The best and worst of summer, through plants

The best of summer comes from the garden or a roadside produce stand; the worst lurks in our backyards. My favorite summer garden foods are watermelon, cantaloupe and sweet corn.

Explorers introduced melons to North America in the 16th century. Watermelons originated in Africa; cantaloupes came from Persia. A perfect watermelon is ripe, sweet, and crisp. The first cut through the rind cracks. I also like my watermelon cold — ice cold. A refrigerator will do, but five or six hours in a tub of ice is even better. I use my nose to detect ripe cantaloupes. Even ripe grocery store cantaloupes have an irresistible aroma. A spoon slips through ripe cantaloupe flesh like a warm knife through butter. The best come from eastern Ohio Amish country. The cleanup that follows a melon-feast is quick and easy.

Good for composting

Cut up the rinds and toss them onto the compost pile. They decay quickly and help activate overall decomposition. And the seeds can be recycled into bird food. Air-dry them on a sheet of butcher paper, then store them in a cool, dry place. Do this with pumpkins and squash, too.Cardinals, blue jays, chickadees, nuthatches, and doves are just some of the feeder birds that eat melon seeds. Our taste for sweet corn reaches deep into history.

Early inhabitants of the Andes Mountains in South America used ancestral corn as a source of sweetness before the introduction of sugar cane and honey bees.

Fresh sweet corn

Getting truly fresh sweet corn today can be a challenge. Corn that sits too long loses its sweetness as sugars convert to starch. Grocery store corn is often several days removed from the field when we buy it.

Even at roadside stands, we must take vendors at their word that the corn “was picked early this morning.”

Farmers’ markets may be the best sources for fresh sweet corn. But if you can ward off hungry raccoons and deer to grow your own corn, there’s nothing better than husking freshly picked corn and putting it directly into a pot of boiling water.

Unhusked corn also can be roasted on a bed of coals in just a few minutes. A little butter and a dash of salt turns a simple grass into gourmet fare (yes, corn is a grass).

Poison ivy

The worst of summer is poison ivy. I have a long and unpleasant personal history with poison ivy. When I was in elementary school I often stayed home in late spring because the rash actually swelled my eyes shut. My worst memories of little league baseball are playing games while my arms and legs were covered with an intense itchy rash.

Unlike many plants, poison ivy is a chameleon. It grows as a vine, a shrub, or even a small tree. Its leaflets come in threes (hence the adage, “Leaflets three, let it be.”), and they come in all shapes and sizes.

Finally, the surface of the leaves is shiny, evidence of the oil (urushiol) that causes the rash. This irritating oil is present in all plant parts all year long, and it can remain active on dead plant parts for up to five years. The best treatment for poison ivy is prevention.

Anytime you suspect you may have encountered it, wash the exposed skin with soap and water within two hours of exposure so the urushiol won’t have time to bond to the skin. Once it has bonded, however, you can only treat the symptoms until the rash runs its course in about 10 days.

Fortunately for many people, including me, sensitivity to poison ivy often subsides with age. I rarely get a rash anymore, though I often encounter it.Stinging nettles are another plant that often invades my flower beds. It grows inconspicuously among the vegetation that I weed by hand. That’s why I wear leather gloves to weed. Tiny stinging hairs cover nettle stems and leaves. When they puncture the skin, they break and release a toxin that causes a rash and a stinging sensation that persists for hours.

So enjoy the fruits of summer, but beware the edges of the backyard. It’s a jungle out there.Contact Dr. Shalaway via email at HYPERLINK “mailto:sshalaway@aol.com” sshalaway@aol.com or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.

About the Author

Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. Send questions and comments to scottshalaway@gmail.com. You can also visit his Web site, http://scottshalaway.googlepages.com. More Stories by Scott Shalaway

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