Sunday, November 16, 2014

Visiting Spain--Mallorca, palms and sunshine

We set sail from Barcelona in Catalonia, eastern Spain, for Mallorca on a tour with Gohagan Travel and the University of California Alumni Association. Mallorca is the largest of the Balearic Islands, four inhabited islands and some tiny ones, in the Mediterranean east of Spain. They are currently Spainish, but like much of the area, were once Phoenician, Carthaginian (Punic), Roman, and Moorish, Catalan, independent--at least--before becoming Spanish.  

You'll see the spelling Majorca. Same place. The residents spell it Mallorca, so I will too.

coast of Mallorca
Located 160 miles from the coast of Spain, they have a mild, Mediterranean climate. None of the islands gets much rain, about 14" a year, comparable to Los Angeles. The summers are hot and rainless, though often humid due to the surrounding sea. Winters are cool and moist. Most winters the temperatures only drop to the middle 30's. Infrequently, frosts and snow occur even at sea level, keeping the island vegetation subtropical rather than tropical. Our guide remembered three frosts in his life (approximately 50 years). Those frosts, rare as they are, keep tropical plants from surviving in the Balearics.

Why is frost so important to the distribution of plants? Because it tears apart the plant's cells. When water freezes, it expands. Examples of damage from the expansion of water are the cracks in concrete sidewalks that develop in winter and the glass jar of lemonade or water that breaks in the freezer. Inside the cells of plants, expanding water breaks up the tissues, killing the cell. Only a minority of all the world's plants have evolved cells that resist freezing damage, so most plants die when the water in their cells freezes.

The mild climate makes the Balearic Islands a European vacation destination. My interest and photos feature the natural vegetation and history but there's a thriving tourist industry devoted to yachts and sandy beaches.
Palma, Mallorca
Harbor, City of Palma, Mallorca
The largest city on Mallorca, and in the Balearics, is Palma. That name emphasizes their climate. While a few palms grow along the Mediterranean coast of Europe, for example in Barcelona, the number and diversity of palms increases as frost frequency decreases. Mallorca is about as mild as Europe gets.

palms, Palma, Mallorca
palms, Palma, Mallorca
palm with fruits, Palma, Mallorca
palm with fruits, Palma, Mallorca
Palma, Mallorca
bay, Palma, Mallorca
Palma was a very pretty and interesting city. The cathedral, Santa Maria de Palma, dominated downtown. As is typical in Spain and Portugal, the cathedral was erected on the site of the mosque when Christians retook the island in 1229. Often the mosque lay atop a previous Christian church which was built over the Roman temple and the Roman temple over the Punic one, and so on.  Of course replacing the monuments of the predecessors was a powerful statement by the new regime. I wondered, though, whether in many places, the previous most-important building occupied the best site, so that there was no better location for a big building in the immediate area, so the placement of the new monument combined politics and practicality.

Started in the 13th century, the cathedral took several hundred years to build. In 1851 an earthquake knocked down the western doors. Those were replaced with the art of the time, so the cathedral is an interesting mix of styles.
cathedral, Palma, Mallorca
Cathedral of Santa Maria, Palma, Mallorca
Also typical of the towns along the Mediterranean was the fortress overlooking Palma. From time immemorial, pirates have raided these coasts. Towns and villages watched the sea and built fortresses into which they could run should unfamiliar sails appear. The Bellver Castle was built by King James II of Mallorca between 1300 and 1311 to protect Palma. (Mallorca was an independent kingdom between 1276 and 1343, after which it was absorbed into the Kingdom of Aragon.) Unfortunately I don't have a distance picture, looking up to see it on the hill. I imagine residents would look at such fortresses as comforting protections or the heavy hand of the occupier, depending on the date and their personal history.

Bellver--the name means lovely view in Catalan--is a handsome piece of strong stonework, more complex than my photos indicate.

Bellver Castle, Mallorca

Bellver Castle, Mallorca

Bellver Castle, Mallorca
Palma from Bellver Castle
plant growing from the fortress wall, Mallorca
plant growing from the fortress wall
false yellowhead, Dittrichia viscosa (sunflower family, Asteraceae)
The old walls looked like crumbling, sterile pavement, and yet, plants were growing there. Above is sticky inula, Dittrichia viscosa (sunflower family, Asteraceae) called sticky inula in my wildflower book and false yellowhead by Wikipedia. It reminded me of goldenrods (Solidago) and was common along the coast.

These next plants I cannot identify and it is harder to tell from the photos that they were growing on the castle wall, but they were.

Bellver Castle, Mallorca

Bellver Castle, Mallorca

Humans build great structures, but plants will retake the space, given just a few years undisturbed.

I thought Mallorca very interesting, from its botany to its history to the present role as an island resort.

Comments and corrections welcome.

Allen, B. M. A selection of wildflowers of southern Spain. Edciones Santana, Malaga Spain. 1993. print.
Consell de Mallorca Malorcan history (accessed 11/6/14)

Kathy Keeler

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Orange, oranges and carrots

Do you remember the James Burke tv series Connections showing surprising relationships between unrelated things? There are plant stories like that, for example, of orange, carrots and politics.

Wild carrots, Daucus carota, known as Queen Ann's lace in the U.S. (parsley family, Apiaceae) are native all across Europe and the Middle East. Humans have used carrots medicinally for a very long time (see for example Culpeper, 1814 edition of 1633 book; Mrs. Grieve 1932).) Carrots were first domesticated in Afghanistan, producing a readily-grown carrot that was, however, stringy and bitter. These carrots, distributed out from Afghanistan were multicolored: purple, red, orange, yellow and off-white, but especially purple and whitish. People all over Eurasia grew them for medicine, but also as a food flavoring. Like bay leaves or garlic cloves, they were added for flavor but not necessarily eaten.

About 1600, plant breeders in Holland bred a truly edible carrot. Everyone agrees that all our modern carrot varieties, even the heritage carrots, are derived from the carrot variety Long created in Holland at the beginning of the 17th century.

The Long carrot was orange.

Nobody can prove that the Dutch growers had a political agenda creating an orange carrot, but, whether or not they did, soon after that the orange carrot became very political.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Visiting Scotland--A glimpse of Shetland's prehistory

Jarlshof, ShetlandNorthern Europe has absolutely marvelous archaelogical sites dating back thousands of years. 
On Shetland I visited Jarlshof. Here, the brutal Earl Patrick Stewart built a fortified manor on the same site as a 800 BC Bronze-age village. 

Today nobody lives there, but the ruins and artifacts are from the Neotlithic (2500-1500 BC), then Bronze Age, Iron Age, Pict, Norse and Scots' settlements! (link)  

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Visiting Scotland-- a bit of wild Shetland

Last May I visited the Shetlands on a tour with Academic Arrangements Abroad and the Met. The northmost part of Scotland, they are beautiful!

Shetland, Scotland

First I looked out at the stunning view above, then down at the grass. Here you see plantains, Plantago lanceolata, flowering in the grass (blog on plantains).

Plantago lanceolata on the Shetlands
narrow-leafed plantain, Plantago lanceolata, in the grass

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Plant story: The amazing dioecious buffalo grass, Buchloë dactyloides

buffalo grass, male flowers
buffalo grass, male flowers, sticking up 

Buffalo grass, Buchloë dactyloides' (or Bouteloua dactyloides) [previous posts on buffalo grass and bison; drought tolerance, name] is a short drought-tolerant native American grass. It was one of the dominant (most common) grasses of the American high plains with a broad range from Mexico to Canada across our driest grasslands. It is highly regarded as food for cattle and bison. It is now being widely planted as a water-efficient lawn grass.

The success of buffalo grass is the more amazing to me because buffalo grass is dioecious. Dioecious means that there are male plants and female plants that have to mate before a seed is produced.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Plant Story - American Squashes

zucchini and yellow summer squash
zucchini and yellow summer squash
Sorting out the squashes is a job for experts, which I am not. They are wonderfully confused.

“True squashes” are plants in the genus Cucurbita (Cucurbitaceae, cucumber family). About 15 species make up Cucurbita, all of them native to the Americas. 

Melons, such as cantalope genus Cucumis, watermelon, genus Citrullus (blog about watermelon) and others--all the melons--are from Asia, Africa or Europe.