Monday, December 29, 2008

A Year Round the Berry-Go-Round

As this plant carnival marks an entire circle round the sun this month, welcome to Edition #12 of Berry-Go-Round! Enjoy...

What’s better on a cold winter day than a pot of potato soup? Alas, the
potato world is poorer with the loss of economic botanist Carlos Ochoa, who said potatoes “are like children: you name them, and in turn, they give you a great deal of satisfaction.” Robert’s link-heavy post at Agricultural Biodiversity will take you on a journey of potato exploration, and, thanks to Carlos’ work, potatoes will continue to satisfy our need for nourishment.

Sarcozona promises “depressing news every Thursday” at Gravity’s Rainbow, so tune in for this week’s dose on Extinction Thursday to learn more about a plant that’s gone extinct lately—and why!

Alex is the Watcher at Watching the World Wake Up (aka WTWWU), and his watchful eye detects a lot of botany while he's out riding the mountain bike trails of Utah (and sometimes elsewhere). He recommends St. George, Utah, because "first, it's an area with really, really interesting botany that isn't well known. Second, it's largely snow-free with interesting and accessible plants in the cold months. And third, if any plant-oriented readers are thinking of a warm-weather getaway in the next 3-4 months, St. George is great destination." His three rides, each in a different life zone, start on the desert floor and work up.

As a new convert to botany, Alex gets passionate about stuff on the trail and the details of coevolution of red squirrels and pine cones. I've really enjoyed his in-depth approach, as evidenced in another three-part series on hybrid oaks, including new discoveries. (Watcher's amazing graphics are a highlight of his posts!)

Join Ian for a look at "Gumbo Limbo," aka Bursera, trees and a lesson in speciation, with Evolution and conservation in Mexican dry forests from Tropical ecology notes.

A visit to Walking Prescott from GrannyJ's daughter, who lives in darkest Alaska, mandated "a warm sunshine fix," she says. "So we drive 40 miles downhill from our town at 5400 ft. elevation in the mountains to a nearby desert river, where I surveyed the cactus scene and found wonderful nursery trees/shrubs." Stop by for a fabulous assortment of Sonoran desert cacti to brighten our winter scenes.

Here at Foothills Fancies, we've revisited an old friend at Coyote Semilla, which is, alas, my only plant post this entire month! Whatever happened to Plant of the Week? Ah well, that's what resolutions are for, right?

What's a "Peepal Tree?" I can almost hear you asking. Not a lot of botany in this post, but it does bring us a Peepal tree and a very cheerful look at Nagaraja Temple in bright and warm and Admirable India. If
you're looking to escape snow and cold, check it out!

A late and welcome entry comes from Tai Haku, who stumbled across a fertile (and perhaps futile) female of the cycad persuasion recently. Vasquez pollen donations are welcome at Earth, Wind, & Water, where another handy post collects all of Tai's cycad posts for the true enthusiast.

Pine BranchesLastly, two posts gleaned from bio-bloggers also brighten the winter scenery. Chris at Catalogue-of-Organisms fills us in on core eudicots and weird rhubarb, great background for future discussions of plant classification. Nina at Nature Remains visits Seibenthaler fen out Beyond Xenia, providing excellent photos and finding color in winter botany.

Have a Happy New Year, all, and be sure to join Alex the Watcher for the January edition, first of the brand new year, to be posted end-of-month at Watching the World Wake Up.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Greetings of the Season!

Wishing everyone all the wonders of Nature and the joys of this winter season, as we begin to notice and appreciate the return of longer days again. The chickens, new ones at least, have already noticed and are providing golden drops of nourishment in the cold of the year.

This guy's been coming around of late, I think he's developing a taste for sunflower seeds, which he finds under the bird feeder. Or he likes our "Baby Doe," the female of his species, who's been visiting for years. Perhaps both.

We are holding hope for the New Year and being grateful for the small wonders we find daily all around us. May you share the peace of Nature this season and all year through!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

BGR Deadline Revised

Submissions for Edition #12 are trickling in, though I'm sure there'll be a flood of them after the holiday tomorrow! I'm extending the deadline to Sunday, December 28th. Please send links to your favorite recent plant posts to ffnaturalist AT gmail DOT com. The new edition will be posted here before the end of the year, marking one complete circle round the Sun for our plant carnival!

NOTE: After Dec 25, please use the email address above instead of the carnival submission form to ensure your submissions get included this month! Thanks!

Many thanks, and have a Merry Yule!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Tracking a Mystery

Yesterday seemed to be a perfect day for tracking, perhaps because even the wind was frozen. When I went to the mailbox, I found several stories written in and next to the driveway, including one little mystery.

Cottontails abound, so to speak, around here these days. One friend suggests local coyote populations have been drastically reduced, perhaps by disease; we don't hear them as often as we used to. That leaves these guys as our most ubiquitous and visible mammal. So here's a good classic bunny track, including one with even front paw marks showing.

Loosely related: Speaking of wild canids, I saw one just the day after I wrote this post. At first glance, I thought coyote, of course, but looking closer I realized it was a foothills resident I'd never encountered (alive) before: The Grey Fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus). Alas, no camera, but my what a stately critter! Needless to say, I was thrilled!! (Expect a post in the future.)

Next up, near the top of the drive, a small rodent (?) ran or hopped perpendicularly across the driveway, from one weedy rough over to the rabbitbrush, where the shelter was perhaps better.

Then came a set of bird tracks, or rather marks. Definitely not walking around, more like alighting, poking under the snow, and leaving with a distinctive wing burst. Hope he/she found whatever was being hunted. I like the long scratch marks on this one, suggesting a Rufous-sided Towhee (as they used to be known; now Western Towhee I believe). I was starting to be intrigued by the different colors the camera caught from the same snow.

This better bird print reminds me of the fossils from Solnhofen, Germany, with a more complete splay of wings and even a suggestion of body and tail. A nice takeoff... See more fossils at this gallery.

Okay... here comes the mystery. This little guy(?) made a neat row of tracks all along the driveway, but they ended abruptly halfway up. Hmmm. No sign of struggle, what could it be? I noted that it was traveling next to the DH's tracks as he left for work this morning.

Coming back, I traced it in the other direction, beginning to suspect the truth this last photo confirms. Even the inanimate (if snow is such) can leave traces of its existence, often more regular and predictable than those of the living. Another nature mystery solved, another track decoded!

Monday, December 15, 2008

For the Record

It's bitter... 5 below zero... this morning (that's
-21 C; sounds more impressive that way, doesn't it?). Too bad the photo didn't capture the white glaze of hoarfrost on the branches of the ash tree. Snow crunching underfoot when I stepped out (ever so quickly!) for the photo.

I haven't let the chickens out and doubt they'd come anyway. They'd probably appreciate some oatmeal though! (Corn meal mush yesterday, though warm, didn't seem to be a hit, much to my surprise.) DH set up a heater in the coop last night, so I hope they're comfortable—more than they would be without it, at least!

Our chicken adventure started twelve years ago, and my first impressions are recorded at Small Wonders. It's amazing how many of my predictions have come true since then!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Coming Soon: Berry-Go-Round #12

Good morning, plant lovers! Just a quick note to remind all that the next edition of the plant carnival Berry-Go-Round will be hosted here at the end of the year. Submissions are due December 27th; please email them to me at ffnaturalist AT gmail DOT com or use the magic submission form. Thanks!

With a Northern Hemisphere bias imposed by my locale (sorry, can't shake it!), here's a theme suggestion for anyone who needs one:

Storms and Winter Weather
Bring Plants and People
Close Together!

If you like, consider blogging about plants in storms, plants weathering storms, or even holiday house plants you're getting reacquainted with! All plant-related posts are welcome, of course, especially from those in the Southern Hemisphere, where it is, we trust, warm and springlike! We northerners will appreciate reminders that life and flowers go on despite our cold or snowy weather. And should hyphal impulses strike, remember that BGR still allows fungi to be included.

Thanks—I look forward to hearing from you!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Balance of the Day

Our daily view seems to concentrate on the mornings, as in yesterday's post. Here's the other end of yesterday, to balance things out. What's left of the sun is coming through the valley of Bear Creek to strike the western faces of the Red Rocks outcrops for a change. This is about all we get of sunsets; our view west is blocked by the first range of foothills.

Compare above with this sunrise view from January 2006, as yesterday we couldn't see the sunrise. (I know this is in a post somewhere, but I just can't find it yet.) I do more sunrises because I like the way the rocks are reflected in their long shadows stretching westward. Here's another.

Already approaching 50 degrees (10C) and it's only 7:15 a.m. This snow will be gone before the next storm hits this weekend.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

World of White

Waking up today to a changed world, all in white. This is a marvelous gift, still drifting down in scattered flakes this morning. Most of our annual moisture comes from big snows like this one, and stocking the soil with some water for plants helps get them through the winter. So, a good thing, all in all, especially if you don't have to go anywhere. (One of the blessings of working at home.)

After a weekend in the high 60s, this storm pussyfooted in quietly yesterday. The sky was lowering darkly all morning, but when I looked out mid-day, I saw this new development slithering down the valley from I-70. And watched as it engulfed us, slowly, gradually, trailing soft flakes behind... In a matter of minutes, the deed was done, and the gray day was gone.

Here are two closeups of the snow moving in over Red Rocks Park.
Just back now from shoveling my way out to the chicken coop, then making a second trip with food and water. The girls (and roosters too) have not ventured out of the coop yet, even though a snow-free patio awaits them. For the weather record, it's 25 degrees out there (-4C, after 67F/20C over the weekend), and, I'd say, up to a foot (30 cm) of light, fluffy white stuff.

Everyone out there has breakfast and a snack, so we're set for the time being. Loverly day!

Monday, December 08, 2008

Swinging with the Sun

As Winter Solstice approaches again, the sun slides back into its winter-morning spot at the south end of the hogback. This morning, it provided this glorious view from the direction that doesn't usually get photographed around here.

The Sun is part of my winter timekeeping system, described further on Small Wonders in one of my first-ever essays (outside of school). There's another Solstice sunrise waiting for you there. For some reason (too early perhaps), I rarely capture summer sunrises.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Coyote Semilla: Plant of the Week

In my head I still hear the pronunciation given by the 8-year-old Latina I encountered long ago in Arizona, who authoritatively informed me of this plant's name the first time I saw it.

At the risk of exposing my linguistic inadequacies, we'll do the name first. The word coyote simply must be given the proper 3-syllable twist she gave it (perhaps reflecting the original Aztec): coy-oh-tay. The 2-syllable American (ki-oat) and its monosyllabic Texas variant are as unacceptable here as the longer American ki-oh-tee. Now if only I could wrap my tongue around it as smoothly as the child did.

Semilla, though, is Spanish through and through, as far as I know, and derived from the Latin. It means seed (English speakers, think "seminal"). When you see a baseball-sized dry fruit all over the prairie, you have encountered this plant. When green, it might resemble a small watermelon, but in that state you're more likely to notice the leaves before anything else. They will be bright blue-green, almost a foot long, and arrayed on vines that sprawl widely, carrying those coyote seeds hither and yon. And they, the leaves, will smell to high heaven (hence the species name). In all, a very impressive plant.

Kingdom Plantae – Plants
  Subkingdom Tracheobionta – Vascular plants
   Superdivision Spermatophyta – Seed plants
    Division Magnoliophyta – Flowering plants
     Class Magnoliopsida – Dicotyledons
      Subclass Dilleniidae
       Order Violales
        Family Cucurbitaceae – Cucumber family
         Genus Cucurbita L. – gourd
         Species Cucurbita foetidissima Kunth
         aka Missouri gourd, buffalo gourd, calabazilla, wild gourd

That's one reason, I guess, why we were discussing it at First Friday the other night, when several botany geeks I know get together for pizza and chat. Yesterday, Bee Lady and I went on an expedition to try to gather a fruit from the only place I know of in our county where this plant grows wild. We found the shriveled vines and leaves, and but one fruit. We took a few seeds, and left the lone gourd to finish rotting in peace. In such moribund condition, the plants weren't even worth a photo.

We chatted Friday night about how or whether the plant was used by native peoples (yes, it was!), and the Chemist reported that the rind of this fruit contains the most bitter substance known to humankind. Doesn't sound too appetizing... After we left our wild patch, we hied on over to his house to gather wildflower seed from his excellent native garden. He has gourd plants, too, but without fruit. Why not? Bee Lady speculated that, in town as he is, he lacks the appropriate pollinator. Could be—the nearest reported distribution for Coyote Gourd is several counties away to the south or the east.

We are somewhere under the red triangle. So how did it get here? A little botanical mystery. The plant site is near an old townsite, which may or may not have overlapped an earlier Indian site ("evidence" for which comes from spirits by way of psychics, but that's another story). So it could have been brought here, planted even, by humans. Or it just could be that the database, which includes only formal records (e.g., herbarium specimens), is incomplete—the plant simply hasn't been collected and reported to those who keep track of such things. Or both.

Photo credit: Patrick J. Alexander @ USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database
USDA, NRCS. 2008. The PLANTS Database (6 December 2008). National Plant Data Center, Baton Rouge, LA 70874-4490 USA.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Stormy Weather...

Postponing my errands yesterday turns out to be a bad idea. It's far worse out there today. Ten (6C) degrees colder than yesterday's 26 (-3C), snowflakes getting bigger and bigger by the hour. And no suet to share with the feathered friends. A day to make warm oatmeal for the chickens, and work up the ambition to go out and feed them soon. (I should have known it would be bad; THREE Steller's Jays in the yard yesterday.)

The cold weather is bringing out the birds; it's clear that winter weather brings birds and people close together, at least around here. All perches on the thistle feeder are occupied by Pine Siskins, most upside down, with more waiting in line on the chain of the adjacent birdbath. One of my favorites; click to see how many I caught in the air! Juncos are everywhere, and several Magpies, but only a few Red-winged Blackbirds have ventured out today.

A sassy new guy has also moved in of late; can you see him in the top photo? Sign of the times, as we never used to see these. Fox Squirrels (Sciurus niger) are going from occasional to regular; I think this one has set up shop somewhere in the yard. (Here's a closer view.) They are invasive, moving west along the tree-lined riparian areas of the Great Plains, setting up a stronghold in Denver's urban forest (Tree City USA), and now, growing more common in the foothills even outside riparian areas. Curiously, the distribution map at Nature Serve implies they belong in Colorado, but are exotic in Wyoming and other western states. Click on "Distribution" and scroll down to see a map with that distinctive finger reaching into Colorado along the South Platte River system. Apparently they haven't progressed as far in the Arkansas Valley. NatureServe suggests they're even vulnerable (to extinction, or rather extirpation) in Alabama, North Carolina, and New York states.

It's a good sign, I suppose, that our yard is arboreal enough to support these little monsters. I'm a softie, of course, so have thus far used no repellents or deadly force against them. We see no more than one at a time, and each has moved on in its own time, perhaps finding better pickings elsewhere. But today he's hungry, as is everyone else out there, and the sunflower seeds are too tempting, so he strikes a "cute squirrel" pose to convince me he's just part of the local ecosystem. And maybe he is.

NatureServe, by the way, is a handy reference to plant and animal distributions and taxonomy. For plants, I often use the USDA Database as well. This morning, while googling an obscure fungus, I discovered another repository of biodiversity information, the ZipCodeZoo. Pretty neat idea, but currently soliciting donations to prevent its own extinction. Drop by and see what you can learn about your own neighborhood; this site is rich in data, references, and links. (But use with caution: I've yet to see a Basking Shark or Pawpaw here in Colorado.)

In a closet somewhere in this house is a half-completed needlepoint sampler bearing the message Storms and Winter Weather Bring Plants and People Close Together. I think I'll propose this as a theme, at least in the northern hemisphere, for the upcoming edition of Berry-Go-Round. (Okay, so in my younger days I had illusions of being creative and skilled in domestic crafts, so what? We're all trying to figure out who we are here...grin)

Before leaving this a.m., the DH (bless his heart!) laid a fire for me in the woodstove, using his "new" upside-down technique. Works like a charm—10 minutes after lighting it, I had this lovely fire going, taking the chill off the house.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Berry-Go-Round #11 is Up

Drop in at Catalogue of Organisms for an enjoyable stroll through this month's carnival celebrating the green and the not-so-green. Christopher has assembled a fine harvest of botanical delights for your perusal.

The next Berry-Go-Round will be hosted here at Foothills Fancies, so please send in your own submissions or nominate posts written by others! Email me at ffnaturalist AT gmail DOT com.