JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
issued from the Sierra Nevada Foothills
east of Sacramento, California

June 12, 2005

INSIDE THE CHERRY TREES
Cherries are ripening now. The trees have good, solid varietal names like Bing and Rainier.

I think no leaf is prettier than one from a cherry tree. A cherry leaf is simple with no subdivisions, dark green and somewhat glossy above but with a slightly silvery sheen below, and pleasingly adorned with finely serrated margins. Each margin tooth, if looked at with a magnifying glass, is actually rounded, though often there's a tiny gland atop the rounded tooth, like a cherry atop a scoop of ice cream.

At the top of the slender leaf stem, or petiole, usually there are one or two reddish, waxy-looking, sand-grain-size, sweet-role-shaped glands. With a handlens and good light often you can see in the sunken center of those glands glistening exudations. I suspect that this is a sweetish liquid for attracting ants, who will attack anyone planning to eat the tree's leaves or fruits. However, ants don't seem particularly common in our trees so maybe the glands are vestiges from an earlier time when the trees' ancestors lived wild in Eurasia, and there were ants in that homeland who loved cherry-leaf- petiole-gland nectar.

The Latin name for the common Sweet Cherry tree is PRUNUS AVIUM, and you can guess what "avium" refers to. This week I spread nets over the more prolific trees, to keep the birds out.

Being inside a cherry tree on a sunny, coolish, dry day is very good. You're standing there squinting up through the branches trying to make sure the netting comes together right and you're struck by how pretty the sunlight is coming through the leaves, the shaded leaves very dark green and glossy, the leaves with sun on them more brightly yellow than green, and then those gorgeous red and yellow cherries suspended at all levels and distances, like stars in the night sky. You just stand there gawking upward wanting to take all the loveliness into your soul, to be like sunlight on wind-dancing cherry leaves, to be sweet like the cherries all around you, for your essential being to emanate exactly the same odor as the sun-warmed, recently macheted tall grass around the trees.

When you're inside a cherry tree on a sunny, pleasant day and the wind is blowing through the orchard, you feel glad. And when you're able to top it all off by simply reaching out, plucking the ripest cherry in view, and eating it, and then eating another, and another...

*****

TAXONOMY & GENETICS OF CHERRIES
Of course you start thinking about some innocent little subject like cherry trees and one thing leads to another.

For instance, it's true that in North America the main cherry tree is PRUNUS AVIUM. Horticulturalists have developed nearly a hundred varieties of this species, the most common ones in North America being Bing, Royal Ann (also called Napoleon), Ranier and Lambert. Bing. by far the main variety for producing cherries to be eaten fresh, is famous for its large, dark, firm fruit that ships well. Its main problem is that its fruits crack if rain falls right before picking. Royal Ann is the main variety grown for marachino cherries. Lambert is good for canning as well as eating right off the tree. Ranier is one of those USDA-produced varieties developed with mass production in mind and is gradually gaining ground on the others. Probably it's a perfectly good cherry variety, but one likes to think of a cherry tree as having been developed by hundreds of generations of colorful, persnickety folks back in Eurasia.

Fred told me that when they bought their trees the nursery people told them they needed to plant different varieties for cross-pollination. I'd never heard of this in cherries and, since cherry flowers possess both male and female parts, I wondered what the deal was.

It turns out that among Sweet Cherry varieties there is indeed a certain degree (not total) of "gametophytic self-incompatibility." In other words, things going on at the gene level keep the trees from pollinating themselves. It's not as simple as the flowers' male and female parts maturing at different times, which is often the case with other plants.

The various cherry varieties fall into about 12 groups based on cross compatibility, and to get good cherry crops you need to have the right companion tree. For our Bings the recognized best companions are Early Burlat, Black Tartarian and Van. There are a few self-compatible varieties, like Stella and Lapins, but their fruits aren't as good as Bing's.

The University of Georgia produces a page providing an enormous amount of information about cherry taxonomy, genetics and cultivation at http://www.uga.edu/fruit/cherry.html.

You can see a neat chart showing which cherry varieties are compatible with one here.

*****

SHARP-TAILED SNAKES
Daniel, Fred and Diana's son, is home from school so he's doing chores here and there. The other day he was shoveling a pile of horse manure inside which he found a number of foot-long, brownish-cream snakes. He said there were ten to fifteen PAIRS of them, and he brought one pair for me to see.

The Audubon field guide showed them to be Sharp- tailed Snakes, CONTIA TENUIS. I suppose the closest thing like them in the East is the equally innocuous, good natured and miniature Ringneck Snake, next to which it appears in the guide. Fred and Daniel say they're common here, and nearly always found in pairs. They grow no longer than 10 to 19 inches.

Sharp-tailed Snakes really have very sharp tails, not just slender-tipped ones. The tail is actually a bit thick right up to its point, and then it looks as if the tip had been worked on with a pencil sharpener. It looks spine-tipped. Besides the sharp tails, their lower bellies are conspicuously patterned with alternating black and whitish crossbars. Once you know about these features, Sharp-tailed Snakes are very easy to identify. You can see one, along with its pointed tail, at http://www.mister-toad.com/photos/snake/Contia_2005_01.jpg

Sharp-tailed Snakes aren't found in many places. They occupy Oregon's Willamette Valley and California's Coast Ranges, our Sierra Nevadas, and a few tiny pockets in Washington and British Columbia. Usually they're found after rains, and it's true that ours appeared the day after a good rain. Other times it stays beneath logs and rocks, and during the dry months burrows underground. Basically it eats slugs.

What a remarkable, unusual little snake this is! Despite being so common here I'll bet a goodly number of snake fanciers would be as tickled to see it as I was.

*****

GRASSES HARD TO IGNORE
If you looked at the picture of Buck in his old Model AA Ford a couple of weeks back, you saw how vividly green the slopes were. Now the herbaceous layer of the same slopes are mostly dun colored, just a few pale blotches of green here and there, only with the deep-rooted trees remaining green.

In a way that's a bit surprising because the very hot, dry season typical for this time of year hasn't materialized. Even this week it was amazingly chilly here (39 Tuesday morning) and on Wednesday it rained the whole day. So why are the herbs dying back?

The main reason is that the herbaceous layer is populated mostly by species that flower and fruit very fast in early spring, then by the time the dry season is supposed to begin, they die, rain or not.

The most conspicuous element of the herbaceous layer is the grasses. Among them are easy-to-recognize fescues, brome grasses, ryes and barleys, but usually the species are different from the ones I know.

On the slope right outside my trailer grow fast- fruiting-and-dying annual grasses such as the foot- tall, slender-spiked Rat-tail Fescue VULPIA MYUROS (http://www.hlasek.com/vulpia_myuros_4992.html), a yard-high barley, HORDEUM MURINUM, with a dense spike composed of flowers with very long needles (http://www.bio.bg.ac.yu/herbar/084.html) and a yard-high brome grass with the quaint name of Ripgut Grass, BROMUS DIANDRUS, and with very large flowers (http://www.sci.sdsu.edu/plants/sdpls/plants/Bromus_diandrus.htm).

For me the most striking and curious grass is one of the Goatgrasses, AEGILOPS GENICULATA, which is weird only if you're familiar with usual grass-flower anatomy. You can see the curious flowers at http://www2.ocn.ne.jp/~pgpinst/Komugi/Aegphoto/ovata2.jpg.

All these grasses deserve the name Ripgut Grass. They are all invasive from Eurasia, and all with flowers equipped with long, sharp needles, or "awns," and all the awns bear tiny, backward-pointing serrations assuring that if a flowering head gets into an animal's mouth it'll be hard to spit out and possibly dangerous to digest. It also means that if you walk through these grasses with socks on the fruits stick into your socks and if the fruits aren't picked out individually they'll just keep working through the sock, gouging and poking into your skin until you DO pick them out!

*****

POLLEN FOR SNIFFING AND KEYING OUT
Those grasses coming to a head nowadays may explain why earlier this week before the rains Diana and I were sniffing and I enjoyed some good sneezing fits. Many grasses are still flowering, producing pollen that causes hay fever.

If you happen to have a microscope and are interested in identifying the pollen you can now wipe off your car's windshield or any such surface, you may enjoy taking a look at St. John's University's "Guide to Easy Pollen Identification." It's a simple dichotomous key that keys out some of the most common plant groups. Even if you can't make a certain identification you may enjoy seeing some of the technical features one is obliged to consider when identifying pollen. The site is at http://www.csbsju.edu/pollen/links/basic_key.htm.

*****

CALIFORNIA BUCKEYES FLOWERING
The genus embracing the buckeyes and horse chestnuts, Aesculus, produces several beautifully flowering species. (Aesculus is the classical name for an oak tree, which shows how much botany the classic name-givers knew.) In Germany a Biergarten just doesn't feel right unless the clientele can sit at tables beneath big horse-chestnut trees.

Now our California Buckeyes, AESCULUS CALIFORNICA, are flowering, putting on a show equaling the dogwoods'. You can see flowers and branches at http://ww1.clunet.edu/gf/plants/scientific/gar-3089.htm and a very pretty close-up of the small flowers at http://www.botany.hawaii.edu/faculty/carr/images/aes_cal_fl.jpg.

The species was flowering a month ago at the canyon's bottom and I've been watching their flowering slowly move up the canyon's wall, so I've been expecting them. Of course up above trees are still in the bud stage.

California Buckeyes have a fairly small distribution, nearly entirely within California. It's the only deciduous tree in this area that sheds its leaves in late summer to deal with the heat and lack of rain. Then the tree has a singular appearance much at odds with its springtime elegance. It will be loaded with pear-shaped fruits dangling from the tips of bare branches.

*****

SPARSE-FLOWERED BOG ORCHID
Along my jogging road right now a number of orchids also are flowering. The books provide them with the awkward name Sparse-flowered Bog Orchid. They're PLATANTHERA SPARSIFLORA, and you can see the plant's slender spike of very small, green flowers at http://www.orchids.org/ooc/Genera/Platanthera/sparsiflora/index.shtml.

No bogs occur along that road. However, the one-lane trail goes along a steep slope so there's a roadcut on one side. This cut interrupts the natural flow of groundwater flowing downslope, so seeps occur. The slopes are also deeply shaded and don't easily dry out. Therefore, this orchid has its wet soil despite not being in a bog.

If you particularly enjoy orchids you should visit the "OrchidMania" website at http://www.orchids.org/ being sure to notice the "Orchids of the World" section at http://www.orchids.org/species/index.html.

*****

SEVEN SQUIRRELS UPDATE
Greg in Wisconsin sends me his opinion about the seven squirrels I wrote about last week, and I think he's exactly right.

Most likely the seven squirrels coming up the middle of the road were a single female being chased by six males.

I'm just appalled that this idea didn't occur to me, especially because my online book being read by a surprising number of homeschoolers and others, about one year in the life of an Eastern Gray Squirrel, (http://www.backyardnature.net/squirrel.htm) has a chapter exactly about such a chase. Sometimes my mind gets stuck in one of those gauzy, nature-boy grooves that I just forget to remember what I've learned.

*****

CHILLY FOG & CABBAGE LEAVES
During the middle of this week an "Alaskan low" came through and during about 35 hours drenched us with 1-inches of cold drizzle. It was appropriate weather for rocky little islands in the Aleutians, not a California dry season, but we got it anyway.

It was drizzle with fog. We couldn't see the other side of the canyon and sometimes everything more than two trees away was whited out. When it's like that the world is reduced to tones of gray, and things look flat. Trees are silhouetted and sounds are muted. Not a bird sings. Everything is subdued.

Such times have their charm for a while but after a couple of days you begin craving color, pure sounds, warmth -- just anything to stir the spirit. Sometimes I remedy the situation by going into the garden and putting my face right down next to whatever might be there -- a cabbage leaf or an onion sprout -- where there's a vividness of greenness, textures different from those in ordinary life, and all kinds of intricate designs. Always, when you throw your head into a different realm like that, you discover whole new worlds of stimuli. Always there are other worlds to explore just by shifting your mental frame of reference.

Friday morning National Public Radio aired a segment on people addicted to cutting themselves. When these people are stressed they react by slicing into their bodies. They bleed and hurt but it's an addiction hard to break. You can read about this and other forms of addictive self mutilation at http://www.athealth.com/Consumer/disorders/selfmutilation.html.

At first the behavior seemed absolutely inexplicable to me. But when I thought about it I began seeing how it might happen. I think this pitiful condition may bear upon my experience this week with the fog, the somberness, and the grayness and flatness of things. It may give me insight into why I felt the need to go look closely at a cabbage leaf, and why I feel like I need to keep telling people to pay attention to things.

A self-cutter begins feeling disoriented, unsure of whom he or she is and unsure of what's supposed to be done. When they begin cutting themselves, see the blood and feel the pain, then they have proof that they are right there, right then. They see that in a world where everything seems messed up at least their bodies are working right, bleeding when they're supposed to, feeling pain at the right time.

When our eyes clearly show us that we're the one seeing the bird's bright colors, when our ears tell us we're the very listener to the bird's pretty song, it reminds us where and what we are. Except when chemical imbalances are involved, active people in stimulating environments that provide positive reinforcement seldom get mentally ill. But, when the fog comes, color drains from the landscape, things go flat and sounds are only monotonous -- or when one feels completely out of control of life in general -- maybe it's hard for some of us to keep grounded.

Maybe when a very angry man puts his fist through a wall it's because he's feeling so desperately out of control that he needs the shock and pain to ground him better in the moment, his body, his home. Maybe when I'm concentrating on something and stick my tongue out, since the mouth and tongue have many more nerve endings than most parts of the body, what I'm doing is anchoring my consciousness in the present by feeling myself with my tongue, trying to keep tabs of who and what I am as the rest of me become absorbed in the thing I'm concentrating on.

Well, I don't see much harm in sticking out your tongue when you're concentrating, but I do wish I could show these self-cutters and wall-punchers the therapeutic value of consciously seeking out cabbage leaves on foggy days, point out to them the silvery slug trails, the leaves' pink-crinkly margins, their reticulating venations, the randomly arrayed, tiny brown-rimmed insect-punctures, the leaves' voluptuous concavities, the cabbagey odor when you put your nose right there on a leaf...

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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