Gardens of the Cross Timbers: Love that beetle juice

Becky Emerson Carlberg
Candy Corn Crazy.

How refreshing. Cool air, bright blue skies and pumpkins scattered throughout fields, on steps, in front yards and involved with just about every drink or snack imaginable this time of year. Halloween is eight days away, arriving Oct. 31. Better yet, on Oct. 30 is National Candy Corn Day. It’s time for my annual indulgence of incisor shaped mellowcremes with yellow ends, orange middles and white tips. Most of one large sack of candy corn and pumpkins has already been polished off. The overflow in the peanut butter jar is going fast.

Candy corn came into existence 140 years ago. In 1888, George Renninger, young candymaker of the Wunderle Company in Philadelphia, came up with the idea of candy corn. He created mold trays with triangles to hold the fondant made of sugar, water and corn syrup slurries. Hoisting heavy kettles to pour three separate colors into each kernel mold was hard work and took time. Candy corn was initially made May to November, which included Halloween and Thanksgiving.

During that time much of America was still rural; domesticated animal and crop themes were popular. The Wunderle Company made candy leaves, pea pods, little turnips and kernels of corn. The corn was iffy because people considered corn livestock feed.

Hundred year old Goelitz Rooster ad

Bold George called his creation Chicken Feed. In 1898, the A & G Goelitz Confection Company saw a future for the novel candy. Time to change the image. Goelitz came up with an ad featuring a saucy rooster proclaiming he was “King of the Candy Corn Fields.” On the front of the candy corn boxes was a picture of said rooster with the tagline “Something worth crowing for.” The candy soon developed a following. The rest is history.

Today’s candy corn includes marshmallow in the form of salt, dextrose, gelatin (animal tendons, ligaments and bones), sesame oil, honey, yellow 5 and red 3. The shiny coating, a confectioner’s glaze, comes from shellac secreted by lac insects in India, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, Myanmar (Burma), parts of China and Mexico.

The cultivation of lac insects is truly interesting. The most common insect used is Kerria lacca, a species in the scale insect superfamily. The farmer acquires a stick covered in lac scale eggs. This is tied to the Pongam tree (Milletia pinnata), an Indian shade tree often planted along avenues by the forestry department. Flame of the Forest (Butea monosperma) is often used. Different trees in other countries are also host trees such as the rain tree (Albizia samen) in Thailand, the Hibiscus in China and the Mexican hardy Barbados nut (Jatropha curcas) in the spurge family.

The Plumeria

The Jatropha shrub has strong anti-fungal and pesticidal properties, lives 40 years and can grow almost anywhere in tropical and subtropical regions. The seeds are rich in oils from which is derived high quality biofuel used in combustion engines and some jet airlines. Jatropha has also shown promise in capturing carbon dioxide to fight climate change.

The female lac insects secrete a pigmented resin to protect the eggs. The sappy branches, called Sticktac, are cut from the tree. The scarlet red lac deposits harden into flakes, are scraped off, crushed and repeatedly washed to clean and sieved to remove insect parts. The resulting product is Seedlac. Shaped like seeds, the Seedlac still has some impurities and is further processed by heat or the solvent ethanol into shellac.

Shellac not only puts a shine on candy corn and jelly beans, it gives a polished look to apples, coats pills and is even used as fingernail polish. Feel secure in the fact the Food and Drug Administration has set limits for insect parts, rodent poop, mold, insect heads, hair and maggots in food. The Food Defect Action Levels, first published in 1995, lists acceptable amounts that present no health hazards for humans. Insects are broken down into insect larvae (corn), insect fly eggs and maggots (canned citrus juices) and insect filth (fruits, flour, peanut butter, chocolate, spices, etc.) What is insect filth? 60 or more insect fragments/100 grams in 6 subsamples or one subsample with 90 fragments. 100 grams is 3.5 ounces or .22 pounds. All good? Love the beetle juice.

Preparing the greenhouses for cold weather has been great fun. Where were the radiators? A search through closets led to the investigation of the sheds. There they were, and off they went into the front greenhouse with the Plumeria, the plant that never left the greenhouse, even when temperatures rose to nearly 120 degrees F. The Plumeria never winced. What a tropical!

The other radiators spent the summer in the Lemonery, quietly sitting in one corner. They were brushed off and plugged in. Of the two lemon trees, the north one stands straight in its pot but wishes it was on the south side. The southern lemon is leaning at a 45-degree angle, bringing the pot with it. The only thing keeping the plant from hitting the ground are the thick branches bracing the plant where it’s at. The citrus tree needs serious intervention, but the eight lemons are still green and hard. If the lemons ever ripen, the tree is going to be repotted and pruned to regain its proud upward stance.

While closing the Lemonery doors to keep out the night cold, my partner looked up and came face to face with a cardinal sitting in north lemon tree. He slowly backed out and opened wide the door. The cardinal saw its chance and immediately escaped, leaving behind a nice warm tree. The red bird was inside the Lemonery the night before, but flew out just before the doors were closed. Seems the cardinal likes the lemon tree.

In the not-too-distant future all outdoor potted plants will have to be moved into their winter digs. This is the time I wish each plant was under a foot tall and lived in an eight inch pot!

Becky Emerson Carlberg

Becky Emerson Carlberg, graduate of Oklahoma State (Plant Pathology) is a teacher, artist, writer as well as certified Oklahoma Master Gardener and Master Naturalist. Contact her at Becscience@att.net.