“P” is for poinsettia, pyracantha, and paucity of poisonousness

Happy New Year, everyone!

As you may have noticed, 2012 got a little bogged down toward the end, and poor Mendel was woefully neglected.  But, while I abhor resolutions, I have come into 2013 with new enthusiasm, and have been reminded that I’m actually quite fond of my little blog.  So, in the spirit of things that deserve another chance, here are two seasonal favorites you may have been judging unfairly for as long as you’ve known them.

1.  Poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima)

I certainly was raised in the firm belief that poinsettias were basically a festive holiday deathtrap.  Which even as a child I found a bit baffling–”Here kids!  Eat all these holiday cookies and brightly colored candies and look at these gorgeous, enticing bright red flowers that we’ve put all over the house but OMG DON’T TOUCH THEM THEY’LL KILL YOU!”

Looks...so...tasty...must...not...eat...Oh!  Not poisonous after all you say?  Just nauseating and irritant?  Fantastic!

Looks…so…tasty…must…not…eat…Oh! Not poisonous after all you say? Just nauseating and mildly irritant? Fantastic! (Photo by Scott Bauer, via Wikimedia)

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Falling behind

See: because it’s fall.  And because I haven’t posted in a season.

As a lifelong California resident with many friends and loved ones that have moved here from points east, I’ve heard a broad range of disparaging comments about the inferiority of our fall colors.  And I’m totally willing to concede that we don’t offer the hundreds of square miles of lurid orangeness that folks in NC or DC (or wherever–no favoritism here, those are just two East Coast places I’ve actually been to in the fall) enjoy this time of year.  Showoffs.  It’s gaudy, if you ask me.  Here we get our fall colors in trim little accents, like this one, which I pass by about 15 times a day:

A particularly pretty Chinase pistache (Pistacia chinensis) tree at the corner of Roth and Campus Drive.

This is one of maaaaany Chinese pistache (or Chinese pistachio) trees distributed around campus in an effort to keep all our homesick transplanted students and faculty from fleeing back to their states of origin this time of year.  Or possibly just to sprinkle a little extra red around the place.  As you’ve probably already suspected, Pistacia chinensis is a close relative of the pistachio of culinary fame, Pistacia vera P. vera is a Mediterranean native, and it’s in Mediterranean desserts that I like pistachio nuts the best: baklava, biscotti (recipe below), and the like.  The Chinese pistachio fruits are not edible (except to birds–the bluebirds go nuts for them here), but they look like a plausible smaller relative, and unlike commercial pistachio nuts, Chinese pistachio fruits are naturally red.

Fruits of the Chinese pistachio tree. They’re doused in very sticky sap, which left my fingers tacky for the rest of the day after this pic.

P. chinensis is common all over the Bay Area, so if you live nearby there’s a good chance a few of these are brightening up your neighborhood, too.

Pistachio and anise biscotti recipe:

(Since P. chinensis is not edible, this is a bit of a stretch as a foraging recipe, but I did pick the anise flowers myself last week.  Currently anise/fennel is in flower, and I really like their delicate flavor, but you could substitute seeds at other times of year)

1/3 cup butter, softened

2/3 cup sugar

2 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp salt

2 eggs

1 tsp vanilla

2 cups flour

4 tsp chopped fresh anise/fennel flowers

1 cup pistachio nuts

1. Preheat oven to 375 F; spray 1 cookie sheet with cooking spray, keep another ungreased cookie sheet on hand. Cream together butter and sugar, beat in baking powder, salt, vanilla and eggs.  Stir in flour, fennel flowers, and pistachios.

2.  Divide dough into 3 portions. Shape each third into a roll 8-9″ long.  Place rolls several inches apart on sprayed cookie sheet, and flatten so each roll is about 2.5-3 inches wide.

3. Bake at 375 F (190 C) for 20-25 minutes.  The “loaves” should be golden brown around the edges and cracked on top.  Cool 30 minutes.

4.  Use a sharp serrated knife to cut each roll on a diagonal into slices, about 1/2″ thick and 4″ long.  Lay slices cut sides down on ungreased cookie sheet.  Lower oven temp and bake at 325 F (163 C) for 8 minutes, then flip cookies and bake on the other side another 8 minutes until dry and crisp.

Everybody say scuppernog!

Scuppernog scuppernog SCUPPERNOG!  It’s kind of a hilarious word, right?

A couple weeks back my husband and I went to visit his family in the South.  While visiting my fabulous sister-in-law’s family in Raleigh NC, we wandered at length along the bike/run/walk path near her home, which was heavily overhung with greenery.  A generous helping of the plants along the way were total unknowns to me, including the scuppernog, a close cousin to our usual grapes, and  variant of muscadines (Vitis rotundifolia), which are native to the American southeast.

Small clusters of unripe scuppernogs, Vitis rotundifolia.

The scuppernogs were under-ripe (when they’re ripe they’re larger and bronze-colored), but we found clusters of them growing on vines that were a dead ringer for normal grape vines here and there.  My husband and sister-in-law recognized them right away, and their identity was further confirmed by the large single seeds we found inside.

Scuppernogs are, I gather, favored for their jelly, rather than as a raw snack, and muscadine wine is a local treat.

 

Amateur arachnology (and why I fear I may no longer be fit to have a normal job)

You know you’re a biologist when:

(in increasing order of severity–some of these pertain to myself and others to my labmate, whose desk recently became the next-door neighbor to a sparrow’s nest, and who has just left to take a shower)

-you are happy to have a bird’s nest outside your window

-you think the half-plucked-looking naked baby birds inside are adorable

Baby sparrows outside my labmate’s window

-you are not unduly distressed when the bird’s nest becomes fairly obviously infested with some sort of tiny bug

-you are only mildly distressed when it becomes clear that the bugs have made it inside the window.  You carry on writing your dissertation.

Ookaay. Once the bugs make it inside the window things are less cool. 12 point “G” included for scale.

-you relent and decide to head home only when the bugs start actually crawling on your person.  You notify the lab manager, who calls pest control (see–we’re totally normal and responsible), and your lab mate down the hall (me) who…

-does not avoid your bench like a normal person.

-captures some of the bugs to look at under a microscope

-shares the view with her labmate, who would rather look at them than go home and wash up right away, and her baymate, a former arthropod specialist who declares they’re “kinda pretty.”

-then browses the internet with her baymate and labmate to identify that they’re some kind of bird mites (duh).  Labmate, still totally calm but succumbing to common sense, goes home to shower and continue writing, while I…

-use the break offered by an hour-long incubation period to take better-quality microscope photographs and browse the internet for another half an hour or so to try to find out their species name.

I think they must be some kind of Ornithonyssus, possibly Ornithonyssus bursa, but if there are any arachnologists who know more I’d really love a stronger ID.

Bird mite, Ornithonyssus bursa (possibly). 20x, inside a 12-point font G.

As I write this, I’m wondering to myself if “arachnologist” is a real thing.  Certainly bird mites are arachnids (subclass Acari, order Mesostigmata), so entomologist seems inappropriate.

Lest you think we’re unusually bonkers, I think Haeckel made a decent case that arachnids were kinda pretty, in one of my favorite books, “Forms of Art in Nature.”  You can get id’s to the various creatures here on Wikipedia.

“Arachnida” from Forms of Art in Nature, Ernst Haeckel, 1904

Book review: What a Plant Knows

Hello again!

Travel had gotten the better of me, I fear, and I’ve fallen quite behind over here.  But in the meantime, I got a great opportunity from American Scientist to review my new favorite book: “What a Plant Knows, A field guide to the senses” by Daniel Chamovitz at Tel Aviv university.  The review is here:

(and here: http://www.americanscientist.org/bookshelf/pub/fortean-flora)

And if you don’t want to click over and see it formatted prettily with pictures, here’s the whole story… Continue reading

Berries in Redwood Park

Last weekend me, my husband, JYL and the Gypsy Runner returned to Redwood Park to see how the berries were getting along.  The yields were not very impressive, but we scrounged up a few handfuls of wild strawberries (Fragaria vesca californica), thimbleberries (Rubus parviflorus), and plenty of blackberries (Rubus something or other–these berries were more long and tapering than the Rubus armeniacus I usually see).  The only target that eluded us was the chaparral currants, which are mostly still in flower.

Finally, on the way back, we encountered this plant, which I was embarrassingly unable to identify.  We were particularly curious whether the fruits represented something that would eventually be edible:

Mystery plant. It’s somewhere between a bush and a tree. Anyone recognize it?

Geeking out

I’m back in CA now, but before I left the MBL I had to make a quick visit to the library (very quick, sadly: I only got in 10 minutes before I had to run for the bus).  And yes, since you’re wondering: I did head directly for TH Morgan, and yes: once there I did look directly for the amphibian lineage tracing experiments:

Thomas Hunt Morgan’s “Experimental Embryology,” a developmental biology classic. Original 1927 edition.

Morgan’s descriptions of Vogt’s experiments on urodele embryos, which used vital dye labels to track the movements of cells.  They showed the mechanics of gastrulation (Embryology class motto: “gastrulate or die!”) and convergent extension (loosely packed round groups of cells nudge between each other to become a long skinny group of cells, stretching the embryo out).  These experiments also showed which parts of the early, ball-of-cells embryo (blastula) contributed to which parts of the later differentiated tadpole: “fate-mapping,” shown at right.

This guy was also there:

But I ran out of time before I could determine if any of this blog’s patron saint’s work was there.  Sorry, Gregor!

And while I didn’t get to browse the botanical illustrations like I had hoped, botany was still very much in evidence my last few days in Woods Hole, manifested in the extremely potent honeysuckle perfume everywhere.

A favorite childhood edible. The honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica) was so thick you could smell it along the whole length of the bike path. I sampled a few of the flower bases for their nectar, of course.