Saturday, January 7, 2017

Jay is for January

Blue Jay drawing
I picked the Blue Jay, Cyanocitta cristata, for the January bird of my 2017 bird calendar because I love seeing the blue jays in the winter, their exquisite blue up against the snow or even against the browns of winter oak trees.  Their name includes cyan, a blue that is in between blue and green. When I looked up cyan, I found that the color is associated with making someone feel better and protected, perhaps that is why it is the color of so many swimming pools.  The color on the blue jay’s tail and back are closer to cyan than the feathers on its body.  In fact, those feathers that we see as blue are really more brownish—I have a blue jay feather and in some lights, it seems brownish gray.  But when it catches or reflects the light, it magically turns blue.  It is magic too—not simply pigment.  Cardinal feathers are red from pigment, but blue jay feathers have a structure that enables them to reflect blue light like the sky does.  They are living magic.

Blue jay males and females look the same.  They tend to mate for life, and the two work together to build the home for their babies.  The male gathers the materials and the female arranges them.  As Leslie Day writes, “The female incubates and broods four to six pale buff-bluish eggs with brown spots, while the male feeds insects to her and the nestlings when they hatch.”  This is a lovely arrangement, fair to all.  Blue jays are omnivores, so they also eat acorns, nuts, berries, and other fruits.  They bury acorns for winter eating and luckily for the forest, they sometimes forget where they are buried so that new oak trees grow. 

Like crows, blue jays are in the Corvidae family—a family of intelligent, curious, and playful birds.  Although blue jays have a reputation for aggressive behavior toward other birds, only a small percent of them actually do this.  And often it is a way of protecting their nest.  They are known to mob owls, squirrels, and even humans to defend their young.  But generally and especially in the winter, they bring color and beauty to the winterscape.  So when I went out for my walk on this snowy day, I searched the park for the spot of blue that means blue jays are about. 

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The Persistence of Persimmons

Persimmon drawing Dec. 14, 2016

Yesterday I tasted for the first time the luscious autumn fruit, the persimmon, Diospyros kaki, that is the Japanese persimmon.  Leslie gave it to me as we walked around the Bronx Zoo with Aya and Jim. I stared at a peacock under an oak tree and ate my persimmon.  It was the fuyu persimmon or non-astringent type, which means that it has less tannin and can be eaten fresh.  It is like a squat, sun-colored tomato and can be eaten like a ripe tomato or apple.  It is even a little crunchy unless the one you get is soft and very ripe; mine still had its crunch.   It can also be cut into smaller chunks and put in salads and or cooked.  Persimmons originally came from China and the tree spread into Korea and Japan, and made it to the United States in 1856 via Japan and Commodore Perry. 

Some persimmon trees are dioecious, which means they have separate male and female trees.  There are also some monoecious ones, which means that the male and female flowers grow on the same tree.  The female flowers are cream-colored and the male flowers are pink. 

Persimmons are supposed to be healthy fruits that have lots of Vitamins C, A. E, and B6.  Sounds a bit like the New York subway system.  They are said to be good for the eyes, protect against breast and prostate cancer, and boost the ability to fight free radicals.  For such little fruits, they pack quite a punch and they taste good too.  So here’s my take on persimmons and on other fruits and vegetables one may not know--try them.  Give them a chance.  There’s a real possibility you will find something that will actually make your life a little brighter and tastier if you are willing to take a risk.

Excerpt from “Persimmons” by Li-Young Lee

My mother said every persimmon has a sun
inside, something golden, glowing,
warm as my face.

Once, in the cellar, I found two wrapped in newspaper,
forgotten and not yet ripe.
I took them and set both on my bedroom windowsill,
Where each morning a cardinal
sang, The sun, the sun.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Reds Made on Purpose

Red Maple Leaf in Autumn Drawing
A most interesting discussion has begun about a process that most of us marvel at each year and that is the turning of leaf colors.  We know that in the fall (or autumn if you prefer) when it starts to get colder, and daylight gets shorter, the chlorophyll that turns leaves green starts to break down and reveal the underlying cartotenoids, which then turn leaves yellow or orangey. This is familiar to us, but what about the reds? Those glorious reds? All the way back on October 25, 1936, in the New York Times Charlotte Wallum wrote “The red pigments are cell-sap colors.  They are supposed to be tannoid compounds (referred to as anthocyanin) and the pigments of red beets and dark grapes are similar compounds.”

Now eighty years later to the date, October 25, 2016 in the New York Times, Joanna Klein takes another look at this familiar yet extraordinary process in her wonderful article, “Why Does Fall Foliage Turn So Red and Fiery? It Depends.” Klein begins her article poetically, “Leaves scream their final cries in color before dropping to the ground.”  She reminds us of the normal break down of chlorophyll and the revealing of the underlying yellow or orange in most leaves.  Klein then explains that the story of the red leaves is different.  Red leaves are “made on purpose.”  She tells us that the anthocyanins that are produced come from built up sugars in the leaves that combine with the green pigments left in the leaves and turn into different shades of red depending on the species, the environment, and its own genetics.  Clearly eighty years later, scientists understand the process better.  But even today, they are asking why some leaves use their “precious energy” to turn red before they die.  Several theories have been posited: They may be flashing color to attract birds and mammals to their tree’s fruits hoping that they will be eaten and the seeds dispersed.  Or the red leaves could be a warning about the bad-tasting poisons or chemicals in the leaves so they should be left alone and not used as sites for pests wanting to lay eggs.  Or the red color could signal that the leaf is dying and not to be eaten because it has no nutrients.  And finally there is Robert Guy, a professor of forestry at the University of British Columbia who wonders if the red “works like a sunshade in maple trees.”  According to him, the red leaves may serve as a protection from bright and UV light so that the leaves have the time to send their nutrients back into the tree for storage before they drop to the ground. 

I don’t know how many of us will be around eighty years from now, but I certainly hope the maples, the aspens, the black tupelos, the sassafras, and all the other trees whose leaves turn red will be.  In fact, I hope all the trees and natural life of this planet will be. But for now, let's take joy in the glory of the reds, and the glory of the fall. 

Monday, October 31, 2016

Black Cherry Treats

Watercolor of Black Cherry leaves and berries
As part of the proposed February 2017 opening of the Cabrini Woods Nature Sanctuary, near Fort Tryon Park, I was asked to draw a leaf of the Black cherry, Prunus serotia.  Planning a drawing involves a few steps including finding pictures online, in books, and going to look at the actual trees.  I knew there were several black cherry trees in the Ramble in Central Park, so I went to see them.  I soon realized that in drawing the black cherry, I would need to include the cherries that the trees produce, berries that are almost entirely gone by this time of year.  These cherries are food for all kinds of wildlife especially squirrels and birds who eat the berries when they are red or purple, but we humans generally wait to eat them until they are so ripe that they turn blackish purple.  Interestingly, when you look at a group of cherries on a branch, you see them in a variety of colors and ripeness and that is what I wanted to show. 

Black cherry trees are members of the Rosaceae or Rose family – a family that includes apples, pears, peaches, plums, apricots, almonds and many vines like strawberries, blackberries, and roses of course.  Black cherry trees produce flowers in the early spring, long pendulous blossoms that bees enjoy.  And then there are the cherries.  Like apricots and apples, the seeds contain compounds that can be converted into cyanide which can be released if the seed is ground or minced, but the flesh does not contain the enzyme that converts the chemical into the dangerous form of cyanide. However, there needs to be a word of caution about the foliage.  When it wilts, it contains a chemical that converts it into hydrogen cyanide if eaten by animals.  Farmers with grazing animals need to be aware of this, and they often remove these trees so the livestock do not eat the wilted foliage.  But for most of us, the trees do not pose a problem—we eat the cherries and not the leaves.  The black cherry timber is renowned for its beauty and durability.  The trees themselves grow easily in the urban environment and are replanted through the droppings of the animals who eat the cherries.  It is exciting to research a plant and to have the opportunity to draw it, especially knowing that it will be used as part of the signage in what will be a nature sanctuary in one of the loveliest parks in the NYC area.