What Exactly is Christmas Tree Flocking?

iStock.com/Spiderstock
iStock.com/Spiderstock

Of the many curious holiday traditions (figgy pudding? wassailing?), one of the oddest has to be spraying down small trees with a mixture of adhesive and cellulose fibers to satisfy our longing for a white Christmas.

That’s what’s happening when you adorn a tree with artificial snow, otherwise known as flocking. And yet, when decorated and lit up, there’s something beautiful and warmly nostalgic about a well-flocked Christmas tree. Here’s how professionals manufacture this Christmas miracle.  

The History of Flocking

We’ve been trying to get that snowy look on Christmas trees for longer than you might think, dating back to the 1800s using substances like flour or cotton. A 1929 issue of Popular Mechanics recommended varnish, corn starch, and flakes of the silicate mineral mica. 

But tree flocking as we know it really caught on in the late 1950s and 1960s, along with aluminum trees and other glitzy (if not natural-looking) decor of the post-war boom. General Mills marketed Sno-Flok home kits, to be applied using a gun that attached to a vacuum cleaner.

Such home kits are not so popular these days, says Tom Leonard, owner of Peak Seasons, one of the country's largest manufacturers of Christmas tree lots supplies and tree flock. Flocking itself, however, has retained a level of appeal. “Sunbelt states use a lot of it because there’s no snow there,” Leonard tells Mental Floss. “It’s tremendously popular. The West Coast, the South, and the Southeast, the vast majority of it is sold in those zones.”

The Science of Flocking

So what exactly is flocking? At its core, flocking means attaching tiny fibers to a surface to create texture (the process is also used in fashion, home decor, and crafts). The Peak Seasons recipe includes paper pulp as fiber, corn starch as adhesive, and boron as a flame retardant—there’s a safety benefit to flocking.

And the company makes a lot of it. Leonard says they're the largest manufacturer of flock in the United States and Europe. “I don’t want to share [how much], but we sell lots of flock. I mean truckloads and truckloads.”

Based in sunny Riverside, California, Peak Seasons starts with paper and a grinder. “It’s like a big roll of toilet paper and it weighs a ton and you feed it into a machine and it comes out a powder,” Leonard says. The exception is certain bright colors—flock comes in white, black, pink, ice blue, royal blue, red, green, gold, and purple—which require cotton fibers instead of paper to hold the dye. The final product is almost like baby powder, shipped all over the country in large, cement-bag-sized bags.

From there you need to affix the stuff in a nice even coat, which is where flock machines like the Mighty Sno-Blower come in. They’re basically big tanks that hold varying amounts of flock depending on the model, plus a mechanism at the bottom to fluff up the powder. The machine then pumps the powder through a hose, and a gun at the end mixes it with a mist of water.

And that’s how flock is born.

The Art of Flocking

You don’t have to go with a professional flocker, or even use manufactured flock. There are all sorts of DIY recipes that include things like soap flakes or even desiccated coconut flakes. But if you do go pro, you want to be in the hands of someone like Paul Iantosca, who has been flocking trees in the Boston area for 20 years.

Flocking one tree in bright purple (white is still most popular), Iantosca first sprays it down with water. Then, in an area closed off with plastic sheeting, he fires up the blower and blasts the tree evenly with what looks like a purple fog. The stuff gets everywhere. He wears a mask to keep it out of his nose, but some high-volume flockers wear full protective coveralls. 

The tricky part to flocking is that you can’t tell if you got it right until it dries. When it goes on, it’s cold and wet like paste. But as it dries, the Christmas magic kicks in and it puffs up, turning into fluffy white (or, in this case, purple) fuzz firmly affixed to the needles.

There are, of course, pitfalls. Not enough water, and the flocking falls off and makes a huge mess. A flocked tree can’t get wet a second time. “It won’t dry again. It’s disgusting actually,” Iantosca says. Also, when you flock a tree, the color highlights its flaws. A janky tree turns into a weird, uneven shrub.

But if you get it right and string it up with lights, you’ve got a real stunner on your hands. Iantosca’s had flocked trees for his own home for the past 10 years and his kids won’t let him go back.

“When you plug that thing in, it absolutely glows inside," he says. "It’s unbelievable.”

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

An earlier version of this article ran in 2015.

Why Do Bats Hang Upside Down?

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iStock.com/CraigRJD

Stefan Pociask:

The age-old question of upside down bats. Yes, it is awfully weird that there is an animal—a mammal even—that hangs upside down. Sure, some monkeys do it when they're just monkeying around. And a few other tree climbers, like margays, hang upside down if they are reaching for something or—again, like the margay cat—may actually even hunt that way ... But bats are the only animals that actually spend most of their time hanging upside down: feeding this way, raising their young this way, and, yes, sleeping or roosting this way.

There is actually a very good and sensible reason why they do this: They have to hang upside down so that they can fly.

First off, we have to acknowledge that bats are not birds, nor are they insects. These are the other two animals that have true powered flight (as opposed to gliding). The difference between bat flight and bird or insect flight is weight—specifically, the ratio of weight to lift-capacity of the wings. If you walk up to a bird or insect, most species will be able to fly right up into the air from a motionless position, and do it quickly.

Bats, on the other hand (or, other wing), can’t do that. They have a lot of difficulty taking off from the ground (not that they can’t do it ... it’s just more difficult). Insects and birds often actually jump into the air to give them a start in the right direction, then their powerful wings take them up, up, and away.

Birds have hollow bones; bats don’t. Insects are made of lightweight chitin or soft, light tissue; bats aren’t. And bats don’t have what you could call "powerful" wings. These amazing creatures are mammals, after all. The only flying mammals. Nature found a way to evolve such an unlikely thing as a flying mammal, so some compromises had to be made. Bats, once airborne, manage perfectly well in the air, and can literally fly circles around most birds in flight. The problem is in first getting off the ground.

To compensate for the extra weight that mammals must have, to compensate for the problem of getting off the ground, evolution found another way for bats to transition from being motionless to immediately being able to fly when necessary. Evolution said, “How about if we drop them from above? That way they are immediately in the air, and all they need to do is start flapping."

It was a great idea, as it turns out. Except bat feet aren’t any good for perching on a branch. They are mammals, not birds, so their musculature, their bones, and their tendons are set up in a completely different way. When a bird squats down on a branch, their tendons actually lock their toes into an even tighter grip on the perch. It happens automatically. That’s part of being a bird, and is universal. That’s why they don’t fall off in their sleep.

Bats, as mammals, are set up differently. Therefore, to compensate for that fact, nature said, “How about if we have them hang upside down? That way, their tendons will actually pull their toes closed, just like a bird does from the opposite direction.” So that’s what evolved. Bats hang from the bottom of something, and all they have to do is "let go" and they are instantly flying. In fact, with this gravity-assist method, they can achieve instant flight even faster than birds, who have to work against gravity.

Side note: In case you were wondering how bats poop and pee while upside down ... First off, pooping is no big deal. Bat poop looks like tiny grains of rice; if they are hanging, it just falls to the floor of the bat cave as guano. Pee, however ... well, they have that covered too. They just “hold it” until they are flying.

So there you go. Bats sleep hanging upside down because they are mammals and can’t take off into the air like birds can (at least not without difficulty). But, if they're hanging, all they do is let go.

Makes total sense, right?

Now, having said all that about upside down bats, I must mention the following: Not all of the 1240-plus species of bats do hang upside down. There are exceptions—about six of them, within two different families. One is in South America (Thyropteridae) and the other is in Madagascar (Myzopodidae). The Myzopodidae, which includes just one species, is exceedingly rare.

So it turns out that these bats roost inside the tubes of young, unfurled banana leaves and other similar large leaves. When they attach themselves to the inside of this rolled leaf, they do it head-up. The problem with living inside of rolled-up leaves is that within a few days, these leaves will continue growing, and eventually open up. Whenever that happens, the whole group of bats has to pick up and move to another home. Over and over again. All six of these species of rare bats have a suction cup on each wrist and ankle, and they use these to attach to the smooth surface of the inside of the leaf tube. Evolution: the more you learn, the more amazing it becomes.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

What's the Difference Between Tequila and Mezcal?

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iStock.com/mediaphotos

Aside from tacos, enchiladas, and other tasty tortilla-wrapped treats, tequila and mezcal are among some of Mexico’s best-known offerings in the food and beverage category. These tipples, made from the agave plant, are so embedded in the country’s culture that Mexico City even has a museum dedicated to the two drinks, and Jose Cuervo operates a "tequila train" to none other than the city of Tequila. These beverages can be used to make a variety of cocktails, from the tequila sunrise to the mezcalita, but unless you’re a bartender or a connoisseur of spirits, you might not know the difference between the two. Is mezcal just fancier tequila?

Not exactly. Tequila is a type of mezcal, but the reverse isn’t always true. It’s similar to the distinction between champagne and sparkling wine, in which the name of the beverage depends on whether it was produced in the Champagne region of France or elsewhere. While mezcal can be produced anywhere in Mexico, tequila is made in the Mexican state of Jalisco (though a few exceptions do apply).

Tequila and mezcal also differ in the ingredients from which they are derived. Mezcal can come from any of the dozens of agave plants—a type of desert succulent—that are grown throughout Mexico. Tequila is made specifically from blue agave and, depending on the variety and brand, a bottle will contain between 51 percent and 100 percent of the plant-based nectar. According to The Tierra Group, a wholesaler of agave products, blue agave nectar is especially sweet because it’s 80 percent fructose, per Mexico’s regulations.

Lastly, tequila and mezcal taste different because of the ways in which they are prepared. Mezcal tends to have a savory, smoky, earthy flavor because the agave hearts (or piñas) are left cooking for several days in a fire pit that has been lined with volcanic rock and covered with agave leaves and earth. The piñas destined to end up in tequila, on the other hand, are often cooked in a brick oven, then crushed up to extract the juice.

If you ever feel adventurous at the liquor store and decide to bring home a bottle of mezcal, just keep in mind that there’s a particular way to drink it. “The first mistake many people make is pouring mezcal in a shot glass and pouring it down their throat,” Chris Reyes, a mixologist at New York City’s Temerario bar and restaurant told Liquor.com. Instead, the spirit is best sipped in a clay cup known as a jicarita.

Some words of advice if you do go shopping for mezcal: If you ever see a worm at the bottom of the bottle, that means it’s probably not a very good mezcal, according to Reyes. By contrast, tequila bottles should never have worms in them (despite the common misconception). So if you’re looking to avoid invertebrate-infused concoctions at all costs, tequila is your best bet.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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