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Backpacker Magazine – February 2008

Powerful Plants and Animals In Your Backyard

The wooly bear caterpillar, wild leek, and yew have "magical" qualities, but live in your backyard.

by: Berne Broudy

Wild Leek, Robert Winslow
Wild Leek, Robert Winslow

Harry Potter fans can have their gillyweed and venomous tentaculas. The rest of us can find actual plants and animals in our own backwoods whose legendary powers aren't all fantasy. Scientists say these three contain real magic.

Wooly Bear Caterpillar
Folklore claims that the width of this fuzzy larva's central brown band can predict winter's chill. A thick stripe forecasts a mild season, while a narrow band means frigid weather ahead. An eight-year study at the American Museum of Natural History generally supported the caterpillar's predictive prowess, though some biologists believe the variable widths actually reflect the prior year's weather. Either way, this bug's meteorology career is brief: After wintering under logs or rocks throughout the Lower 48, it spins a cocoon in the spring to transform into Pyrrharctia isabella, the Isabella Tiger Moth.

Wild Leek
People once attributed wide-ranging powers to this pungent relative of onions and garlic–from resurrecting the dead to helping young women find true love. Today, medical studies have proven that leeks lower blood pressure, alleviate hay fever and bladder problems, and work as an antiseptic. These health benefits perhaps enabled St. David, a leek devotee and 6th-century patron of Wales, to live for 90 years. Wild leeks, also called ramps, can be added to meals ranging from salads to grits. They grow in sandy and moist soils, emerging each spring from South Carolina to southern Canada.

This conifer produces a lethal poison–found in its leaves, seeds, and stems–and has been associated with death for hundreds of years. Shakespeare and Tolkien both referenced the yew's dark powers. Still, craftsmen during the Middle Ages valued the tree's supple wood to fashion both bow staves and dowsing rods, which were used to detect buried objects. Ironically, researchers in the 1960s learned that the bark of the Pacific yew harbors taxol, the key ingredient in a powerful cancer-fighting drug. Yews thrive on almost any soil, and can survive harsh weather and pollution. Species of yew grow along the western coast (Pacific yews), throughout the Southeast (Florida yew), and from Canada to Tennessee (Canadian yew).

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