Dutch. It has also been claimed that nutmeg could cure or prevent the Black Plague, if worn around the neck. In Trenton, New Jersey, nutmeg was prohibited in kitchens of federal prisons due to its suspected hallucinogenic properties.

Allspice is the unripe berry of the Pimenta dioica tree. It has the flavors of cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove all wrapped into one. Of all the spices considered so far, this is the only one that is native to the western hemisphere, specifically, the Caribbean region. Even today, Jamaica dominates in world production of allspice. Columbus brought allspice back to Spain, probably from his first voyage in 1492.

I do not know whether these spices were present during the first Thanksgiving – or how long it took until they were commonly available at American tables. By all accounts, though, the British, Dutch, Portuguese, and others had already been using them, trading them, and ensuring their continued agricultural production. All such efforts required no small amount of effort and time. So, while enjoying your holiday feasts this year, take a moment to give thanks for these small, but important things.

Saving Seeds by Dr. Marietta Loehrlein – Professor of Horticulture and Landscaping
October 30, 2012, 2:28 pm
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Have you ever wondered where our food came from? I mean, where in the world did green beans and carrots and wheat and rice originate? And how did plants from all over the world come to be standard fare at our tables? It all started when people went from collecting wild plants to cultivating them. They eventually began saving their own seeds from year to year. This led to the development of genetic types of crops that evolved under the specific climate, soil, and agricultural practices of a given area. Thus were “landraces” born.
This longstanding tradition dates back to the earliest years of agriculture. In the words of one scientist, “Even the earliest farmers were competent biologists who carefully selected plants with characteristics that lived and reproduced in the farmer’s environment and were useful to local consumers”.
Landraces are genetically mixed such that they yield well under a variety of environmental conditions. Every farmer or gardener knows just how important that is, given the vagaries of the weather from one year to the next. In my garden, for example, the last two years were not good ones for tomato production, yet this year was stellar (due in no small part to my ability to irrigate my crop). Each year posed its own weather challenges – a cool spring, a dry July and August, an unusually warm spring and a hot, dry summer.
Nowadays “heirloom” vegetables are gaining in popularity. Heirloom varieties are often favored by home gardeners and market farmers for their colorful variation (compared to the grocery store types) as well as for their flavor. They often came over to America with immigrants a century – or so – ago. Some people like heirloom vegetables and flowers because they can save their own seed and get a similar crop the following year. If you want to save your seed each year, check out websites by the International Seed Savers organization or a book such as “Seed to Seed” by Suzanne Ashworth for details on how to do it. Who knows, maybe you’ll start a new tradition of heirlooms to pass on to your own succeeding generations?