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October 24th, 2009 - Return of "The Pumpkins That Wouldn't Die" Part II

Well, I know you are all on the edge of your seats waiting for the cannonball to come back down, but you will have to wait a little longer as the ENIAC is still crunching numbers on ballistic trajectories. Actually, DEEP BLUE and ENIAC are racing to see who can come up with the answer first, while playing simultaneous chess matches with Bobby Fisher's cryogenically-preserved brain. More on that as computations progress.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the city, pumpkins are molding, and our intrepid reporter is of course, on the spot.

As you may or may not (care to) remember, late October is the time when Springbrook Nature Center has it's "Pumpkin Night in the Park" event, and this year was no exception. It's a big deal. Around 3000 people invade the park en mass, costumed and not, to enjoy all the actors, props, and this year's 796 carved and lit pumpkins which lined the trails.
A week after last year's event it was discovered rather by happenstance that the discarded and rotting pumpkins glowed with fascinating colors when exposed to the ultraviolet spectrum of light, that is UV or 'blacklight.' Having a plethora of hand-held UV flashlights myself, and leading hikes with the purpose of "finding stuff that glows," you can imagine my excitement at the prospect. It was described in last years feature: "The Pumpkins That Wouldn't Die."
This year's event was last weekend, so I was eager to get out and see if this year's pumpkin crop glowed as brightly as the last.
I had my reservations. This year the weather has been drastically colder, with an inch or more of snow (yes, snow) on October 8th, and consistently cooler and wetter conditions since then. And of course this being the sequel, there was a greater chance of let-down just due to that.

However, as you can see by the glowing lake inside this pumpkin, cool things abounded. Ginger, a friend from the Minnesota Native Plant Society toughed out the weather (which really wasn't that bad, high 40's and mist, just for a Halloween-like effect) and joined me on the hike. Armed with as many UV flashlights as we could hold with two hands, we lit up the pumpkin pile like dual Pancho Villas with multiple revolvers and bandoleers full of backup.

Yes, things glowed. Comparatively with last year, there weren't as many different colors of glowing segments, but some spots really were kicking it out.

I still don't know exactly what is doing the glowing. Last year after thinking about it, I considered that after the pumpkins are carved, we coat the carved edges with petroleum jelly, a.k.a. 'Vaseline,' just to make a bigger mess. No I'm kidding, it's actually to preserve the Cucurbitaceae for the week they are sitting in the garage waiting for the big event. This retards mold and breakdown due to thermal viscosity. Try it! It's disgusting!
This year, with the temperature being as low as it was, we had more of an issue with wondering what would happen if the pumpkins were to freeze and then re-thaw rather than sitting in the 50 degree garage like last year. (Actually, they were preserved quite well, not sure if they really froze or not. Some of the uncarved ones sitting outside the garage probably did, but didn't show any undue strain from it.)

Above: Note the synapses firing in the pumpcranial cavity.

So I was thinking this time we probably wouldn't see as much activity because the cold had kept down the mold (nice rhyme), and this seemed to bear out. However, last year things were pretty much mush by the time I got out to "the pile" and the walking was treacherous to say the least.
This year, after a week of 30 and 40 degree temps, things hadn't degraded nearly as much, and all were still "chunky."
The upside of this was that I was able to more closely examine another theory of the glowing that I have, and that is that the Vaseline itself causes a lot of the reaction, as petroleum products themselves have a UV reactive component, it being used to judge grades of crude oil and such.

Above: That's why they call them pumpkin "guts." Nom.

Upon closer inspection I could see that this year a lot of the Vaseline hadn't broken down or been washed away (although there was some puddling with water and, ahem, whatever, inside some of the pumpkins, (as above) and it really wasn't glowing appreciably on it's own, at least not yet. It seems the glowing really does have more to do with the mold or fungi that develops in or on the pumpkins, maybe the jelly plays a part in that at higher temperatures. Of course, more research must be done.

In summary, the glowing was good, but previous experience hypothesizes that peak colors have not yet been achieved.
I'm hoping we have a nice warm spell this week, things get cookin' out there, and maybe towards the end of the week with moon phase approaching full and us being on the cusp of All Hallows Eve, we will get a second chance at some serious mold. Stay tuned, and keep your batteries fresh.

As an added bonus, the Nature Center brought us some nice nature on the hike back.
I had my very bright headlamp cranked to full forehead melting power and it turned up numerous deer eyes peering at us from bedding spots along the creek.
Along with those, I noticed a large flapping object fly up and perch in a tall oak, and determined it to be an owl:

Picture of said owl taken with the world's tiniest flash.

It was very hard to tell, but it seemed to be a Barred owl, judging by the size and tones we could see. It let us get surprisingly close, but made no call. I am wondering if it is the same owl we saw for a couple months last winter at Springbrook. Will keep one eye peeled for that in the future. I'm sure little rodenty things like to eat little pumpkiny things and owly things like to eat them...

I'd like to thank Ginger for coming along and helping light the pumpkins while I fiddled with exposures and tripods. She said she loved the hike and bought a UV flashlight from me as well. Thanks Ginger!
I still have more flashlights available (details here) and it looks like there might just be a second chance at glowing pumpkins coming up this week, if anyone is up for a moldy hike and a photographic challenge...


Kirk Mona said...

That sure looks like a Great Horned Owl to me and not a Barred Owl. The white throat really stands out. I wrote a post about some research on that white patch a while back.

Something about the position of the body says Great Horned to me as well.
Cool Photo!

dignature said...

Thanks Kirk, that could very well be. We didn't get a very good look at it, (the image you see was one of those black frames that you know you took something but can't see anything until you take it into PhotoShop and start cranking on the histogram) it flew into the only backlit sky there was and perched. Of course.
We do see Great Horned owls at SB occasionally, we were thinking that's what may have driven off the resident Barred last year.
I was looking for head tufts, but didn't conclusively see them, and it "seemed" to have a light & dark striation over the entire body as it spread to perch, but I may have been imprinting that.
Hopefully we'll see it again this Friday when we do the hike again (or sooner at the NC) and make a positive ID!
Either way it was exciting and a little surprising to see. Owls are probably more common than I give them credit for at SB (although I don't hear many), but I rarely have my powerful headlamp along. Until after this...