Friday, February 29, 2008

The Red of Spring

Red has always been the color of spring to me, particularly March.

In Bulgaria, on March 1st, people tie red and white tassels called Martenitzas around the wrists of loved ones, also cars, house doors, trees, and young animals. These tassels are protection amulets that are worn until the first stork returns, signaling the beginning of spring.

In Eastern European countries, scarlet eggs were symbols of resurrection and were placed on or buried in the graves of the family dead. A Romanian tale says that eggs are dyed red to represent the blood of Christ. But the Chinese used to exchange scarlet eggs at their Spring Festival in 900 BCE, so it is more likely the red color is the symbol of life.

The month of March is named after the Roman god, Mars, also the name of the Red Planet. Before he was the god of war, Mars was the god of fertility and vegetation. And the new growth of spring is often red.

In the days when I drove up to Clear Lake once a week to visit my mentor and friend, Helen Faris, I always loved that time during the year when the woods on either side of the highway took on a rosy flush, an almost imperceptible halo of color, slowly replaced in the weeks that followed with green.

In my neighborhood the change is a little less obvious since the trees aren't assembled en masse. I often stop to gawk at individual trees and shrubs on my walk to work, convinced they've changed but unable to say exactly how. The first inklings of spring are invisible yet apparent.

As spring rolls on and the leaves unfurl, the shift to spring becomes visible. The twigs of trees flush red at the tips. Right now, the leaves unfurling on the rose bushes are as red as the roses will be later. The new leaves of the hebe (to the left) are dark red, almost violet.

And, of course, who can miss the magic of the ubiquitous photinia, a popular shrub all over Seattle because of this--it's one trick--the bright red of the new leaves which slowly deepen to a darker, rubbery green.

Thanks to a letter posted at my favorite phenology site, Journey North, I now understand why. Anthocyanins. Those pigments that are so good for you, which are found in the skins of grapes and blueberries, are present in the cells of plants, creating the red color which acts as a sort of sunscreen protecting the plant from too much sunlight. As the plant develops, it is able to absorb the sunlight and convert it to chlorophyll, the green pigment, which overshadows the red., which won't be seen again until fall when the leaves of trees die and stop producing chlorophyll and the anthocyanins flame out in their fall colors.

The Journey North web site suggested an experiment which I carried out. I poured some purple grape juice into three cups, filled with bleach, water and white vinegar respectively. The purple color of the grape juice completely disappeared in the bleach, while it intensified in color in the vinegar and became diluted in the water. Don't know what that's supposed to prove but it was fun.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

How to Identify a Black Locust Tree in Winter

I spent the day getting signed up with the Budburst Project. I'm going to be reporting on nine plants that grow on my block. My instructions are to report the following markers: budburst (also known as first leaf, when at least three leaf buds have unfolded), full leaf (95% of leaf buds are unfolded), first flower (when you can see the stamens of the flower), full flower (when at least 50% of the flowers are open), end flower (when at least 95% of the flowers have dried up) and seed or fruit dispersal (when seeds or fruits start dropping naturally).

I chose the following plants from a long of possibilities.
American linden, common dandelion, common yarrow, forsythia, lilac, California poppy, purple passion flower, field mustard and white clover.
All can be found on my block except for the linden which is kitty corner from the northwest corner of my block.

I wanted to add a black locust tree to my list, since black locusts have always been magical trees for me. My mascot tree on the UW campus, the one I always hug (furtively) before and after my classes, is a black locust. But I wasn't sure if the locust tree on my block was a honey locust or a black locust.

Luckily I have Jacobson's Trees of Seattle, a wonderful reference guide which not only describes each tree but also provides addresses and directions so one can find specimens of each tree in residential neighborhoods and parks. (If your town doesn't have such a reference guide, you should create one. It's marvelous.)

Jacobson gives a nice breakdown of the differences between the two trees. Black locusts are likely to be older, grow wild and have extensive root suckers, while honey locusts have usually been planted, are younger and don't put forth suckers. You can see in this photograph of mine, how prolifically black locusts put forth suckers. This was was one of two trees in my neighborhood that were cut down to put up some condominiums. The two trees were damaged in a fierce windstorm and all the branches removed from the top of this one. In the few months it had vigorously re-asserted itself. Unfortunately, both trees are gone now so I couldn't compare them to the tree on my block

According to Jacobson, a black locust has showy white flowers while a honey locust has small greenish flowers; a black locust has 8 to 14 inch leaves with 9-25 leaflets while a honey locust has smaller leaves and up to 36 leaflets. Since there are neither flowers or leaves right now, I wouldn't be able to use these indicators until spring. Right now the tree is covered with lot of golden, bean-like seed pods. In a honey locust these should be 20" long and scarce, in a black locust, 2 to 5 ' long and abundant. My tree has abundant seed pods which made me think it's a black locust.

Then I found the lovely photograph above on Flickr and looked at the photograph of a honey locust on Wikipedia (did I say how much I love the Internet?). Now I'm sure my tree is a black locust. So I'm going to go add it to my observation list.

I also learned from Wikipedia (this time the article on black locusts) that the black locust is a major honey plant (bees love the fragrant flowers), it produces a wonderful hard wood used for fencing, railroad ties and firewood), it helps fix nitrogen in the soil (it's a member of the bean family and the seed pods do resemble bean pods) and it was named after the tree that supposedly fed St. John the Baptist in the desert, though, being native to America, it was not that tree. Jacobson says that black locusts have a beneficial influence on plants around them (unlike Black Walnuts which have a baneful influence). He writes: "Grass under locust trees is remarkably dark, green and lush." No wonder hugging my mascot tree has always inspired feelings of good will in me.

Jacobson, Arthur Lee, Trees of Seattle, Sasquatch 1989

first Robin of the season

On Monday, February 18, when I was heading to the flower store to order some flowers for my Mom's birthday (which is February 19--Happy Birthday, Mom!), I noticed a bird sitting on a telephone wire above the street in front of my apartment building. He (sex uncertain?) was making a lot of noise--I'm not sure I could call all of it singing, though most of it was quite lyrical. I went running back into the apartment and asked my daughter to come out and look at the bird since she's the one with some birding experience but neither of us could tell for sure what it was. I was hoping it was a robin (I've been looking for one for weeks) but when I listened to the robin calls posted at Journey North, one of my favorite phenology sites, they didn't match.

On Friday, February 22, when I dropped off my (way overdue) books at the library, I noticed big bird with a rather fluffy orange-red chest in a tree alongside the library. I prowled around the tree for quite a while, looking up, trying to decide if it was a robin. It looked a bit odd, as if it's orange-red breast was split in two and I always think of robins as having smooth red breasts. But, thanks to Journey North's video, I realized I was seeing a robin preening. He must have felt quite safe up there in that tree as this is not an activity a robin would engage in if he (again I'm not sure of gender but apparently male robins show up first) was feeling unsafe.

I went to Journey North to see if I could figure out if my robin was a male or a female. Probably a male, as the males arrive first. They listed the following markers for Robin phenology: first male seen, first wave (a group of robins seen together), first earthworms, first robin singing (male robins mark their territory with song), first female (they come later after the male has established his turf), first male battle, nest building, incubation of eggs, young hatch, young fledge, young take wing, new nest (or next batch).

I doubt that my singer on the telephone wire was a robin since no one else in my area has reported hearing any robins sing. But it was great to look at the robin map and see the first two robin sightings in Seattle were reported by Beth, who's a School of the Seasons subscriber.

I also found a great article on the etymology of the scientific name for the American robin: Turdus migratorius. No it's not what you think. Turdus is Latin for thrush and the author explains its relationship to the word Sturdy, which originally meant "trashed" or "hammered" because of the way thrushes act after they feast on fermented berries in fall. The French have an expression which means "drunk as a thrush."

Friday, February 15, 2008

Chickadees for Valentines

Ted Andrews in his book on animals writes about a folk belief that the first bird you see on Valentine's Day will predict who you will marry. If you see a blackbird, you'll marry a minister; a dove, a good-hearted man; a goldfinch, a rich man; a sparrow, a happy man; a crossbill, an arugmentative man; a robin, a sailor; a bluebird, a happy man; a hawk, a soldier; an owl, a man who will die soon. If you see a woodpecker, you will never marry. This sounds like 19th century British folklore to me, though he doesn't give the source.

The first birds I saw this Valentine's day were chickadees, a whole flock of them in the holly bush outside my apartment building. I'm not sure what it means. Perhaps it means that I will find my flock, the group where I feel like I belong. That would be wonderful since I usually feel like an outsider around groups.

While searching on the Internet for some possible folkloric meaning of chickadees, I found this wonderful site which features a chickadee dictionary. (It also features Signs of Spring: tulips are up all over the country and the first robin has been sighted in many places. I haven't seen one yet here in Seattle, although I saw the first robin on February 9 in 2005.) I like knowing that chickadees have a call they use when they're separated from their flock which means "I'm here! I'm here! I'm here!"

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Bird Chirping

I woke up two days ago to a strange sound. At first, I thought it was just the radiator, which usually makes fizzing and hissing and cranking and burbling noises. (I do note the first coming on of the radiator in my old (1905) apartment building. Apparently it is not turned on by a human hand but related to some complicated measuring of temperature, which makes it a true phenological sign. It first came on September 19 last year; it would be harder to measure when it goes off, since one is never quite certain, until some time has passed what was the last day it was on.)

But no, this sound was not the radiator. It took me a while before I recognized it: a bird chirping. Sweet and low, quiet but cheerful. Have no idea what kind of bird it was but I realized that I haven't heard that sound for quite a while. Spring is here!

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Snowdrops for Spring

Here's a picture I took last spring on February 4 of snowdrops growing just down the block from my apartment building on Capitol Hill in Seattle.

This Sunday, February 3rd, when I was walking back from the library with my new books, I passed the same clump of snowdrops and they looked just like this.

I notice that at the phenological website for the UK, no one has yet reported any snowdrops in bloom. I suspect that's because the technical definition of "in bloom" is that one can see the stamens of the flowers, and these are still tightly closed. I like them almost better like this. They look like little white lanterns.