Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Join the Slofemists this Saturday at the Strathcona Fieldhouse!

Lois Klassen and Lori Weidenhammer invite you to be a part of Slofemists, a long-run artists' project that offers the unhurried production of feminisms. Join in the Slofemists embroidery circle at Strathcona Field House on November 30 from 1-3pm. Participants should bring a feminist story that has inspired them to share, in exchange for a take-home feminist embroidery pattern. Supplies for an afternoon of feminist embroidery will be provided. Embroidered linen patches from Slofemists events will eventually form a composite patchwork that will be used as a couch cover or Slofa - a prop to designate a mobile space for dialogue and performance. Slofemists has been presented at the Surface Design Association of Alberta at the John Snow House in Calgary (October 2013).

In 2014, Slofemists will host Vancouver feminist embroidery events at #204-2075 Yukon Street on the last Saturday of each month: January 25 (1-3pm), February 22 (1-3pm), and March 29 (1-3pm)Register for these by emailing lois(at)loisklassen(dot)com .

Lois Klassen is an artist and writer based in Vancouver. She is interested in participatory art in the city and the social life of crafts. Her on-going social sewing project is documented at

Lori Weidenhammer is a performance-based eco-feminist artist and educator. She prefers to make art in “galleries without walls”, i.e. gardens. She is part of the Second Site Collective and a founding member of the Slofemists. She blogs at

Klassen and Weidenhammer are past collaborators in the Means of Production Artists Raw Resource Collective (with Sharon Kallis, 2009) and CornerFarm: Repurposed Planters for Avant Gardeners (2008). Lori and Lois have collaborated on a number of projects concerning ecology and sustainable lifestyles.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Scabiosa Stellata 'Ping Pong'

Finding out that there is a flower named Scabiosa stellata Ping Pong has made my day. I can use this fab phrase as an incantation to cheer myself up in sticky situations. If someone tries to push ahead of you in line at the grocery store, fix them with your eyes and recite: "Scabiosa stellata Ping Pong!" in your most intimidating wizard's voice and I assure you people will start treating you with respect. I fell in love with this flower at Dan Jason's farm on Salt Spring Island. It has a demure blue-violet flower which has a good sturdy landing pad for the big bumble bees that love to sip the nectar. The wonderful thing about Scabiosa stellata ping pong is its translucent globe-shaped seed heads, which is why it is sometimes poetically called "Paper Moon." Each dimple in the ping pong ball is marked with a charming 5 pointed star. They are an eco-artist's dream and look great in sculptures and flower arrangements. The seeds would make great holiday gifts.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

November Nectar: Red Bistort

When there's a warm day in November, there's not much for honeybees to choose from for forage, so when I visited VanDusen this week I was pleased to see there was some red bistort aka Persicaria for those bees who ventured outside the hive.

 Being red, it breaks the rules for bee plant colour, but you can see those purple anthers on the stamens. I wonder if they help attract the bee to the plant. Certainly when it's this cold, there is not fragrance I could detect.

Not all the florets on the inflorescence bloom at once. You can see how they are blooming at different stages, moving from the bottom towards the top. This is a good strategy for the plant to extend blossom time to hedge its bets on being pollinated.

Bistort is from the Polygonaceae or buckwheat family,  which contains an important collection of bee plants. You can see the tiny white grains of pollen, but it's the nectar that's attracting the bees to this plant.

 Polygonaceae persicarium: Smart arse with pink pokers and knobby knees

What we in British Columbia call Smart Weed (more polite than smart arse) is Polygonum persicarium also known as lady's-thumb. Persicaria comes from the Latin word for "peach" because of the similarity of its leaves to those from the peach tree. The "knobby knees" of Polygonum refers to its jointed stems. Smartweed competes with food crops and can cause yield losses and harvesting delays. It thrives in moist, shady conditions and I am very familiar with it, having spend hours on UBC Farm weeding it out of the veggie rows. At the time I didn't realize it was edible and medicinal. Foragers use smart weed sparingly to lend hot pepper flavor to soups. 
The common name bistort rhymes with distort, the "tort "meaning twisted, referring to the roots. There are wild bistorts and cultivars from all over the globe, some of which are great bee plants for gardens. You may be most familiar with the classic border perennials like Persicaria bistoria 'Superba' with its light pink blossoms on long stems aka pink pokers. The red cultivars are also popular, and although they break the rules for bee plant colours, on late fall days they attract honeybees when not much else is in bloom.

Bistort is a boggy member of the knotweed family. As I was taking these photos, my feet were squelching in the wet grass around the dried flower garden at VanDusen. Persicaria amplexicaulis 'Firetail' aka red bistort is a long-blooming (midsummer to late autumn) plant which grows just over a metre tall. There are dwarf versions as well, but I can't vouch if they attract bees as well as this cultivar. It's a shade tolerant plant which can tolerate different soils, including clay, but it does prefer wet feet.

An infusion of bistort was believed to drive out evil spirits. Witchipedia's list of alternative names for P. bistorta names reads like a spell from Hogwart's including Osterick, Snakeroot, Easter Mangiant, Adderwort, Twice Writhen, Pudding grass, Serpentaria, Dracunculus, Serpentary Dragonwort, Patience dock, Red Legs, and Dragon’s Scales. The roots have been soaked in water and boiled to eat as famine food in Europe and the seeds were used as chicken feed. Young leaves and shoots were cooked in Bistort Herb Pudding aka Easter-mangiant. It is is a boil-in-a-bag dish made of simple ingredients including oatmeal, barley, and hedgerow herbs such as sweet cicely, nettles, black current leaves, and yellow dock. Bistort pudding was traditionally prepared in May when other vegetables were few and far between. This dish is still eaten in parts of northern England (Cumberland). According to the authors of Seaweed and Eat It Easter mangiant was a fertility pudding, eaten at the end of lent when women wanted to conceive.

Brazilian scientists studied Polygonum punctatum and isolated the sesquiterpene dialdehyde polygodial as the active chemical constituent which along with tannin gives the plant its antibiotic, anti-flammatory and anti-hyperalgesic qualities. Plants from this genus have been used as astringent gargles and wound washes. Caution is warranted in the ingestion of bistort because of its high tannin content which can cause nausea and liver toxicity.

American bistort (Polygonum bistortoides) has a white flower head and is very attractive in a meadow. The roots were eaten raw or roasted in the fire by Rocky Mountain tribes, with a flavor that has been compared to chestnuts. I would like to try to grow it in my back yard, but the seeds are hard to find and difficult to germinate.

Feral smartweeds have historically been a major honey plant in the U. S. and Canada. In the book Plants for Bees by Kirk and Howes the authors say that although not a favoured honey plant in Britain, in other countries Persicarias produce a dark, spicy honey that is quick to crystallize. They suggest that the aquatic Persicaria ( P. amphibria) may be a good source of nectar to plant around pods and wet wastelands.

For a great blog post on Persicaria cultivars check out this article by Jan Verschoor.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Two Queens in November

Here are two queens in November, one foraging, one resting. They had exhausted a patch of Phacelia tanacetifolia, and then turned to these orange beauties.  The queens were weak and drowsy, falling off the flowers, but determined to seek sweetness on the unseasonably warm afternoon, with temperatures reaching 12 degrees Celsius. The morphology of this Phacelia is sturdier and with the florets close together, it is more ergonomic than these flowers with their weak and flopping petals. The bees kept slipping off these flowers, but there just wasn't much else to choose from at this time of the year. I don't think I've ever seen two queens tolerate such closeness, but they were just too weak to bother competing for space, hanging on for dear life. If you want to support bees, plant phacelia. I am hoping to try some new varieties next year.

 Did you notice Phacelia and Globe Gilia (above) both have blue pollen? It's luscious.

Location: Oak Meadows Pollinator Garden near the Insect Hotel @Oak and 41st, Vancouver, Canada.

The Pollinator Land Reserve

Land should not be taken out of the Agricultural Land Reserve for development. We need to save our bees by setting this land aside for them. Let's start a Pollinator Land Reserve--property set aside as buffer zones around arable soil in the ALR to save the bees and other insects that pollinate our crops and wildflowers. Our lives depend on it.

(All photos taken on Dan Jason's Farm at Salt Spring Seeds.)

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Of Macro and Miracles

Sometimes when you find a new friend, it's like a miracle. It's like a new piece of your life shifts, falls into place and somehow allows you to move more easily in the world. It's a mitzvah. There are many things that have brought new friends into my life: art, food, and bees and when all three of these favourite passions of mine come together it's a case of triple happiness. So it is with my new friend and colleague, J. G.

Through her generosity there are new colours in my life and a new way of seeing the world. OMG, it's MACRO!!!!!!

I gave her SLR with its macro lens a twirl today in the afternoon light. Of course, most of my pics were out of focus, but even the soft photos revealed new things about flowers I didn't see before. I am falling even more deeply in love with plants as a result of seeing them from this point of view. It's the velvety textures, the soft vulnerable sexuality of plants, the bold drama of nectar guides that I could barely see before. I can hardly contain my excitement and fear this may create in me a new form of paraphilia--macro erotica!

Can you see it? Can you feel the love?

I am losing some of the sharpness in my vision (partly from age, partly from what happened when I gave birth) so being able to suddenly bump up that capacity feels like a miracle. It makes me want to eke out every moment of the dying light of a November afternoon, my face buried deep in the nectaries of flowers and the crevices of kale.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Blooming in November

 On Friday I noticed we had our first hard frost, with the nasturtiums in our garden plot looking like they'd finally been defeated. Other flowers don't seem to be bothered. The penstemons are still hanging in there, which is good for the Anna's hummingbirds and cold spiders looking for a place to hide.

Penstemons have such lovely nectar guides--I bet the hummers can see them clearly because of the reddish hues.

 There are a few campanulas about.

 And there are calendula blooming amid the maple leaves. The red of the leaves brings out the orange tones in the center of the flower.

This Malva zebrina also  has stunning nectar guides.

A "Hotlips" salvia that has bloomed all summer long.

 Woodpecker holes in a tree trunk. Some of these may be full of mason bees.

Ivy blossoms attract bees and wasps at this time of the year.

Jean's lovely chickens frolic in the autumn leaves.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

From the Family Archives: Making Horseradish

I have been sorting through some family photos and found this one of my grandparents and great grandparents making horseradish in Cactus Lake Saskatchewan. I think it's from the early 1950's and my grandma May has written, "Making horseradish, a forgotten and tear enduring task." I guess making it outside makes it less tear inducing. I have a soft spot for that old white picket fence and the Virginia Creeper climbing over the arch. It's long-since been replaced by a caragana hedge.

Decomeber 8, 2013 has been declared Terra Madre "Slow Food, Slow Everything" Day. Maybe we should celebrate by making horseradish in the streets!

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Edible Native Plant Workshop with The Vancouver Fruit Tree Project

On Sunday I hopped on the bus to Chinatown and enjoyed a beautiful bowl of udon soup with chicken and watercress at Harvest as the fall sun streamed in the windows. Then I walked to the Strathona Community Centre and attended a fantastic workshop on edible native plants with Nadine from The Vancouver Fruit Tree Project. Nadine is a botanist with a passion for native plants. She even grows them in pots on her balcony in Vancouver. The impressive list of plants Nadine grows include Mahonia nervosa, licorice fern, Saskatoon berry, Canadian mint, red flowering currant, vine maple, red huckleberry, evergreen huckleberry, chives, coastal strawberry, kinnikinnik and Labrador tea. Only one part of her balcony gets full sun for a few hours each day which is where she places the currant, strawberries, Saskatoons and herbs. Everything else survives in full to partial shade. "I'm a guerilla gardener," Nadine proclaims. "I figure if something was meant to stay with me it will survive."

 The Vancouver Fruit Tree Project helps people pick the fruit from trees on their property. The owner decides how much fruit they want to keep and any excess is donated to one of a dozen organizations who distribute it to people who need a healthy boost in their diet. (The social service organizations include Aids Vancouver, Steve's Manor, and the DTES Women's Shelter.) This summer the organization picked 5000 lbs of fruits which may otherwise have gone to waste. Over the years they have picked over 40 000 lbs of fruit in this city.

The proceeds from this workshop help fund the VFTP and the organization will soon be offering a low cost pruning service, which will operate on a profit-sharing model. There is an apple and pear pruning workshop coming up on Saturday November 16 from 10 am to 12 pm. Details on eventbrite.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Cleaning Mason Bee Condos with Brian Campbell

 It's that time of the year to prepare your mason bees for winter by cleaning the cocoons and condos. Brian Campbell gave a thoroughly fascinating workshop on mason bees as part of the VanDusen Garden workshop series. Brian started the class with a talk on the diversity of bees in British Columbia. He says our province is a great place to practice native bee conservation. This talk is worth the price of admission alone and Brian can come to your garden club or school and tell you all about our local bees. He can give you the confidence to clean your mason bees and help them live to produce another generation next spring.

My father-in-law says he brings his houses in to dry a few days before he cleans them out. Brian takes his in much earlier to protect them from birds and predatory mites. If you had two condos you could try both methods and compare the results. (Note that it's important not to disturb the egg while it is developing into a larva.)

If you have houses made of drilled holes with paper tubes you need to pull out the tubes and unroll them to remove the cocoons. I recently read that parchment paper for cooking is the best paper for rolling your own tubes if you are using the system with the drilled holes.When cleaning cocoons it's important to watch for hibernating wasp queens. We had found one that appeared totally dormant until she woke up and began flying around the room. There are several other mason bee pests you may find in your tunnels including parasitic wasps, cuckoo bees, cuckoo wasps, carpet beetles, flour beetles, spider beetles and pollen mites.

Also look for any cocoons that are damaged and empty and put them in the garbage pile. If your tunnels are filled with crumbly brown matter and chalky white hard  dead larva you may have a condo infected with chalk brood. In this case you've got to quarantine your condo and clean it with water and bleach. Clean your hands as well to prevent the disease from spreading.

If you've got some healthy cocoons, separate them out and wash them in a tub. Some people use bleach, and some don't. There are other people experimenting with natural oils to eliminate the mites and also the cleansing action of gentle abrasion with sand. There are natural eco-sensitive bleaches on the market that would work for this. Brian assures us the healthy cocoons are water proof and the bleach will not get into the bees.

 This condo was interesting because it contained the cells and larva of resin bees. If these are put back together once the mason bees are cleaned out they should pupate and hatch next summer. The exact species of this bee remains a mystery to us. I really wish we had a digital microscope to look more closely at all the insects and debris in the tunnels. (If anyone knows of a good digital microscope for classroom and home use with a MAC OS, please let me know. Price is an object, BTW!)

 It's as simple as this: just putting the cocoons in water and letting them float to the top. You can remove them and let them dry on an old towel. Some people repeat this three times or also use sand to help abrade debris from the cocoons. The most common debris is black pellets of bee poop and pollen mites. These hairy footed mites hitchhike on the backs of bees to eat pollen. Like Varroa mites they reproduce at an alarming rate which can all end in tears. If hairy mites in the tunnels run out of pollen they eat the mason bee cocoons and then they eat the mason bees.

Next you can "candle" the bees by laying them on a powerful flashlight or light tray. Brian encouraged us to keep track of how many large (female) cocoons and smaller (male) cocoons were intact. By mid December (or earlier) puts the cocoons in a plastic bag in a jar in the refrigerator until spring. He adds a wet piece of paper towel on the bottom to keep some humidity in the jar, but not too much. Check your bees periodically to see if they are too dry or too wet.

We also found a tiny dead cuckoo wasp: Pseudomalus auratus. It was just a few mm long and it had a shiny turquoise thorax and a red shiny abdomen. It is one of the wasps that parasitizes mason bees. This wasp does not sting, but curls into a ball when it feels threatened. Awwww.

Should you clean your cocoons? Yes. Most folks had not cleaned their condos for a couple of years and they were overrun with pollen mites and disease. From my research I also learned it is best to buy cocoons from a trusted local mason beekeeper like Brian who checks to make sure he sells disease-free Western mason bees.