Elisabeth C. Miller Library

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Recently Added Questions

Question:

How did the dog rose get its name?

Answer:

The name dog rose, or Rosa canina, can be traced as far back as ancient Greece. The Greek physician Hippocrates, and later the Roman naturalist Pliny, believed that a cure for the bite of a rabid dog could be made from the roots. There are alternate theories but their histories cannot reach back as far. Some say the name is from 'dag' rather than dog, and that it refers to the dagger-sharp thorns. But this seems implausible, given how many fiercely thorny rose species there are. Some also claim that is it a pejorative name, as in 'a dog of a rose,' an inferior flower. Again, there is no history backing this theory. According to Elsevier’s Dictionary of Plant Lore (edited by D. C. Watt, Academic Press, 2007), the medicinal property of the the rose's roots came from a mother's dream about her soldier son who had been bitten by a mad dog. In the dream, a voice told her to make a decoction of a wild rose’s roots, "which they call Cynorrhodon," and she followed this advice, healing her son of his ailment.

Question:

Do you know how to find out what species or variety of sumac is used in the spice mix called za'atar? I googled it after reading about it in a Lebanese cookbook written by Mary Laird, but the recipes all just say "sumac berries with salt spray left on them!" Are there different versions of the spice mix in Israel and Arab countries?

Answer:

There are many variations of za'atar--Syrian, Lebanese, Israeli, Palestinian, etc. I'm going to go off on a bit of a tangent from your question about sumac, because the identity of the main ingredient of za'atar is a bit complicated.

One primary difference, these days, between Israeli, Palestinian, or Jordanian za'atar, and za'atar made anywhere without plant protection laws is that the picking of Origanum syriacum (the main ingredient of za'atar) is prohibited in Israel, the West Bank, and Jordan because it is an endangered plant, and there's a hefty fine if you're caught harvesting it in the wild. (Sources: Gil Marks, Olive Trees and Honey 2005, and "A political ecology of za'atar" by Brian Boyd in Environment and Society, 2016).

The word za'atar means 'hyssop,' as in the common name for Origanum syriacum, rather than Hyssopus officinalis, which would be too bitter to eat. (Marks says that the plant mentioned in the Hebrew Bible--the Torah--is ezov, which is hyssop, but again, those bible writers weren't necessarily botanists, so they are believed to have meant O. syriacum.) For more discussion of biblical botanical confusion, see Old Dominion University's page on bible plants.

Gil Marks's recipe for za'atar is as follows:
1/4 c. brown sesame seeds
1 c. Syrian oregano (aka white or Lebanese oregano) or alternatively [if you're not a lawbreaker]: 2/3 c. dried thyme and 1/3 c. dried wild or sweet marjoram
2-4 T ground sumac or 1 T lemon zest
1/2 tsp table salt or 1 tsp kosher salt (optional)

My handwritten recipe which is probably from Claudia Roden's Book of Middle Eastern Food, 1968, says:
1 cup dried thyme
1 cup sumac
1/4 cup cooked, dried unsalted chickpeas finely pulverized
3 T. toasted sesame seeds
1 T. marjoram
2 T. salt
Bear in mind that Roden is from an Egyptian Jewish family.

There are probably countless regional variations. The za'atar we used to get in a twist of paper from the bread vendors in Jerusalem's Old City seemed to have very little sumac--it was mostly something like oregano, thyme, sesame seeds, and salt.

And now, back to sumac! Here's a link to an article on sumac in HaAretz by Daniel Rogov (a cookbook author and food writer). He doesn't say which species of sumac is the edible one, but most powdered sumac is from Rhus coriaria.
Excerpt:
"Now before we get to far into this, let us make it clear that edible sumac is not to be confused with Rhus glabra which many people know by its common name 'poison sumac,' which causes severe itching and skin reactions when touched. Those who have lived in North America are probably familiar with this annoying plant which is a cousin of Rhus toxicodendron (poison ivy).
"In preparing edible sumac, the hairy coating is first removed from the berries, which are then ground to powder-like consistency and used by many in the same way that lemon juice and vinegar are used in the West. The spice is probably at its most popular when making mixtures of za'atar..."

Here is additional information about sumac from Gernot Katzer's Spice Pages.

For another discussion of za'atar and its ingredients, see this site from a Society for Creative Anachronism member--it gives you an idea of the diverging opinions about the constituent ingredients.

Question:

My pet cockatiel died, and I want to know how long it will take to compost the bird in the soil before I can dig up the skeleton and save it.

Answer:

I am sorry for the loss of your cockatiel. I think that you can either put the body in the compost or find a way to salvage the skeleton, but not both. Bird bones have hollow cavities, and would likely break down quickly in the soil. Some permaculture discussion groups online suggest not burying birds, but instead storing them in the freezer until there are active ant nests, and then leaving them exposed for the ants to clean. I was not sure if this would work, so I consulted Dennis Paulson, Director Emeritus of the Slater Museum of Natural History at University of Puget Sound in Tacoma.

He says that "putting something as small as a cockatiel in the ground isn't the best idea, as their smaller bones would probably suffer. Putting it near an ant nest might not be much better, as the ants could carry off those small smaller bones. To make a good skeleton, you need to skin the bird and remove a lot of the bigger muscles (in particular, the flight muscles on the breast) as well as the intestines and other organs from the body cavity." The Slater Museum of Natural History can skeletonize small birds by using their colony of dermestid beetles that eat all the soft tissues, which is the best way to skeletonize something of that size. The museum accepts donations of specimens, but they may also be willing to assist someone who wants to commemorate their pet bird in this way.

In general, dead animals that are not pets and weigh over fifteen pounds must be collected by Seattle Animal Control, but smaller animals that show no signs of disease may be double-bagged and put in the garbage. King County has similar guidelines. Dead wild birds (particularly crows and jays) that may have been affected by West Nile virus should be reported to the Public Health department at 206-205-4394.

Question:

I have a large Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata, I think!) under which grow a few weeds but not much else. I would like to find a low maintenance solution for the ground that won't do any harm to it. Ground cover? Pea gravel? I worry that the shallow root system can be easily smothered so that adding soil and plants is not a good idea, plus the roots are a dense mat and difficult to dig through. Do you have any ideas or suggestions? What native plants might grow under the tree and how can I get them established?

Answer:

As you've realized, Western red cedars have a dense mat of roots close to the surface. It's not a good idea to add soil on top of the roots of trees because their root flare should remain above the soil -- and even if you did, the roots of cedars would spread into that soil in a short period of time. It's also important to keep in mind that under natural conditions the ground beneath Thuja plicata is usually bare of other plants.

If the area beneath your tree isn't in deep shade and has at least some sun, you could plant spring ephemerals, including bulbs. They emerge in spring when the soil has plenty of moisture, then most die back before our summer droughts. They're not difficult to plant under large trees because you don't need to dig a large hole for seeds, bulbs, or small bare-root perennials. Good choices are Anemone blanda, Aquilegia (Columbine), Corydalis lutea, Crocus, Galanthus (snowdrops), Iris reticulata, and various kinds of Narcissus, including daffodils. Most tulips are not long-lived in our area. Hardy Cyclamen emerge and flower at other times of the year, but they're also an excellent choice. Unfortunately, most of these plants are summer-dormant, when you'll probably be out in your garden, and some self-seed prolifically under ideal conditions. A valuable resource, available for checkout at the Miller Library, is Planting the Dry Shade Garden, by Graham Rice (2011). Some of the plants he recommends will require regular watering under cedars.

Another option, also feasible if your area has some sun, is to plant our native Western sword fern (Polystichum munitum). It's evergreen, so has a presence all year, and is the most sun and drought tolerant of our native ferns. I have a 60 foot red cedar in my garden, and have successfully maintained sword ferns beneath it in partly sunny areas, but not in deep shade, where they've died out. However, because they won't survive our summer droughts in nature under these conditions, I've needed to water them about every 3 weeks in order to keep them alive. I've planted fairly small plants and watered them more often than that during their first year. If your soil is very sandy, sword ferns might not do well.

If you require a reliably showy solution, staging large planters planted with annuals or perennials, shrubs and/or trees might be best. The plants you choose will depend upon how much sun the area receives. Of course, they'll need to be watered regularly, but large planters don't need watering as often as small ones. If your hose-bib is not too far away, installing drip irrigation on a timer will ensure that your plants survive when you're away from home.

Question:

I had a fig tree that fell over due to fast growth after prolonged heavy rains. Some of the wood has been saved, and is seasoning, for possible use in smoking meats and/or conditioning of home-brewed beer. Are there potential toxins I should be concerned about? What flavors and/or aromas might I expect?

Answer:

None other than the New York Times has an article by Florence Fabricant (May 23, 2001) about the aromatic properties of fig wood (including using it to flavor meats):
Excerpt:
"Chefs love hardwoods for grilling. Fig wood, which burns hot and fast and sends a heady, almost sweetly floral aroma into the air, is the latest one gaining their favor."

Pascal Baudar's book, The Wildcrafting Brewer (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2018), has a section on the use of bark and wood in making beer. He suggests using wood chips, toasted and added to fermenting beer (or soda, or mead). Fig is among the woods he recommends for its "mild and nutty qualities." (Other wood chips he mentions as worthy additions are manzanita, maple, mesquite, olive, white ash, and yellow birch).

The only toxicity I can think of would be the sap (latex) that is in the leaves, stems, and unripe fruit, and can cause skin irritation. Here is additional information from Purdue University's New Crop Resource Online.