Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Burbs in April, and Old People & Airports

So every Spring I realize- all of a sudden- 2 things: First, the suburbs look fantastic, and second, that for the preceding 4 months, they’ve looked like total crap.

IMG_9195 Seriously, when there’s no snow on the ground, how ugly are the suburbs in Winter? Really ugly, that’s how. They’re all brown and gray and dead, and on those few days when it thaws and the snow melts off and you send the kids outside to play they quickly turn the already-brown lawn into a mud bog. Piles of old snow accumulate along the roadsides, and turn gray, then black from exhaust, reminding you just how gross and awful and full of crap the air is.

IMG_9196 Throughout those long, color-less months, if one tree- just one tree- in our neighborhood suddenly bloomed with spectacular white or pink blossoms, we’d be like “Wow! How beautiful!” and we’d stop whatever we were doing for a few minutes and go check it out.

Go For A Walk Now

But instead what happens is this: in mid-April, suddenly not one, but thousands of trees, all across the valley, explode with flowers, and we think “Oh, pretty…” and then sort of half-ignore them for a few weeks, until sometime in the first or second week of May we think, “Huh, I guess all those flowers area gone…” So here’s a suggestion: tonight after work, grab the wife/hubbie/SO/dog/Crazy-Aunt-Who-Lives-In-Your-Basement/Whatever and go for a walk in the ‘hood.

IMG_9206As longtime readers know, I get all amped up whenever the first little micro-flower pops up in the foothills. But the clearest “Spring Is Here” sign for me isn’t a bird or a flower or even the longer daylight- it’s opening the garage door and seeing this (pic left)- the Pear trees in my neighbor’s front yard.

There are of course about a gazillion species flowering trees in temperate climates, a small subset of which are frequently planted in American suburbs. One of the most common and popular (and some would say over-planted) are Pears (genus = Pyrus.) Pyrus belongs to the Rose family Rosaceae, a large (~4,000 species) and very successful angiosperm family that we keep running into over and over again; Wild Rose, Cliffrose, Bitterbrush, Serviceberry, and Chokecherry are all native Utah Rosaceae plants.

rose1 Side Note: All Rosaceae have 5-petaled flowers. The obvious exception is cultivated (non-wild) roses, but only 5 of their petals are true petals; the remainder are actually modified stamens, which have been modified by artificial selection (deliberate breeding) over several centuries.

Within Rosaceae, Pears, the closely-related Apples (genus = Malus), Hawthorn (genus = Rhaphiolepis) and about 25 other genera belong to the sub-family Maloideae, which is characterized by a type of fruit called a pome and a haploid chromosome number of 17.

Side Note: Serviceberry is also a Maloideae plant; Chokecherry belongs to another family, Prunoideae, the same family which includes peaches, apricots, cherries and almonds. Prunoideae have fruits called drupes, which each contain a single pit-type seed.

calpearfruit2Pears evolved somewhere in East Asia- probably in China- and have been bred and spread by humans for thousands of years. Today there are about 30 species, as well as numerous subspecies, hybrids and cultivars. One of the most commonly planted species in the US- and the species in my neighbor’s yard- is Callery Pear, Pyrus calleryana. Callery Pear is native to China, and is a popular ornamental not only because it looks good, but because it’s ultra-resistant to disease or blight. Ornamental Pears are often described as fruitless, but that’s often (usually?) not the case; Callery Pears bear little ½ inch micro-pears (pic left) in the Fall.

pear1 Fruit Tangent: Of course the pears you buy in the supermarket- like most fruits- are giant-freak versions of their wild ancestors. Pears are an interesting fruit because people often have strong feeling- pro or con- toward them. I think one of the things that influences the “con” camp is the grittiness of the fruit flesh.

pear2 The fruit of a pear contains scattered clusters of “lignified” cells. Lignin, which I described in the Limber Pine post, is the key structural support substance in woody plants, and after cellulose, the most common substance in plants. So a pear feels “gritty” because it’s actually “woody”. People of course don’t digest lignin (or cellulose); we just pass it. Supposedly the lignin in pears provides a fiber element that is beneficial to our digestive tract, and specifically our colon.

IMG_9209 The most common Callery Pear cultivar is the “Bradford Pear”, but those in my neighbor’s yard are “Chanticleer” Pears, bred for their more vertical/pyramidal form. Their flowers, though attractive, have a lousy smell, vaguely reminiscent (up close) of rotting meat.

Tangent For Normal People (Non-Plant Geeks): “Cultivar” is analogous to “breed” in the animal world. It’s not a separate species. For example, all domestic dogs belong to the same species, Canis familiaris. They all have 78 chromosomes and can all interbreed with one another, but have been deliberately bred for centuries into specific breeds. Similarly, all Callery Pears are the same species, (sort of*) have the same number (34) of chromosomes and (probably can*) interbreed.

* There may be polypoid P. calleryana cultivars; I don’t know. See this post for an explanation of polyploidy.

Growers come up with cultivars of all kinds of trees; a common example is Blue Spruce, which explains why some look basically green, while others are almost insanely blue.

An interesting thing about Callery Pear is that many parts of the country (East, Southeast) it has escaped cultivation and become an invasive. The same hardiness and disease-resistance that make it such a popular ornamental also make it a real problem (if attractive) pest-tree.

IMG_9198 Pears are agent-agent plants: agent-pollinated with agent-dispersed seeds. The pollinator-agent is of course bees (pic right, in flowers), which have been busy at work on many of the trees in our ‘hood. I’ve got some exciting bee news, but let’s save that for the next post, and check out another cool flowering tree.

This past weekend my parents were visiting from Massachusetts, and my Mom and I went for a walk around the neighborhood to check out the trees.

Tangent: I realize that I’ve been at this for over a year and never mentioned my parents. That’s probably because my parents give me so little to whine about; I have the World’s Coolest Parents. They’re easy-going, helpful, wonderful with our kids, and get along great with Awesome Wife and Brother-Phil’s wife, as well as all of our friends. In fact, what’s neat about my parents is they’ve actually gotten cooler as they’ve gotten older. Specifically, they’re gotten cooler about the whole Old-People-Airport Thing.

Old People And Airports

OK, so here’s something that drives me crazy about old people: They always want to get to the airport like 3 hours before their flight. They are absolutely terrified of missing a plane. The irony is that old people- who are generally retired- have pretty much nothing going on. If you or I miss a flight, we might miss a day of work, or an important meeting, or fail to get our kids to school, etc. But old people don’t work or have to care for small kids. (Yes I know, lots of old people “volunteer”. Yeah, right- like the library is gonna collapse or burn down because the DVG (Designated Volunteer Geezer) didn’t show up on time…)

Old People Airport The DVG who drove me craziest was my mother-in-law (may she rest in peace.) Every time she’d visit, the night before she left us, she and I would go through this painful clenched-teeth negotiation. She’d say, “My flight is at 10:00AM, we should leave at 6:00AM.” I’d say, no, 8:00AM will leave you plenty of time, and we’d compromise on say 7AM. The next morning I’d shuffle down at 6:15 into the kitchen to make coffee, unshaven, wearing only a bathrobe, and there she’d be, sitting at the kitchen, suitcase by the door, her purse on her lap, her coat already on, and she’d say, “I’m ready to go as soon as you like!”

AirportSLC1 Nested Tangent: Though the Early Airport Weirdness is overwhelmingly an Old People thing, it strangely seems to also afflict my brother- let’s call him “Phil.” 99% of the time, Phil is a really cool 30-something guy- laid-back, relaxed, funny. Trust me, if you knew Phil, you would want to hang out with him. But 6 hours before a flight, he suddenly transmogrifies into a 75 year-old man, looking at his watch, nervously tapping his foot, and mumbling about check-in lines, and how “it’s good to have a little time at the gate…” I don’t know what Phil actually does with his extra hour at the gate; maybe he moonlights as a Delta gate agent or something…

But my parents, who have long been afflicted by Old-People-Airport syndrome, are actually getting cooler about getting to the airport on time. This time I told my Mom we could leave the house 90 minutes before the flight and she was like “OK, sounds great.” It’s like my parents have had this brilliant insight that somehow escapes so many old people: “We’re retired, we don’t have to be anywhere, we can do whatever the hell we want, and we don’t need to worry about stupid little stuff.” Isn’t that cool?

IMG_9205 So anyway, Mom and I were walking through the ‘hood, and we saw this- a flowering Magnolia. Magnolias (genus = Magnolia. Isn’t that nice? For once, a Latin name for a plant that doesn’t sound like the name of a Roman general…”Et tu, Quercus?”) are hugely popular ornamental trees for good reason- good-looking, robust flowers.

There are over 200 species of Magnolia, all native to the New World or Southeast Asia. Like Quercus (Oak) and Cercocarpus (Mountain Mahogany), Magnolia is a genus that includes both evergreen and deciduous species. They’re beautiful and all that, but the most fascinating thing to plant-geeks about Magnolias is this: they’re way primitive.

Magnolias have been around for close to 100 million years, and belong to a group of angiosperms that are now called Magnoliidae, but used to be called “primitive dicots*.”

*Apparently the word “primitive” was deemed too pejorative and un-PC. Wouldn’t want to hurt the tree’s feelings or anything…

cf0011-magnolia-flower-photo-notecard-bgMagnoliidae- which also include avocadoes, cinnamon and nutmeg- are plants who most closely resemble some of the earliest angiosperms and represent a separate and ancient branch of the angiosperm family. Tens of millions of years ago, their ancestors parted ways from the plants that would evolve into monocots and the eudicots (non-primitive dicots), which means- bizarrely and counter intuitively- that an Oak, Maple, Willow, Aspen, Pear, Apple, Peach or Cottonwood tree is actually more closely-related to grass than it is to a Magnolia. How weird is that?

Hood Family Tree Magnolia flowers represent an early and primitive structure. There’s no clear distinction between sepals and petals (see this post for flower-anatomy basics) and the pistils and stamens are arranged in a spiral pattern within a conical receptacle that appears similar to the flower-structure of the earliest fossil-angiosperms. MagnoliaBeetle2If you’ve ever handled the flowers, you may have noticed that they’re fairly tough, compared to say Pear or Apple or Cherry blossoms. This is thought to be because magnolias evolved before bees and were mainly pollinated by beetles, who, in pollinating a flower, tend to be a bit rougher on it (they crawl all over it.)

Tangent: I love these kinds of “living fossils”- Cycads, Mormon Tea, Ginkgoes, Clubmosses- when you learn about what these things really are and where they come from, and then you actually see them alive and growing, it’s like you came across a dinosaur or a trilobite.

Which brings us back to…

Next Up: Bev Gets Bees!


Phil O. said...

At airports, I have to get to the gate early -- that's where I pick-up my Social Security checks.

Ski Bike Junkie said...

I actually like the grittiness of pears but hate grainy apples. Is that weird?

KanyonKris said...

Ditto, SBJ.

I'm enjoying the Spring awakening, but I need to take time to look more closely.

Watcher said...

Phil- next time you come out to visit, you should pal around with OC Rick, who apparently has started reading my blog (but not yet advanced to commenting.) But he sent me an email vigorously defending getting to the airport early (and also volunteering at the library, which is way weird because he would be the last guy to do that...) Anyway, you guys should coordinate flight times next time you're out and then you could go to the gate and pick up your SS checks together.

SBJ & KKris- I don't know why grainy apples are grainy, but I'm pretty sure it's not the lignin thing. Might be because some of the sugars have crystallized, but that's a wild guess.

Andrey said...

The blue flowers are indeed from forget-me-not family (Boraginaceae). It is a common bugloss (Anchusa officinalis).

Andrey Zharkikh

Watcher said...

Andrey- thanks for the ID. I appreciate the help!