Friday, October 31, 2008

Happy Halloween!

We're getting trick-or-treaters in flurries. I'd say a total of around 75 by now. We're almost out of candy so we'll have to pull in our pumpkin soon. One dad had flashing lights on his "grill" (teeth). There was one Hillary Clinton mask, but no Sarah Palins. Otherwise there was the usual intergalactic villains, pirates, superheroes, witches, monsters, brides of Frankenstein, princesses, and mermaids. Oh, and a cowgirl in a pink cowgirl hat. The two most beautiful costumes of the night were a handmade peacock and a handmade Monarch butterfly, sisters, with matching bags. The most creative costume award goes to three teenagers (young adults?) with their heads covered by paper grocery bags decorated with crude faces fashioned out of paper plates, masking tape, more crumpled grocery bags, and crayons.

Monday, October 27, 2008

More Buttons

It's the last week of the campaign. Rachel is really tired but she's still out there talking to voters and passing out her flyer. We're all wearing our buttons. Think positive. Yes we can!

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Goodbye to the Butterfly Zone

The Butterfly Zone exhibit over at the Conservatory of Flowers is something I’ve been meaning to go to ever since it opened last spring. Now it’s closing on Nov. 2 and I finally made it over there last week.

I was entranced, walking into the exhibit space, to see butterflies flying around me and feeding on various blooms. But as I examined them more closely I could see that most of them had tattered wings. The caterpillar and chrysalis house was closed, with a sign saying that they couldn’t raise any more butterflies because the exhibit was coming to a close. The USDA (they regulate butterflies?) would not allow the release of their “leftover” butterflies into the wild, so they were just letting the remaining species live out their lives. Note to self: do not wait to visit an exhibit until the last two weeks.

There was only one battered ID guide around that didn’t even list all the butterfly species I saw. Of course I knew the one Monarch I saw on the milkweed. With the help of the $2 official Butterfly Zone ID guide I eventually identified these species:
Julia (Dryas iulia)
Atala (Eumaeus atala)
Zebra Longwing (Heliconius charitonius)
Crimson-Patched Longwing (Heliconius erato)
Cloudless Sulphur (Phoebis sennae)
Great Southern White (Ascia monuste)
But what was the striking black one with iridescent blue stripes and white spots, the most numerous butterfly left in the exhibit? On an empty bulletin board outside the exhibit, dark squares showed where more info once hung. I asked one of the gardeners if she knew about butterflies.
“Why?” she asked, apparently tired of butterfly questions.
“There’s a butterfly that isn’t identified on any of the guides,” I said. “I just wanted to know what it was.”
“Well, the exhibit is about to close. The entomologist has been taking all her pictures down so there’s not a lot left.”
“Is she around?” I asked.
“Oh no, she’s gone. There’s only about a week left now, so …”
Even the entomologist had abandoned it.
On my way out of the Conservatory, I glanced up. Those blue-striped butterflies were clustered thickly on the skylight, like moths around my porch light.

Back home I searched for the mystery butterfly on After paging through more than 100 pages of butterfly images, I found it: a Mexican Bluewing (Myscelia ethusa). One reason my search took so long was that I had no idea where this butterfly’s habitat was, or even if it lived in North America. If I had observed it in, say, my backyard, I could have looked on one of the Bay Area-specific sites and saved a lot of time. The only reason it showed up on is that is also found in extreme southern Texas, since they only include insects from the U.S. and Canada.

Which is really why the Butterfly Zone didn’t grab me like I thought it would. I did see some gorgeous butterflies I probably never would have seen in their natural habitats (unless I traveled to extreme southern Texas, for example). But out of context, they were only decorative, like the orchid in my bathroom. It was more interesting to me to find the chrysalis of the lowly Cabbage White on my kale than have the exotic Mexican Bluewing land on my leg in the glass-enclosed exhibit space.

You can see gorgeous photos of all the butterflies I saw, including the Mexican Bluewing, at I think I was the only adult at the Butterfly Zone without my camera.

Thursday, October 23, 2008


I hadn't checked the chrysalis for a few days, and when I checked it again, it was only an empty shell. I wish I had seen it hatch, but I guess I would have had to be more vigilant or more lucky. I figure it pupated for approximately two weeks. Definitely not in diapause. There are still more Cabbage Whites fluttering around my garden so maybe they will just continue their reproductive cycle through the winter. I finally got fed up with the aphids so I chopped down the kale and threw it all in the compost. I have tried hard to love worms and caterpillars and pillbugs, but I cannot love aphids. I respect their reproductive powers, but I do not love them.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Peanut Butter Cupcakes with Chocolate Frosting

These are truly delectable. I made them for an outdoor party in Marin yesterday and they were gobbled up. I think I'll have to make another batch. You can see in this photo there were a few "tunnels" in the cupcakes which supposedly means I over-mixed them, but who cares?

Peanut Butter Cupcakes (from The Fannie Farmer Baking Book by Marion Cunningham)
6 Tbsp. butter
1/2 cup creamy peanut butter
1-1/4 cups brown sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2 cups cake flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1 cup milk
1 cup salted peanuts, chopped (I didn't include these because I didn't have them)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line muffin tins with fluted paper baking cups. Cream the butter and peanut butter together, then add the brown sugar gradually, beating until well blended. Add the eggs and vanilla and mix well. Sift the cake flour, baking powder and salt together onto a piece of waxed paper. Add the sifted dry ingredients and the milk to the peanut butter mixture. Beat until the batter is thoroughly blended and perfectly smooth. Stir in 3/4 cup salted peanuts, if desired, reserving the rest to garnish the frosted cupcakes. Spoon into the prepared muffin tins, filling each cup about 3/4 full. Bake for about 20 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center of a cupcake comes out clean. Turn out onto a rack to cool. Frost with Chocolate Butter Frosting, below, and sprinkle with reserved nuts.
(makes about 17 cupcakes)

Chocolate Butter Frosting
(makes 1 cup)
1-1/2 oz. unsweetened chocolate
3 Tbsp. milk
1-1/2 cups sifted confectioners' sugar
3 Tbsp. butter, softened
dash of salt
1 tsp. vanilla

Melt the chocolate in a double boiler or in the microwave oven, then set aside. Heat the milk up in the microwave, separately, then pour it over the sugar in a mixing bowl, and beat vigorously until smooth. Add the melted chocolate and beat well. Let the mixture come to room temperature, then beat in the butter, salt and vanilla. Spread on the cupcakes.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Good Things Cooking

My son stepped into the house today after school, and a beatific smile came over his face.
"Mmmmm," he said.
He walked over to the kitchen and stuck his nose in this pan.
"There's always something worth coming home for," he said happily.
Tonight it was chicken curry.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Aphids Upon Aphids

I am less and less disgusted by my kale's aphid infestation. I am restraining myself from blasting them off with a squirt of water from my hose, or brushing them off with my fingers. Acutally, I am waiting for the legions of lacewings and lady beetles to come and devour them. But so far, no one has shown up. So now there are layers and layers of aphids, huddled together, sucking. Why?

My research brought me to the wondrous revelations of Gordon's Aphid Page. I found out that there are 4,000 species of aphids in the world, 1,350 of them in North America (mine are cabbage aphids).

It's their sex life, however, that will really stretch your mind. First of all, they can reproduce parthenogenetically (that is, unmated females produce young from unfertilised eggs) AND can also reproduce by sexual mating. They bear live young (are viviparous) AND lay eggs (are 0viparous), at different times of the year. Ponder this:
Ova within a viviparously reproducing female start to develop immediately after ovulation, this occurs long before birth (even human females are born with all the ova they will ever need throughout their life, though they remain undeveloped for many years.) This means that an embryo can exist inside another larger and more mature embryo. In fact a newly born Summer aphid can contain within herself not only the developing embryos of her daughters but also those of her grand-daughters which are developing within her daughters. Parthenogenesis combined with this 'telescoping of generations' give aphids an exceedingly rapid turn-over of generations meaning they can build up immense populations very quickly.
Hence my infestation.

Still hoping for some predators.

Friday, October 10, 2008


There's a chrysalis on the kale. It's a green caterpillar (imported cabbage worm) pupating into a cabbage white (Pieris rapae). I'm so glad I didn't squash that green caterpillar. The chrysalis has looked like this for 3-4 days, since I first spotted it. Those grey dots to the right are aphids. The chrysalis could be in diapause, which means that its reproductive cycle is on "pause" until the spring, at which time it will mature into an adult and hatch. Or it may do it sooner, since our winters are so mild. I'll be watching. I photographed a cabbage white in my garden a year ago, and added a poem by Mary Oliver about white butterflies to that post.