A Surprise Cross Pollination Experiment

We attended Norway Day in May and enjoyed a variety of activities and cultural presentations.  One of the activities the kids took part in was painting a flower pot and planting a Petunia that they could take home.  Sweetie selected a white Petunia and Buddy, a deep purple (sadly I wasn’t able to get a photo of Buddy’s – he wasn’t happy with his painting and didn’t want me to take a picture).

petunia cross pollination

We brought the flowers home and enjoyed their blooms indoors for a short time.   Frustrated with the dirt spilling on my counter, I suggested the kids put their pots on the front porch.  Sweetie was careful to water hers regularly (Buddy, not so much) and as could be expected, hers bloomed again.  To our surprise, however, her blossoms were no longer white but striped with purple!  “Mom!  Look at my Petunia!  I think bees must have visited both mine and Buddy’s!  Isn’t this cool?”

petunia nature study

Cross Pollination

Petunias are flowering plants that belong to the Solanaceae family and are hardy to climates within planting zones 10 to 11. Even though these sun-loving plants grow flowers that contain both the male and female reproductive organs, also known as the stamen and pistil, they won’t self-pollinate. Pollination thereby must occur through insects or wind to transfer pollen from one flower to another.  You can also play the role of the insect and transfer pollen yourself.

  1. Select a healthy, freshly bloomed petunia plant. Lightly swipe your fingernail over the yellow pollen on the anthers inside one of the plant’s flowers — if the pollen sticks to your nail, the flower is ready to pollinate other flowers
  2. Look for the stigma that’s sticking out in the center of a petunia flower that you want to pollinate. Lightly touch it with your finger. If it’s glistening and sticky to the touch, the flowers are ready for pollination.
  3. Moisten a cotton ball with rubbing alcohol and swipe it over a pair of tweezers to sterilize them. Allow the tweezers to air-dry.
  4. Hold onto the parent petunia flower with your nondominant hand. Use the tweezers to grasp the base of the filament inside the flower. The filament is the thin stem that holds up the anther with pollen. Pull upward to remove the filament from the flower with the anther and pollen intact.
  5. Rub the anther over the top of the stigma of the receiving petunia flower so the yellow pollen adheres to it. Pollinate as many flowers as you like in this manner.
  • Alternatively to removing the stamen, you can swipe a small paintbrush over the pollen from the parent flower and brush this pollen on the stigma of the receiving plant.

petunia pollination

When the pollen from one flower is carried to the stigma of another flower they combine their genetic information (RNA) and their seeds should produce a hybrid of the 2 original plants.  The hybrid may not have obvious changes in its appearance because plants carry similar genes. If you want only plants with the same characteristics from year to year then simply save the seeds from your favorite blooms and plant the seeds next year.

hybrid  A cross between two parent plants that are from the same species but don’t look exactly like each other.

This discovery – while unplanned – was a fascinating opportunity for us to further explore the concept of pollination.  While some plants, such as peas, self-pollinate very well; others, such as Petunias, are structured in such a way as to assure cross-pollination.  If your children are full of questions and interested in further exploring cross-pollination, encourage them to set up an experiment to answer their questions.  For example:

Experiment :: What would happen if flowers that usually cross-pollinate were self-pollinated instead?

For this experiment consider using Wisconsin Fast Plants which carry out their entire life cycle in less than a month if grown under constant lighting.  The flowers of Fast Plants have long pistils and short stamens, which makes it difficult, if not impossible, for them to self-pollinate.  Once the plants set seed, wait for the fruits to ripen, then count the seeds in the fruits and examine their quality. Which plants set the most seeds: the cross-pollinated plants or the self-pollinated plants? Was there any difference in the size and development of the seeds? Try germinating the seeds from each set of plants, either on moist soil or moist paper towels. Is there a difference in germination rates?

Submitted to the Outdoor Hour Challenge Blog Carnival at Handbook of Nature Study.


My Love Affair with Mangos

Mangos are a fruit, low in calories with excellent sources of vitamins, minerals and fiber, and a low glycemic index.  Not to mention their sweetness.  My husband says they taste as good as candy and I have to agree.  I have loved mangos for as long as I can remember.  They are my favorite fruit.  Years ago, however, I discovered that if I sliced the familiar checkerboard pattern and then brought it to my mouth to enjoy, the following day, I would break out in painful hives all around my lips – typical symptoms of mango allergy.  I was teaching at the time and this itchy rash was very embarrassing.

mango seed

Mango Allergy?  Say it isn’t so!!

I came to learn that though mangos are delicious and a favorite fruit to many, they are also a source of adverse and potentially harmful allergic reactions.  A mango allergy is a rare food allergy. Mangoes come from the same plant family as poison oak. A mango allergy develops from a substance called urushiol, which is found in the mango’s sap and can also be found in poison ivy.

The guilty chemical is urusiol, present in the rind of the mango. Urusiol is in the form of an oleoresin (a mixture of the oils in the mango skin mix with the alkyl based resin). The most common reactions range from numbness and swelling of the lips, to a mild irritation, to a bumpy itchy rash between the fingers and on the ear lobes. It can progress to the classical skin rash and itching that is seen in exposure to poison Oak and poison Ivy.

mango seedsDiscovering my mango allergy years ago, I changed the way I prepared mangos.  I was careful to wash to the skin and to slice the fruit off the skin before consumption.  I have also been careful to always use a fork and not to suck on the large seed.  For years, these precautions have been successful.  But no longer.

A few weeks ago, upon our return from Utah actually, we bought a flat of mangos at Costco.  I prepared them as per usual and enjoyed them in a variety of dishes as well as freshly cut.  A few days after we had eaten our last mango, I awoke to discover my eyes were swollen and I had a bumpy itchy rash between my fingers.  As this was a new reaction for me, I didn’t at first attribute it to the mango.

Delayed hypersensitivity?

Today, however, I awoke to a mildly swollen eye and my left hand itchy around my wedding band.  I had eaten a small serving of mango on Monday and can logically presume it must have been the mango.  Generally, an allergic reaction begins once a person comes in contact with the skin of a mango either by hand or mouth.  However, I have  now learned a version called delayed hypersensitivity can occur where the reaction appears 48 or 72 hours after exposure.

I’m bummed to discover I must now abstain from eating mango.  I would be willing to put up with a swollen eye and itchy fingers to taste this forbidden fruit.  However, the concern is that over time I would have increased sensitivity and the reaction could be more severe.  What is interesting to me, however, is I have never – in all my years of plodding through the forests of Oregon and California – had a reaction to poison Oak or poison Ivy.  I’ve even naively handled the leaves of poison Oak .. though I now know how to correctly identify both.

Wildcraft: An Herbal Adventure Game

I am excited to share with you a fabulous game we’ve had the pleasure to experience with a couple friends of ours.  WildCraft: An Herbal Adventure Game is a cooperative game that teaches about edible and medicinal plants.  We love board games and this one is great for it teaches while it entertains.  I have been a fan of this herbal learning board game for quite a while and now I have ordered my own copy.

wildcraft-board-photoWildcraft! is all about real, valuable knowledge and skills that are quickly getting lost in today’s technological age. It is a gorgeous game that teaches the players all about herbs and their uses.  Artist and naturalist Beatriz Mendoza uses vibrant watercolors to create a colorful and playful world for Wildcraft!  The plant cards show the level of detail needed for identification in the field.

The players are on a mission from grandma to go and pick wild Huckleberries.  Players walk up and down a long winding path to collect berries, along the way they find herbs (plants cards), and they even run into some trouble (trouble cards).  Some of the troubles include sore muscles, an earache, a toothache, a hornet sting, and splinters.  Thankfully, the herbs you have been collecting along the way may provide just the right herbal remedy to help you.

Step by step along the game board kids (and parents) learn about various herbs and their practical applications in health and healing. Wildcraft! includes a 20×20 inch game board, instructions, 4 player pieces, 52 plant cards, 52 trouble cards, 25 cooperative cards, and a spinner. It also comes with a downloadable story to enhance the story of the game.

This game typically only goes on sale during the holidays. But for the next couple days (until May 30th) you can get it for 50% off, that’s less than $20!  To make the deal even sweeter they are also giving buyers the following free bonuses:

  • Access to webinar, Outdoor Kids, Herbal First Aid for Summer, by Aviva Romm
  • Dandelion Activity eBook
  • Herbal Roots zine kids activity magazine
  • The Herbal Gifts eBook (Saves you more in gifts than you spend on the game)
  • Mentoring Kids & Nature Connection with Jon Young (mp3)
  • Herb Fairies Activity Pack, with Book One and activity materials

Grandma’s Flower Gardening Tips

Is there a better way to spend Mother’s Day than at Grandma’s gardening and exploring her flower beds? We live in a rental and do not have a garden of our own – not yet anyway. To get our gardening fix, we thereby made an excursion to Grandma’s where the flowers rival the botanical gardens. She always puts us to work when we visit and we gladly dig in.


After our visit, we always walk away with the dirt beneath our finger nails, grass stains smudged on our knees, and a passion for and greater understanding of flowers. Today, I’d love to share with you Grandma’s flower gardening tips.


1. Use good soil. You want a rich, dark soil that when grasped in your hand and squeezed, will hold together to some extent. Top soil (for garden and flower beds) or potting soil (for pots).

2. Plant in an area according to the preferences indicated on the tag (in the shade, full sun, or partially sunny).


3. Water consistently. The soil should be moist about an inch down.

4. Use rabbit pellets or steer manure for fertilizer once or twice a year, applying in the fall or early spring.

peonia5. Plant when it is cool (early morning or evening). If it is too warm, the roots will dry too quickly and stress the plant. Any water added will evaporate almost as quickly as it is added.

Submitted to the Outdoor Hour Challenge at the Handbook of Nature Study.


What to Do With Fresh Olives?

There are several olive trees in our neighborhood and they have recently caught our attention as they are full of fruit.  I’d read that olives could be harvested in autumn, between September and November.  We thereby opted to give it some time to allow the fruit to ripen. 
This past week, we realized that the time to pick them was upon us and we ventured out one afternoon. It took us no time at all to fill our large strainer with large, ripe olives.  There were many more on the trees but we didn’t bring down a ladder and only the one bowl.  Also, since we’d never cured olives before, I figured we had enough to give it a go.

As we were walking back home, a neighbor stopped and remarked upon our cache.  He stated that his brother frequently cured olives and that tasted great.  Sadly though, he didn’t have any other information to share.  I wish I had thought to get his telephone number.

We returned home and I looked online for recipes.  To my surprise, most all of the recipes I encountered suggested picking them when they are green.  Hmmm.  So what do I do with those we’ve already picked? Fortunately I found this one, Greek-Style Ripe Olives.  I thereby have the olives curing in a salt-water brine.

I was a little surprised, too, that many recipes require soaking the olives in Lye.  As a Norwegian-American, I am not opposed to eating lye-cured food.  I actually enjoy eating Lutefisk.  However, I am not sure I want to actually prepare anything myself with Lye.  I may leave that to others with more experience – or at least wait until they can show me – I am a hands-on learner after all.

The curing takes about three weeks, so I’ll have to save the results of our home curing experiment for another post.  If any of you have any experience with curing or canning olives, I’d love to hear about it. 🙂

Fabulous Ferns: How We Approach Nature Study

Like many homeschool families inspired by Charlotte Mason, nature study is a major component of our curriculum.  As I have a degree in science and was previously an elementary science specialist, I am very comfortable in the outdoors and can answer most questions my kids will pose to me.  “What does a slug eat? Why is the sky blue? How is a rainbow made?”  are just a few examples of inquiries my kiddos have initiated.

@ Whiskeytown National Recreation Area

While I allow their interests to lead us, I try to incorporate a nature lesson each week.  This begins with spending quality time outdoors – going for hikes or nature walks, playing in the creek near the lake, building imaginary worlds in the backyard, and even climbing trees.

We have been seeing a lot of ferns this spring, perhaps due to the more mild climate we have been experiencing.  I’m sure it also stems from the fact that we have living in a new area and are exploring new trails.  One of the April Outdoor Challenges focused on ferns – and we certainly have had many to choose from.

@ Fern Grotto in Santa Cruz

When we are outdoors … on a nature walk or a leisurely family stroll … I rarely instruct the kids to look for anything in particular.  Generally, I allow their natural curiosity to lead them and take advantage of whatever crosses our path, so to speak.  Each month, I print off the nature grid that Barb publishes in her monthly newsletter and we discuss it as we glue it into our nature journals.  The kids thereby have an idea of what the upcoming topics are and this essentially sparks their interests.

Our Journal Entries

When we return home and I can manage to sit them down for a formal lesson – to be honest, I frequently use nature study as the carrot to bring them to the table – I’ll pull out the Handbook of Nature Study and begin to read aloud excerpts as suggested by Barb.  I will also gather our field guides and other resource materials and allow the kids to peruse the photos, read excerpts they find interesting aloud, and ask questions.  The book and Barb’s Outdoor Hour challenges provides the framework for our studies but also allows for open-ended discussions and further exploration.