Crazy Useful Thing of the Day: Silver

Silver is a metallic element that has the highest electrical conductivity, thermal conductivity, and reflectivity of any metal. Since antiquity, it has been considered a precious metal in many different cultures.  It has many uses, including but not limited to: bullion coins (such as the Anglo-Saxon sceat pictured right), jewelry, the manufacture of specialized mirrors, and in electrical contacts and conductors. Compounds of silver are used in photography, radiography, and in medicine as antimicrobials.

Crazy Useful Thing of the Day: Amaranth

The amaranth (Amaranthaceae) family encompasses a surprising and diverse number of useful plants that you see everyday, but probably would never guess are this closely related. For example:

Beets (Beta vulgaris)

The beet is presumed to have originated in the region around the Mediterranean, but it is now widely naturalized to and cultivated in many regions around the world. There are four main categories of cultivars within the species: the sugar beet, an important source of table sugar; the garden beet, cultivated as a root vegetable; the leaf vegetables of chard and spinach beet; and mangel or mangelwurzel, an important fodder crop. In addition to these uses, the beet is being explored as a possible source of biofuel.

Epazote (Dysphania ambrosioides)

Also known as Jerusalem tea or wormseed, epazote is a species of perennial herbaceous plant native to southern Mexico and Central and South America. It has a long history of use as a medicinal plant and as a leaf vegetable and food flavoring. Its essential oil contains a high percentage of the compound ascaridole, which is toxic to humans and pets. It is also used as a natural pesticide. Its chemical composition can be detrimental to other plants, giving it the potential to become an invasive weed when introduced to areas outside its natural range.

Glasswort (Salicornia spp.)

Salicornia is a genus of annual succulent halophyte (salt-loving) plants native to western Asia, North America, North Africa and Europe. In the past, common glasswort (S. europaea) was burned to get soda (sodium carbonate) from the ashes which was used in glass manufacture and soap making. The North American species, S. bigelovii (dwarf glasswort) is high in unsaturated fats and protein, and can be grown in saltwater to provide fodder for stock animals. It has also been explored as a potential source of biofuel.

Quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa)

Quinoa is an annual plant native to the Andean region of South America, and now widely cultivated elsewhere. It has been cultivated for at least 3000 – 4000 years for its edible seeds. The outer seed coating contains saponins, which are processed out prior to consumption, but which have been used traditionally as a detergent, and as an anti-septic. Several other species within the goosefoot (Chenopodium) genus are also cultivated for food, such as: C. album (lamb’s quar-ters); C. berlandieri subsp. nuttalliae (huauzontle), of Mexico; and C. pallidicaule (kaniwa), also of the Andean region.

Spinach (Spinacia oleracea)

Spinach is an annual plant native to central and western Asia. It is widely cultivated in temperate zones around the world as a leaf vegetable. It is a very rich source of several essential vitamins and minerals.

Crazy Useful Thing of the Day: Cashew

The cashew (Anacardium occidentale) is a tropical evergreen tree in the sumac (Anacardiaceae) family, native to northern and western South America and Brazil, but now widely cultivated in tropical areas around the world.  It is cultivated mainly for its edible seed (the cashew), as well as a resin obtained from the nutshell (cashew shell oil), and its fruit (the cashew apple). The resin can cause a rash; likewise, the waxy coating on the fruit contains the irritant urushiol (like other members of the sumac family) and can cause contact dermatitis in people allergic to it.  If urushiol is ingested or inhaled, it can cause a severe allergic reaction.  These compounds pose a health risk to people involved in the manual processing of cashew products.

Botanical drawing of the cashew plant.
Botanical drawing of the cashew (Anacardium occidentale).

Masters of Cottage Industry: The Eugene Saturday Market

A couple of weeks ago I was visiting my brother in Eugene, Oregon, and was lucky enough to have the chance to once again visit Eugene’s spectacular Saturday Market. I was a regular at the market when my husband and I lived in Eugene briefly about five years ago, and I was especially happy to see some of the same vendors that I knew and loved from that time.

I went to the market with my seven-year-old son and my standing shopping list of items we need for the house: and, I have to say, I really scored. Here’s me showing off my loot, along with the vendor information (should you want to score some loot of your own).

And just so you know, I’m using each and every one of these items just about every day. They are truly crazy useful things.

Handmade Ceramic Soap Dish

Handmade Ceramic Soap Dish

by Bob Haley of Applegate Pottery (Corvallis, OR)

Handmade Wooden Cutting Board

Handmade Wooden Cutting Board

by Bruce Ramsey (Eugene, OR)

Handmade Wooden Cooking Spoon

Handmade Wooden (Black Walnut) Cooking Spoon

by Eldridge Baucum of El’s Quarter Saw Woodworking (Eugene, OR)

Seam Ripper with Hand-Turned Wooden Handle

Seam Ripper with Hand-Turned Wooden Handle

by Mark “Rudi” Rudolph of Wooden Apple Woodturning (Eugene, OR)

Crazy Useful Thing of the Day: Yeast

Yeast cells
Beer yeast

Yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) is a species of fungus in the Saccharomycetaceae family that has been instrumental in human food production for millennia.  It occurs naturally on the skin of some fruits, such as grapes and plums.  It is believed that it was first used in winemaking, and from there the organism was isolated for other uses. It is now widely used for fermentation in many products (such as winemaking, brewing, and kombucha tea), as well as a leavening agent in baking.

Gallery photo credits: (clockwise from left) Kombucha tea, artisan bread, traditional German beer, French wine.

Featured image: Yeast cells (Photo courtesy of Shutterstock)

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Crazy Useful Thing of the Day: Esparto

Esparto grass

The name “esparto grass” refers to two species of perennial plants in the grass (Poaceae) family, Stipa tenacissima and Lygeum spartum. Both species are native to the Western Mediterranean, primarily North Africa and the southern Iberian Peninsula.  Both are cultivated for the leaf fiber, called esparto, which is woven to make a wide variety of items, including: sandals (called espadrilles), baskets (like the one shown below, used for picking snails), mats, ropes, and canteens.  In Spain, there is a long and treasured cultural tradition surrounding the craft of weaving esparto.  Esparto grass is also pulped to make high-quality paper. Because of its high tolerance for saline soils, the grass is also used to stabilize sand dunes, and for soil rehabilitation.

Photo credits: A snail basket woven from esparto grass (courtesy of Wikimedia commons), a variety of items made from esparto (courtesy of Shutterstock)

Featured image: Esparto grass (Photo courtesy of Shutterstock)

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Crazy Useful Thing of the Day: Nutmeg

Nutmeg (Myristica fragrans)
Botanical drawing of nutmeg (Myristica fragrans)

Nutmeg (Myristica fragrans) is a species of evergreen tree in the nutmeg (Myristicaceae) family, native to the Moluccas (formerly known as the Spice Islands) of Indonesia, but now widely cultivated throughout the tropical regions.  It is the best-known member of the Myristica genus, as it is the primary source of the spices nutmeg and mace.  Nutmeg is made from the seed, whereas mace is made from the bright red seed coat (the aril).  Both are dried and ground into powder to make the spice. The fruit (the pericarp of the seed) is edible. An essential oil steam-distilled from the seed is used in perfumery.  Nutmeg butter, produced by cold-pressing the seed, is used as a substitute for cocoa butter.

Featured image: Nutmeg (Myristica fragrans), the source of the spices nutmeg and mace. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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Crazy Useful Thing of the Day: Borax

Twenty mule team borax wagon
U.S. Borax open pit mine, Boron California

Borax (Sodium borate) is a white crystalline compound found in volcanic regions, and in arid regions on the bed of evaporated salt lakes.  The small town of Boron, in California, is home to the U. S. Borax Boron Mine, an enormous open-pit mine that is the largest borax mine in the world.

Vintage ad for 20 Mule Team Borax

Borax has a very wide range of industrial uses. Among others, it’s used in glass and enamels manufacturing, in metallurgy as a flux in a variety of welding and soldering applications, and in gold mining as a replacement for mercury. It’s a well-known ingredient in water softeners, laundry and other cleaning products. It’s also used in fertilizers, as an anti-fungal compound and fire retardant.

An abandoned borax mine, California
An abandoned borax mine, California. (Photo courtesy of Shutterstock)

Featured Photo: The original twenty-mule-team borax wagon. Harmony Borax Works, Death Valley, California. (Photo courtesy Shutterstock)

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Masters of Cottage Industry: Terry’s Tinker Shop

A few Saturdays ago, after weeks of silent admiration, I finally bought a hand-loomed wool rag rug from Terry Thompson, a.k.a. Terry’s Tinker Shop. I bought it from the Thompson’s booth at the Saturday Gardeners’ Market in downtown Logan, Utah. During the process of choosing and buying the rug, I got to know a little bit about Terry and his wife and the story of the rugs, which to me is an important and probably the most fun part about buying an item like this.

Detail of the hand-loomed wool rug I bought from Terry Thompson. This is the texture before the rug was washed for the first time.

At the booth, along with the hundred-and-something rugs they have displayed, is a picture of the loom on which the rugs are made. On a hunch, I asked Mr. Thompson if he made the loom himself. Being, apparently, a man of few words, he nodded yes. Mrs. Thompson then told then me the whole story.

A few years ago, the Thompsons served a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They were in Nauvoo, Illinois, where the church has a museum. In that museum was a big loom, which Mr. Thompson fell in love with. When they returned home to Mendon, Utah, he proceeded to build one. Mrs. Thompson explained that he was working only from photographs and somehow he just understood how everything went together. Every once in a while, she said, he would have to call the museum and get this or that measurement. But otherwise, he was on his own. I told them that it reminded me of my late Dad, who once built a giant puppet of the dragon for a stage production of Shrek, with with virtually nothing to go on except a short video clip my mom found for him on YouTube. Mr. Thompson just smiled and nodded.

Another example of a “rug of many colors.” Photo courtesy of the Tempe Festival of the Arts

Mrs. Thompson also told me about how they source the wool “rags”. The material to make the rugs comes from the Pendleton factory in Pendleton, Oregon. When Pendleton makes the wool blankets, they cut the selvage off the finished blanket. For the factory, this inch-wide strip is waste material: for the Thompsons, it’s pure gold. They drive up to the factory periodically and buy big quantities of these strips. They don’t have any choice in the color or patterns that they get, and there’s a fair amount of work involved in detangling the strips, removing the long strings of wool yarn that get tangled in, and separating out the various colors.

The strips are then woven into blankets using the traditional method. The rugs come in a fantastical array of colors and patterns, it would be impossible to find two that are alike.

In a new, unwashed rug, the warp threads are visible and the yarn of the rags is very, well, yarn-like. However, the rugs are machine-washable, and sending them through the washing machine felts the wool yarn, changing the texture to a more “woolly” look. The size, however, does not change. The rug will not shrink, as long as it is not put in the dryer. The felted wool forms a thick protective layer over the warp threads (the part of the rug most susceptible to wear), which prolongs the life of the rug. These rugs are beautiful, but they are in no way delicate. These are meant to be used. For years. Possibly decades.

I wish I could refer you to the website for Terry’s Tinker Shop, but they don’t have one. The Thompsons sell their rugs mainly by traveling to craft shows, primarily around the Southwest. So, while you may not have the chance to buy one of Mr. Thompson’s rugs, I hope you find inspiration in the Thompsons’ skill and dedication to this timeless legacy craft, their ability to turn “waste” into beauty, and their friendly willingness to share it with their neighbors — wherever they may be.

Terry Thompson of Terry’s Tinker Shop, weaving a wool rag run on his self-built loom. Photo courtesy of the Tempe Festival of the Arts


Ailanthus silkmoth

The living creatures that we have categorized as “insects” outnumber all other species put together by…well, a lot.  Frankly, if I were to give you a number, you would pretty much know that I or whoever I had gotten the number from would be mostly guessing about it.  There are (as far as we currently know) around 900,000 distinct species, comprising 70% of all known species (of anything) on Earth — and entomologists estimate that we have only identified about 20% of the insect species that may exist.  Insects are found virtually everywhere, adapted to a staggering variety of climates, habitats, and ecosystems.  Many species are remarkable for the intricate symbiotic relationships they have formed with other species: plants, animals, other insects.  And, of course, humans.

So naturally, I have some questions about bugs.

First question: If there are over 8000 insect species that are known to be edible by humans, why don’t we eat more bugs?

Around the world and throughout the centuries, hundreds of cultures have used thousands of insect species directly as food.  In modern times, at least several of these thousands play an economically important role in direct food production.

Mopane worm on mopane tree (cropped)

Photo: Mopane worm (Gonimbrasia belina) on a mopane tree, by JackyR courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Take, for example, the mopanie or mopane worm. The mopanie is the larva (caterpillar) of the emperor moth (Gonimbrasia belina), a member of the surprisingly important genus Saturniidae, which we’ll see more of later.  The common name is the result of the larva’s habit of feeding mainly on the mopane tree (Colophospermum mopane).  The tree and the moth are native to southern Africa, and are harvested on the order of hundreds of tons per year as an important source of protein for the region, especially Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana, and South Africa.

House cricket cvrcek domaci

Photo: The common house cricket (Acheta domesticus), by Petr Gebelt courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The common house cricket (Acheta domesticus), native to China but now naturalized to North America and other parts of the world, has for decades in the United States been raised as food for exotic pets.  Now, food-grade cricket farms are becoming the next big thing in cottage or hobby farming.  Not without good reason.  Crickets have a feed-to-food ratio of about 1 to 1, as compared to about 6 to 1 for beef cattle, or 1.5 to 1 for poultry.  In addition, crickets do not produce greenhouse gases, and are easy to breed and raise by just about anyone, with little initial capital investment.  The supply chain currently consists of small cricket farmers selling their stock to businesses specializing in processing the crickets, usually into powder (aka “cricket flour”), which is in turn sold to food producers.  It’s a growing industry that I personally hope will stick around and diversify to include other insect species.

Like, for example, mealworms.  Mealworms are the larvae of the mealworm beetle (Tenebrio molitor), and they are also making inroads into human cuisine.  Previously regarded as a pest, since they invade and feed on stored grains, mealworms have transitioned into pet food, and now human food, where they have been a popular food source in Southeast Asia for at least a few decades.

Tenebrio molitor (meelworm)

Photo: Mealworm (Tenebrio molitor), by Rasbak courtesy of Wikimedia commons

In for a penny, in for a pound, that’s what I say.  Once you open the door to insects as food, the world becomes your oyster.  Mixed metaphor, yeah, I know.  But you know what I mean.  If you’re interested in exploring the topic of raising insects for food, I found the little book below to be a handy introduction.  It’s short and doesn’t go into a ton of detail, and doesn’t address the commercial side of farming insects at all. But it gives a good overview, and would definitely allow you to get started raising crickets and mealworms.

(paid link)

A good starting point for the exploration of the topic of bug-eating around the world is the reprint of an article found in the journal Crop Protection, Volume 11 (Issue 5), pp 395-399, titled “Insects as Human Food” by Gene DeFoliart.  A free excerpt can be found here: Insects as Human Food.

Next questionAre silkworms the only insects that produce usable silk fiber?

No.  Next question.

Just kidding.

The insect that we know as the “silkworm” is the larva (caterpillar) of several species of moth in the genus Saturniidae.  The best known of these is the domesticated silkmoth, Bombyx mori.

Bombyx mori 001

Photo: Bombyx mori larvae on mulberry leaves, by Lilly M courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

This silkworm is native to China and the practice of breeding the moth to produce silk fiber (sericulture) is at least 5000 years old, and may be significantly older.  Bombyx mori is now cultivated worldwide, though the top producers by far are China and India.  Silk fiber is known for its durability and natural shine, both of which have made it a popular textile fiber for in Asia for millennia, and for centuries in the West since its introduction to Europe in around the eleventh century. Famously, the favored food of the silkworm is the white mulberry (Morus alba), which is why this silk is also known as mulberry silk.  So, if you want to cultivate silkworms, you also have to know how to cultivate white mulberry. Can’t have one without the other.

Photo credits: (Left) Silk cocoons by Katpatuka, (Right) Raw silk by Armin Kubelbeck, Wikimedia Commons

The silkworm is one of only two cultivated silk-producing moths.  The other is the Ailanthus or eri silk moth (Samia cynthia ricini), native to India, China, Japan, and now naturalized to parts of Thailand.  The favored food of the eri moth is the castor plant and the Ailanthus tree (tree of heaven).

Saturnidae - Samia cynthia

Photo credit: Ailanthus silkmoth (Samia cynthia ricini), by Hectonichus courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The cocoons of its larvae are harvested to produce eri silk, which is more durable than that of the Bombyx mori, but has a more woolly texture.   Some traditions produce eri silk without killing the caterpillar, by allowing the larva to first leave the cocoon and then unreeling the silk. In northeast India, where the tradition of eri silk originated, the cocoons were harvested mainly for the protein-rich caterpillars, and the silk was then used to weave the traditional chaddar (wrap).

In addition to cultivated silk, there is also wild silk.  For example, Tussar silk (also known as Kosa silk) and Muga silk are produced by several species in the genus Antheraea within the Saturniidae family Native to India, the moths’ cocoons are harvested from wild groves of trees that host the insects. Tussar and Muga silk is widely used in India to make the beautiful traditional sarees and chaddars.

A brief but informative overview of the different types of silk and the silk industry in India can be found on the Central Silk Board of India’s website here.

Tussar silk fabric
Tussar silk fabric (Source:

Many other insect species outside of Saturniidae also produce silk: spiders, crickets, other moths — to name a few.  Some of these are being investigated as possible sources of commercial silk fiber, and it will be interesting to see where this investigation takes us in the future: Spider silk stockings?  Raspy cricket surgical sutures? Who knows?

Next question: What the heck?

It’s inevitable that whenever you’re exploring human invention and the natural world, you’re frequently going to be struck with the question: How did anybody ever think of that?

For example, scale insects.

Scale insects comprise a group of roughly 8000 species of small insects in the superfamily Coccoidea, that are usually plant parasites.  One of their dominant common characteristics is that the females produce a protective waxy coating that makes them looks as if they have scales (hence, the common name).   I can understand how someone would look at that wax and think that it might be useful — and, in fact, it is.  For example, Chinese wax, which is used to manufacture polishes, candles, and other items, is a product of certain species of scale insects native to China and Japan.

Similarly, the lac insect (Kerria lacca) native to India and Asia, produces a resinous protective coating called lac, which is the only known resin of animal origin.  Lac is refined to produce shellac, a type of varnish that has many uses, including as a wood finish and a fruit wax.  This characteristic has made the lac insect the most commercially important of the scale insects, with several thousand tons of shellac produced annually.  Again, I can understand how a person (especially given the long history of use of plant resin) could look at bug resin and think “I can use this for something.”


Photo: Kerria lacca resin on a tree branch, by Jeffry W. Lotz courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

But, how could someone look at a tiny bug living on the roots of herbs, and think to himself, “Hmm, I bet if I squash this and mix it with aluminum and calcium salts, I’ll get a nice strong red dye.”  But that’s in fact what happened (well, something like it, anyway).  There is a group within the scale insects known as the cochineals, and the bodies of these species contain generally high amounts of carminic acid, which is used to make the red dye known as carmine.

Polish cochineal
Life cycle of the Polish cochineal, From Breyn, Johann Philip (1731) Historia naturalis Cocci Radicum Tincttorii quod Polonicum vulgo audit, The Academy of Natural Sciences Library, Philadelphia, United States (Public domain)

The Polish cochineal (Porphyrophora polonica), native to Central Europe and parasitic to primarily the herb knawel (Scleranthus annuus), was for several centuries and through the Middle Ages of great economic importance as a source of red dye.  After the colonization of the Americas, it was largely replaced by the Mexican cochineal (Dactylopius coccus) as the source of carmine.  And yes, there are cochineal farmers still around in Central America today, raising the insects to produce the dye, which is still used as a food coloring and in cosmetics.  If you’re thinking about becoming a cochineal farmer, though, keep in mind that the insect is parasitic to the Opuntia genus (the prickly pear cacti), so you have to live where those grow.  Just FYI.

Cochinel Zapotec nests

Photo: Cultivated cochineal nests on Opuntia, by Oscar Carrizosa courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

And on that note, I’ll wrap up this discussion of the fascinating and ever-changing relationship of humans and bugs.  With this one final thought: of all the bizarre symbiotic relationships that exist between plants and insects, and humans in the mix, the one between the fig wasp and the fig tree strikes me as one of the more awe-inspiring.  The fig wasp and fruit-producing fig tree are completely dependent on each other for the completion of their reproductive cycles.  While humans have managed to breed certain varieties of figs that can be propagated without the wasp, the Smyrna fig remains firmly dependent on the fig wasp.  So, next time you bite into a tasty Smyrna fig, say thanks to the tiny wasp that made it possible.

Here’s a link to a well-done video that talks about the history, nutritional value, and cultivation of fig varieties, including the relationship with the fig wasp.

The Nutritional Value of Fig Wasps

P.S. What about bees?

Yeah, bees are an awesomely big and important topic.  The relationship between bees and humans is very long and very intense.  So long, in fact, that there is at least one cave painting, dating to roughly 6000-8000 B.C., that depicts a human harvesting a beehive (it’s located in Cuevas de la Arana — Spider Caves — in Bicorp, Spain).  We look to bees not only for the important products they make (honey, beeswax, propolis, and royal jelly), but for their even more important role as plant pollinators.  Without bees, many important crops could not be cultivated (or exist at all, in some cases).  Bees will appear many times in this blog, including the next entry, which will be a discussion of the topic of “Wax.”

For now, I will recommend this beautiful and practical book about modern beekeeping and the history of the human relationship with the European honeybee.  It’s a fascinating read, even if you’re not into beekeeping — and if you are, it’s got a lot of great information to get you started.

(paid link)

Additional References:

(1) Encyclopedia of Insects, by Vincent H. Resh (Ed.) and Ring T. Carde (Ed.).  This would seem like a crazy undertaking to try to catalog all 900,000 species of insect, but if you’re really into learning about the insect world, this is a great reference that highlights some relevant and interesting patterns.  And at almost 1200 pages, it’s got great detail, too.

(paid link)

(2) I have not read the whole book, but I can tell you that it’s dense and contains more information than the average person would ever want to know about commercially producing insects as human food.  If you’re not the average person, this might be a good choice for you.  Just the fact that there’s a textbook on the subject is pretty cool all by itself.

(paid link)

(2) Since sericulture (silk cultivation)is mostly practiced in Asia, most of the books out there are by and for agriculturalists in Asia.  Nevertheless, there was a time when the silk industry was thriving in the United States — and who knows, maybe it could be again.  For a short history of silk production in the U.S. see this article.

This is a very robust and detailed manual on sericulture.

(paid link)

And here’s a lighter version, lacking the depth and detail, but still a useful overview of the practice.

(paid link)