Monday, June 30, 2008

Epic Ride, Osmia Heaven and A Cool Lizard

Just a quick post, and one with no great botanical revelations, but worth noting because of some interesting country I covered yesterday.

Yesterday was the 3rd annual Steiner100. When my friend Rick (the aforementioned organic chemistry professor) turned 60 two years ago, he organized a 100-mile mtn bike ride that involved pedaling away from his house on the East bench of Salt Lake City at 6AM, riding up and over into the Kimball Junction/Park City drainage, riding a whole bunch of trails, and then returning up and over the Wasatch Crest, dropping down back into Salt Lake Valley and pedaling back to his house., and in doing so, pedaling over 100 miles, overwhelmingly on dirt.

The ride was a great success, and we repeated in last year and planned to do so this year. But this year the late heavy snowpack is still blocking our planned route. So yesterday, for the 3rd annual Steiner100 we chose an alternate route: one that was much shorter- only 60 miles- but way tougher, using seldom-traveled, overgrown, narrow technical trails, full of logs and gut-busting climbs and Gambel Oak that scratched your arms and legs and aspen and serviceberry branches that whacked you repeatedly in the face.

But the single coolest thing about the Steiner60/100 yesterday was one amazing giant meadow/slope almost ¼ mile across, filled with blooming Balsamroot (Arrowleaf I think, we were moving fast). And no, I didn’t get a picture- this wasn’t a take pictures kind of ride- but I’d circled what I think is the location on the map for this post, and right now, and probably for the next few days, it is the most amazing blast of yellow flowers I’ve ever seen. If there is a heaven for an Orchard Mason Bee, that meadow is it.

Down here in the foothills the Balsamroot flowers are all but gone- just wilted, withered heads remain. But higher up, yellow flowers of all sort- Arrowleaf Balsamroot, Cutleaf Balsamroot and (tons of) Mules Ears throughout the ride. We also passed huge numbers of Sweetpea, Lupine, Larkspur, Indian Paintbrush, and even a lone Columbine.

At the end of the ride we traveled a seldom-ridden singletrack connecting Affleck Park to Little Mountain Pass. About a month and a half ago I was hiking this same stretch with the kids and came across this guy- A Desert Horned Lizard, Phrynosoma platyrhinos. I’ve been meaning to blog about him for a while, so I guess this is as good a time as any.

There are somewhere between 12 and 15 species of Phrynosoma, or horned lizard, all of which are native to North America. (OK so I guess maybe this isn’t going to be such a short post...) The most common in Utah is P. platyrhinos, and specifically the subspecies P. platyrhinos platyrhinos, the Northern Desert Horned Lizard, which is the Horned Lizard found up here in Utah and Idaho.

Tangent: Here’s another thing I’ve learned from doing this blog: pretty much any critter we look at- birds, moose, lizards- when you get into it, there’s always a whole bunch of species and subspecies. It’s like each critter is a snapshot of speciation and evolution in action. It makes me think that head-in-the-sand creationists and other anti-evolution diehards just really don’t get into the variety and diversity of critters all that much, or to put it another way, they just don’t know much about critters.

2 Cool Things About Horned Lizards

First is something you probably already thought you knew: when threatened, they squirt blood from their eyes. In fact, this is the primary reason I wouldn’t let my kids try and catch it last month. But the truth is a little more complicated; Horned Lizards do squirt blood from their eyes, but virtually never when threatened or handled by humans. But they do so routinely when threatened by dogs. And so it’s thought that the blood-squirting evolved specifically as a defense mechanism against foxes and coyotes, and so a canine is most likely to trigger it.

Tangent: BTW, both these Horned Lizard photos are mine, and are- if I may say so- not too shabby. Another fine step on my journey of redemption as a wildlife photographer...

The second cool thing is that they’re the only lizards in the world that appear to be specifically evolved to eat ants. Their body shape, hunting habits, tongues and teeth are all optimized for ant-hunting, and one of the most interesting adaptations is that they have far and away the largest (proportionally) stomachs of any lizards. Ants are nutritious, but have lots of non-digestible mass- namely the chitin of their exoskeletons. So to get a good meal from ants, a lizard needs to eat a lot of them. The over-sized stomach allows the Horned Lizard to “over-eat” by a wide enough margin to metabolize an adequate meal.

It’s hot here. And dry. Can’t believe it was 3 weeks ago that I was bitching and moaning about the rain. Our lawn is taking a beating; I better keep an eye out for D. sanguinalis making a comeback. I’d love a good thunderstorm right about now.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Solstice Gone By, State of the Blog

Last Friday was the Solstice, meaning Spring is technically over. When I started this blog, I thought that I might just run it for the season, since I set out on this blog with a clear goal, and have tried to be at least somewhat faithful about not just letting it be general place for me to whine and muse (i.e. a “normal” blog.) But as the solstice came and passed, 2 things became apparent:

First, The World is still Waking Up. Higher up, snow is still melting, Glacier Lilies and Larkspur are just popping out, and there’s a whole slew of higher Wasatch trees- Douglas Fir, White Fir, Limber Pine and Aspen we really haven’t looked at yet. And down low the foothills are browning up and settling into their summer “daze” with different bugs, birds and snakes.

Second, writing this blog is waking me up. As I’ve become more and more attuned to chemistry and flowers and leaf form and birds and so much more, and continuing to blog will help me see the world, and the Beauty of the World, with new, open eyes. So the blog is going to continue, at least to the Equinox.

Tangent: This past week, while I’ve been at the work-conference, Wonder Boy has been at Bird Camp, a day camp sponsored by the local aviary for 4th and 5th graders. My wife tells me he’s digging it, and his already formidable bird knowledge and identification skills have rocketed up to the next level. Between him and my organic chemist buddy, my circle of experts is growing!

Thursday, June 26, 2008

SoCal Pines Part 2: Wherein I Construct a Magic Quadrant

My 2nd target was a different type of Pinon- Sierra Juarez Pinon, and I drove East and up into the low desert mountains to try an locate one. I struck out, but when I exited the freeway ~45 miles East of San Diego, I saw a big pine standing solo, which I discovered to be Coulter Pine (pic left), another hard pine, 3-needled, which grows only in the coastal ranges of Southern/Central California and Northern Baja California. Coulter Pine, Pinus coulteri, is known for its massive cones (pic lower right), which are large, heavy and beautiful, with each scale tipped by an elegantly curved, sharp hook, making the cones tricky to handle. The cones weigh 4-10 pounds, and are apparently a potential hazard when working, camping or recreating in Coulter Pine forests. The cones have a light blond color, and between this, their size, and their dramatically curving scales, they’re arguably the most attractive pine cones in the world.

Torrey and Coulter Pines are apparently fairly closely related (along with Gray Pine) and what’s interesting about them is each is popularly known for a superlative in the pine world. Torrey Pine is commonly known as the rarest pine in the Western Hemisphere, with only ~8,000 trees left. Coulter Pine is known as the pine that bears the largest and most massive (but not longest) cones of any pine in the world.

Necessary Background to Explain Graphics in Next Section

My employer is a technology research firm.My employer’s chief competitor is known in the IT industry for their trademark comparative graphic: the Magic Quadrant. A Magic Quadrant visually places and “scores” competing products in 2 dimensions. In practice, most actual Magic Quadrants from published by this firm look something like this:

I, my colleagues and my clients delight in making fun of Magic Quadrants. Nevertheless, I’ve found the graphical representation to be a handy tool from time to time. For example, here’s a Magic Quadrant I constructed last year to rate Mexican restaurants close to my office:

Back To The Topic At Hand

What’s interesting is that neither of these superlatives is correct. In each case, there’s a pine that surpasses them, in rarity and cone mass/size respectively. But what’s really weird is that the pine that surpasses each in its respective superlative is the same tree.

Martinez Pinon, Pinus maximartinezii, (pics left and lower right) is a rare 5-needled soft pine growing on a single mountain in Zacatecas, Mexico. With only ~2,500 mature trees in the wild, and absolutely massive cones, as well as the largest, thickest-shelled seeds of any pine, Martinez Pinon is in a class by itself. But what’s super-cool about all this is that 2 years ago I successfully sought out and located Martinez Pinon in the wild, befriended the land-owners, and successfully collected and returned home with cones and seeds and today have 3 seedlings growing on my kitchen windowsill.

That’s another story. One worth telling to be sure, and probably my best tree-hunting story of all, but still another story, and too long a tangent for this early in the year.

The week, and the conference, are almost over. Tomorrow night I fly home to Salt Lake, where I'll stay for the next 2.5 weeks until my next trip out-of-state, this time East.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

SoCal Pines Part 1: I Never Go Nowhere But Where There's A Plan

Quick Update: Sunday afternoon I spotted the Garage Black Widow in a new web on the other side of the brick pile, in a space plenty wide for my foot, and quickly squashed her. So much for disassembling the brick pile...

One of my favorite lines in any movie is in Raising Arizona, when the recently-escaped convict played by John Goodman says, to the protagonist (played by Nicholas Cage), “As you know, Neville here and I never go nowhere but where there's a plan…” before elaborating on a half-baked plan to rob some bank.

For the past 20 years I’ve traveled a ton for work. And though many of those trips have been meaningless, forgettable blurs in places like Dallas and Indianapolis, wherever possible, particularly in recent years, I’ve tried to take advantage of such travels to accomplish or visit some other personal objective or item of interest, and as I’ve done so, the theme in my head has been to Never Go Nowhere But Where There's A Plan.

Which brings me to today’s post. Right now I’m at my company’s annual user conference in San Diego. My company hosts this event every year, and it for me it’s basically a straight week of working from 7AM to 10 or 11PM, almost never leaving the confines of a large hotel. The conference is an important event in the continued growth and success of my company, but it’s a challenging week for me. I dislike large hotels, hotel food, cavernous hotel meeting rooms. I’m (ironically for a salesguy) not terribly social naturally, and find a steady week of greeting, conversing and/or selling clients, prospective clients and colleagues somewhat taxing. And the immersion into my work, company and client base badgers me with the unfortunate reality that I really don’t find what I do for a living all that interesting.

And so when I got on the plane Monday morning, I embarked With A Plan.

Last week I compared the flora of Northern California to that of an alien planet, and the flora of Southern California is no different, except that it’s completely different, meaning that it’s like another alien planet. So when I landed in San Diego mid-morning, I headed not for the hotel shuttle, but for the rental car pickup.

Tangent: Several colleagues were on my flight, and I was loathe to come clean about my geeky-wannabe-botanist reason for playing hooky for several hours when it was obvious I wouldn’t be sharing a cab with them, so I invoked the Fake Friend strategy. Fake Friend is a technique I came up with several years back for when I’m on the road with colleagues and looking for a way to not socialize with them in the evening, but still looking to get out of the hotel and eat/do something. The idea is that I’m –regretfully- passing on dinner with the gang so that I can meet up up with my old, dear friend, who lives here (wherever here is) and whom I haven’t seen in ages.

The specific “Fake Friend”(s) I used in this case were my godparents, who I said lived up in Carlsbad, far enough to justify renting a car for the round trip.

Nested tangent: My real godmother (I was baptized in a church that assigns the baby being baptized only a single godparent, not a couple) is (or was? I have no idea) married to this guy, the guy who wrote the book Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask. My parents were friends with the Reubens when they lived in La Jolla in the mid 1960’s, though they haven’t been in touch in 40+ years. So like most of my Fake Friend invocations, this one contained a germ of truth.

My Plan was to visit 2 new pines. First up was Torrey Pine, Pinus torreyana, a hard Pine that’s an extreme narrow endemic; it grows naturally only on a stretch of headlands between La Jolla and Del Mar, and on Santa Rosa Island, 175 miles away. It’s a 5-needled hard pine, with large, woody, fairly spherical prickly cones that hang on the tree for several years, slowly dropping seeds.

Pines can be divided in up in a couple of different ways. One way is hard pines vs. soft pines, which we talked about way back when we looked at relic Ponderosas, and is pretty much an ancestry thing. Another is seed dispersal. Some pines have small seeds with little half-samara-like wings, that are dispersed by wind. Other pines have large, wingless seeds that require some external dispersal agent- usually a bird or critter of some sort. The wind/agent seed dispersal division isn’t necessarily ancestral; Whitebark Pine and Limber Pine are only distantly related, but have nearly identical seed dispersal methodologies (specifically corvids, most notably Clark’s Nutcracker.)

Torrey Pine has large seeds with a small vestigial wing and seems to be designed/evolved - like a pinon or Limber Pine or Whitebark Pine- for some type of dispersal agent- a corvid, a squirrel, something- but none seems to be present in the tree’s lifecycle as it exists today. And maybe that absence- something missing or broken in its seed-dispersal methodology- accounts for its rarity today

I visited the Torrey Pine in Torrey Pines State Park, a picturesque set of bluffs overlooking the Pacific, where I hiked around between groves for a bit. I wanted to collect a cone, but the park is well-visited, and good-condition cones at a reachable height or on the ground were hard to come by. And it’s *technically illegal to collect them.

*Whenever I say "technically illegal", that usually means "actually is illegal, but I'd probably do it anyway if I thought I could get away with it..."

Tangent: Torrey Pines has a great beach. Smooth sand, good surf, I stopped for a swim on the way out the park.

But although the park is now hemmed in by development, Torrey Pines are cultivated for several miles South, in office parks and golf courses, and on the return drive I pulled into a hospital parking lot, where I picked a perfect-condition, seed-laden cone. When I pulled into the lot, I thought about the name of the hospital: Scripps Memorial Hospital. Why was that name so familiar? As I walked back to the car, I remembered where I’d seen it: on my birth certificate. I realized that this hospital was the actual hospital at which I was born, way back in 1964. ( I previously mentioned my SoCal origins at the end of this post.) How weird is that?

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Black Widows Part 2: Lust and the Brick-Pile in My Head

Black Widows are probably also an appropriate place to talk about something we’ve been bumping into over and over again all Spring: lust. In so many of these posts about plants or birds or bugs I’ve been talking about things mating or reproducing. But I haven’t really looked at it from the perspective of the bird or bug or plant I’m describing.

I don’t know that anyone can ever really know the perspective of a plant- sexual or otherwise. Plants clearly respond to stimuli, they clearly put effort into producing flowers and pollen and seeds, but I wouldn’t seriously suggest they have any type of consciousness or self-awareness. But clearly they do have some “awareness” of their immediate world, and just because something isn’t self-aware doesn’t mean it doesn’t or can’t have a perspective. Deep down, I suspect the perspective of plants is something we’ll all know somehow after death, when the stuff of our brains is recycled into stems and leaves and flowers.

But the perspectives of animals we can- to a degree- understand. Animals clearly experience fear and hunger and aggression, and we all understand what it is to experience these. And animals feel lust, which all of us know or have known. But the Black Widow makes me think about lust, how we experience it, and whether we ever really know it on the magnitude of other living things.

There’s a common bit folklore about Black Widows that females regularly consume their mates. In reality, this behavior seems to be pretty rare; it’s only been observed in Latrodectus mactans, the Southern Black Widow. But male Black Widows of all species exhibit extreme caution and trepidation in approaching perspective mates (through a complex series of vibrations caused by gently tapping the threads of the female’s web), making it clear that being treated as prey by the female is a real possibility. And plenty of other male creatures, such as Praying Mantises and Scorpions are regularly consumed by their mates, and there are plenty of other male critters, such as Honeybees for whom the act of mating means certain, fairly quick, and presumably painful dismemberment and death.

And this leads me to the stupefying question: How horny does one have to be to risk getting killed and eaten by one’s mate? I love, and have for many years been any enthusiastic participant in, sexual activity, but if I knew that my wife was even thinking about killing and eating me upon completion of (or even during!) intercourse, I would immediately swear off all sexual contact or activity for the rest of my days. Clearly, a male Black Widow or a Scorpion knows a level of lust and desire that we can’t even conceive of. And for me, that highlights the greatest mystery of other living things: we can learn their habits, their physiology, their chemistry, but we can never really get inside of their tiny little alien minds and know what it is to experience existence from their perspective.

On a far more mundane level, closer to home, this whole Black-Widow-in-the-Garage deal has hit home in another way. Currently, in my life (my real pay-the-bills-get-stuff-done life, not my blogging-and-biking-and-poking around-at-wildflowers life), I’m facing a frustrating issue that has to be dealt with at some point. What it is doesn’t matter; it’s one of those work/direction/frustration issues that all of us deal with dozens, or even hundreds, of times over the course of our lives. And fundamentally, I know what I need to do; I know how to tackle it. But it’s complicated and unpleasant and a pain-in-the-ass and at any given time it’s easier to do nothing than to start to deal with it.

And this is exactly the situation with the Black Widow in my garage. It’s escaped into the brick pile. I know what I need to do: I need to carefully disassemble the pile- brick by brick, and search it and clean it to find and remove/dispatch the spider. I know I can do it. But it’ll be tedious, unpleasant and a bit dangerous, and in the meantime it’s not causing any trouble, and the kids know to keep away from the bricks. But in the long run, having a breeding female Black Widow in my garage isn’t a good thing, and so I know I ought to deal with it.

It’s not enough to watch the world wake up. I need to take apart and clean out the brick-pile in my head.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Black Widows Part 1: The Chemistry of Venom

So here’s what my kids found in the garage- a Black Widow, Latrodectus hesperus.

Tangent: It should be noted that this is- yes- another great wildlife photo, even if it is in my garage, and therefore another positive step forward in my continuing journey of redemption as a wildlife photographer.

6 years ago, when we moved into our house, the previous owners left only 1 thing behind- a small pile of bricks in the garage. I assume they left it; for all I know the previous owners left it for them. Who knows, maybe it pre-dates the house? Maybe the pile of bricks was left by the first Mormon pioneers, or even the Donner party as they struggled to lighten their load.

Tangent: The Donner party almost certainly passed within 100 yards of our house.

In any event, the Black Widow, a female, was sitting in her web spun between the brick pile and the garage wall, And when I tried to dispatch her, she scurried into the bricks of the ancient, timeless brick-pile.

There are so many fascinating aspects of the Black Widow, but I’ll focus on just 2 of them before getting to the main point of this 2-part post: chemistry (today) and lust (tomorrow).

There are 31 species of Latrodectus in the world, spread across every continent except Antarctica. 4 of those 31 are native to North America, and 3 of those are “Black Widows”. The Western Black Widow, most common in Utah, is Latrodectus Hesperus.

Everybody knows that Black Widow venom is dangerous. What most don’t know, and biologists are still unraveling, is how phenomenally complex it is. Black Widow venom is 15 times more potent than Rattlesnake venom, but rarely kills adult humans, because the amount injected is so minute. (The venom does an excellent job of sickening predators who consume it, who presumably then remember the bad meal and its distinctive red hourglass marking, avoiding it in the future.)

There are a whole slew of active ingredients in Black Widow venom; you could probably structure an entire organic chemistry class around the chemical composition of it. But the most important and distinctive active ingredients are a series toxins called latrotoxins. Latrotoxins are monster-sized molecules with dozens of different atoms (atomic weight > 120kDa) and exactly how all of them work is not yet completely understood. Black Widow venom contains at least 7 different latrotoxins: 5 that work specifically on invertebrates (ie. Bugs), 1- called alpha-latrotoxin, and which is the best-studied and understood- that works specifically on verterbrates (i.e. us). Alpha-latroxin is tetramer, a type of big-ass protein molecule consisting of 4 distinct pieces. The 7th and final latrotoxin works specifically on crustaceans.

Tangent: This last one is particularly interesting. There’s only 1 genus of land-based crustacean in the world: Armadillium, which we know as Woodlice or Potato Bugs. Evidently these critters have been an important enough food source (since no Woodlouse could conceivably be a predator to Latrodectus) to support the evolution of the crustacean-specific latrotoxin. And in fact, when I swept out behind the brick-pile, I swept up dozens and dozens of dried-out woodlice carcasses…

We’ve visited lots of great organic chemistry examples already this Spring: Monarch butterflies, the Black-headed Grosbeak, Low Larkspur, Snowflies, Poison Ivy and Wild Iris, allelopathy in Dyers Woad and even reverse-allelopathy in Musk Thistle, but Black Widow venom seems the most complex, sophisticated and finely-tuned of any we’ve looked at to date. And that’s probably been one of the biggest surprises for me of writing this blog- how fascinating and elegant the chemistry of living things is. In high school and college I suffered through Chemistry classes bored out of my mind. If they’d explained to me how amazing and important chemistry is in the real, living world, I would have been a lot more interested.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Visit to an Alien Planet

I’m back. The Mendocino trip was wonderful. Of course, the reason for the trip – celebrating 10 years of a wonderful marriage- would have made it wonderful even if we’d gone to the Ramada in Lincoln, Nebraska, but the fact that it was in Mendocino made it all the sweeter.

This Next Section Seems Like a Tangent But Isn’t

When I was younger, I was way into science fiction. One of the things I liked about the genre was the descriptions of alien worlds, places completely unlike the world I knew. The more detailed the description the better. I once read a short story from the 1930’s that described a Venus on which 1 day was equal to a year, meaning that the same side faced sunward all year. One side was baking-oven desert, the other permanently frozen night. The habitable zone was a thin temperate ribbon on the edge, in permanent dusk/twilight, with adjacent ribbons of permafrost/tundra on toward the night-side, and sweltering jungle full of killer fungi toward the day-side. Now that was an interesting planet. I used to daydream about being an interstellar astronaut, and visiting alien worlds.

Tangent: So where are the spaceships, moon colonies and flying cars already? When I was a kid in the 70’s, we used to hear about how by the year 2000 we’d all be taking vacations on the moon, flying around in jet-cars and have cool robot-friends who did our laundry. Instead we got cell phones, laptops and hundreds of cable TV channels, at least half of which are showing some variant of “Law & Order” at any given moment. Are you f***ing kidding me? This is the “Future”?? This is so lame…

But as I got older, I lost both patience and interest with sci-fi. It seemed too shallow and unrealistic, and the worlds described seemed too one-dimensional, lacking any real interesting detail. The worlds of the “Star Wars” movies are great, if sad, examples. Luke what’s-his-bucket lives on Tatooine, the desert planet. That’s right, the whole planet looks like Great Sand Dunes National Monument. There are no oases or woodsy parts, or oceans or mountains or lakes or anything else. In the second movie, the rebel hideout is on the “ice moon” of Hoth, which is, apparently, the Greenland ice cap on a planet-wide scale. And that planet Yoda lives on? All swamp. Like nothing ever drains off anywhere, and there’s no dry part or high part, or low part, or nothing. Oh and then the last movie has that big showdown with the teddy-bear people on the “forest moon” of Endor, which is- you got it- forest.

I guess when you get down to it, I don’t like sci-fi anymore because it’s like going to a new mall. You think, “oh hey a new mall, I wonder what will be here?” and of course it’s the Gap and Nordstrom’s and Victoria’s Secret and Orange Julius and all the same crappy stores that are at all the other malls all over the country.

Wherein I Tie This Strange Intro Back Into The Topic of the Post

Which is why I now- since the advent my newfound, middle-aged, admittedly strange passion for botany- love going to California. For the botanist, California really is another world- not just another state with a different climate, but with an entirely different, rich and unique flora, simply loaded with endemics and rarities. The pines, spruces, firs, oaks, shrubs and wildflowers are all different and wonderful. When you get out of the car in California and start poking around at the shrubs and trees, you’re in a world more alien and fantastic than any in “Star Wars.” In this post, before I get back to what’s happening along the Wasatch Front, I’ll highlight just a few of the amazing plants I came across last week.

The 2-needled Bishop Pine (pic left), Pinus muricata, is all over the Mendocino coast, but never more than 30 miles from the sea. In areas of poor soil it grows in stunted form, forming “pygmy forests” of which there are a number around Mendocino. Bishop Pine grows in scattered locations clear down to Baja California. The Northern populations vary from the Southern populations; the needles of the Northern Bishops have a slightly bluer tint. In conifers, a blue-ish tint to the needles is cause by wax build-up on the stomata (plant version of pores.)

Another 2-needled coastal endemic is the Bolander Pine, Pinus conorta var. latifolia is actually a subspecies of the Lodgepole Pine, that can grow either in stunted form in the pygmy forests (pic right) or more tree-like form under more favorable conditions. It’s the only pine in the world whose needles lack resin canals, so when you break a needle in half and smell it, there’s no “piney” smell.

Cypresses are unlike anything in Utah, vaguely juniper-ish, but way different in structure, form and seed. The Mendocino Cypress (pic left), Cupressus Pigmaea, is another narrow coastal endemic. (“Narrow”, when talking of an endemic, means of very limited range/distribution.) California has a number of cypresses, and their taxonomy and classification has confounded botanists for years. The weirdest thing about Cypresses for me are their bizarre cones/seedpods (pic right), which are spherical, but comprised of plates. When it’s time to distribute the seeds, the ball expands and the plates separate, sort of like those creepy egg-pods in the “Alien” movies.

We were fortunate enough to visit 3 great old-growth redwood sites, including Montgomery Woods, home of the Mendocino tree, which until a couple years ago was thought to be the world’s tallest tree. There are so many superlatives about Coast Redwoods you could do a blog just about them and nothing else. Their height alone is a fascinating topic, and as I touched on briefly in a previous post, the height is cool not just because it’s greater than any other tree, but because it seems close to the theoretical functional limit of a xylem-contained, tension-supported water column; Redwoods push the physics of the tree model right up to its limit.

The quiet cathedral-like ambiance of an old-growth Redwood grove is like nothing else- open, cool, quiet and seemingly timeless- about as close to a holy place as you can find in a forest.

The sad thing about Redwoods of course is how little old-growth there is. There’s loads of 2nd growth, and some of it- like the remarkable Redwood “tunnel” along the Navarro River on Highway 128- is wonderful in and of itself, but wherever you go in 2nd growth Redwoods, you see those incredible stumps, and you’re reminded of how incredibly magnificent the same forest was just a century or two ago.

Speaking of logging, this shot of a recently crashed and splintered old-growth Redwood in Montgomery Woods give you a feel of the stupendous sheer quantity of wood in a single old-growth giant; that’s a lot of decks right there.

I saw several other conifers- Sitka Spruce, Douglas Fir, Western Hemlock- but to blog about them all would take more time than I’ve got. But I’ll mention one more that I’m kicking myself over today: Gray Pine, also known as Digger Pine, Pinus sabineana. Gray Pine is a three-needled pine that thrives on dry, semi-arid hillsides, but grows only in California, and only in the greater drainage of the Central Valley (pretty much the same range as the wonderfully-named Blue Oak, with which it's typically found.) A scrappy, often-fork-trunked pine with huge cones and grayish, wispy looking, almost ghostly-needles, it’s almost like a weird other-world analog to pinon pine (to which it’s not particularly closely related.) I’d never seen it before yesterday.

One the way back to the San Francisco airport yesterday afternoon we were tight for time, largely due to- well actually completely due to- my making yet another Redwood stop. On the West side of 101, between Healdsburg and Santa Rosa, I passed a great stand of Gray Pine, huge cones hanging in the breeze. Now, if I’d been alone, I’d have pulled over into the emergency lane, traffic be damned, skidded to a halt and scramble up the embankment for a cone. But I was with my wife, already runnig late due to my repeated botany-related stops and side-trips, and loath to sour a great anniversary trip with my obsession. So I drove on past. And today I’m kicking myself. I need a Gray Pine cone.

Conifers were the highlight of this trip, but California is also an Oak-lover's paradise. Here in Utah the only live oak we know is Shrub Live Oak, Quercus turbinella. But in California, live oaks, such as Canyon Live Oak, Quercus Chrysolepis, grow as magnificent trees in their own right, growing alongside equally stately deciduous Blue Oak, Quercus Douglasii and Valley Oak, Quercus lobata.

I Have a New Favorite Wildflower

It’s this guy, Blue Flag, Iris Versicolor, a wild Iris that grows across the West but was growing all over the place in Mendocino. I think this is simply the most beautiful flower- wild or cultivated- I have ever seen. I have a serious crush on it. If it were a woman I’d run away with her. And it’s dangerous. The roots and leaves contains a type of chemical called iridin. Iridin is a glycoside, which is a class of molecule in which a sugar part is bound to some other (non-sugar) part. Glycocides are used in lots of living things, often to store the non-sugar part until needed. Like Low Larkspur, Blue Flag is a common poisoner of cattle, and occasionally humans. Indians used to make arrow poison from the roots (how cool is that??)

Beautiful and deadly, Blue Flag is like the floral version of a James Bond girl-villain. And it’s a monocot, of the order Asparagales, and so fairly closely related to the Joshua Tree. What more could I want in a wildflower?

So much more I could go on about, but I’ll leave it there, lest this blog turn into one of those California Tourism commercials. I’m back now, but for a few days. A bit of work, catch up with the kids, a big race on Saturday, then out-of state again, this time for work and for an entire week, in… California.

Homecoming Surprise

So after we got home last night, my wife and I were poking around the yard and she said, “Oh look, my wild geraniums have come out.” I didn’t know she’d planted them, but apparently she had, and when I checked them out, they were none other than my sought-after, paracarnivorous Sticky Geranium, Geranium viscosissum, right in my own back yard!