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

July 31, 2005

TIN-ROOF ACORNS
During dawn's wee hours often I'm awakened by chilly winds flowing downslope past my shuddering trailer into the canyon, rattling my solar cooker's aluminum panels, and knocking acorns from the oaks above my trailer onto the tin roof of the shed next door. At such hours little acorns on a tin roof make a mighty racket, but that's fine, it's homey, this randomness of acorns in pre-dawn winds.

Typically few if any of an oak's season of acorns can be expected to make new trees. Still, nature is configured so that nothing gets wasted. All that tin- roof-hitting biomass will spread outward from my trailer trees inside the guts of squirrels and other rodents, inside the gullets of woodpeckers and jays, into the bodies of acorn grubs that will make beetles who fly away on sparkling wings, and some acorns will lie where they land and decay, thus engendering vast cities of microbes and fungal mycelia who'll disseminate my acorn energy and nutrients their own ways.

How beautiful on these deep summer nights to lie inside great wooshings of wind with nature's magnanimity expressing itself as random acorn crashes.

*****

ACORNS OF CALIFORNIA BLACK OAKS
The oaks above my trailer are California Black Oaks, QUERCUS KELLOGGII. You can see this handsome tree at http://www.cnr.vt.edu/dendro/dendrology/syllabus/factsheet.cfm?ID=242

As the above image shows, this oak looks a lot like the East's Black Oak. However, it's profoundly different. For one thing, it sprouts robustly from its roots, so it is highly adapted to life in these fire- prone foothills. For germination, California Black Oak acorns even need to lie on mineral soil or a light duff, similar to ground conditions after a fire.

This isn't to say that California Black Oaks are resistant to forest fires, because moderate fires damage them severely or kill them. This is another species whose fire strategy is to surrender its above- ground body to any conflagration, trusting in its ability to be reborn from its roots.

You might be thinking it's a little early in the season for acorns to be dropping. Well, members of the black oak group need two years for their acorns to mature, so the acorns falling now are over a year old. Also, the acorns rolling off the tin roof next to my trailer are smaller and less developed than those remaining on the branches. The tree is ridding itself of its weakest acorns, aborting them, so that it can focus its energies on its very best ones. Nature is not at all sentimental about these things. She knows she must channel her limited resources to those most likely to survive. She has little sympathy for the weak and malformed.

There's nothing malformed about the acorns remaining on the trees. Each day I look at them and marvel at how large they're getting, how handsome are the cups with their triangular, tan-colored scales, and how voluptuous are the green-turning-mahogany nuts, sharp pointed at their tops like old-time heaps of Dairy-Queen ice cream.

*****

QUEEN ANNE'S LACE
Some of the carrots in my garden are flowering so this week I took the opportunity to add a Carrot/ Queen Anne's Lace Page to the flower interpretation section of my website, at www.backyardnature.net/q-a-lace.htm

The interesting thing about these plants' blossoms is that the large, white items most people call flowers are actually clusters of hundreds of tiny flowers.

I lump carrot plants with Queen Anne's Lace because garden carrots are horticulturally derived from Queen Anne's Lace, which is a wildflower native to Europe, and a common, summer-flowering, roadside weed throughout much of North America. Both of these plants are known by the Latin name of DAUCUS CAROTA, with the cultivated carrot known as the variety SATIVA, which means "cultivated."

Queen Anne's Lace was my mother's favorite wildflower, growing in abundance along the gravel road running past our Kentucky farmhouse, and I remember vividly her bouquets of the plant's large, white flower-clusters regally issuing from a certain tall, blue vase in the kitchen table's center half a century ago. Seeing my carrots flowering in the garden now, my mother's presence is strong. I can almost taste the summery mid-day meals typical of the days the bouquets appeared, usually on Sundays, the fried chicken, lima beans with big white dumplings, and enormous, red slices of heavily salted garden tomatoes.

If you pull up a Queen Anne's Lace you'll see that it bears a pale orange, pencil-size taproot that's far too woody and piddling to eat. However, if you scrape the taproot with your thumbnail and smell the scrape you'll detect the unmistakable carrot odor. Still, it's amazing how generations of gardeners have produced today's large, succulent carrots from such meager beginnings.

On my web page I make the point that the flowering strategy of Daucus carota accomplishes two important feats. First, the large, bright flower clusters attract pollinators from afar. Second, the tiny flowers comprising the clusters are so numerous that if one flower is damaged plenty of other blossoms can take its place. Many flowering plants benefit from either the large-blossomed, pollinator-attracting strategy or the small-flower, risk-spreading strategy, but Daucus carota has figured out how to use both. Most species using the large-cluster-of-small-flowers strategy belong to plant families considered to have appeared most recently during the evolution of flowering plants.

This is a trend I see again and again throughout nature, and reality at large. The evolution of the computer has followed the same path, for example. The first computers were large and imposing but relatively simple, then later ones were much smaller, mass-produced and mediocre looking, but when today's little computers are clustered by way of networking or connecting to the Internet they accomplish much more than any one computer ever has.

In fact, if you think about it, maybe you can see the same evolutionary paradigm expressing itself as the human personality evolves from the newborn to the multifaceted mature person, as human cultures mature from isolated tribes to multiethnic megalopolises, and as traditional religions blossom into open-ended spirituality.

I find myself standing in the hot, sunny garden staring at flowering carrots, smelling my mother's rose-scented talc and fried chicken, and what a good laugh it is when I realize that these carrot/ Queen Anne's Lace flowers look exactly as they did half a century ago.

*****

APPLE SCAB
Back when our apples were just green balls the size of big marbles they began having brown spots on them. I thought the spots were caused by insects puncturing the apples' skins with their proboscises, but with time the brown spots enlarged and now many apples bear large, brown, crusty patches. Some of the patches are developing irregular, deep cracks, like drying mud in a pond's bottom.

When I saw those cracks I figured we had a fungal disease so I did some Googling. Sure enough, it's Apple Scab disease, caused by the fungus known as VENTURIA INAEQUALIS. You can see one of our infected apples showing the cracking scab, and read about the fungus's life history at my new Apple Scab Page at http://www.backyardnature.net/f/applscab.htm

*****

TOMATO END-ROT
I'll bet a lot of tomato growers this year are seeing tomatoes with black, rotting bottoms. That's because a whole range of problems cause end-rot, such as the weather being too hot, too cold, too wet or too dry, and this year there's been a lot of that going around.

Other causes of tomato end-rot include low calcium levels in the soil, root damage due to deep cultivation, and what I suspect to be the main cause of the end rot affecting about a quarter of my tomatoes: too much nitrogen fertilizer.

Ever since my Grandma Taylor overdosed her tomatoes with anhydrous ammonia my farmer cousin gave her back in the 70s I've know not to do that. You should have seen Grandma's tomato plants, as rank as Mississippi kudzu, filling the whole yard with their green tomato smell, and not a decent tomato on them. "All vine, no 'maters," Grandma said.

I knew that the horse manure I piled around my tomatoes this spring had nitrogen in it, but I was hoping that somehow, just because horse manure is such glorious stuff and I was so glad to have it, maybe I wouldn't get Grandma's nitrogen problem.

But, you should see my vines, blackish green, thick and ropy and covered so densely with sticky, green- smelling, silvery hairs and glands that they almost look nasty. The vines do bear plenty of tomatoes so it's not as bad as Grandma's problem, but about a quarter of the tomatoes do have end rot.

Well, I just cut off the putrid looking part and eat what remains. This is what comes of romanticizing horse manure. Even with horse manure you have to use your sense and be moderate.

*****

BEAN FLOWERS
One day this week with the temperature 97° and sunlight from the blue sky stinging the skin like itching powder I went to the garden to pick the season's fourth mess of green beans. Times like that, the way we see and feel gets altered. The mind gets a little dazed by all the glare and heat, but what filters through is remembered vividly, like something that happens during an emergency, and the meanings of what you experience get shifted from what they are in normal life. It's the same way in extreme cold or after a heavy snow or a flood. Everything is knocked cockeyed and you see things in new light.

That day, kneeling in the burning dust with my red, veiny hands fumbling for beans among wilted, yellow- green leaves, it was those little white bean flowers that pleased me, seemed more perfectly themselves than anything I could have imagined.

The first thing about bean flowers is that they're papilionaceous. That word "papilionaceous" is from the French "papillon," which means "butterfly," so papilionaceous flowers are butterfly-like. That's because five-petaled bean flowers are bilaterally symmetrical so that they have tops and bottoms as well as two "side petals" -- properly referred to as "wings" -- like butterfly wings. It happens that I provide a bean-flower page where you can see a papilionaceous bean flower with its wings at www.backyardnature.net/fl_grnbn.htm

That day in the garden, another thing about the bean flowers that pleased me was that I experienced them as elegant "variations upon a theme." The general theme, which I carry in my head, was "papilionaceous flower," and "green-bean flower" was the variation I listened to there in the garden. Kneeling in all that sunlight and dry wind, I was inside a Bach fugue blossoming alongside the developing bean-flower motif. If you have midi on your computer, you can hear a Bach fugue as you read this and you can experience the spirit of how I conceive that nature is put together at http://www.music.qub.ac.uk/~tomita/midi/Wtcii01b.mid

The branch of the evolutionary Tree of Life bearing plants with papilionaceous flowers is enormous, a branch so significant that it's beautiful to behold just by itself. Species with papilionaceous blossoms are members of the subfamily Papilionoideae, which comprises 400-500 genera and about 10,000 species. Among well known plant species adorning the Papilionoideae branch are redbud, peanut, vetch, pea, lupine, wisteria, kudzu, black locust, clover, sweet clover, lespedeza and soybean.

On that Papilionoideae branch, every blossom-variation on the papilionaceous theme has something special about it -- EVERY ONE. Something special about the green-bean flower is the way its two bottom, grown- together petals (known jointly as the keel because it's shaped like the bottom of a boat) curls around. The keels of nearly all other papilionaceous flowers are straight, so to see a keel coiling right there among homey little green bean plants is like hearing a snare drum suddenly beat a jazzy tat-a-tat-tat in the middle of our Bach fugue.

But, Mother Nature is one cool cat. Nothing keeps Her from doing things just the way She wants, and it's clear that being experimental, even weird, turns Her on, and I as Her faithful disciple get turned on by it, too.

*****

THE BUG-EATEN LEAF AWARDS
Kudos to Newsletter reader Jim Fydrych in Alabama who this week sent me a fine list of plants and animals he's identified around his home. In doing this he earns the Bronze Level of the Bug-Eaten Leaf Award I offer at http://www.backyardnature.net/awards/ The award consists of my posting his list so the whole world can admire it. You can see Jim's list at http://www.backyardnature.net/awards/b-al-001.htm

Jim sent in his list as a special favor to me because I've been offering the awards for a long time and so far no one else has qualified. We hope that now that he's broken the ice others will apply. Three award levels are offered: Bronze, Silver, and Gold, as explained at http://www.backyardnature.net/awards/

My idea behind these awards is that when people make the effort to identify the plants and animals around them they are obliged to pay attention to details they've never noticed before -- the bug's antenna structure, how the flower's anthers are affixed to the filaments, whether the bird's eyebrow is white or brown...

As time passes and the mind fills itself with such congenial details, less desirable thoughts, memories and grumblings get pushed aside. Butterfly wing patterns and birdsong melodies begin impressing themselves upon the spirit. Eventually all the layers of the soul become imbued with the influences of natural patterns, or paradigms.

I am saying that frequent and repeated exposure to leaf venation, crystal structure and the glint in a squirrel's eye can change attitudes and psychological and spiritual ambiance for the better. Having the seasons' patterns impressed upon us roots us and imbues us with natural wisdom. And that wisdom, being natural, leads us into sustainable living patterns, and is itself sustainable.

I think if I could get the whole world to send me lists of plants and animals the way Jim did, gradually humanity would mellow and mature, and people would become a whole lot happier and less destructive.

Guidance on how to identify organisms (Step One in my "3 Steps to Discovering Nature,") is at http://www.backyardnature.net/listopen.htm.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

All previous Newsletters are archived at www.backyardnature.net/n/.

Visit Jim's backyard nature site at www.backyardnature.net