JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
issued from the Sierra Nevada foothills
somewhat east of Placerville, Califnornia, USA

May 15, 2005

GARDEN CAT & GILBERT'S SKINK
Thursday afternoon I developed a hankering for a lettuce sandwich so I headed for the garden. The bed of lettuce I sowed last October only now is coming into its own, a mixture of different kinds of yellow-green and purple-leafed lettuce, prettily luxurious and succulent. Passing through the gate I saw one of the cats next to the strawberry patch with its back arched and all four paws gathered beneath it as if trying to hold something down, and that cat had on its face its all-too-familiar I'm- not-doing-anything-awful look, so I figured I'd better take a look.

The cat ran away leaving stunned on the grass a 10- inch long, glossy, yellow-brown, longitudinally striped, orange-mouthed, yellow-pink-tailed Gilbert's Skink, EUMECES GILBERTI. Except for the brightly colored tail, back in Mississippi I would have called it a Southeastern Five-lined Skink and not given it a second thought.

The cat was hanging around and the skink was just lying there so I needed to carry the creature to someplace safe. But when I reached for him he wiggled himself into the grass and hung on. I gave his tail a gentle tug... and then came a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach as I felt a sort of internal click inside the skink.

His tail had come off.

Of course ever since I caught my first skink when I was a little boy in Kentucky I've known that tails come off of certain skink species if you handle them, the idea being that predators are left gawking at the squirming tail while the rest of the animal slinks away. But it's been half a century since I tugged on a skink's tail, and I'd simply forgotten to pay attention to the matter.

That yellow-pink tail ("flesh-colored" if you happen to be Caucasian) did its job sickeningly well. It dropped into the grass bottom-up and wedged in that position, furiously wiggling like an upended snake, and the skink slinked away just as the script required. A good naturalist would have stayed to see how long the tail wiggled before it ran out of energy but I was too ashamed to face the evidence.

Well, I hope the poor skink found someplace the cats couldn't get to. Gilbert's Skinks have a very limited distribution, mostly in California and, on the whole Earth, the subspecies found here, Eumeces gilberti ssp. placerensis, occurs only in a handful of counties in the Sierra Nevada foothills of north- central California. This subspecies is known as the Northern Brown Skink and many authorities insist it should be classified as a distinct species, in which case it would be even more of a narrowly endemic species. It's really special to get to see any wild creature so specialized that it's found only in a tiny geographical area.

Gilbert's Skinks eat insects and spiders. They like open grassy areas just like what's around the strawberry patch. The female lays 8 or 9 eggs in spaces under rocks or below the ground. In other words, they are normal skinks, just that they happen to be endemic to such a limited area. You can see and read all about our Northern Brown subspecies at http://www.californiaherps.com/lizards/pages/e.g.placerensis.html.

About an hour after that incident a beautiful California Quail, the one with a black, upside-down teardrop atop its head, turned up dead at the house's front door, and still later that day a gopher was consumed, so I guess Thursday was a good day for the local housecats.

*****

FREMONTIA
We've been hearing about a tree near here along the road gloriously full of bright yellow blossoms, and you know it must be something special if average people are talking about it. It's been flowering for about 3 weeks but as a consequence of sheer laziness on my part I'd missed it. Then on Friday Fred and I were out doing some chores and we happened to drive by it.

We were stunned. It was a dense, much-branched tree 15 feet high absolutely covered with bright yellow flowers about 2 inches across. The flowers' anatomy was unusual in that they bore no petals. The yellow appendages were modified sepals, which in average flowers are small and green beneath the petals. The male parts, the stamens, numbered 5, and joined together at their bases to form a cylinder around the slender female style. The leaves were like small, rough, 3-lobed fig leaves no more than 1.5 inches long. You can see my picture of it at www.backyardnature.net/sierras/trees.htm#Fremontia.

I had no idea what it was but sagely assured Fred that it wasn't a native plant, because with such floral anatomy it didn't belong to any of our usual North American plant families, and if it were a native plant, you can bet that because of its beauty it would be planted as widely as dogwoods. I snipped off a flowering branch, brought it home, and set to work keying it out.

Once again I was stunned. I'd seen the plant mentioned in books many times but never thought I'd blunder upon one like this. It was Fremontia, sometimes known by the inadequate name of California Flannel Bush, FREMONTODENDRON CALIFORNICUM. It's actually a Sierra-Nevada-foothill native, and a member of the Sterculia Family, along with the Cacao Tree of chocolate fame, and the Cola-nut Tree. Nearly all the members of that family are tropical so who knows how Fremontia came into existence in California's Sierra Nevada foothills?

What a wonderful tree. Why is not planted everywhere?

*****

CALIFORNIA DOGWOODS
Our dogwoods also have been flowering for three or four weeks. At first glance they look just like the Flowering Dogwoods of eastern North America, but then you notice that the white "petals," which are actually modified leaves or "bracts," are larger than those of Eastern Flowering Dogwoods. The East's Flowering Dogwoods bear four white bracts, but the ones here have four or more. You can see a fine close-up of a "flower" at www.californiagardens.com/Plant_Pages/cornus_nuttallii_closeup.htm.

Our California Dogwoods are CORNUS NUTTALLII. As is the case back East, we also have some dogwood species that produce small, not at all showy flowers.

*****

BROOM-RAPE/ CANCER-ROOT
The most interesting, exotic looking and strangely beautiful wildflower blooming right now appears in small clumps in pine straw along my jogging road. The plant is known by two undeservedly unfortunate names -- broom-rape and cancer-root. It's OROBANCHUS FASCICULATA of the Broom-rape Family, the Orobanchaceae. You can see my picture of the plants at www.backyardnature.net/sierras/orobanch.jpg

As typically is the case, what's visible in the above picture is just brownish-yellow, curve-tube flowers on stiff, slender pedicels. The plant's finger-thick, cream-colored stem lies completely buried within the pine straw. A point not to be overlooked is that this flowering plant possesses no green leaves or stem. It is completely lacking in chlorophyll, and thus is incapable of manufacturing its own food through the process of photosynthesis.

This is no problem for broom-rape, however, because broom-rapes are parasites stealing food from other plants. Broom-rape's simple roots grow through the soil until they encounter the root of a potential host species. Then the tip of the broomrape's root swells and surrounds the host's root. This swelling accounts for the "cancer" part of one of its names. The growth then produces filaments penetrating the host root, tapping into both the water-and-mineral conducting tissue (the xylem) and the tissue carrying the host's photosynthesized carbohydrates (the phloem).

That name broom-rape derives from completely innocent Latin origins. The Medieval Latin name was "rapum genistae," "rapum" being the term for "underground stock of a tree," and genistae being the genitive form of the word genista, which was the term applied to broom bushes such as the Scotch Broom I spoke of last week. Our plant was considered to grow on the roots of broom bushes.

No Scotch Brooms grow near my jogging-road plants, however, and I'm really not sure what their host plant is. They are growing prettily among purple- flowered vetches, and it's known that sometimes broom-rapes parasitize annual plants, so maybe those vetches are its hosts.

*****

PEACH TREE LEAF CURL
My friends have created a nice orchard here, working hard to keep their trees properly pruned, watered, fertilized and gopher free. Still, they have been unable to keep the peach and almond trees from contracting the disease known as Peach leaf Curl, produced by the fungus TAPHRINA DEFORMANS. I've added a Peach Leaf Curl page to the fungus section of my nature site so you can see some diseased peach leaves at www.backyardnature.net/f/leafcurl.htm.

The disease's lifecycle begins when a special kind of spore called an ascospore buds, forming regular fungal spores. These spores produce mycelium similar to but much smaller than the cobwebby strands you sometimes see working through leaf litter. The mycelium enters the enlarging leaf, insinuating itself among the cells. At this point the leaf's cells elongate, producing the twisting and curling characteristic of the disease.

Later, parts of the mycelium inside the leaf enlarge and break through the leaf's surface, forming a thin layer of cells atop the leaf, called the hymenium. The hymenium's cells then burst, releasing a new generation of ascospores, starting the lifecycle over. At this stage the leaf bears a powdery covering consisting of fungal spores. Later the leaves turn brown or yellow and fall off early.

My friends say they've tried store-bought concoctions to get rid of this disease, but to no avail. When I see the sheer number of spores a single leaf can produce, it's easy to understand why the disease keeps returning.

Still, the disease is considered by experts to be easy to control. The usual antifungal medicines such as Bordeaux mixture, lime sulfur or Ferbam are applied during the dormant season. Applying during the dormant season is critically important because infection occurs when the buds start swelling, so application after that is useless.

*****

A WEATHER CHART FOR THE FOOTHILLS
Early this week we endured some unusually wet, cold weather. About 2.3 inches of rain fell here -- nearly what is expected for the entire month of May -- and it was cold stuff indeed. On Monday morning it was 37°. They're forecasting something similar this week, and that's really unusual for this time of year.

I've begun putting together an introduction to the plants and animals of the Sierra Nevada Foothills, and for that site I've created a graph showing average monthly temperatures and precipitation for Placerville, a town in the central Foothill region. That graph beautifully shows our dry season here. It's at www.backyardnature.net/sierras/weather.htm.

By the way, if you have good pictures or information about Sierra Nevada Foothill plants and animals, I'd be happy to consider placing them at the site.

*****

ODOR OF FRESHLY GROUND WHEAT
Thursday morning Diana decided to make bread. She began by pouring several cups of red wheat and white wheat grains into her mill and grinding her own flour. The fresh flour issued a hearty, wholesome aroma of a transcendent nature. In fact, I'd like to expose someone having a nervous breakdown to that precise odor. I wouldn't be surprised if it brought peace to the poor soul. And if that didn't becalm the person's spirit, then we could try the odor of freshly baking homemade bread...

The funny thing is that when you do something like make your own flour from freshly milled grain, or do some hoeing in the garden, or mend your clothing, not only do you end up saving money but also you find your life enriched, your health improved, and your effect on the ecosystem much diminished from what it would have been if you'd done something like watch TV or run down to Wal-Mart's.

In fact, I'm not aware of any great philosopher, religious teacher, prophet, guru or generally happy, well adjusted person who advocates the kinds of lives being chosen by most people nowadays.

Sometimes in the evening I sit overlooking the canyon to the west, gazing over the shimmering, hustling Central Valley, and I remember how once I was firmly embedded in the outside culture. I've been thinking about what advice I'd give anyone who wanted to simplify their lives and feel better. I've come up with a three-step program, and here it is:

STEP 1: Replace addictions (drugs, food, hankering for status, money, fame, power, sex, etc.) with a program of eating properly and exercising.

STEP 2: Figure out what the Creator programmed you to do in life. You can be sure that you possess one or more unusual talents, passions or innate insights critically important to share in any healthy, just society.

STEP 3: Spend your life working hard at those things you believe in, and feel happiest doing.

I find it enormously comforting knowing that life is hooked up in such a way that just by being true to what's inside ourselves, we magically increase the possibility that from time to time we'll smell the wonderful odor of freshly ground flour, and home- baking bread afterwards.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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