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.

Wild carrots at last!

Granted I had to go all the way across the continent to find them, but out on my run a couple days ago along the Shining Sea bike path in Falmouth I finally found Daucus carota, as opposed to hateful hemlock (Conium maculatum).

Smells strongly of carrot? check.

Stems fuzzy? check.

Compact flower umbels? check.

Leaves once or twice pinnately compound, vs. 3 times? check.

And there’s even a little pink bud in the very center, suggesting a central purple flower is on its way.

But in case you’re curious, no: I didn’t attempt to eat it.

Flower umbel for what I sincerely hope and believe is D. carota. See the tiny pink bud in the very center?

At the MBL

I’m in Woods Hole MA for the next 10 days, TA’ing for the Marine Biological Laboratory’s summer Embryology course.  Since lecture starts at 9am and lab finishes around 2-3am, I’ll probably be an irresponsible blogger.  I am hoping to get a chance to mill around the libraries and peek at all the old botanical illustrations, so hopefully I’ll have some old-school paintings and lithographs to share at the end of it all.

In the meantime, here’s some of the preposterously bright blue hydrangeas I always look forward to out here:

…and an equally preposterously adorable rabbit.  We saw at least a dozen of these on our walk yesterday evening; they were extremely casual about having us walk right up to them.

Sure I’m a wild animal. Why do you ask? Hey, do you by chance have a carrot I could nibble on in a charmingly tame fashion? Or should I just curl up in your lap?

 

Toxic and toothsome: a tale of two wild Asteraceae

Toxic Interloper:

Not long ago, I planted a bunch of coriander/cilantro seeds in my back yard.  When the seedlings emerged, I found not only cilantro, but also this:

Not cilantro as it should have been, but common groundsel. Don’t try to fool me with your toothed leaves–I can totally see you’re sending up flower buds already.

Senecio vulgaris, known as common groundsel to me, but also as Old-man-of-the-spring. It’s just about everywhere right now–I’m seeing it along roadsides, in gardens, at the park and clawing its way through sidewalk tiles.  It starts off with lobed leaves and an emerging crown of flower buds that’s visible really early, and ends up with nearly-closed yellow flowers, and fuzzy gray seed heads like tiny dandelions (whence the “Old man” name–it looks a bit like a tousled gray head of hair). Continue reading

Side note: transit of Venus is awesome

Hey all, sorry I’ve been an irresponsible blogger the past week.  Plant posts are coming, but in the meantime, I just got back from a jaunt down to the Stanford oval, where the weather was surprisingly optimal for a little mid-day stargazing.

Why yes, actually, I am going stargazing right now. You can see the little cluster of astronomers in the middle.

The Stanford Astronomical Society (SAS) was putting on a little show, with a couple of great telescopes entrained on Venus’ transit across the sun.

I was somewhat surprised that the whole campus didn’t turn out to see this won’t-happen-again-till 2117 show, but it meant we all got enough time to take a good long look.

Big thanks to Josh Chan, who set up the event, and to Michael (I think?  Tall guy in a green shirt?) who took this fabulous photo on my iPhone:

How awesome is this? Pretty darn awesome. As several people commented, the very tiny arc size of Venus mostly serves to illustrate how frickin’ huge and very bright the sun is. I mean, on a moonless night, Venus is the brightest thing in the sky.  For looking at the sun, the scopes had filters on them that blocked 99.99% of the light, so that you could actually see the details of the transit. Plus look: you can see sunspots elsewhere on the sun’s face, too! (Photo by Michael of SAS).

Here in CA the transit is still going until sunset, so if you have time, hustle on down to the oval or grab your eclipse specs, or try one of these projection strategies and check it out!

Best-kept secrets of your neighbor’s yard part 2: Guava flowers

It’s guava flower season!  If you’re in California or the South, there’s a very good chance that someone who lives next to you is using pineapple guavas (Acca sellowiana) for their hedges or shrubbery.  These Argentinian natives (also called feijoas) don’t always set fruit, but their flowers are a great snack all on their own.

Pineapple guava flowers peeking out from the Berkeley shrubbery.

Look for bright red clusters of stamens on tall shrubs with grey-green leaves.  Then make sure that the cluster of stamens is surrounded by 4 petals: light pink on the outside, and pink-purple on the inside.  On the best ones, the petals will be a little bit spongy.  Pluck off the petals and try them (the stamens are edible too, but don’t taste like much).

On the best guava flowers, the petals have curled so that you mostly see the light pink spongy exteriors.

Delicious, right?  Soft, juicy, sweet, with a kinda spicy tropical tang.  If you’ve ever had guava Kern’s nectar, you recognize the flavor, because it’s the same plant.

Pineapple guavas need 50 hours of cold to set fruit, don’t set well in high temps (90 degrees or higher), and many cultivars also need a pollinator, so if you’re in a very warm climate your new snack may never mature into fruit.  Still, it’s best to be optimistic and leave the stamens and pistil attached to the shrub–if you’re lucky in a few months there will be egg-sized leathery looking green fruits to eat as well.

Pineapple guava fruit. Photo by HortResearch via wikimedia.

I will confess to often liberating guava petals from their owners without asking permission, but it’s probably better to tell your neighbor that you’d like to eat their shrubbery.  Ideally, they’ll not only be happy to let you have at it, but gratified to learn about the tasty treat in their yard.

Special thanks to my college adviser Dr. Daniel Martinez, an Argentinian native himself, who introduced these to me back in the day.  And a tip for fellow folks at the Stanford med school: the bushes next to the patio at LKSC should be full of these any day now.

I’m also told they’re a popular cultivated fruit in New Zealand.  Can anyone confirm?

Lemon anise seed cookies

While out running near Cesar Chavez park the last few weekends, I’ve been noticing that the seed heads of the fennel plants are ripe for gathering. (Well…ok.  I’ve been a bit slow to get this posted, so now it’s only the ones protected from the wind that are good for harvesting.  Like along the bike path near Golden Gate fields where the soccer fields are, or at the more inland parts of Point Isabelle).  A couple weekends back I stopped to gather a quarter cupful or so of seeds (NOTE: there are some ginormous gopher snakes out there these days too, especially when it’s very sunny and not crowded, so watch your step!  They’re not poisonous but look enough like rattlesnakes to be kinda terrifying when a 5-footer suddenly appears under your feet).

There were a handful of fennel seed cookie recipes I’d been eying, including these delicious-looking 17th-century anise seed cookies from Baking with Sibella, but I didn’t have enough egg yolks for that one so I went with a variation of these Italian fennel seed cookies, which ended up soft and cake-like, a bit like Madeleines.  I tweaked the recipe to include a citrus flavor, and left off the icing:

  • 1/2 cup butter, softened
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 tablespoon anise/fennel seeds, slightly crushed (washed well and picked over for bugs and twigs)
  • 1 tablespoon lemon zest
  • 2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour (may need up to 3 cups)
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 2 -3 tablespoons orange juice

Preheat oven to 350.

Cream together butter and sugar for 2 minutes, then add eggs one at a time, stirring well after each.

Add anise seeds and lemon zest, stir.

Stir together flour and baking powder.  Add in thirds, alternating with tablespoons of orange juice.  The dough/batter will be pretty wet and sticky–more like brownie batter than cookie dough.

Spray cookie sheet with nonstick spray or line with parchment paper.  Drop large spoonfuls of dough onto cookie sheet.  Bake at 350F 11-13 minutes, until slightly browned.

Lemon anise seed cookies. Somewhere between a cookie and a scone, and pretty darn tasty!

I really liked them; the soft texture, delicate lemon flavor and kinda-cookie but kinda-scone-y-biscuit-y quality was nice.  If you’re not a fan of anise/licorice flavored things in general though, the seeds may be too strongly flavored.

There were still some seeds leftover, which my husband used to flavor the beef stock he was making, and that stuff came out delicious.