Sunday, April 20, 2014

Visiting the Rocky Mountains -- Early Spring in Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park

The first of April is very early spring at 7,500 feet in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, but we had a lovely time in Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park.

Even though most of the plants were dormant, they were beautiful--

Aspen (Populus tremuloides) leafless for a few more weeks
aspen, Populus tremuloides
aspen, Populus tremuloides

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Plant Story - Yarrow, Achillea millefolium, a plant species complex

Achillea millefolium, yarrow
Achillea millefolium, yarrow
Yarrow, Achillea millefolium (sunflower family, Asteraceae) is a small perennial plant found around the world. It is a medicinal herb in both modern and traditional medicines (see previous post: link) and is an attractive, easily-grown garden flower and in some places, a weed.

Very few plant species are listed as native to Europe, Asia and North America but that is the case for Achillea millefolium.  

Actually, yarrow is what botanists call a species complex. I will outline the situation as I understand it, because this sort of complexity is surprisingly common in plants, although yarrow does it particularly well.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Plant Story-- Yarrow, Achillea millefolium, an Ancient Healing Herb

Achillea millefolium yarrow
Achillea millefolium yarrow
Yarrow, Achillea millefolium, is a familiar  wildflower with an interesting and confused history. A member of the very large sunflower family, Asteraceae, it is quite closely related to wild and cultivated chamomiles.

Yarrow was named Achillea millefolium by Linnaeus in 1753. The genus name is based on the idea that Achilles, Spartan hero and demigod in the Iliad of Homer, used yarrow to heal wounds. I wanted to include the exact quote and was surprised by what I found. The Iliad never mentions yarrow. The healing passage, paraphrased frequently as "Achilles used yarrow to heal his soldiers" is quoted below and is both quite vague and has the healing done by Patroclus. (Bk XI:804-848 Patroclus tends Eurypylus’ wound. Iliad A.S. Kline 2009 Read the whole passage: link )

    The wounded Eurypylus replied:...'help me to my black ship, and cut out the arrow-head, and wash the dark blood from my thigh with warm water, and sprinkle soothing herbs with power to heal on my wound, whose use men say you learned from Achilles, whom the noble Centaur, Cheiron, taught. ...’

       ... Patroclus lowered the wounded man to the ground, and cut the sharp arrow-head from his thigh. Next he washed the dark blood from the place with warm water, and rubbing a bitter pain-killing herb between his hands sprinkled it on the flesh to numb the agony. Then the blood began to clot, and ceased to flow.

Alternatively, Achilles is reported to have healed the festering spear wound of King Telephus of Mysia. This appears not in the Iliad but in other sources of Greek mythology (see citations). In any event, the spear wound of Telephus is cured by scrapings from the spear that caused the injury, suggested by Odysseus, not Achilles, and no mention is made of yarrow. (See whole myth: Telephus)

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Visiting Northern Florida--Forest Walk at Birdsong

 In February, 2014, I was in northern Florida and visited Birdsong Nature Center, just north of Tallahassee at the southern edge of Georgia.
the forest 
the forest
The pine forests of north Florida and south Georgia were once part of a broad belt of forest across the southern U.S. Much of that area belonged to plantations that after the Civil War became hunting reserves for very rich northerners. That preserved them into the middle of the 20th century. Much of the southern pine forest has been lost to development but some remains as private and public reserves. 

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Plant Story -- Osage-Orange and the Animals of the Pleistocene

Osage-oranges  on the ground
 on the ground
Osage-orange, Maclura pomifera, is a tree endemic to (native only in) North American. Its range. when Europeans first encountered it, was small: the area where Arkansas, Texas and Oklahoma meet. Its habitat is described as woods, forest edges and streams. Widespread planting of Osage-orange for fences in the 1850s-1870s has greatly expanded its distribution.

I talked about Osage-orange's interesting wood previously (link). But Osage-orange has memorable fruits. See Osage-orange fruit They are bigger than oranges. The outer rind is warty. Inside it is more solid than an orange, with a row of small seeds. (Gray's Manual of Botany calls the fruits "disappointingly dry and hard" inside). Not much of anything eats them. People don’t eat them, some horses like them, deer eat a few and determined squirrels will tear them open and eat the seeds, but still the big fruits pile up at the base of the tree. 

Mostly we don't think about what we see and ask "why?" But why does Osage-orange make a huge fruit? Plants are rooted. To get to new areas, something (wind, water, an animal) has to carry the seeds away. Osage-orange fruits seem horribly inefficient at dispersing the plant. 

The current answer is: the fruits evolved to be eaten by animals that have gone extinct.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Visiting Tierra del Fuego--A Walk on Cape Horn

beach at Cape Horn
beach at Cape Horn
In November of 2009 I boarded the Via Australis as part of National Geographic trip to sail the Beagle Channel from Argentine Patagonia to Chilean Patagonia, not around Cape Horn but through the safer (though not especially safe) interior waterways. Before sailing westward, however, we were offered the opportunity to walk on the island at the tip of South America, Cape Horn. (Take Google Maps to the tip of South America link then zoom out).

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Visiting Northern Florida--ooh! Magnolias!

magnolia flowers emerging from Spanish moss
magnolia flowers emerging from Spanish moss

At the end of February, I visited Tallahassee Florida. Tallahassee gets frosts and snow every decade or so--including this year, so in many ways it was still very early spring, but some magnolias were in full bloom. I was enchanted. Here are pictures of magnolias in flower in Tallahassee and especially at Maclay Gardens

a single magnolia flower
a single magnolia flower