From the mountain retreat

I spent a weekend up in the San Bernardino Mountains for a Nature Knowledge Workshop sponsored by the Natural Science Section of the Los Angeles Sierra Club. We stayed in cabins, all meals included, and spent a lot of time walking around the vicinity in the company of expert naturalists. They pointed out the names of various plants, birds, animals, insects, habitats, etc., but perhaps most valuable was their willingness to answer any and all questions. These nature walks were augmented with several shorter workshops offered in parallel; so many interesting topics that it was sometimes hard to choose which one to attend.

Here are some of the tidbits I picked up during my weekend:

  • “Sage” is applied to two different plant species. One is the white or purple sage (salvia) that is in the mint family, and this is the one you might use in cooking. However, in California we commonly find the Great Basin sage (artemisia) which is from the sunflower family, and you don’t want to use that one in cooking at all.
  • The most common birds we saw were the Steller’s Jay, the Dark-eyed Junco, the Western Tanager, and the American Robin, which apparently is not at all related to the robins in England. We also saw sapsuckers and woodpeckers, the Northern Flicker and the Wester Wood-Peewee, and several others.
  • Juvenile birds are often not much smaller than adult ones (once they’re able to fly), so size isn’t a good indicator of age. However, you can still pick out the juveniles because they have loose skin around their beaks (called a “gape” or, perhaps more technically, “gape flanges”) that is left over from sitting in the nest and begging for food from their parents.
  • The understory in a riparian environment is characterized as “mesic” (wet), as opposed to the chaparral environment, which is “xeric” (dry).
  • Firs have needles that occur singly; pines have needles that occur in bunches. I keep learning this one, and then somehow forgetting it. Hopefully it’ll stick this time. :)

I also attended two workshops. The first was on the geology of the San Bernardino Mountains, which actually ended up covering most of the geologic history of all of California, including the Cordillera I studied so intensely last fall. It was fun to recognize (and be reminded of) all of the crazy violent tectonic history of this state, as well as to learn some local specifics about the San Bernardinos, which I hadn’t previously visited or studied.

The second workshop was on herpetology (hurray!). The instructor brought in some lizards, some skinks, and a California Kingsnake. He offered to let us hold the snake, and I was the first to volunteer. :) Long, silky smooth, and rippling with muscle — snakes are pretty amazing creatures. However, I’m still more fond of lizards. I got some great photos of lizards on a solo hike I took.

I’m off to the mountains again this weekend!

Why roses are red and violets are blue

Today I finished the chapter on vegetables in “What Einstein Told His Cook 2”. One of the tidbits that stuck with me was the fact that (red) roses and violets both have the same pigment; it’s an anthocyanin that, like litmus paper, responds to pH with a color indicator. Rose petals are slightly acidic, so the pigment shows up as red, while violets are slightly alkaline and therefore appear blue. (Gosh, I shouldn’t have bothered buying that 100-pack of pH indicator paper; I’ve got 11 rose bushes outside!)

Apparently, the presence of anthocyanin also explains why the new growth on a rosebush is tinted red, but the older leaves are green; new growth that hasn’t yet begun producing chlorophyll is vulnerable to radiation from the sun, so extra anthocyanin is produced in the meantime, which protects it from UV.

Now I’m wondering: if I take a violet petal and drop it in some vinegar, will it turn red? Can I dye my roses with household chemicals? My roses are actually white, so no telling what would happen in different pH conditions (maybe nothing; the white could mean that they lack anthocyanin). I hear an experiment begging to be performed this weekend…

Edit: I may have to wait on this; I forgot that I’d just pruned all of my rose bushes down into skeletal stumps of themselves, with no blooms to be had.

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