According to the Chinese Zodiac calendar, 2020 is the Year of the Rat. That sounds about right, so far. But at least in our old farmhouse, it’s the Year of the Earwig. We’ve been inundated with them the last few weeks, the way we are at other times of the year with house flies and lady bugs. But rather than simply being a nuisance, earwigs have a disgusting factor to them. Sort of the country version of cockroaches. And right now they’re everywhere: on the bathroom floor, on the kitchen counters, on our toothbrushes. The name “earwig” has an even more disgusting, though mythical, origin: the folklore that these insects would crawl, or wiggle, into your ear to lay their eggs.
At the moment, our earwig population seems to be multiplying exponentially. Which, after doing a little research, I now realize isn’t far from the truth. Female earwigs lay as many as 60 “round, pearly” eggs in shallow soil, and the insects reach the adult stage in about 70 days. It also turns out that earwigs prefer hot, humid environments—so the recent weather has been perfect for them, and perhaps that’s why they’re so plentiful and active this year. “In their search for food and shelter, earwigs crawl over the ground and readily climb houses, fences and trees,” according to UVM Extension’s website. “They forage at night and hide during the day in cracks, hollow stalks of leaf whorls of plants, tubular lawn furniture, and hollow aluminum doors, and under the husks of corn cobs. Their invasion of houses begins sometime in July.” I can confirm that invasion has begun.
We haven’t resorted to traps, and putting insecticide on our toothbrushes seems unwise. So we’re left to manually exterminate them, one at a time. The truth is that, despite the menacing looking pincers on their abdomens, beyond the possibility of a pinch, earwigs don’t pose much of a threat to humans. Gardeners, however, may feel differently—the damage that earwigs do to plants like lettuce, beans, and even raspberries can be severe. We’ve definitely found that there’s no escape outdoors at the moment; we’re stacking firewood right now and each piece in the pile seems to be covering an entire earwig colony. Though I doubt they are eating too much of our wood.
The good news is that earwigs only live one year, with many dying during the winter. So by the time the Year of the Ox comes around, this batch will be no longer with us. Hopefully they disappear from our house long before that.
It’s hard to think of another wild plant that that has more uses for humans than milkweed. The young leaves and shoots can be eaten in spring – they’re often referred to as “poor man’s asparagus.” This time of year, the flower buds can be harvested to make capers. Later this summer, the immature pods can be used to make a side dish that tastes somewhat like okra.
Milkweed is named for the sticky white juice in its stems and leaves, a lightly toxic, bitter latex that is neutralized when you cook it. During rubber shortages in World War II, this latex was considered as a rubber substitute; in the same period, milkweed floss was used in life vests and other gear for U.S. troops, substituting for kapok. It has been shown to be a better insulator than down.
The latex can serve as a natural bandage for wounds, owing to its quick-drying elasticity that doesn’t wash off. It serves the plant by deterring insects and grazing animals with its bitter taste, though not so much the monarch butterfly caterpillar. Contrary to popular belief, monarch caterpillars are not immune to the latex – according to research cited in the book Monarchs and Milkweed by Anurag Agrawal, about 60 percent of monarch caterpillars die when they eat it, either from toxins in the latex or because it seals their mouths shut. What’s in it for the caterpillars is that those who do survive become toxic themselves to would-be predators.
Medicinally, milkweed is used as a folk remedy to treat warts and moles. (Many folk remedies are based on the “doctrine of signatures,” which holds that plants that look like a body part can be used to treat that body part, making it no surprise that milkweed, with the wart-like projections on its fruit, has been used in this manner.)
Cherokee, Iroquois, and Rappahannock sources document its use as a laxative and diuretic; early American physicians used it to treat asthma and rheumatism, as well as for other maladies.
Its practical uses extend beyond medicine. According to Arthur Haines’ book Ancestral Plants, the stems make good cordage. The hairs attached to the seeds are also a useful tinder source.