Monday, June 25, 2012

Of Mint, Mollusks, and Mojitos


I finished assembling the requested cheddar cheese and cracker sandwiches and made sure to follow the precise directions for filling the sippy cups: half apple juice, half water, one ice cube, and a slice of lemon (don’t ask, my kids are high maintenance).  Saturday afternoon was upon us and it was clear that we all needed a little downtime.  So I set the girls up for a picnic on the family room floor, engaged Netflix, and laid out their snack.  After a few minutes of getting comfy, calmness decided to pay us a visit.  This was my carpe diem moment.

The perennial mint plant, known in my family as
"El Jardin de Mojito."
The weather could not have been more pleasant, and with the girls under the dear care of my best pal Pingu, I stepped out, barefooted, onto the deck.  The sun caressed my cheeks. The wind whispered into my ear. The garden’s cologne was a reminder of my desire.  Summer was seducing me and I did not could not resist.

I scanned the world before me, seamlessly moving my gaze from tree to tree, bush to bush, bird to bird, letting each thought morph into the next.  I noticed the fluffy marshmallow clouds floating overhead and the sounds of a lawn mower humming in the distance.  Then, at eleven o’clock, I caught a glimpse of the mint garden.  The free flowing thoughts came to a screeching halt and my mind could focus on one thing and one thing only: Mojitos.    


Belonging to the Lamiaceae family along with other aromatic herbs such as basil, oregano, and sage, mint has a tendency to spread rapidly and without care for the plants around it.  But for us, this wasn’t an issue.  Despite the vast culinary applications for this bountiful botanical, it is the quintessential ingredient for our favorite summer beverage, and so we’ve aligned ourselves with “the more the merrier” philosophy.  After all, Greek mythology has dubbed mint as the “herb of hospitality” and what says “welcome to mi casa” more than the delicate sweetness of a cold mojito?

I didn’t bother to grab the scissors and made sure I followed the most direct route toward the mint patch.  As I went to grab a large stalk, I noticed a little critter hanging out on one of the leaves.  I lessened my grasp and began to examine the mint garden a bit more closely.  It appeared to be a micro-ecosystem, bustling with tiny life forms.

Not wanting to miss a photographic opportunity, I ran back in, peeked in at the girls to make sure they were still there, and grabbed my camera (the good one).  The snails were everywhere!  My first reaction was “you best not be messing with the mojito garden!”  But, upon closer inspection, these slow-moving, shelled cylinders of slime might be something more interesting, at least from a biological perspective.
Birds eye view of the European Amber Land Snail.
I knew that snails were mollusks, similar to clams and oysters, and that they could be further classified as gastropods, or “stomach foot” (to us, it looks like they are crawling on their bellies).  But, I was having a hard time identifying the species to which these snails belonged, and that was probably because I was limiting my search to native species in NY State. 

Frustrated, I turned to Ken Hotopp, conservation biologist and director of the environmental consulting company, Appalachian Conservation Biology.  Ken informed me that these snails were amber land snails of the Succinea putris variety, which are native to eastern European countries and Great Britain, and further classified them as an invasive species.
Fred and Ethel, roaming the mint garden.  Take a look at the "belly foot."
When a species is classified as “invasive,” it typically means that they have high reproductive rates, can easily spread, and can quickly adapt to their new environment (a phenomenon called phenotypic plasticity).  If these criteria are met, the invasive species can outcompete many of the indigenous species for resources and cause issues for the native habitat. 

These snails probably made their way to the new world by hitching a ride on humans and despite the negative connotation associated with being an “invasive species,” it really isn’t their fault.  They are just doing what they are biologically programmed to do: survive and pass on their gene pool to the next generation.

Regardless of origin, these snails looked beautiful to me.  I love spiraling pattern at the rear of their calcium carbonate shells, and the way their tentacles, with eyes at the tip, scan their environment.  It is really cool to watch the rhythmic motions of the foot, which can probably be plotted as a sine wave function in super slow motion. 
Close up! Notice the patterns on the calcium carbonate shell,
and the black eyes at the tip of the tentacles.

Realizing that time was of the essence (Pingu is effective for only so long), I zoomed out and started looking around for the best leaves to pluck.  I said hello to the grasshopper that was probably banking on its green camouflage to keep it safe from predators, and took at look at the brilliant yellow flowers living atop the mint garden canopy.  With the prize in hand, I ran into the kitchen, grabbed the simple syrup from the fridge (we always have some on hand), and began to make my mojito.  
My prize.
Within a few minutes, the finished product was in hand.  But, alas, it would have to wait for I was being beckoned by the girls with the golden locks.  I suppose one more episode of Pingu wouldn’t hurt.

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