Friday, December 31, 2010

Welcoming the New Year

...with a little moisture! At least it kept up through the day, giving us this view about 4 p.m. yesterday afternoon.

And, bright and early this morning, a crisp 6-8 degrees (-15 C), and we have, maybe 6 to 8 inches (15-20 cm) of snow to match... seems like less by this afternoon.

The view this afternoon includes our semi-domestic herd of ungulates, come to see if there's chicken food or birdseed available. Bob the quail has been pretty invisible all day. Now that it's warmed up to 15 (10 C), I took hot water out to the coop area an hour ago, and there he was, right in front of the coop door. We've been half expecting an extra during beak count—is tonight going to be the night?

Also hanging out near the feeder is the current generation of Artemis. (Artemis helped start this blog, so we really enjoy seeing her and/or her relatives.) I finally had to go out anyway; the little birds are relieved that I've incidentally chased her off so they can have a snack before bedtime.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Upslope: Color It White

Boy, howdy! It's a bouncing baby (or maybe not so baby) upslope storm! It finally arrived this morning, though I think the weatherfolk thought it would be a little later. We've been waiting for a storm to go south, but everything lately has moved north of or straight over the center of Colorado. (For the whole deal on upslope storms, see Second Storm from last March, our usual upslope season.)

For some reason, I thought this one might arrive from the south, but clearly (8:15 a.m.) the action was going to be in the north.

By 9:45, I was slightly optimistic.

And, at 10:30 a.m., my dreams were coming true! If it just stays all day and gives us the 6-12 inches expected (15-30 cm), I'll consider my wishes fulfilled! For now...

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Red Sky at Morning

This bodes well! A break in a long-drawn out drought today would be most welcome. The weather forecast supports this sky, which, as you'll recall, suggests:

Red sky at morning, sailor take warning.
Red sky at night, sailor's delight.

Unfortunately, I can't find this one in my lovely weather lore book, discussed earlier this month. I do see something similar:

Rainbow in the morning, shepherd take warning.
Rainbow toward night, shepherd's delight.

But we have neither rainbows nor shepherds. For that matter, no sailors handy either. Still, we are hoping for a nice pile of heavy, wet snow. It's just what the foothills need!

Eric Sloane does offer another reassuring thought from lore; this one, he assures us, is true:

Evening red and morning gray sets the traveler on his way.
Evening gray and morning red brings down rain upon his head.

Oh, yes, please!!

In other news, I pretty much failed to take my usual Solstice sunrise photo. Apparently I didn't last year either. I did bracket this one, so here's this morning's shot, a picture-perfect match for 2008's pre-solstice view!

It's been a long time since I did one of these, too. See how dry?

I'd best be off about my errands before the storm hits!

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Holly and the Ivy

Christmas, and the whole winter season in general, is brightened by a host of plants we traditionally associate with this time when we are, in the Northern Hemisphere temperate zone, largely plant-deprived. Lately it seems The Tree and the ubiquitous modern Poinsettia get most of the glory, but in times past many other plant species lent color and meaning to our festivities. As this song has been trickling through my head all week, I thought I'd explore a few of its historic associations, and give you a reason to keep your holiday greens up a little longer.

In days of yore, when certain Europeans placed great emphasis on the symbolism associated with plants and animals, the year was divided into two parts: the waxing year, into which we pass on the Winter Solstice, is ruled by the Oak King; the waning half is ruled by the Holly King. (Photo from Wikimedia commons.)

As the song (circa 1710) says:
The Holly and the Ivy, now are both well grown;
Of all the trees that are in the wood, the Holly bears the crown.

The Holly (always symbolically male, though botanically coming in both flavors) is "best in the fight;" he wins the crown at Summer Solstice but rules only until displaced by Oak on December 21st. (The "boughs of holly" tradition predates our image of Victorian Christmases; the Romans used holly in similar fashion a millenium earlier for celebrations of Saturnalia, associated with December 17th.)

The Ivy is traditionally female, and her place in symbolism sheds a more sinister light on the festivities:

Holly stands in the hall, fair to behold:
Ivy stands without the door, she is full sore a cold.
Holly and his merry men, they dance and they sing,
Ivy and her maidens, they weep and they wring.

Ivy hath chapped fingers, she caught them from the cold,
So might they all have, aye, that with ivy hold.
Nay, ivy, nay, it shall not be I wis;
Let holly have the mastery, as the manner is.

This sad story actually makes logical sense, in that Holly has been brought inside to decorate the mantel, while Ivy, being attached to the outer walls of our hypothetical English country house, must spend the winter outside.

Holly and Ivy Here and Now
Neither of these excellent plants of the British Isles escapes sinister implications on this side of the pond. English Ivy (Hedera helix) and English Holly (Ilex aquifolium) both can, and have, become invasive here in North America. Here one of the benefits of Colorado's harsh and droughty climate presents itself; neither species, thankfully, has escaped from cultivation in our fair state. Elsewhere it's not so comfortable: English Ivy is a designated noxious weed in Oregon and Washington, whose forests, coincidentally, provide most of our domestic holiday greens. (See another essay on the holiday harvest over at Small Wonders. Apparently I've long been interested in this topic.)

H. helix can grow to choke out other plants and create "ivy deserts" in the United States. State and county sponsored efforts are encouraging the destruction of ivy in forests of the Pacific Northwest and the Southern United States. Its sale or import is banned in Oregon. Ivy can easily escape from cultivated gardens and invade nearby parks, forests and other natural areas. Ivy can climb into the canopy of trees in such density that the trees fall over from the weight, a problem which does not normally occur in its native range. In its mature form, dense ivy can destroy habitat for native wildlife and creates large sections of solid ivy where no other plants can develop. —from

English Holly is also plantae non grata in the Pacific Northwest, despite its commercial production there, which may well have been a source for the invasion. It is considered naturalized in many forests in our western tier of states, where it occurs in the westernmost counties, but hasn't spread in the eastern U.S. forests as ivy has, according to the USDA distribution records. It has not, so far, been listed as a noxious weed, though it is projected to change the composition of the Pacific Northwest forests in the decades ahead.

Household Decor—and More
It's not just about decking the halls to bring inside a little spirit of the forest at Christmas; in older days, the practice of using plants indoors was year-round, each with its season. This tradition supported not just comely decorations, but practical applications of sanitation and, no doubt, sanity in times when people were not in the habit of bathing regularly and often lived with their animals. In this critical role, plant use was known as strewing, and involved a wide variety of herbs and other species, as partially outlined below.

Candlemas Eve, by Robert Herrick, published 1648
(found online at The Hymns and Carols of Christmas)

Down with the rosemary and bays,
Down with the mistletow;
Instead of holly now upraise
The greener box for show.

The holly hitherto did sway,
Let box now domineer,
Until the dancing Easter day,
Or Easter's Eve appear.

Then youthful box which now hath grace
Your houses to renew,
Grown old, surrender must his place
Unto the crisped yew.

When yew is out, then birch comes in,
And many flowers beside,
Both of a fresh and fragrant kin,
To honour Whitsuntide.*

Green rushes then, and sweetest bents,
With cooler oaken boughs,
Come in for comly ornaments,
To readorn the house.

Thus times do shift;
Each thing his turn doth hold;
New things succeed,
As former things grow old

* "Whitsuntide" is the Christian celebration of the seventh Sunday after Easter. This puts it more or less coincident (given Easter's variable date) with and apparently a replacement for the pagan celebration of May Eve/May Day, aka Beltane.

Obligatory botanical note: I'm going to go out on a limb (or bough) here, and try to put names to these plants, for those of us not conversant with the more common decorative and strewing herbs.

"The Greener Box": Buxus sempervirens, in the unappetizing Euphorbiaceae, is an easy one, and grows in Europe, the Orient, and temperate Asia. Given its toxic nature, unlike the rest, we'd perhaps count on this green primarily for decoration.

"The Crisped Yew": Taxus baccata occurs in north temperate Europe and Asia; in North America, substitute Pacific Yew (Taxus brevifolia).

"Birch" would most likely be Betula alba , which grows in Europe, No. Asia, and No. America, or in No. America, perhaps also Sweet Birch, B. lenta.

For "green rushes," we could use Sweet flag, Acorus calamus, a plant of north temperate regions, as is the Bulrush, Scirpus lacustris, both widely used for strewing.

"Bent": Agrostis stolonifera, perhaps, or others of the more than one hundred species of this grass. Pasture grasses and sometimes weeds, these would have been part of the straw commonly used as floor covering.

Perhaps not surprising is the fact that all of these mentioned have one other thing in common, in addition to this use. These species all come with an "L." after their names, signifying the Linnaean origin of their binomials.

Few of us have backyards that could sustain a year-round harvest of greens for strewing and freshening our houses; most likely, we also lack the time to harvest and redecorate seasonally. As the practice has faded, it seems our winter holiday decorations are the only remnant of a once wider traditional practice of bonding with plants. (At left: Burning The Christmas Greens, from Harper's Weekly, 1876.)

On this day [Candlemas] the Christmas ceremonies, which had lingered on after Twelfth-day, finally closed, and all traces of them were removed. The custom long prevailed, and there must be many still living who can remember the evergreens with which our churches were decorated at Christmas, remaining until Candlemas [February 2nd]. from William Henry Husk, Songs of the Nativity (1868)

Do we have, today, less need in our homes of the freshening effects of greens (not to mention the antimicrobial properties that were probably also a benefit)—or are we just now more inclined (or able) to get those benefits from a commercial product than from our backyards?

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Watching the Watcher

Over at Watching the World Wake Up, the Watcher recently completed a marvelous four-part Thanksgiving chronicle that dredges up all kinds of memories of the more adventurous days of my own youth. He covers dinosaur tracks, muddy roads, rock art, geology, and of course desert botany in this quadruple tour-de-force. I'm in awe of his blogging talent, so, yes, I'm a Watcher Watcher.

Watcher's contributions to the blog world include the invention of the tangent and the nested tangent, without which his posts would be eversomuch more straightforward and possibly even dull. Some visitors flock to his site just for the tangents! And, of course, the allusions to Selma Hayek.

And his posts are LONG! Settle in, it's going to be a substantial visit, but you will come away having learned some remarkable tidbit of esoteric knowledge you would never have thought to look up for yourself. On average (n=1), his posts are 12,500 pixels long, or 2,300 words (n=2). I thought that chicken post below was long; it comes in at less than half the length of a typical Watcher post.

Nor does the Watcher neglect illustration. If he fails (on the rare occasion it's been known to happen) to capture a photograph, he will create an Awesome Graphic, an art form he invented (along with the subcategories Expand-o-graphic and Action Graphic). Some complex concepts, of course, demand an Awesome Graphic and could not be otherwise illustrated. [This one is from his post on seeing the Mexican flag come to life.]

I don't know how he does it all, but I'm glad he does!!

He can't stop, apparently, with knowing that birds have pentachromatic vision, or that some, but not all, Springbeauties are tetraploid. Instead he takes his readers into the nitty gritty of what that means, plumbing the depths of whatever science (astronomy, psychology, physiology, genetics, geology, archaeology, zoology, botany) presents itself. It's like he has a post for everything!

Want to know How Magpies build their nests or All about Greek Mythology? There's a post for that!

One aspect of the Watcher's work, however, fills me with dismay. He thinks of his blog as a "project" that will, one day, be "completed." On that day, the blog world will be an emptier place.


Off Topic: The little sponges we are as children just soak up all kinds of stuff, and just thinking of writing this post brought back memories of the Watchbird. For those whose childhood was more deprived, here's a bit about the Watchbird:

In the baby boom years, I suppose parents needed all the help they could get rearing responsible offspring of good character. Some of that "help" came from the Watchbird, a cartoon created by Munro Leaf to remind us how to behave. Apparently some of my peers have more sinister recollections of the Watchbird, but I (of course) was trying to be good, and the Watchbird regularly showed us examples of bad children: the Whinie, the Sneaky, the Pusher... (honestly, I've forgotten all of them!) I guess you could say it was negative reinforcement, and maybe that's why it's frowned upon today. Like spankings and other forms of archaic parental guidance, however, it was effective! Contrariwise, as Hootsbuddy recalls:
Maybe it was this early training that made part of me into a Watchbird. I dunno. In any case, it missed the mark. I was suppose to identify with someone in the cartoon, not the Watchbird. I guess even at that early age I was more prone to judging than being judged.

(As long as I'm being quantitative, I should mention that Hootsbuddy's Place (which I found on a "Watchbird" search) looks pretty interesting. He managed to rack up more than 3,000 posts featuring all kinds of commentary in less than six years... and then stopped abruptly in mid-2009, as we all probably will someday.)

My Visit to the Book Cliffs
At any rate, the Watcher's posts quite often strike a chord. This last one especially brought back days of trucking around the Book Cliffs on (gulp) synfuels reconnaissance. (Ah, the last big boom; those were the days, eh?) I remember two special events. [Pic right, not mine.]

Watcher reports: "Once you get off the asphalt, Mancos is both wonderful and horrible. In dry conditions, graded dirt roads across the Mancos are often smooth and fast, allowing a passenger car to zip comfortably along at 40 or 50 MPH. But when wet, forget it." (Whence he goes on to explain, in true Watcher-style, about smectitic clays.)

I can't say I remember that it was Mancos Shale we were driving on, but I do remember "smooth and fast." As you approach the Book Cliffs (which in my day were apparently closer to I-70 than they are now), you start winding around the toes of the cliffs. Cruising around one such hairpin, a bit too fast probably, I found myself face to face with a huge logging truck (he was probably also moving right along). We both slammed on the brakes, and came to a mutual stop with our side mirrors almost touching. Whew! Survived that one...

While in the Cliffs, we had a good time cruising across washes, which of course are more fun if they have water in them. If you went fast enough (it was a rental vehicle, and I was, after all, young), you could get a good splash going!

Anyway, when we left to return to Grand Junction, it was beginning to snow a bit. In fact, it quickly became a whiteout, though I don't remember that there was much accumulation. As we drove south toward I-70, confident it was out there somewhere, a helicopter landed next to the road to ask us for directions!! In the decades since, I can't say that's ever happened again!

So, Watcher, as always "Thanks for the memories!"

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Old Weather, New Insights: The Moon

As long-time readers (if any) know, the weather used to be a frequent topic of conversation around Foothills Fancies. Thanks to The Chemist, it may be again. Last week he handed me a great little book, with the comment that he'd throw it away if I didn't want it. You know how I am about throwing things away. I've been reading it avidly ever since.

The Non-hunters Moon
When I read page 47 of this cute little book, I knew I wanted to write first about weather and the Moon, especially because we broached the subject not long ago. I asked The Chemist for help again, and for a "slight fee," he provided this incredible image, taken Wednesday night between 5 and 6 p.m. local time. With the Moon less than 15% full, we have here a lovely waxing crescent.
How did he do this, you ask? The Chemist reports: "I went up on Genesee Mountain last night with that in mind. Unfortunately, there were thin clouds covering the moon so I couldn't get the best pictures. I did take about 300 in 3 series and the attached is a stack of the best 67 images from one series. These were taken with my Pentax dslr and 400mm telephoto." The fee will be paid in pizza, I think.

"When you can hang your powder horn on the moon, do just that." So says the weather wisdom compiled by Eric Sloane in Folklore of American Weather (1963). This one is attributed to "famous Indians" who apparently hunted when the ground was wet from recent rains. They saw this Moon as a dipper, that could either hold or release water. I would guess that powder-horn-packing Indians are a fairly modern development, or perhaps this is an updated version of an ancient saying once applied to quivers or bows.

In either case, this weather sign is not very reliable, says Eric, but the saying stuck with me because the idea of a Nonhunters Moon, especially following so close on the Hunters Moon of November, was appealing, giving the woodland creatures a little break from pursuit.

Right now, however, many weeks or even plural months since a reasonable precipitation event, we're tempted to believe that this bowl of a Moon IS withholding moisture from our foothills! It is dry, dry, dry... and a few snowflakes last night did nothing to change that. The storms that have made the mountain ski resorts deliriously happy have done nothing for us whatsoever.

Eric Sloane and the Weather
The name sounded familiar, so I had to check him out. Eric Sloane is more famous as a landscape painter than for his weather-wisdom, although he has plenty of credentials in the latter. As a painter of clouds, skies, and American pastoral landscapes, he "sought out the abandoned and nearly forgotten treasures of our early American landscape." At one point, he was painting airplanes, and skyscapes with airplanes, in exchange for trips into the wild blue yonder. Gradually in his paintings, the airplanes got smaller and the clouds took over the canvas. "Who'll buy pictures with just clouds?" his friend asked. One answer: Amelia Earhart.

Credited with initiating the concept of televised weather forecasts, Sloane also turned to old farmers' almanacs and diaries in search of weather wisdom. This led him to promote a philosophy of awareness that was based on the kind of insight early [European] Americans, especially farmers, had to develop to begin to understand this new climate in which they found themselves living. Their understanding of stable British (and other European) climates didn't travel well across the Atlantic Ocean to the fickle New World. Although some of their observations, like the one above, don't hold water, others were found to be perfectly sensible and reliable. We'll explore some of those in future posts.

The person of the 18th century, Sloane argued, was not a more intelligent, enlightened, or better person than his 21st century counterpart. He and she was more adept at being content in their pace, relative level of self and community reliance, and in their better understanding and acceptance of their locale within the stream - be it metaphysical or metaphorical - of time.—from Eric Sloane's Philosophy of Awareness

And Our Lady Moon?
Never be it said that you can't learn anything from blogging. It was just a couple years ago that I came across the simple statement: "The full moon rises at sunset and sets at sunrise." It was something I'd probably never thought about, but... how else could it be? Have you ever seen a Full Moon in the daytime? Why not? Where is the Moon when it's New?

If this is news to you too, play with the idea a little, and you'll figure it out. Stretch out your arms and point one at the Moon and one at the Sun. A Full Moon is always, and must be, 180 degrees from the Sun. Contrariwise, when we see a Half Moon, our arms will be at a 90 degree angle.

Here's another tip to play with: When you can cup the crescent Moon in your right hand, it's waxing. When you can hold its curve in your left hand, it's waning. I've struggled to remember which is which, but that's the simple formula.

To learn something more concrete with this post, I'm taking a stab below at labeling the features we see in The Chemist's terrific photo. I'm no astronomer, and this is a pretty wild guess, but it seems to match the maps I have. I am looking forward to being corrected by someone with better knowledge!!

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Fine Feathered Friends

A few weeks ago, I had an urgent email from a neighbor: "my chickens are sick, could you come take a look?" I could and did, without any certainty I could be much help, but I seem to be the neighborhood "go to" person for animal calls of all sorts. Kittens arrive in cardboard boxes, strange beasts must be pulled from backyard pools after dark, snakes show up on the doorstep in jars or must be rescued from netting. I have to uphold this sacred trust.

Chickens in Fall, or All About Moulting
But the thing was, her three chickens looked better than some of mine. One hen had feathers of a certain dullness, but I saw no sign of illness or the mites she suspected. (You can test for mites by picking the bird up to see if little flakes of pepper jump off on you.) They were pretty normal for older hens in fall. Older is relative to commercial chickens, who rarely reach the age of two, for hens; not even close to that for cocks.

When I took this picture early yesterday, I noticed there's not much sun in the chicken yard at this time of day/year. John Denver fans, the girls just love 'sunshine on my shoulders,' and these two pullets* crowded close to the gate, where the first morning rays are found, to warm their feathers.

* Pullet is to hen as heifer is to cow, or filly is to nag, as maiden is to mother, as virgin is to... well, you get the drift. These two are (or were) pullets, or spring chickens of this year. One or more of these new girls has started laying, so they're gradually reaching the status of "hen." Because all of the older hens have stopped for the season, we're out of fresh eggs, and we can't wait! Pullet eggs, by the way, are smaller than "regular" eggs: Apparently it takes a while for them to get the machinery working at full capacity.

"Notice, please, how sleek and lovely we are as we strut about the yard."

Even the older gals are looking pretty good now, but a few weeks ago (10/17), I caught poor Goldie here looking downright pathetic. She seemed embarrassed, kept trying to hide behind something, more camera-shy than usual. Her back was almost completely bare, and new quills stuck out all over. Believe it or not, this is normal.

Why chickens should decide to moult when it's already getting cold is beyond me. Seems like it would just make chilly times worse. Presumably, with winter coming, those new feathers will do a better job of insulating them than the old beat-up plumage would. Still, it's a slow process; they don't lose all the feathers at once, although piles of worn feathers drifting around the chicken yard can make you think so. Here's Goldie in progress (11/5), with her new body feathers about halfway regrown.

Note also that Goldie's comb has faded to a pale pink, a sign that she's not in peak condition (partly her age); her resources are going into feathers, which are, after all, almost pure protein. That means no protein left over for those nutritious little bundles we enjoy for breakfast. (Here's a Barred Plymouth Rock in great shape, with bright comb, for comparison.)

Slow as it is, moulting in these pampered hens is speeded up, I think, compared to that of wild birds. Getting caught without primaries or tail feathers would be dangerous! Most wild birds seem to have a moulting process that is much more subtle. I understand birders see birds in moulting mode routinely, so maybe I'm just not watching close enough. I only notice when an eagle or raven flies overhead, missing a prominent wing- or tail-feather.

As it turns out, moulting is triggered by the shorter day length of autumn. In Australia, the onset of moulting is in about March, vs. our September. However, off-season moults are reported by chicken folk fairly regularly, and partial moults can occur whenever chickens are stressed. The stress factor enables egg producers to time and synchronize moulting by applying mild stress to get the whole process over with all at once. (Goldie is looking fine now, though still pale and, I'm sure, not laying.)

More on moulting, from the Queensland Department of Primary Industries and Fisheries.

Egg laying, by the way, uses the same trigger but in the opposite direction, and will pick up noticeably here as early as February. In case you were wondering why eggs are more closely associated with Easter than with Thanksgiving.

Hanging with my Peeps

The chickens are wary and camera-shy, but only to an extent. At least they're used to me, and to the arrival of fresh food on a fairly regular basis. This little guy, who has been hanging out with them quite a bit lately, has captured our hearts, but is a real challenge to capture with the camera. His penchant for hiding under shrubbery adds to the poor quality of these shots. Can you find him in the photo below? When the Handy Helper and I first saw him, back in late September I think, I thought he might be an immature chukar.

That proved wrong when the Darling Husband reached for the bird book the next time he showed up. Bobwhite Quail. A total surprise! Here he is perched in a honeysuckle bush (11/15), very unusual for him.

Hadn't seen him in a few days, and began to worry. This morning (12/1), while I was carrying a teakettle of hot water out to the girls, he ran by. I, naturally, didn't have a camera at hand. It was the second time I've been close to him without fences, shrubs, and camera between. But I went back for the latter, and when I returned with food, there he was, sipping the newly warmed water! At last a clear, if not focused, shot, taken as one of the Ameraucanas looked on.

He ran off, under his favorite shrub, while I loaded the feeders. As soon as I was safely inside, he was out running around again, sampling chicken crumbles and scratch.

Update 12/5/10: Seems I've delayed this post just long enough! Yesterday the Husband captured this shot under a lilac bush—a new location in the backyard. Mr. Quail quickly returned to the chickens.

This morning the Husband fed the girls, and Mr. Quail (we're on a first name basis now, starting to call him "Bob") ran off to, get this, perch in a nearby ash tree. Photo op!! As you will recall, DH is a much better photographer than I, and is using a better camera. I've put DH's five shots into a mini-slideshow below. What a little cutie he is, all fluffed up on his stub this chilly morning! (Guess perching isn't so unusual after all.)

I think he's decided to stick around...

Monday, November 29, 2010

More on Plants: BGR #34

You may be wondering why, all of a sudden, plant posts finally started reappearing here at Foothills Fancies. It's a puzzle best solved by noting that the latest Berry-Go-Round plant carnival is now posted over at Watching the World Wake Up.
After months of dereliction, we are trying to recoup our reputation as a plant blog by submitting these last couple posts on plants and their activities.

Pity the green ash, a sample here of the indignities discussed below in Plants Die. We've all observed that, in any encounter with power lines, the tree loses. It might be fun to make a series of these, something like RPL's ecology of shopping carts. What do you think?

As usual, the Watcher has rounded up a nice collection of plant goodies, taking us from cotton T-shirts to favorite malts and brews by way of tropical paradises and temperate berries. Drop in and check out some great plant blogging!

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Stuff Plants Do

We know plants sleep through the long season; some (especially annuals) will never awaken. But plants also move through diurnal cycles most of us tend to ignore; some wake and sleep so obviously that we all notice. Explore these delightful time lapse photographic sequences from Indiana to see plants sleep, and waken, and dance, and grow, and thrash about hunting for something to grow upon.

Photo above of Mimosa pudica, Sensitive Plant (leaves open), from native habitat in Goa India. Photo by J.M. Garg, from Wikipedia. This plant also displays reaction to touch, thigmonasty.

We don’t know whether sleeping plants dream. That link takes you to an essay I wrote 14 years ago; I commented then that, although plant responses to light and darkness (nyctinasty) had been known for centuries, scientists these days had “mostly ignored” this line of research. That’s no longer true, it seems, so the story needs an update, as some puzzles are slowly being unraveled. Darwin would be proud.

Mimosa pudica, leaves closed, Photo from Wikipedia, by “Bluemoose.”

Darwin was right
Indeed, as with so many topics, Darwin was the original researcher, the observer and experimenter who explored the esoteric. The Power of Movement in Plants, published in 1880, was his next-to-last book, and he despaired at times of ever finishing it!

Darwin to Sir Joseph Hooker, March 25, 1878:
I think we have proved that the sleep of plants is to lessen the injury to the leaves from radiation. This has interested me much, and has cost us great labor, as it has been a problem since the time of Linnaeus. But we have killed or badly injured a multitude of plants.

Darwin to Asa Gray, Oct 24, 1879:
I have written a rather big book—more is the pity—on the movements of plants, and I am now just beginning to go over the MS. for the second time, which is a horrid bore.

Darwin to DeCandolle, May 28, 1880:
My MS. relates to the movements of plants, and I think that I have succeeded in showing that all the more important great classes of movements are due to the modification of a kind of movement common to all parts of all plants from their earliest youth.

I just happen to have a handy copy of The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, compiled and edited by his son Francis, but Darwin's letters are now also available online where we all can explore at will.

Modern Science Jumps In
Some plants, such as Maranta, are equipped with specialized joints that control their daily movements. These structures, called pulvini (sing. pulvinus), occur where the leaf blade joins the petiole, functionally somewhat like the wrist joint connecting your hand and forearm. Rapid movements should be suspected in plants that have obvious pulvini—e.g., in Spathiphyllum, which wilts dramatically in an attempt to remind you to water it, then recovers with equal alacrity when you do.

Don’t you just love scientific writing? I was going to entertain you with terrific information about phytochrome and potassium fluxes and glucosidase, but I'd rather stick to what I can see and understand (sometimes) and appreciate (always!)... I can offer a picture (you'll have to click to be able to read it):

I’m so out of practice that, even when I understand the individual words and phrases, it can be tough to extract meaning from some passages (try your skill with samples at the end of this post). As Alice said to the Caterpillar:

I’m afraid I can’t put it more clearly, for I can’t understand it myself to begin with.

However, science is like a foreign language, where sometimes you can get the general sense of things without exactly being able to translate it word for word. Here goes with a few gleanings.
  • Light hitting leaf blades does nothing, but if it hits the pulvinus, the leaf reacts.
  • Ergo, the pulvinus is the photoreceptor and reacts independently of other pulvini.
  • Phytochrome is the pigment that keeps leaves from opening when it’s dark.
  • Phytochrome controls the direction of potassium movement, which controls water movement and hence cell turgor.
Ueda et al. do the best job of explaining all this in an article that almost reads like English, in parts:

One of these is a leaf-opening factor that “awakens” plant leaves, and the other is a leaf-closing factor that reverses this process such that the plant leaves “sleep”. …significant changes in the concentration of the ratio between leaf-closing and -opening factors in the plant are responsible for leaf movement. And this is a universal mechanism in five nyctinastic plants. …

The motor cells in the pulvini of nyctinastic plants consist of two types: extensors and flexors. Leaflets move upward during closure and downward during opening due to the actions of the extensors located on the upper side of a leaf and the flexors on the lower side. …

So these findings represent an important advance in the bioorganic study of nyctinasty and provide important clues regarding the molecular mechanism of nyctinasty, which has been a historical mystery since the era of Darwin.

To me, the fun thing about this article is that, while the mechanism is universal, the pairs of leaf-opening and leaf-closing factors were discovered to be different chemicals in each of the five species studied! How cool is that? (For extra cool, note that Ueda et al. also address the question of memory in plants, specifically Venus Fly-traps and their mechanism for leaf closure.)

In the case of sleeping leaves that rise, as in Maranta and most others, it seems logical that the sleep position is a tense one, and the leaf relaxes into its daytime posture. If so, then raised leaves are actively holding a position, and wilting must occur through some other process. In Maranta, it does; the leaves relax even more, and leaf margins roll inward as turgor is lost.

So far so good. But these articles tend to use Albizia julibrissin or other leguminous species. What about species whose leaves adopt a drooping posture in sleep (e.g., Oxalis)? Are the "extensors" and "flexors" reversed, or do they respond to different signals? In Oxalis, wilting and sleeping postures may be difficult to distinguish. The upper surfaces are relatively exposed, and covering the lower surfaces may help reduce transpiration, reducing further water loss.

With all that we know about plants, it's nice to know a few mysteries remain. It seems no one has answered the ultimate question: If sleeping is so advantageous, why don't more plants do it?

C. Darwin. The Power of Movement in Plants, John Murray, London (1880).
C. Darwin. Insectivorous Plants, John Murray, London (1875).


Find lots more references by searching nyctinasty at Google Scholar. Here are a few excerpts from just a few samples over the decades to get you started...

Illumination of pinnule tissue alone induced no response, while illumination of an area as narrow as 1 mm, including only the tertiary pulvini and adjacent portions of rachilla and pinnules, was sufficient for a full response. This suggests that the pulvini themselves, the sites of the response, act as photoreceptors. In experiments with various shielding devices, pinnules on the same rachilla responded independently to local illumination, suggesting the absence of any translocatable effects.

Koukkari, Willard L. and William S. Hillman 1968 Pulvini as the Photoreceptors in the Phytochrome Effect on Nyctinasty in Albizzia julibrissin Plant Physiology 43:698-704.


Prolonged irradiation during appropriate parts of the diurnal cycle promotes the opening of Albizzia sic julibrissin leaflets. Leaflets also open without illumination, but such opening starts later and is slower and less complete. Opening in the dark is accompanied by lower potassium efflux from dorsal pulvinule motor cells but equal or greater potassium movement into ventral motor cells than occurs during opening in the light. Far red-absorbing phytochrome inhibits opening in the dark… i.e., a high far red absorbing phytochrome level is associated with low potassium content in ventral motor cells, high potassium content in dorsal motor cells, and a small angle between leaflets.

Satter, Ruth L. and Arthur W. Galston 1971. Phytochrome-controlled Nyctinasty in Albizzia julibrissin: III. Interactions between an Endogenous Rhythm and Phytochrome in Control of Potassium Flux and Leaflet Movement. Plant Physiology 48:740-746.


The nyctinastic leaf movement is induced by a pair of leaf-movement factors, and one of each pair is a glucoside. There are two key proteins that are involved in the control of nyctinasty. One is -glucosidase: a biological clock regulates the activity of -glucosidase, which deactivates the glucoside-type leaf-movement factor, controlling the balance in the concentrations of the leaf-closing and -opening factors. The other is the specific receptor for each leaf-movement factor: the genuine target cell for each leaf-movement factor is confirmed to be a motor cell from leaflet pulvini, and the specific receptors that regulate the turgor of motor cells are localized in the membrane fraction. (Ueda et al., 2007.)

Ueda, Minoru, Yoko Nakamura, and Masahiro Okada. 2007. Endogenous factors involved in the regulation of movement and “memory” in plants. Pure Appl. Chem., Vol. 79, No. 4, pp. 519–527, 2007.


Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Plants Die

As I wander around marveling at the wonders of Nature, I can’t help also wondering at my fellow human beings. Time and again, I notice that many of them act as if plants are not alive. This is especially true for trees, who exude a sense of eternity that we more transient beings lack. Their relative permanence apparently makes humans think of them as indestructible features of the nonliving landscape, kind of like rocks. (The humans who read Berry-Go-Round are naturally not in this category of humans.)

That phenomenon, a form of plant blindness surely, causes humans to visit all kinds of indignities on these supremely dignified lifeforms, strangling them with wire fences, lopping off limbs, crippling them in countless ways. Even blithely nailing signs to them as if they had no greater purpose in life than to advise us of money-making opportunities or lost pets.

So, for the record: Plants are ALIVE. Trees included, but plants of all sizes and shapes live, and breathe, and grow, and reproduce, and even, after their fashion, move. They do stuff. (Left, a grape ivy looking for something to climb on.) They eat (some more dramatically than others). If you cut them, they will bleed. If you hit a tree with a lawnmower, it will bruise. Each of those verbs could easily be an entire post in itself, but let’s expand just this one example.

“A tree is much more than a chunk of dead wood,” says Alex Shigo, a career plant pathologist with the Forest Service. “Trees are alive; they live all year ‘round, not just for a short time in the summer.” Dissecting trees with a chainsaw, Shigo revolutionized our understanding because he didn’t rest on what “everyone” knew.

“I could either go with the book or go with what I saw in the tree. Either the books were wrong or the trees were wrong. I chose to go with the trees.”

“I started to see trees in a different way because a tree is a living thing. When you hit a living thing, it reacts. When you hit a tree, it does something. When a tree is threatened, it doesn’t just stand there. It establishes boundaries.”

Citing Shigo, a profile in Irrigation and Green Industry (May 2004) adds that humans put new cells in the same old places throughout their lives, but trees put new cells in new places. A tree doesn’t heal, because it doesn’t replace injured cells with new ones; it just creates a wall, or boundary, between the injured wood and the functional tissue. And that lawnmower “bruise” will remain in the wood indefinitely.

Photo courtesy Wikimedia commons by Max Wahrhaftig June 2005: Alex Shigo (far right) explaining markings on an Oak section during one of his last symposia.

Shigo’s work changed how professionals prune trees by demonstrating that some methods actually promoted rot. Sadly, most tree-trimmers have probably not been exposed to these newer methods, and go about blithely disfiguring trees and shrubs right and left. My most pained memory of this is from Arizona, where trees (I think mulberries) are routinely "pruned" back almost to the trunks on a regular basis; they never develop normal branching patterns but become permanent lollipops.

This post topic was inspired by an outdoor planter I saw recently, full of scented geraniums left to wither and freeze. These plants are perennials, houseplants that thrive inside and add wondrous scents to our indoor air! And they’re favorites of mine. It was all I could do to resist attempting to rescue them, but having already brought all my geraniums indoors to crowd the house, I had to walk away. (I also suspected they were already too far gone to recover. May the devas of scented geraniums forgive me…)

As we head into the season of disposable plants* (or one of them), I part company with the so-called green industry, which creates so much life just to send it out into careless hands who think these living beings are mere decoration.
* Yes, poinsettias too are alive, and, in their native haunts or in greenhouses, capable of growing into mature trees of considerable height.

Confessions: I have, of course, killed my share of plants, perhaps, because of my interest in them and attempts to have them share my life, more than my share. Some, no doubt, were killed with neglect. But not willfully, not with premeditation or malice. (Okay, there are exceptions; certainly there are some plants we prefer to see dead.)

So, yes, plants die. Sometimes on their own, and too often with our help.

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I offer a deep formal curtsy to any and all who treat these amazing, phenomenal lifeforms with all the respect they clearly deserve.

For Berry-Go-Round #34

p.s. Don't forget to observe Buy Nothing Day this Friday!! Eschew the hype...

Thursday, November 04, 2010

The Heart of the Monster

Those who look forward to seeking out goblins, demons, monsters, and other scary critters during this spooky season need look no further than the skyscape that is displayed during these long nights. Last week, my early morning stargazing* taught me a new monstrous constellation.

I'd been scanning the dark gulf between Procyon and Regulus, in hopes of figuring out Cancer, the Crab. A very faint constellation with no star brighter than 4th magnitude, Cancer isn't easily seen this close to "civilization," or with a lightening dawn to compound the challenge. I got a bonus—even spookier than the pale Crab was the critter below.

My eye is always captured, it seems, by the red or orange stars, and just below Cancer, alone in the field, was Alphard, the Solitary One. Alphard, a mid-2nd magnitude star, is also known as Cor Hydrae, the heart of the Hydra, a vast sea monster that stretches across the otherwise quiet space between Cancer and Virgo, ending far east below Spica. The brightest star in a dim constellation, Alphard is more impressive than it looks from here: 175 light-years away, 40 times the Sun's diameter, and burning 400 times brighter. Alphard is an orange giant nearing the end of its life.

Although most of the Hydra was invisible, Spica itself is easy to find, being south of Arcturus, another of my favorite red stars, who was just rising. In fact, Arcturus and Spica were about the only stars visible in that lightening part of the sky. (And, of course, we get to Arcturus by "arcing" along the handle of the Big Dipper and following the arc on to Spica.)

Harry Potter fans might prefer to think of Hydra as the giant and evil basilisk; the resemblance is certainly compelling for a latter-day mythology. Other constellations have been translated to modern times (still looking for that link), so why not Hydra? As the largest constellation, the Water Serpent stretches one-quarter of the way around the sky.

* Please note: Early morning stargazing throws me off schedule with more "normal" evening observers, who should look for the Hydra crossing southern skies February through April.

Hydra may be the largest, but it is not the only, monster up there. There is, to name one example, another sea monster, Cetus, off on the other side of the sky just below the raging bull, Taurus. The story of that monster is well displayed in Watcher's most-thorough post on Andromeda (and almost everything else), which takes in the mythology of Perseus and Cetus and the entire cast of characters in this part of the sky. Here's Perseus as it appears in the east on a fall evening.

Speaking of Perseus (nice seque, eh?), another demon appears in that constellation— as Watcher will explain, the hero Perseus is carrying the severed head of Medusa the Gorgon, she of the serpentine coif. The star Algol represents Medusa's head or eye, and glares in our direction with great malevolence. The name Algol, in fact, is from Arabic for "the ghoul" or demon, and she is an appropriate visitor for the Halloween season.

Algol's gaze, like Medusa's, is considered unlucky. The system is actually a double star, with a bright blue primary and a yellow secondary. As the two stars circle, one eclipses the other every three days, causing the brightness we see to dip from magnitude 2.1 to about 3.4. This eerie blinking of the demon's eye gives the star its unsavory reputation, although it happens so quickly I've yet to catch it in action (or, likely, my ability to judge its relative brightness is underdeveloped). No matter, it gives me something to watch for...

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Morning Stargazing

6:30 a.m. A quick update on the fun sky this morning, just a few minutes ago, and the sheer luck of stargazing at dawn. I was late looking, almost missed the whole show. Sure wish I could post a picture! Maybe I'll have to try drawing it.

The brilliant Winter Hexagon was aloft, as noted earlier, but now the waning Moon was near its center at Castor's feet. And "last night the Moon had a golden ring" (two points for pegging that poetic allusion!*), giving the hexagon a special glow. The ring stretched from Procyon to Bellatrix (Orion) and Menkalinan (Auriga), but left Aldebaran and Rigel outside its circumference, something like this.

As I glanced at Aldebaran, a sizable satellite cruised between the horns of the bull, and crossed the southern end of the hexagon! Definitely worth getting up early for...

*And three more for telling us what that forebodes! (What, no bites? Okay: Wreck of the Hesperus, by H.W. Longfellow. And hurricane.)

Update: November 4, 6:15 a.m. I'm pretty starstruck these darker mornings, and it seems I can't get enough of looking at the Winter Hexagon. This morning the sky was glorious (with less than 5% of crescent Moon just rising), and a few meteors flared across the hexagon's field. Another satellite zoomed in about the opposite direction to the one mentioned above, exiting the hexagon just to the right of Capella. Then lo! a simultaneous satellite appeared, so I watched as the two made near-parallel, but increasingly divergent paths off to the north.

Alas, another starry post is in the works. Maybe I'll get back down to Earth one of these days.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Winter's in the Southern Sky

6:50 a.m. Already the starlight from our nearby planetary space heater is washing out the light of more distant stellar fires. Practice these last few years is now the only means I have of picking out old friends in the bluing sky. But I can see them now and know that they'll be moving unseen across the sky all morning as we go on with our daily activities.

I count, at first, sixteen or seventeen visible stars in the great Winter Hexagon this morning. Soon the coming Sun fades out all but the brightest, the eight stars that give this configuration its name and define its shape. Remarkable to me has been this new lesson that the darker the night, the more difficult it is to find stars, or rather, to pick out a particular star. Just as it's easier to find a familiar face in a small group than in a crowd, getting to know the stars in moonlight or dawn trains my eye and improves my chances of finding them in darker skies.

As the World Turns
To compound the challenge, my spatial sense of what happens in the sky during daylight or when I'm asleep is developing only slowly. I have a real problem visualizing the whole rotation business. For example, last night at bedtime, the eastern sky looked something like this. No problem with Cassiopeia, she's circumpolar and always a good guide. As my eyes adjusted, I was able to pick out the fainter stars of Perseus just below her. Huh?

But then what in the universe is this next bright star, just above the horizon? And, off to its right, the orange one just cresting the hogback? Nothing looked right, despite the faint cluster above "orange" that could only be... the Pleiades. (Somehow it was easier to see them than to make out the closer stars that would have instantly told me who "orange" was!)

I know you're all ahead of me here, and I should know, no matter what, that if the "handle" of the Pleiades (which looks a little like a miniature Big Dipper) points to an orange star, that star has got to be... Aldebaran!

And that means Star-So-Bright must be Capella, in the constellation Auriga. My friendly face, the Winter Hexagon, is just peeking above the horizon and is somewhat disoriented (or, clearly, I am!). It's these puzzles that make figuring out the night sky so much fun.

Back to the Hexagon
But this morning the Big Sky Geometer is "right" side up, even if only a few of its stars remain visible in the dawn. The discovery of the Winter Hexagon* was, for me, a great stride forward in placing myself, finding my way around, in starry skies. Let's take a quick look at what else is out there.

*Introduced to me by astronomer Aileen O'Donoghue, in her lovely autobiography, The Sky is Not a Ceiling.

If we can just darken the sky a bit, and we accomplish this by getting up a half-hour earlier, we look for the Winter Hexagon and see more clearly its components—the six constellations whose brightest stars outline the figure. Each constellation has, of course, many more stars than I can show here.

Castor and Pollux, the twins of Gemini, dangle their feet toward the center of the hexagon. Capella, the She-goat, is joined now by her kids and several other stars. Continuing clockwise, we meet Aldebaran, now accompanied by the Hyades, a true open cluster of stars so near to us (150 light-years) that it spreads into a bigger area than the tightly bound (and more distant at 400 light-years) Pleiades.

Then of course, Orion—everyone's favorite, always recognizable—strides across the celestial equator and dominates winter skies here in the Northern Hemisphere. Innumerable stars, globular clusters, and several nebulae, especially in his "belt" and "sword," provide a lot of entertainment for observers. At his feet, behind my neighbors' house, lies Lepus the Hare, and behind Orion trails his faithful dog, Canis Major with bright Sirius, the brightest star in the winter sky. Around the final corner, Procyon (in Canis minor, another dog) completes the hexagon.

In a few more hours, I'll try to picture the invisible Winter Hexagon hanging above the western horizon, rotated another click and preparing to set. That's the exact position in which I found our summer sky-map, the Summer Triangle (see Watcher's excellent post for more on this one) several dark nights ago.

That's the framework, but even with practice I can't help being startled when I go out early to wave The Husband off to work, as I did one day recently, and find a dark sky so sprinkled with stars it literally leaves me breathless. Then all the names I've been struggling to learn leave me completely and only wonder is left behind.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Surprise! Off to the Gardens

Herp Lady called on Friday, and suggested a trip to the Denver Botanic Gardens! Quite a treat, as I hadn't been there in quite some time. I daren't confess how long, or I'd lose my credentials as a plant lover! The attraction, for her, was a special exhibit of sculptures by Henry Moore. I have no credentials as an art patron, so can freely admit I'd never heard of him or the exhibit.

DBG, as it's fondly known, has an impressive amount of hardscape... and water! Despite the ever-presence of concrete and H2O, plants were everywhere. Just what we expect from a botanic garden. Oval with Points.

We were impressed at the number of species still blooming outdoors so late in the year, even tender Desert Willow (Chilopsis linearis it was in my long-ago Arizona lifetime). All those flowers I pretty much ignored in favor of more subtle plants (except a patch or two of purple jewelweed, aka touch-me-not, ripe for the touching).

Everywhere we went, water flowed and bubbled and reflected. Quite a change from the unrelieved aridity the Foothills Farm has displayed lately. Needless to say, I spent a lot of time looking at the water; in quantities more than a rainbarrel-full, it's so foreign to me!

El Pomar Waterway, with interspersed fountains and, oddly, pots of Cereus and Crassula poised above the water.

I picked up some plant-display tips, too, and was quite captivated by this slope of partially submerged pots. It looked like a hobbit village! I can imagine it would help define plant spaces, as well as provide a little shade in full-sun spots. Can't wait to try this one at home. A nice inventory of broken pots should adapt well to this approach.

If not flowers, what? There was this lovely Dawn Redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) in or near the Asian Garden. With foliage still soft green and vernal, we wondered how it weathers our winters. Apparently fine, as it appeared to have been there a while, although too young for coning. Here, Herp Lady gives it a closer look.

I was also drawn to another conifer, the lovely larches. These are captivating because of their unusual habit of deciduousity, although these particular trees also remained in springlike mode so far, showing little sign of the coming seasonal change.

The sun on their needles was particularly appealing, and the day was warm enough that we understood their reluctance to show color.

Although flowers were still everywhere, as shown below, the colors of the Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium, grass in foreground) testified to the coming winter. It's one of my favorite foothills grasses, here thriving in captivity.

Another sign of seasonal change was the occasional evidence of harvest. A pile of gourds here and there, trailing vines with beautiful gourds still attached, and the glow of the fruits and leaves of this Castor Bean plant (Ricinus communis), below, in the Euphorbiaceae.

Considered poisonous, as are most drugs, this plant also has had a host of pharmaceutical applications. Not one to mess with.

Paracelsus: Poison is in everything, and no thing is without poison. The dosage makes it either a poison or a remedy.

So much to see... more photos soon!