Monday, May 16, 2022

Exploring the Western NY Wilds – Jack-in-the-pulpit: A test of manhood


The spring produces the most beautiful and interesting wildflowers of the entire growing season. One of those plants that are especially interesting is now in full bloom in Allegany County. The Jack-in-the-pulpit has a storied history, especially among Native Americans, as it was once a measure of one’s manhood.

What to look for

A member of the arum family, the Jack-in-the-pulpit cannot be confused with any other plant in the area. Located beneath a set of three large leaves is the uniquely-shaped flower. The spathe (or “pulpit”) is a curved hood that is greenish to purplish-brown in color. If you lift that hood, you will find inside the pulpit “Jack”, more appropriately known as the spadix (the reproductive organ of the plant).

The spathe protects the spadix from rain, which would wash away all of the pollen. The plant, which can actually alternate between sexes, is pollinated by insect attracted to a rotten smell emitted by the plant (which humans can barely smell). They head into the pulpit where smaller insects can move in and out freely, but larger insects can become trapped and die inside the base of the pulpit.

The Jack-in-the-pulpit can be found in moist woods with rich soils. The flower is in bloom throughout the month of May. Later in the year the flower will be replaced by a tight cluster of shiny red berries that appears to be one solid, bumpy mass.

A test of one’s manhood

The Jack-in-the-Pulpit had its place in Native American tradition. Many tribes used it as one of the capstones for a boy’s coming of age. If the boy could eat the root of the plant, he was considered a man.

The root (corm) was considered hot, hotter than the hottest pepper on Earth, and it took a man to fight the pain and agony.

Now that we know more about the plant we know that it isn’t hot like a pepper. Whereas peppers get their “heat” from the chemical capsaicin, the pain elicited from Jack-in-the-Pulpit comes from calcium oxalate. It is present as microscopic crystals in raw corms. Those crystals tear flesh and, at the same time, poison the torn flesh.

The crystals can tear the tongue, throat, esophagus and stomach so badly that blisters and open sores develop in the body.

If someone ate multiple corms to prove that he was a real man, there was a very good chance that he would have died as the throat would have closed up and he would have suffocated. If he survived, he would have to contend with a bout of kidney stones from a collection of the calcium oxalate; pain in, pain out.

Oh, the things men will do to show off their machismo!

Eating Jack-in-the-pulpit

While Jack-in-the-pulpit might have proved unpalatable, even deadly, in the test of manhood, Native Americans did find use for the plant, especially that same noxious corm.

The corms are so nutritious that Native Americans used to harvest them in large numbers. To eliminate the poisonous, painful nature of the plant, they would slice it thinly and then let it dry for a few months in the summer heat. Interestingly, such practices were utilized by other cultures throughout the world to consume other members of the arum family that have similar nasty characteristics.

The indigenous people would use the Jack-in-the-pulpit as a healthy starch, eating it like a small potato or they would pulverize it into flour and make bread, which was the most common use of the plant.

They also made a marinade from it that was used to flavor venison.

If you are out in the woods this weekend, keep your eyes open for this interesting and formerly useful plant. But, whatever you do, don’t test your manhood. If you do, you’ll regret it.

Plus, why kill the plant just to pull off a stunt? Jack-in-the-Pulpits can live to be 100 years old ― let them thrive.


From the 16 May 2022 Wellsville Sun

Protect small business from the threat of China


China is neither a fair nor free trade partner as they – government and businesses alike – have little to no respect for intellectual property rights. They think nothing of copycatting patented products and software and stealing trade secrets. It’s estimated that such IP theft costs the US economy around $500 billion annually.


Confer Plastics faces Chinese rip-offs on a regular basis. There are quite a few pool and spa products out there which copy all but the patented part of our goods, adopting our look and means of assembly while shamelessly adopting our manuals and packaging. Then, there are some Chinese-made products that take it to another level and are full-blown counterfeits, utilizing our patents.


The latter items get the full force of our legal counsel when they are sold in US marketing chains, typically bringing them to quick demise, even at the e-commerce giants. We faced two such instances last year -- the throes of the pandemic didn’t temper China’s bad behaviors.


It’s not cheap for us. Fighting those ersatz Confer products and maintaining appropriate IP protections costs us tens of thousands of dollars a year. But, we can handle it because our product line is big enough and it’s worth it -- the products we are saving are well-established and have decent sales (which is why Chinese manufacturers and the US distributors that enable them have their sights on those lines). 


We can fight that fight, but, what about the little guys, who don’t yet have the business volume or are just starting out? They can’t afford the legal bills for such battles (let alone for the development of patents), so they just throw in the towel with those products, watching with frustration as Chinese takeoffs takeoff in the marketplace.


They need some help from Uncle Sam.  


They get some now, from the Federal Bureau of Investigations and other agencies, when espionage and clandestine theft takes place as that escalates to a special level of criminality, something akin to spying.


But, they get little help with the run-of-the-mill IP theft, such as that my company faces on a daily basis.


A suggestion would be that for the smallest of the small businesses -- say annual revenues less than $2.5 million -- the federal government creates a system that protects those firms and their ideas.


The government could either reimburse small businesses for their costs associated with -- or create a department that helps such enterprises with – development of programs, policies, and procedures to create and appropriately protect patents and trademarks within and without the organizations. By covering the costs of patents at these businesses, the government would ensure that big ideas can come out of the smallest of places.


Then, those same organizations could be afforded legal assistance, by said department or reimbursement, when fights against Chinese rip-offs take place through the provision of cease-and-desist letters or deeper legal counsel if it escalates into greater drama in the courts or some other venue. A sudden wave of legal action from players previously not deemed as such threats would really make China and their enablers reconsider their unethical practices.


For someone often called a being libertarian or conservative, it’s probably a shocker to some readers that I’d push for either a new agency or grants for legal services.


I look at it this way: Federal and state governments don’t mind throwing billions of dollars in grants, tax credits, and more -- for everything under the sun -- at large, well-established corporations (Amazon, Tesla, green energy companies, oil companies, banks, etc.) that really aren’t worthy of public largesse because they have economy of scale, financial reserves, established markets, and defined futures. But, providing know-how and weapons, if you will, to small guys who are in a literal economic war with China is a small and worthwhile expenditure…and there is an actual return on investment.       


There could be a machine shop in your town, a start-up in your neighborhood, that would benefit from such assistance, as we all will. Considering that small businesses are the bread-and-butter of the US economy, can become big enterprises upon capitalizing on their big ideas, and could literally develop and manufacture life-changing and life-saving products and software, they need and deserve help against China that they can ill afford as they are starting-up and growing. The health of their businesses and communities – and the health of our national economy and national security – depend on winning those fights.


From the 09 May 2022 Greater Niagara Newspapers, Batavia Daily News, and Wellsville Sun

Exploring the Western NY Wilds: May apple – the cancer-fighting forbidden fruit



In the book of Genesis, Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit and destined all of mankind to some miserable aspects of existence.

No one knows exactly what the forbidden fruit was, but the image that most people have in their head is that of an apple.

There’s a plant in Allegany County that goes by the name of apple – specifically the May apple – but it’s not an apple. I would, though, consider it a forbidden fruit.

The umbrella plant


The May apple is a fairly common springtime wildflower that can be found in forests, woodlots and hedgerows found all across the region. It can form fair-sized colonies on the forest floor -- it’s not uncommon to see a dozen to a few dozen plants in one area. They can be readily identified by their tell-tale umbrella-like appearance.

The May apple stands a foot to a foot-and-a-half tall. At the top of its split stem are two large leaves that are deeply-lobed, giving it appearance of having multiple leaves when really you are just seeing 5 to 9 lobes. Those two leaves cover a fairly large area, reaching a foot in width together.

Those leaves act as a canopy. Below that canopy is an exquisite single white flower. Those circular flowers are about 2” in width and they bloom in in mid- to late-May. That is where the plant gets half of its name.

The forbidden fruit

The other half of the May apple’s name comes from the fruit that begins to appear in the last week of May and becomes fully ripe around mid-June.

It’s a yellowish fruit, about 2” long that is lemon shaped. Most wilderness survival and edible plant guidebooks count the May apple as being edible. Some folks say that it tastes like strawberry. Others think it has a dull flavor that doesn’t warrant harvest.

Either way, I’ll never know. I don’t want to chance it.

It’s a stretch to consider the May apple to be edible.

The May apple as a whole is an exceptionally poisonous plant and the same can hold true for the fruit.

When unripe, it is poisonous. The unripe apples are green while the ripe ones are yellow. But, with two colors so close to one another (greenish-yellow is the more accurate description of the ripe fruit), what actually constitutes ripe?

Even when you have good timing, you’re still pushing your luck: The seeds within the fruit are toxic as are the fruits when eaten in quantity. What constitutes “quantity”?

I’ll play it safe and hold off on my woodland fruit harvests until the strawberries and blackcaps ripen.

A plant of powerful poisons

The May apple has been spared decimation by whitetail deer, unlike trilliums and orchids, because the plant is so poisonous.

The leaves, stems and roots are not kind to the digestive system. It will inflame the stomach and intestines to the point of killing whoever eats it.

Native Americans ate May apple as a means to commit suicide -- although it was anything but a quick and painless death.

The magical Mandrake

Because of the appearance of the plant is close to the Middle Eastern Mandrake, an esteemed plant of supposed magical powers, early settlers thought they could use it for magic, too.

They did get some use out if it: They learned from the indigenous peoples that May apple, in small amounts, could rid the body of intestinal worms and serve as a powerful laxative. Also, its juices could be used to control plantar warts.

The cancer fighter

Modern science has found real use for May apple.

The plants produce podophyllotoxin, a building block of the cancer drug etoposide. That drug helps treat lung and testicular cancer and lymphoma. In chemotherapy, it has been shown to inhibit the activity of an enzyme essential for the replication of cancer cells, preventing their spread.

In some form or another, May apple has been used as a cancer fighter since the early 1970s. In that decade alone, some more than 130 tons of May apple roots were either grown or harvested in the wild.

In recent years, a more efficient means of extracting the toxin has been employed, ensuring that the plant’s natural stocks won’t be decimated.

The May apple is surely an interesting plant. If you see one while out exploring the Western NY wilds, marvel at it…don’t eat it. You’re taking a chance if you do, so appreciate its beauty and its value in helping to keep alive your family and friends who are battling cancer.


From the 09 May 2022 Wellsville Sun