Sunday, December 28, 2014

Plant Story -- European Holly - Not Always with Spines and Red Berries

European holly, Ilex aquifolium
European holly, Ilex aquifolium is widely recognized by its spiny leaves and red berries (drupes) (see post on holly folklore). Curiously, not all the leaves on European holly are spiny and not all the plants have fruit.

First, holly trees vary in the number of spiny leaves. You can see it in any of the photos--some leaves are smooth and others have spines on the edge.

All sorts of people have thought about the variation in the spines. Young plants tend to have mostly spiny leaves. (photo below) On a big tree, the lower branches have more spiny leaves than higher branches.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Plant Story -- Holly (Ilex aquifolium) Celebrating the Solstice--and Christmas--for Millennia

European holly, Ilex aquifolium
European holly, Ilex aquifolium
We sing "Deck the halls with boughs of holly" at Christmastime, often without thinking about what we are saying. 

I live in an area where the traditional holly cannot grow, and yet everyone knows what holly looks like.


Sunday, December 14, 2014

Visiting Portugal--the Algarve on the south coast

Portugal and Spain in October surprised me because dawn was at nearly 8 am. One consequence of that was that I was up to appreciate the sunrise.

sunrise off Portugal
sunrise off Portugal
I went ashore in the Algarve, the province that runs across the southern end of Portugal, to learn about the climate from the plants and about the history from the buildings.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Plant Confusion--Hemlock, Both Umbels and Conifers

The leaves were long, the grass was green
 The hemlock-umbels tall and fair
 And in the glade a light was seen,
 Of stars in shadow shimmering.
 Tinúviel was dancing there
 To music of a pipe unseen,
 And light of stars was in her hair,
 And in her raiment glimmering."

(Tolkien The Fellowship of the Ring p. 204)

As a child in upstate New York, I read and reread J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings until I had memorized a dozen of the poems. This one was one of my favorites. I imagined Tinúviel dancing in a forest under towering hemlock trees.

western hemlock

forest grove, Finland

But that was not Tolkien’s image.  He meant, dancing among plants Americans call poison hemlock.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Visiting Spain--Wandering the Former Carthusian monastery, Valldemossa, Mallorca

Hills of Mallorca
The island of Mallorca has beautiful beaches (earlier post), but the hills are lovely too. In the hill town of Valldemossa we visited a former monastery which was rich in plants and history.

A rambling old building, of which I have no exterior photograph (so see link), it was begun as a royal residence, then, between 1399 and 1835, served as a Carthusian monastery. After that it was a private guest house and today it is a museum.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Plant Story--Chenopodium album, aka lambsquarters and fat hen

Chenopodium album, Amaranthaceae
Chenopodium album, Amaranthaceae
Chenopodium album is a Eurasian plant that has established itself across most of the world. But you may well walk by it without noticing.

Chenopodium album is in the plant family, Amaranthaceae, the amaranth or pigweed family. Many places you will see it listed as having its own family, Chenopodiaceae, but recent work merged the Chenopodiaceae into the Amaranthaceae. 

The scientific name says "white goose foot", the chen for goose in Greek,  podium foot, and album is white. The flowers are whitish, but so are the new leaves (picture above) so while the namer might have meant the flowers, I see white on every plant.

Chenopodium, Amaranthaceae
Chenopodium album, Amaranthaceae
Part of what is the most fun with C. album is getting someone else to realize they know it. It goes by so many common names that it can hide in plain sight. For example:

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

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. 

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Visiting Dali, China--Among the Rice Fields


At the end of September in 2013, I came into Dali in Yunnan (southwestern China), just as the rice was about to be harvested. I was on an Art in China tour with the Asian Art Association of the Denver Art Museum (coordinated by Access China Tours). (I wrote a blog giving an overview of the trip: see overview blog). China is famous for its rice, but in fact rice is grown only in the southern half of China. Historically the north grew millet, now it grows corn (maize). Here in southern China, however, rice is king.  
ripe rice, Dali, China
ripe rice, Dali, China

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Forensic Botany--Investigating Crime with Dr. Jane Bock

Dr. Jane Bock
Dr. Jane Bock
Some botanists retire to garden, some retire to travel…Dr. Jane Bock retired to investigate crimes.  

She is a forensic botanist, one of a small group of experts who use their a knowledge of plants to help solve crimes. 

How can plants reveal the truth? It turns out there are many ways. 

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Visiting New Mexico -- Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument near Santa Fe

Our friend Sue Baum, spending six weeks in Santa Fe taking pottery classes at Santa Fe Clay, was told not to miss the Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks, so we happily went along on her visit. The directions from Santa Fe were clear and the distance not far, but we still managed to take a series of wrong turns (picture below). On the trip back to Santa Fe we got it right the first time!
Road Closed! Eastern New Mexico
Road Closed! Eastern New Mexico
Tent Rocks was worth the wrong turns we made before finding it.

Kasha-Katuwe National Monument, New Mexico
Kasha-Katuwe National Monument, New Mexico
There were strange and impressive formations, a combination of rock and sand, variously eroded. Kasha-Katuwe means "white cliffs" in the Keresan language of nearby Pueblo de Cochiti. Layers of volcanic deposits alternate, the harder layers protecting the softer from erosion.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Plant Story--Aspen, Populus tremuloides, widespread and speading

Quaking aspen, usually just called aspen, Populus tremuloides, is a familiar plant, which is part of what makes it remarkable. A member of the willow family, Salicaceae, it is related to willows and cottonwoods, and more closely, to aspens of Europe and bigtooth aspen, Populus grandidentata. 

Though you may also know some of its relatives, in North America you are likely to know it as well. Quaking aspen is the most widespread tree of North America. Of something like 1,000 trees in North America, it is Number One. Aspen is found from northern Canada to Mexico, from the Pacific to the Atlantic coasts (map at USDA Plants). The elevational range is also great, from sea level to 10,000'. 

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Visiting Iceland--the Intriguing Westman Islands

Westman Islands from Iceland
Westman Islands from the seashore in Iceland
I read Icelandic history in preparation for a trip to Iceland in 2012. The Landnámabók, the Book of  Settlements, written sometime between 900 and 1300, describes that in the first year of settlement, 874 or 875 AD, Hjörleifr Hródmarsson drove hard 10 Irishmen, whom he had captured in Ireland and enslaved, making them drag the plow, as he had only one ox. The thralls (slaves) made a plot. They killed the ox and said a bear had done it. When Hjörleifr led them out hunting for the bear, the Irish thralls killed Hjörleifr and all the Norsemen who were with him. The Irishmen then took the women of the small settlement, food and weapons and fled by boat to offshore islands. 

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Visiting Kauai -- Additional Impressions

I wrote about our April trip to Kauai a couple times. Here are some pictures from the trip that don't fit very well anywhere else.

I didn't mention the chickens. Chickens are all over the island. At first you think you're seeing them just outside someone's yard. Then you figure out that they are feral, like cats in cities. 

feral chicken, Kauai

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Dye Plant--Sawwort, Serratula tinctoria, Obscure Historic Yellow Dye

Persian knapweed Centaurea dealbata
Persian knapweed Centaurea dealabata
Note added August 24, 2015: I had the identification of the plant wrong. Yet most of the post is correct because I talk about my experience with the plant separately from my research on dye history. I will make changes below in this font so it is clear. I have changed all the plant identications. I won't change the post title.

I like rescuing plants. You know, taking a sickly little plant, giving it good light and regular water and watching it recover. My relationship with sawwort--Persian knapweed really-- began that way. 

I was new to Colorado in fall of 2006 and finding plants for the yard of my new house. So I was looking on the end-of-the-season garden racks for promising marked-down perennials at McGuckin's Hardware Store in Boulder ("Colorado's Favorite Store"!). I chose a pot or two and got chatting with the clerk. She pointed me to the edge of the garden shop where a couple of run-down, sad-looking plants slumped over the edge of their pots and said I could have them, no charge. How could I resist?!

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Visiting Denver--The Denver Botanic Garden, the Plants as Art

Dale Chihuly's glass art, in the Denver Botanic Garden until November 2014, is very much worth seeing, but when it is gone, the plants will still be there. Influenced by Chihuly's glass, I looked at the plants and saw some fantastic shapes and colors--

shrimp plant

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Visiting Denver--Chihuly Art at the Denver Botanic Gardens

Chihuly glass, Denver Botanic Garden
Chihuly glass, Denver Botanic Garden
The Denver Botanic Gardens are  a glorious place.

Right now there is an art display of Dale Chihuly's glass sculpture throughout the garden.

The art makes me think about gardens and art: plants are beautiful without sculpture--in the next blog I have pictures of plants from the Denver Botanic Garden that same day, seeing it as "great art, by Nature." (link)

But the Chihuly pieces are a "must see" while they're in Denver (until Nov. 2014). I like some very much, for others I thought the garden more beautiful before they were added. And so it was great fun.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Visiting the Faroes--Grass-covered Hills and Marsh Marigolds in the Sheep Islands

Faroe Island view
Faroe Island rainy morning, through the bus window
The Faroe Islands are in the North Atlantic, between Norway and Iceland. (See map. ) I visited them about the first of June on a tour with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, organized by Academic Arrangements Abroad. There are 18 islands, 17 with at least one inhabitant. 

It was cool and raining when we arrived. On the same latitude as the middle of Hudson Bay, the Atlantic's Gulf Stream keeps the temperatures mild. Average highs are about 51 ( 11 C) in summer and 37 (3 C) in winter. It rains more than 16 days a month all year round, though the rain may be a passing shower or a day of drizzle. Total annual rainfall varies between islands but in the capital, Tórshavn, it is about 50" (1280 cm).

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Visiting Southern Colorado--the Great Sand Dunes

Great Sand Dune against the mountains
Great Sand Dunes against the mountains
I have seen sand dunes--Jockey's Ridge in North Carolina, Sleeping Bear in Michigan, the Nebraska Sandhills--so although I put the Great Sand Dunes near Alamosa, Colorado on my "to see" list, I didn't expect to be impressed. 

I was.

The road out of Alamosa takes you northward in open sagebrush country. The mountains draw closer. At some point you realize that the light area at the base of the mountain is a sand dune!

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Wandering Plants -- Coconuts of Medieval Iceland!

coconut palm on beach, Pacific coast, Panama
coconut palm on beach, 
Pacific coast, Panama
A coconut in Iceland? in the Middle Ages?

I'm sure I could find one in the market in Reykjavik today. Coconuts are tropical but lots of tropical things are traded all over the world. For example, Icelandic chocolate is a favorite across all Scandinavia.

However, looking back into history, travel was slow and often difficult. Coconuts are native far, far from Iceland. 

Coconuts are the seeds of the coconut palm, Cocos nucifera (palm family, Arecaceae). Palms, like bananas and bamboo, are not strictly trees, because they do not form wood. The tough and flexible coconut palm trunk is made of the very tightly overlapping bases of the large leaves. Coconut palms can grow 80’ (24 m) high. 

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Plant Story -- Colorful Columbines, Aquilegia

Rocky Mountain columbines,  Aquilegia coerulea
Rocky Mountain columbines,
Aquilegia coerulea
Everybody knows columbine, right?

Columbines, Aquilegia species, are distinctive plants related to anemones and buttercups (in the buttercup family, Ranunculaceae). 

Actually, where you live makes a big difference to what you think a columbine looks like. In eastern North America, there is only one native columbine, Aquilegia canadensis. It has red sepals and spurs on the outside with yellow petals, stigmas and stamens inside. Click on the LINK !

The situation in Europe is similar. There is one common columbine, Aquilegia vulgaris. It has blue to purple sepals with white petals, stigma and stamens. Click on the LINK ! There are almost 20 rare columbine species in the mountains of Europe, but A. vulgaris is far the most widespread. In Latin, “vulgaris” means common, so the common European columbine is aptly named.

If you live in either of those areas, you are likely to have a particular image of columbine in your mind. 

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Plant story - the handkerchief tree, Davidia involucrata, the Chinese dove tree

Davidia involucrata, Gothenburg, Sweden
handkerchief tree
It is always a treat to actually see some plant I have only read about!

In May 1888, Irish plant-hunter Augustine Henry “was riding his pony through a river valley [in Hubei, China] when he spotted a single, spectacular tree flowering near the base of a large cliff. As he was later to relate, the scene was one of the strangest sights he ever witnessed in China. It seemed as though the branches had been draped in thousands of ghostly-white handkerchiefs.”  (O'Brien p. 79)

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Visiting Kauai -- Native Flowers!

Last post I showed spectacular tropical flowers you can easily see in Kauai. (LINK) Those are from elsewhere in the tropics, brought to Hawaii because someone liked them.

Also in Kauai are native plants. It is believed that since the volcanic emergence of the Hawaiian Islands from the Pacific, 271 different plants have arrived without help from humans--as seeds, as pieces, traveling by bird, floating or on the wind--and established populations. From those 271 colonists, about 1200 species have evolved, spread over the Hawaiian Islands.  Here are some examples:

Metrosideros polymorpha, ohia lehua

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Visiting Kauai

eroded hills of Kauai
eroded hills of Kauai

This spring, we spent most of a week on Kauai, Hawaii.

The north- and east-most of the major Hawaiian islands, it is the oldest. The 10,000 foot mountains it once boasted now reach only to 5243 feet. But that doesn’t make them inconsequential. In fact, erosion reduced the mountains without considering humans. Kauai has canyons and valleys that are not--just simply are not--accessible. The only way in or out is by helicopter. In good weather. Wow, an island of 552 square miles (one third the size of Long Island, New York, 1,401 sq. miles) with  places you cannot hike or climb to.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Dye Plant -- Colors of Red Cabbage

Many household products, such as coffee, tea and turmeric, are effective dyes. I have gotten good colors from spinach (link), but don't find much dye in iceberg lettuce or yellow cabbage. However, red cabbage, Brassica oleracea, turns the water a lovely shade and can be fun to dye with.

Unlike spinach, which gives colors from olive to yellow depending on the mordant, red cabbage is pH sensitive. That is the key to the dye project described below.

I started with one red cabbage.

Dyestuff: 1 red cabbage, Brassica oleracea
Dyestuff: 1 red cabbage, Brassica oleracea

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Visiting the Lesser Antilles--Dry Hillsides

The Caribbean abounds in cruises. We get on ships and sail over blue waters, the skies flecked with fluffy white clouds, picturesque islands in the distance. 

approaching an island
passing an island, Lesser Antilles
When we go ashore, there are big tropical plants with intensely colored flowers to marvel at.
Ixora with heliconias butterfly (black stripes)
But much of the Caribbean is very dry. Some smaller islands have no permanent water and some hillsides on other islands are virtual deserts. 

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Plant story--Primroses, Primula--Post Script

Every subject I write about has far more information available than will reasonably fit into even two posts. (previous primrose posts 1, 2). Usually I keep it to two posts and save the rest for "someday." However, I can't resist sharing what I learned about the word thrum and the color primrose. 

First: what is a thrum?

The only place I'd ever heard the word thrum was in a graduate school botany class , for the flower form of primroses (link)--until I started weaving ten years ago. Thrums are the short ends that are cut off when a piece of weaving comes off the loom. From 1. one of the ends of the warp in a loom, left unwoven and remaining attached to the loom when the web is cut off." 

brown thrums hanging on the loom
brown thrums hanging on the loom

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Plant Story - More Reasons to Like Primroses, Primula

primrose, Primula
primrose, Primula
Primroses, genus Primula, are well-known European spring garden flowers. And wildflowers, since the common English name cowslips is probably from cowslops, --the common primrose, Primula veris, grew (and grows) well in English cow pastures. The English liked them as a sign of spring. (Link to previous post).

Which is probably why Charles Darwin and botanists before and after him, took a close look at the flower and discovered that there were two kinds of flower. Not two species, but two different flowers within a primrose species.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Plant Story -- Reasons to Like Primroses, Primula

primrose, Primula eliator
from my yard
I’ve been trying for years to grow primroses, genus Primula. Last year I stuck three sad little plants, rescued from the nursery’s end-of-the-season stock, into my yard and ooh, this spring all three are alive and flowering!

What is special about primroses?

They are pretty!

Also, I associate them with the literature set in England I read as a child. Primroses grew in the well-tended gardens of the ladies in quaint English villages. 

In addition, primroses were the usual example of a curious plant reproductive system, studied by Charles Darwin himself and carefully described to us by my professor at Berkeley, Herbert Baker, an Englishman with a fondness for them.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Visiting the Rocky Mountains -- Early Spring in Rocky Mountain National Park and Estes Park, part 2

aspens in April
aspens in April
We drove to Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park at the beginning of April from the lowlands at the base of the Rocky Mountains.  If you don’t know the area, Estes Park is the city at the east entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP). Unless you camp in RMNP, if you come from the east, you are likely to stay in Estes Park to explore Rocky Mountain National Park.  

Estes Park is a small city, not a forest reserve. There are a number of towns with park in their name at about 8000 feet on the front range of Colorado. It means a level area up in the mountains. (From the Oxford English Dictionary: "park. In some parts of the United States, especially Colorado and Wyoming: a high plateau-like valley among the mountains." )

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