Friday, June 28, 2013

Apple #642: Wreath Flower

I go through phases when I keep playing one of those horribly addictive match-3 games.  Right now, the match-3 game in question is called Full Bloom.  The things you match are flower petals, and with the game-based coins that you win, you buy flowers to decorate your game-based garden. Inane, I know. But I must . . . bring order . . . by arranging everything in sets of 3, or 4, or 6.

One of the boards in the Full Bloom game.  This one is especially hard.

At first, the flowers you can buy with your game-based coins are typical things like tulips and pansies and daffodils.  As you advance, the flowers get more exotic. You can also win complex arrangements, some of which include animated animals such as a diving road runner or a gopher than pokes his head out.  Recently, I encountered a flower you can buy called the wreath plant.  Hopefully this screen shot gives you an idea of  what it looks like in the game.

I thought, that thing can't be real.  It must be some arrangement you can buy in a florist's shop, where they make for you a circle of evergreens and put a ring of pink flowers around it.

A few nights after I first saw this plant in the game, it showed up in one of my dreams.  (Yes, sooner or later everything shows up in my dreams.)  So I thought, that does it.  I have to find out if this thing really exists.

Answer: it does exist.  It is a real plant.  It really grows that way.  It's pretty incredible-looking. First I'll show you a bunch of pictures, because seeing a whole bunch of photos is what it took to convince me that this thing is for real.

The wreath flower.  Evergreen on the inside, flower on the outside.
(Photo by Ron Long, for the UBC Botanical Garden)

More wreath flower.   Here the flowers appear to be a mixture of yellow and pink, on the same plant.
(Photo from Jammy Chicken)

More of a top-down view.
(Photo from Wheat Belt Tourism

No matter how many of these pictures I see, it still looks like a made-up plant
(Photo from Faye & David's West Australian Trip 2011)

Close-up of the flowers that ring the greens in the middle.
(Photo by Sheila)

Some flowers open, some still just buds.  Mixture of yellow and pink.
(Photo from Edge of Nowhere)

With yellow flowers
(Photo from UK Wildflowers)

  • The wreath flower is a wildflower that grows only in Western Australia, particularly in Mullewa several hours north of Perth.

The red dots on this map of Western Australia indicate where wreath flowers have been recorded.
(Map from Florabase)

  • The Latin name for the plant is Lechenaultia macrantha.  Technically, that's misspelled.  The genus should be Leschenaultia because it's named after a naturalist whose name was Leschenault.  But at some point somebody left out the s, and now that's the accepted spelling.
  • Other plants in the genus are shrubby, woody plants that also grow in Australia, and they may or may not have flowers.  So, strange as the arrangement of the wreath flower may be, it fits right in with its fellow Lechenaultias.
  • The flowers can be red, deep pink, or yellow, often with white in the middle.  The branches in the middle are "twiggy" with narrow alternating leaves.
  • Its favorite place to grow is on sandy or gravelly ground that has been "disturbed." One site says that means it grows where there have been bushfires.  Another site says you often see them growing "in profusion" along roadsides.

Tons of wreath flowers growing along a roadside.
(Photo from Faye & David's West Australian Trip 2011)

More wreath flowers growing pretty much in a line
(Photo from Jammy Chicken)

  • They only bloom for a short window of time.  One site says from August to November.  Another site says September through mid-October.  Still another says they bloom in late winter and spring.  Someone else says, "If the rains come too late this plant does not flower."
  • Lots of blogs describe people driving out to see the wreath flowers, asking people in Mullewa for directions, following signs that have been put up that point to the plants, etc.  Many visitors report being disappointed because after all that, the plants aren't blooming at that particular time.  So it seems to be something of a challenge to find them and catch them in the act.
  • Many sites say this wildflower is very difficult to cultivate.  It likes sandy, well-drained, even dry soil especially in the summertime, and lots of sun.  If it's true that it prefers ground that's been through a fire, it might be hard to replicate that chemical composition in the soil in your house.

  • By the way, I checked with The Plant List, which is supposed to be a database of all species names of vascular plants (flowering plants and trees, etc.) and bryophytes (mosses, etc.).  The database had entries for several Lechenaultias, but not the macrantha.  
  • I e-mailed them about it, and they responded saying they don't have a lot of information, but they have added "screen images" for what they do have.  Which was heartening because it meant that even though it's not in their database, they acknowledge that the plant does exist.  The e-mail included some of those screen shots of various sources that describe the plant -- one is entirely in Latin.  I just checked and they haven't updated the database yet.  But hopefully they'll get a record for the macrantha added soon.

Here's one last photo of the wreath flower.  It really does exist.
(Photo from Gypsy Life)

Australian Native Plants Society, Lechenaultia macrantha
Florabase, Lechenaultia macrantha K. Krause
Gardening with Angus, Lechenaultia macrantha or Wreath Lechenaultia
UBC Botanical Garden and Centre for Plant Research, Lechenaultia macrantha
UK Wildflowers, Wreath Leschenaultia
Jammy Chicken, Wreath Flowers, Western Australia
Virtual Tourist, Wildflower Country!!!
Dawne's Photo Journeys
Faye & David's West Australian Trip 2011
Gypsy Life
Sheila on PBase
Wheat Belt Tourism
Edge of Nowhere

Monday, June 24, 2013

Apple #641: Malt and Its Various Uses

I've had a request!  Daily Apple reader Maximilian wants to know what malt is. Here's his question:

Malt!! What is it? Why does it exist...who put in in milkshakes? Why is it in whiskey?!?
This is a good question because malt is one of those mysterious ingredients that seems to be in all sorts of things -- beer, vinegar, milkshakes, whiskey -- but nobody seems to know what the heck it is.

I'm going to say right up front that there's probably no way I'll be able to find out who first put malt in milkshakes.  That's like trying to identify the person who invented cheese, or who first had the brilliant idea to put peanut butter and jelly on the same sandwich.  It happened so long ago, and the brilliance wasn't immediately recognized, and it wasn't until after everyone else was eating cheese, or peanut butter & jelly sandwiches, that people thought to say, "Who was the genius that came up with this?"  By then it was too late and nobody knew.

I predict the same will be true, alas, of identifying the first person to put malt in milkshakes, or in anything.

But as for the rest of Maximilian's question, I give you: malt.

Different kinds of malt
(Photo from CervezArte)

What Is Malt?

  • Faithful Daily Apple readers may remember first encountering malt on these esteemed pages in the sleeper of an entry titled Beer Styles and Hoppiness.  Malt is a key ingredient in the production of beer.
  • Malt, as we learned then, is barley that's been allowed to germinate and barely to sprout and then it's dried so the growth process is halted right there.  Its name in formal circles is "malted barley," but most people just call it "malt." 
  • In this newly sprouted stage, the barley possesses the greatest amount of sugar that the plant will ever have in its lifetime.  If you're making beer, this is exactly what you want--the most sugar possible.  Because yeast loves sugar, and you want to give yeast as much sugar as you possibly can in order to get the best, most fermenty result. 

Daily Apple readers may also recall that I showed you this picture of Crystal Malt, which is one of many kinds of malt (or malted barley) that can be used in making beer.
(Photo from Wikipedia

  • So that information was pretty brief, as far as understanding malt goes.  There's more to the story of malt than that.
  • First, there are lots of different kinds of malt.  Malted barley is the kind used most often.  But you can also have malted wheat or malted rye or malted oats or malted rice.  
  • Your choice of which type of grain you use to make malt will depend on what you're making, and on what part of the world you're from.  In Iran and a few other Middle Eastern countries, they love their malted wheat.  In Finland, they go for the malted rye and eat it like porridge.
  • Whatever grain you prefer, if you want to make malt out of it, there's a recommended series of steps to get from a kernel of grain to the malt:
    • Dry the grains
    • Store them until the seeds are asleep and won't grow 'til you tell them to. Takes about 6 weeks.
    • Soak the grains in water and take them out, soak them again and take them out over the course of 2 or 3 days. This tells the grains time to start sprouting.
    • When the grains hit 46% moisture--see how long people have been doing this? They know the optimal moisture content down to the exact percentage--take them out of the water and dry them. This is done by constantly turning the grains in a room with a lot of hot air.  This takes about 5 days.  At this stage, it's called green malt.
    • The green malt is then dried further, or browned, to whatever amount of dryness or color you want.  Then it's officially malt.
  • People have been growing barley and wheat for about 12,000 years, and malting is thought to have been done for at least 6,000 years.  The malting process is done these days in batches of  20 to 100 tons of grain.

How a barley kernel changes during the malting process. Left: barley corn at the start. Middle: green malt. Right: finished or browned malt
(Photo from Oregon State University)

  • The top photo is what barley looks like before malting, the bottom photo is after.  Doesn't look much different, does it?  But if you look closely, you'll notice that the malt is slightly lighter in color, the pointy ends are kind of breaking open slightly.  If you could eat the two, then you'd really notice the difference.  The barley is hard, difficult to bite into, little to no flavor.  The malt, on the other hand, is softer and you'd taste the malt flavor immediately.

Here, the transformation is a little more obvious.  This is green malt.  You can clearly see the growth starting on these grains of barley.  I'm guessing that those little shootlets drop off once the green malt is heated and dried and turned into actual malt.
(Photos from the Maltsters' Association of Great Britain

  • Malting sounds like a simple process, but it's become very mechanized, and since it's done on such a large scale, the malting facilities are now enormous.

The malting "tower" at Burton-on-Trent, owned by Molson Coors Brewing UK.
(Diagram from the Maltsters' Association of Great Britain)

So far, I've only mentioned malt in terms of its use in making beer.  But is that malted barley the same malt that's used in making other malt stuff?  Answer: Yes. 

The longer answer is that there are many, many types of malted barley.  But when people say "malt," no matter what it's used in, they nearly always mean "malted barley."

Malt Whiskey

  • Here again, the malt used in making whiskey is the same as the malt used in making beer.  
  • Technically speaking, "malt whiskey" means that it's made from 100% malted barley.  No other types of grains -- wheat, maize, or unmalted barley) were used to make it.  Some whiskey aficianados will only drink malt whiskey, never grain whiskey.
  • The word "single" in "single-malt whiskey," by the way, doesn't really have anything to do with the malt.  It means that the whiskey came from one distillery.  It could have come from many different pots within the distillery, but all comes from the same distillery.  As opposed to "Vatted Malt Whiskey," in which case the malt whiskey could have come from many different distilleries.

One example of a malt whiskey, specifically, a single malt whiskey.  Which means it's made from 100% malted barley, no other grains, and from only one distillery.
(Photo from Cask Strength)

Malt Vinegar

  • Malt vinegar begins with our same malted barley.  Then it's added, not to vinegar as you might expect, but to ale. (For the difference between ales and other types of beers, see Beer Styles and Hoppiness)
  • The ale is allowed to ferment until it becomes vinegar.  Then it's allowed to age, which gives it even more flavor.  
  • Voila! Malt vinegar.  Very tasty on French fries.

Malt vinegar. A longtime favorite on fish & chips (a.k.a. fries).
(Photo from Dine Delish)

Malted Milk

  • Malted milk is a powdered mixture that includes the malted barley we've seen above, plus powdered milk and wheat flour, and sometimes more sugar, though the malt usually contains enough sugar on its own.  All that gets ground up together and sold as a powder.  But where did malted milk powder come from?

Malted milk powder, today sold by King Arthur Flour
(Photo from Kitchen Lore)

  • In 1869, a London pharmacist named James Horlicks wanted to make a nutritional supplement for infants and children.  He came up with a combination of malted barley, ground wheat, and milk, and ground it all up into a powder so it wouldn't spoil.  When you mixed it with milk, it made a tasty and nutritious drink.
  • James didn't have enough money to make his powder on a large scale, so he did what any enterprising inventor would do: he moved to Wisconsin.  His brother William was working in Racine, WI, in a quarry and making good money at it.  So James joined him in Racine.
  • By 1873, they had founded J & W Horlicks to make their malted milk powder.  10 years later,  they had a patent for "granulated food for infants."  Their malted milk powder became so popular, adults were drinking malted milk too.  
  • Expeditions to the North and South Poles took the malted milk powder along with them.  Those explorers appreciated the shelf-stable, non-perishable, high-calorie food so much, Admiral Richard E. Byrd even named a mountain range in Antarctica after the Horlicks brothers.  Eventually, James moved back to London and became a wealthy patron of Arctic expeditions.

Crates of Horlicks Malted Milk to be taken on Admiral Byrd's second Antarctic expedition in 1933.
(Photo from the Wisconsin Historical Society)

  • Once malted milk became so popular, it was only a matter of time before people started trying it in other ways. Such as in milkshakes. 

Chocolate malted milkshake
(Photo and recipe from the Food Network)

  • Walgreen's pharmacy claims they were the first to make a malted milkshake, but if you read their history carefully, you can see that's actually not the case.
    • The first Walgreen's pharmacy was built in Dixon, IL in 1901.  By the 1920s, Walgreen's was serving hot food and soda fountain beverages, and they had expanded to 20 stores, most of them in Chicago.
    • They say that in the summer of 1922, Ivar "Pop" Coulson (soda jerk?) mixed his special chocolate malted milkshake.  
    • You might be tempted to think this was the first malted milkshake ever, but Walgreen's says: "Until then, malted milk drinks were made by mixing milk, chocolate syrup and a spoonful of malt powder in a metal container, then pouring the mixture into a glass. On one especially hot summer day in 1922, Pop Coulson set off his revolution. To the basic mixture, he added a generous scoop of vanilla ice cream, then another."
    • In other words, malted milk drinks existed before Pop Coulson mixed his special version.  What was so special about his version, apparently, was that he added extra ice cream.
  • Whoever was the first to make a malted milkshake, by the 1940s, they  had become so popular, ice cream parlors were springing up that were called "malt shops." 

Milkshakes at the malt shop.
(Photo from nahchural on Tumblr)

I couldn't resist.  Just had to put this in here.
(Scooby-Doo still from Malt Shop Tumblr)

  • By the way, the only difference between a malted milkshake and a regular milkshake is the malted milk powder.  One or, at the most, two teaspoons of malted milk powder is enough per milkshake.
  • This same malted milk powder also gets put into malted milk balls.

Malted milk balls. The stuff that's in here is the same stuff that's used to make beer -- malt.
(Photo from

  • The first malted milk balls were made in 1939, about 50 years after malted milk powder was invented, and right around the time when malted milkshakes were becoming popular. 


  • Malt-O-Meal was first made in 1919 as an alternative to oatmeal.  
  • Its primary ingredient is farina, which is the very middle part of the wheat kernel, without the bran or the germ.  Next on the ingredient list is malted barley.
Malt-O-Meal. Yet another product made with malt.
(Photo from Malt-O-Meal)

I think that's all the malt-including products.  Or at least, it's all the mainstream US ones that I can think of.

In spite of the popularity of so many different malted milk products, most malt is used to make brewed and distilled beverages.
Now, as for the hardest part of Maximilian's question to answer, "why does malt exist," well, my best rejoinder to that is, why does any kind of food or drink that we've come up with over the centuries exist?  Because we play with our food to try to make it taste better.  In particular, malt adds a unique and rich flavor to pretty much everything you put it in.

There.  That's my story.  And I'm sticking to it.

The Maltsters' Association of Great Britain, How Malt is Made
Oregon State University, Barley: Quality factors for malting, brewing, and other end-uses
Malt Madness, A Beginner's Guide to Single Malt Whiskey, Chapter 2, Vocabulary
Food Republic, What Is Malt Vinegar?
Wisconsin Historical Society, "That's Meat and Drink to Me" Wisconsin's Malted Milk Story
Walgreen's, Our Past
WiseGeek, What is the Difference Between a Milkshake and a Malt?
Collecting, A Walk Through Whoppers Packaging History, June 25, 2012 

Livestrong, Malt-O-Meal vs. Oatmeal
Malt-O-Meal, Original cereal Nutrition Facts, Have a Question?

Monday, June 17, 2013

Apple #640: International Picnic Day

As I type this, it's still Father's Day.  But by the time most of you read this, it won't be anymore.  So I wondered, what holiday is yet to come in the near future that I can help you prepare for?  A little Googling and I found the answer: International Picnic Day, June 18.

Le Dejeuner sur l'herbe (Luncheon on the grass) by Edouard Manet, 1862.  A French guy's idea of a picnic.  Involves nudity, of course.  What do you expect?  He's French.
(Painting by Edouard Manet, image sourced from 365 Foods)

  • No one's really sure how International Picnic Day started showing up on people's calendars.  It's not a national US holiday; it's not officially recognized by Congress. Some "national" holidays turn out to be marketing schemes promoted by manufacturers of whatever product is being celebrated, but in this case, there isn't really an international picnic-maker, so that's not the case.
  • Some say International Picnic Day has something vaguely to do with labor unions.  Often, particular labor unions have some sort of annual celebration, and those celebrations sometimes include picnics.  But as you've probably gathered by my description, this is all a bunch of guesswork, and nobody's really sure.
  • Please don't confuse International Picnic Day (June 18) with National Picnic Day (April 23).  The origins of National Picnic Day are similarly obscure.  Since it makes much more sense to me to have a picnic in June (sunny, warm!) than in April (windy, maybe rainy or chilly), I vote in favor of the International version.
  • But even if we don't know why we're celebrating it, or why there are 2 holidays devoted to picnics, why not have a picnic anyway?  Because June 18 is not only International Picnic Day, it's also International Panic Day.  Why anyone wants to celebrate terror so complete it renders you incapable of all logical thought, I don't know.  But it is another obscure holiday that is also celebrated for inexplicable reasons on June 18.
  • What better way to counteract Panic than to have a Picnic?
  • So, now that I've convinced you to have a picnic on June 18, here's how you can do that.
  • I'm sure you envision a picnic as spreading a red & white checked cloth on some patch of grassy ground, opening a wicker basket full of sandwiches and maybe potato salad or grapes & cheese, with maybe some lemonade or possibly even a bottle of wine in the bargain.  Not that that's bad, but you don't need to feel like you have to have all that stuff, or eat a meal in exactly that way, because a picnic actually allows a lot more variety than that.

Your picnic does not have to look like this.  In fact, if you're a living breathing human being, it probably won't.
(Photo from Latinas y punto)

Hopefully your picnic would look more like this.
(Photo from the Orange County Historical Society, sourced from Local Dog Picnic)

Or maybe your picnic would look like this.
(Photo from Sunshine and Silliness)

  • The word picnic comes from a French word, piquenique, which was kind of a nonsense word that came from the word for "to pick."  It's generally assumed that it means "pick a little bit."  That's because the first picnics were actually potlucks -- meals where each guest brought something, and everyone would sample from each dish.  Thus you'd pick a little bit of this and a little bit of that. Piquenique.
  • These original piqueniques were informal by nature, and somebody at some point decided to add to the informality by having them outside.  Over time, it was the outside part of the equation that stuck.  
  • That's because eating outside is fun!  Or it can be, if it's not too windy so all your napkins blow away, or if it's not too buggy.  But you can choose where or how to have your picnic and avoid those possible unpleasantries.
  • The only rules of picnics are that you eat outside, and keep it informal.  You don't have to carry the food there in a picnic basket.  This culture likes to make you think you have to buy all sorts of cute & matching stuff in order to enjoy an event, or spend 17 hours making things all cutesy and matchy-matchy in your kitchen like some cookie-cutter Martha Stewart.  But the heck with that.  Get some food that tastes good, find a friend or two and go eat it outside!

Egad. If you want to spend money to get a bag of stuff that would allow you to think that your picnic could be absolutely perfect -- though I think "picnic" and "perfection" are oxymorons -- you could get this deluxe picnic backpack complete with 4-piece place setting for $49.50.
(Photo & backpack from Lee Valley)

Or wait. Even better. This "suitcase picnic basket" has stainless steel place settings for 4, a fleece blanket, a cheese knife & cutting board, corkscrew, vacuum flask, 4 wine glasses, and a "fully insulated corduroy wine duffel."  For only $290!  Ai yi.  You'd need to take a vacation to get over the stress of paying for your picnic basket.
(Photo and picnic basket from Bed Bath & Beyond)

If you get one of those, then you're just asking for Yogi Bear to come find you.
(Image from The Gadgets Page)

  • You don't even have to prepare all the food yourself.  You could ask your guest(s) to prepare something too, so it would be a picnic in the truly traditional sense of the word.  If you wanted to. 
  • You don't have to sit on the ground.  You could eat at a picnic table.  You could even eat on your own back porch.  As long as it's outside and informal, it's technically a picnic.

Picnic area at Colerain Park in Cincinnati.  Picnic tables under a tree, plus one of those grill things, even a place to throw away your trash.  Looks like a great place to have a picnic.
(Photo from Colerain Township Parks)

How about a picnic on the beach?  This beach is particularly exotic -- it happens to be in Fiji -- but maybe there's a little inland lake near where you live.  Wouldn't it be nice to sit by that lake and have a little snack and listen to the water birds?
(Photo from Lalati Resort)

This British family is having a picnic on the lawn in front of some English school.  Why not have a picnic in front of your school? (For those of you living in England, there's an iPhone app that helps you find picnic spots in Britain: Great British Picnics.  What a great idea!)
(Photo from Traveling Greener)

A super-combo of an idea: tailgate picnic at the beach!
(Photo from Chronically Vintage)

  • You don't have to sit under the trees or even near the trees.  You could picnic on the beach, under a tent, in a gazebo, or out of the back of your car.  Yes, a tailgate counts as a picnic.
  • You don't have to have sandwiches.  You could have hot dogs, especially if you're at a campground and one of those eternally-standing grill things is nearby.  
  • You could have smoked salmon & bagels.  You could have rice noodles with shrimp.  Or maybe sushi or California rolls.
  • Instead of potato salad, how about beet & goat cheese salad?  Or celery and carrot sticks?  Or sliced watermelon?  Or a bowl of blueberries and chopped strawberries?
  • The stuff you carry the food in doesn't have to be fancy.  You could put the orzo salad in a Mason jar.  The sandwiches could go in a paper bag.  The sangria could go in a Thermos.
  • You could even have a picnic out of your bike.  OK, this would require the purchase of a gizmo, and in this case, the gizmo is made by some guy in Sweden so it might be hard to come by, but it's still a good idea.  Maybe it would inspire you to do some bicycle-picnicking.

(Photo from The Urban Observer)
  • Get some food, find a pal, and go eat outside!  Have a happy International Picnic Day!

The most important thing about a picnic is that everybody has a good time.
(Photo from Chronically Vintage)

Mental Floss, 20 Offbeat Holidays You Can Celebrate in June
Holiday Insights, June 2013 Bizarre and Unique Holidays
Mahalo, International Picnic Day
Snopes, Picnic Pique

Monday, June 10, 2013

Apple #639: Geothermal Mud Pots

I'm starting with a preamble.  If you want to, you can skip it and go straight to the geothermal mud pots (a.k.a. the good stuff).

Geothermal mud pot at Yellowstone.
(Photo by Christian Begeman)

Coughing in the Middle of the Night & Being Speedy

For the past several nights, I've been waking up in the middle of the night coughing.  It's been driving me nuts.  I Googled the problem, and it turns out this is pretty common.

(Side note: I didn't want to do a Daily Apple on this because I've learned the hard way that medical problems can have so many possible causes, the entry very quickly becomes less than useful, and then people post questions about their own medical situation, and not being a doctor, I have no business giving advice even if I knew what to say.)

But based on what I read (the best source I found on the subject is Harvard Medical School's page), and based on my personal situation, my coughing is probably due to the most unpleasantly phrased post-nasal drip.  The liquid from the nose slides down to the throat while you're asleep and triggers a cough.

I've so far tried various home remedies: sleeping on a propped up pillow, a tablespoon of honey before bed, gargling with saltwater, using a Neti pot.  In spite of all these things, I still wake up coughing.  So now I'm trying another suggestion, which is a nasal decongestant.  I hate these things because whether they say non-drowsy or may make you drowsy or whatever, they make me so speedy I can't sit still.  I've only tried one or two of these types of things in my life and I can't remember which ones I've tried, so I picked one off the shelf pretty much at random, and now here I am all twitchy and itchy and speedy from the stupid stuff.  What's more, I still keep having to blow my nose.

So it's probably going to be a long night.

And I'm probably going to be extra-wordy in this entry.  You've been warned.

Geothermal Mud Pots

Mud pots in action near Calipatria, CA.
(Photo from flickriver)

I was trying to decide on a topic for this week's Daily Apple.  Naturally, I thought some type of natural disaster might make a good post.  I've covered hurricanes, earthquakes & tsunamis, thunderstorms, and derechos, and while I haven't done an entry on volcanoes in general, I did do one on Mount Etna.  I have not done an entry on tornadoes, but I did sort of mention them in last week's entry on why Oklahoma has no basements despite being practically a magnet for tornadoes. So I thought something other than tornadoes would make a nice change.

So I cast my mind back to junior high science classes and the movies the teachers used to show us about natural disasters and earth science.  Earthquakes, volcanoes, etc.  The volcanoes were my favorite part, but another really good part was about the geothermal mud pots.  Everyone in the class got a huge laugh out of seeing those things spew mud and make all sorts of rude noises.  Then we'd beg the teacher to please please please run the film backwards (you kids with your DVDs and your VCRs will never know such delights), and if he was in a good enough mood, the teacher would do it.  Oh, the hilarity.

OK, so let me show you some videos of these geothermal mud pots, and then I'll find out some facts about them and pass those facts along to you.

This one is from Kamchatka, Russia.  The sounds still make me giggle.  Completely juvenile humor, I know.

Here are some closer to home in Salton Sea, California:

This one shows the mud pots across a whole area:

Now for the facts, ma'am.
  • Mudpots are one kind of geothermal activity. Hot springs and geysers are similar, but they each have slightly different characteristics.
  • Here's how geothermal stuff happens:
    • Beneath the crust is a layer of magma, or hot molten rock.  The movement of the plates that form the earth's crust or volcanoes can force the magma closer to the crust.  
    • If the magma shoots up through the crust, you get volcanoes.  When groundwater comes in contact with the magma and the resulting steam shoots up, then you get geothermal activity.
  • Hot springs happen when the steamy water coming up from below forms a pool. Usually the water contains various minerals that come from the magma.  Hot springs are usually not that hot but only warm, so sometimes people like to bathe in them.
  • If the water doesn't stay in a nice calm pool but shoots up like a fountain, then it's a geyser.  A whole lot of pressure is required to make the steam shoot up like that, so usually there's a huge underground network of twisting and turning tunnels that hold the groundwater and keep the pressure building until finally the thing spouts off.

(Encyclopedia Britannica has a really great diagram that illustrates this whole process for hot springs and geysers. I can't embed the link here for copyright reasons, but it's worth the click to see it.)

  • Mud pots are similar to hot springs in some ways.  Usually the steam coming up isn't jet-propelled like a geyser but only bubbling to the surface.  It's often not super-hot but only warm.  Mud pots may also form pools, as hot springs do.  But there are two major differences.  
  • In mud pots, the steam coming up from below also contains sulfuric acids that erode the surrounding rock.  The rock turns to sand and clay and that mixes with the water, making mud.  
  • The sulfuric acid also means that most mud pots have a definite odor about them, like the smell of rotten eggs.
  • The material surrounding the mud pots often also includes volcanic ash, or rocks that have been formed from volcanic ash (i.e. pumice).  When water interacts with the ash, or when the acidic water hits the pumice, it makes bubbles.  When the bubbles rise to the surface, they burst and fling the mud in all directions.

 I know you want to see more.

  • Mud pots can change  in character as the amount of water varies.  If there's a lot of groundwater, the water can overwhelm the mud and it becomes more like a hot spring.  If there's too little water, the mud pot will dry out and it becomes only dry, cracked earth with steam venting from it.
  • Mud pots can also turn into what people call mud volcanoes, or mud domes, or mud gryphons (< 3 meters tall).  The mud can pile up around the opening of the mud pot, getting taller and taller while the muddy steam still keeps spewing out.
  • The steam coming up from the volcanoes is often hotter than what's in the mud pots

Mud volcano, or mud gryphon, at Salton Sea
(Photo from Toadhaven Home School)

Video of a mud volcano in action, followed by some dry mud pots issuing steam. Please also enjoy the videographer's Midwestern accent.

  • A geothermal power plant has been built near these mud pots at Salton Sea, and some people say the mud pots are no longer as active or fun to watch.
  • Some mud pots also have other minerals such as iron oxide, potassium, or magnesium which give the mud color.  Those mud pots are typically called paint pots.  Paint pots have no sulfur.  If they did, the sulfur would turn the mud gray.

In part of this video, the mud is pink. That's a paint pot.

An especially vibrant paint pot at Yellowstone.
(Photo from Globus Journeys)

  • All these mud pots will vary from one season to another, and from one year to the next.  Over time, they may change a lot, even dry up completely.  Some people say the mud pots at Yellowstone don't look anything like they used to.  A geothermal power plant was built near the Salton Sea mud pots to harvest some of the geothermal steam coming up in that area.  As a result, the mud pots there are reportedly nowhere near as active now as they are in the videos shown here.
  • But there are mud pots in lots of places in the world.  There are some in New Zealand, some in Iceland, and some in Costa Rica.  Who knows, some others may pop out in new places, too.

Mud pot in Iceland, and some steam vents. (This video is pretty loud.)

Home Science Tools, Geysers
Janice Kleinschmidt, Sea of Wonders, Palm Springs Life, March 2006
Geothermal Features, Mud Pots
National Park Service, Yellowstone, Mudpots and How They Work

Monday, June 3, 2013

Apple #638: No Basements in Oklahoma

Your Apple Lady has come down with something, cold or flu I'm not sure what.  But my head is a bit fogged and I'm kind of slow-moving, so if you see typos or anything in this post, have a heart and cut me some slack.  Because my brain is slack.

After the tornado ripped through Moore, Oklahoma at the end of May, my dad said he wondered why houses in Oklahoma don't have basements.  I didn't jump on that question right away, so when the disaster faded from the headlines, I thought the topic would no longer be of any interest. But then more tornadoes hit Oklahoma, one of them even tracing the same path as the one that hit Moore in May. That, plus the fact that Oklahoma is practically the tornado capital of the world convinced me that maybe I should do an entry about the absence of basements in Oklahoma after all.

Damage in Moore, OK, following the tornado that hit on May 20, 2013. 24 people were killed and more than 300 injured. An estimated 15,000 homes were destroyed.
(Photo by George Armstrong, FEMA, sourced from Emergency Management)

Tornadoes in Oklahoma

  • First, a few statistics about how many tornadoes hit Oklahoma.
  • From 1950 through 2012, a total of 3,473 tornadoes have touched down in Oklahoma. 
  • The average number per year in that 62-year span: 55.
  • So far in 2013, there have been 37.
  • In 2010, there were 103, with 91 of them happening in May.
  • The city that has been hit by the most tornadoes is Oklahoma City.  The known total is over 100.
  • The only state that has had more tornadoes touch down since 1950 is Texas, with 5,490.

Tornado alley--the region of the country that experiences the greatest number of tornadoes
(Map by Concannon et al. at NOAA)

  • There are no guarantees of safety during a tornado, but if a tornado is coming, one of the best places to go is the lowest place possible and stay away from glass.  A basement sure fits that bill pretty well.
  • But as we all learned when the big tornado hit Moore, there are hardly any basements in Oklahoma.  One home buyer posted on a real estate site, "While searching for a house in Oklahoma City area for the past year, I think I found only 3 or so houses with basements."
  • Even after the devastating tornado hit Moore in 1999, killing 36 people in Oklahoma and Kansas, only 6 of 40 new homes built had any kind of safe room.  None had basements.
  • So if your state gets hit by this many tornadoes, and basements are a pretty good safety measure, why don't you build your houses with basements?
  • The primary answer: money.

Soil Composition

  • The first reason people give for the paucity of tornadoes in Oklahoma is that the soil isn't basement-friendly.
  • Oklahoma's soil has high levels of clay, which means it tends to get wet as you dig deeper to make a basement. 
  • Also, clay doesn't hang onto water very well.  In the rainy months, the clay becomes saturated and will rise with water.  In the summer when the water dries up and the water table drops, the clay level will drop too. 

The salmon- and bright pink-colored areas indicate clay, where it's harder to build basements.
(Map from STATSGO, sourced from the Weather Channel)

Compared to the rest of the US, Oklahoma does have more clay in its soil than other parts of the Midwest and Plains states where tornadoes are common.  But you can see that there's even more clay in Texas.
(Map from NASA's Land Data Assimilation Systems)

  • Of course the water & clay combination won't rise and fall evenly but will do so all catty-wumpus.  And every one of those risings and fallings will put pressure on the walls of a basement foundation.  It won't take long before the basement walls crack and let in water or otherwise pretty much fail. 
  • Building a basement that could withstand the shifting and the expanding and contracting clay soil to keep out water and keep cracks from happening was possible, but expensive.  So a lot of builders chose not to dig basements.

Cracks in the foundation and the shifting of bricks are two types of damage that can be the result of expansive clay soil.
(Photo by the US Army Corps of Engineers, from

 Not Required

  • Builders could get away with omitting basements because building codes in Oklahoma didn't require them.  In the north, state building codes usually require that homes are built with their foundation based below the frost line.  (This also explains why basements are dug to different depths in different parts of the north--it depends how far you have to go to get below the frost line.)
  •  In the south, because the ground doesn't freeze down there like it does up north, building codes don't require basements.  Oklahoma's ground doesn't freeze like it does farther north, so its building codes don't require basements.

The 4 basic home foundation types. Which one your home has probably depends on whether or not the ground freezes in the winter.  Most houses in Oklahoma are of the 4th type: house on top of a slab.
(Diagram from Oak Ridge National Laboratory)

  • After the big monster-tornadoes of 1999, even though various reports recommended that if homes in Oklahoma were still going to be built on slabs, the slabs should at least be secured with bolts, they're still being built on slabs and secured with the relatively flimsy nails and pins -- because it's cheaper.
  • Especially in an economy that has been tough on a lot of middle- to low-income people, nobody wants to add to the cost of a house.

They've Always Done it That Way

  • The idea that Oklahoma's soils have too much clay and water, and that therefore a waterproof basement is difficult and expensive to build dates from the 1950s and 1960s when there was a boom in home building. Back then, it was true that it was expensive and difficult to make a basement that would stand up to the rigors of clay soil.
  • Since nobody in Oklahoma was willing to pay extra for a basement that would probably leak, nobody built basements.  Since there wasn't a market for basements in Oklahoma, contractors who knew how to make them didn't do business in Oklahoma.  Since nobody was available to build a basement, even if you wanted one, it could get even more expensive since it was harder to find the expertise and labor.
  • So the practice of building homes without basements simply continued.  

Again with the Money

  • Since few homes in OK have basements, appraisers in the state don't really know how to put a value on a basement. So they tend to omit the basement in their appraisal, which means homeowners who want to sell have a hard time getting back the money they put in to building the basement in the first place. 

Too Tough for Basements

  • Oklahomans joke that, since they see so many tornadoes, when they hear the sirens go off, instead of taking shelter, they go outside to get a good look.  They're kind of proud of this tornado-toughness, maybe to the point of being reluctant to admit they could actually use a safe place to go hide.
  • They also tend to dislike being told what to do, especially by some governmental body.  You know, that whole independent spirit of the West that is suspicious of the US government trying to dictate people's lives.  So they're not very keen to impose a lot of regulations on themselves.

Is this what too-tough-for-basements looks like?
(Photo by Sue Ogrocki/AP)

Maybe this is.
(Photo by B at Complete and Total)

The Truth

  • The truth is that "Virtually any foundation type and construction system can be built in any location in the United States" (ORNL
  • OK, sure. But isn't building a basement in Oklahoma too expensive?
  • Answer: not anymore.
  • Contractors know more about how to deal with clay soils than they used to.  One contractor says that floating walls that allow for expansion and contraction are the primary method of building a basement in clay soil.  
  • Waterproofing methods have also improved, which means that not only is waterproofing more effective but it's also cheaper than it once was.
  • In all, one contractor estimates, a small basement would cost around $15,000 to $20,000. A concrete cellar built during new-house construction would cost as little as $2,200. (Cellars are very bare-bones, unfinished, maybe even with a dirt floor. Basements are more finished and waterproofed.)
  • Even $20,000 seems like a small price to pay to give your family a place of far better protection than a closet.

To be sure, digging a basement is no small undertaking.  But maybe better to bring out the bulldozers sooner rather than later?
(Photo from Conner Excavating)

  • Here's more truth for you: above-ground safe rooms can be even better than basements. For one thing, they're much more accessible for people with disabilities.
  • A tornado safe room can be built to accommodate any number of people, from 1 to 16.
  • The walls are built to withstand winds of up to 250 mile per hour, as well as any flying objects.  They're also built without windows, so there's no danger of flying broken glass.
  • They should include a first aid and emergency kit with blankets, water, flashlight and batteries, emergency radio, and snacks.

Basics of a FEMA-recommended tornado safe room, inside and out.
(Diagram from USA Today

A tornado safe room that did its job well.
(Photo from Abundant Life)

  • All of those things can be an improvement on a basement, where you may still be vulnerable to high winds and flying objects if your house is torn away from over your head.
  • Safe rooms can also be relatively cheap, costing between $2,500 and $5,000 depending on size.
  • If ADA compliance isn't an issue, FEMA notes, the safest place to put a safe room is -- guess where?  In the basement.
  • There's also this:
Curtis McCarty, a member of the Oklahoma Uniform Building Code Commission and a builder himself, said the twister on Monday [in Moore, 2013] would have defeated attempts to resist it above ground. “You cannot build a structure that’s going to take a direct hit from a tornado like that that’s going to stand,” he said. (NYT)

The Good News

  • Following the 2013 tornado that devastated Moore, the mayor announced that he was going to propose an ordinance that would require new homes to be built with either a reinforced storm shelter or a safe room.

Glenn Lewis, Mayor of Moore, OK.  He says they rebuilt their town once before, they can do it again. Maybe this time, they'll build a few basements. Or tornado safe rooms, at least.
(Photo from US Mayors)

  • Other towns in Oklahoma are starting to talk about requiring schools and other public buildings to have shelters for people to use during tornadoes.
  • A contractor who builds basements and is headquartered in Edmond, Oklahoma recently said in an interview that he has built more than 600 basements in and around Oklahoma City in the past 15 years.  He said, "I've got 32 basements to put in the ground right now."
  • So nobody seems to be requiring actual basements in Oklahoma -- yet. But some OK communities are starting to talk about requiring some type of shelter.  And apparently, a few more homebuilders are building a few more basements here and there, even though they don't have to.  
  • So maybe in a few years, the news coming out of Oklahoma will be, not about how many people were killed, but rather about how many people survived the sure-to-come wicked-strong tornadoes.

The May 20, 2013 tornado in Moore, OK.  It was an unusually big one, but there will probably be others.
(Photo from CNN)

By the Way

  • Most homes in Texas don't have basements either.

Related Post: Where Does the Debris Go?

NOAA National Weather Service, Norman, OK, Monthly and Annual Tornado Statistics for the State of Oklahoma, Tornadoes FAQ, Tornado Safety, Tornadoes, Total number by state
NewsOK, Oklahoma tornadoes: Cost, custom keep basements scarce, May 25, 2013, Why Don't More Homes in Oklahoma Have Basements? May 21, 2013
Tom Watkins, Basements scarce in tornado-prone Oklahoma City area; here's why, CNN, May 22, 2013
Melissa Block and Scott Neumann, Basements Not An Option For Many Homes In Oklahoma, NPR News, May 22, 2013
John Schwartz, Why No Safe Room to Run To? Cost and Plains Culture, The New York Times, May 21, 2013
DOE ORNL, Foundation Design Handbook
Gibson Homebuilders, Basements in Texas Part 2
Reader's Digest, How to Design a Tornado-Safe Room
National Geographic, Taking Cover: A Guide to Tornado Shelters, 2013
Chad Lawhorn, Oklahoma City tornado sparks discussion of building code standards at Lawrence City Hall, Lawrence Journal-World, May 22, 2013