Thursday, November 26, 2015

Sweet as Thanksgiving Itself

What would Thanksgiving be like without the Sweet Potato, Ipomoea batatas?  I couldn’t resist drawing one of ours before we baked it for everyone at our table to enjoy today.  Drawing it made me want to know more about these funny shaped orange root veggies, so I tried to answer one big question I’ve had for a long time:  Are sweet potatoes and yams the same? The answer is no.  The Yam, which is in the genus Dioscorea, is an unrelated tuber native to Africa and now grown in the Caribbean and is sold in mostly specialized markets.  I also found out that the Sweet Potato is not related to the standard potato, Solanum tuberosum nor is it in the nightshade family as are potatoes, tomatoes, and eggplants. And here is a surprise: Sweet Potatoes are actually related to the morning glory and the sweet potato vine grows easily with pretty leaves.  Thinking about that, I remembered planting a sweet potato in a jar with water and toothpicks in 2nd grade and watching it develop roots and an amazing vine that seemed to grow a little every day.  I wish schools had been more into drawing to learn science back then—what a fascinating record I would have. 
       Sweet potatoes are among the most nutritious foods you can find, and the more orange-fleshed they are the more beta-carotene they contain.  They also contain a high content of Vitamins C, B5 and B6, and complex carbohydrates.  Their cultivation is encouraged in countries with poverty and poor child health.  Researchers have traced this wonderful food source to northwestern South America.  Its domestication seems to have occurred with the development of Tropical Forest agricultural villages around 2500 BCE.  The Spanish introduced it to Europe and spread it to China and Japan.  The Portuguese brought it to India, Indonesia, and Africa.  Sweet potatoes have been radiocarbon-dated in the Cook Islands to 1000 CE, so it is clear that they were in Polynesia long prior to Magellan’s circling of the world between 1519-1522.  One linguistic clue to these connections is that Polynesian and Quechuan languages have a similar name for the plant.  We were late in discovering that wonderful food: the Sweet Potato was introduced to the United States in the 18th century, and we’ve been growing and eating them ever since.    
     And as we know, they have the word “Sweet” right in their name.  What can say it better than that? They are tasty, healthy, nutritious, and fun to cook and eat and draw.  Happy Thanksgiving all!

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Murmuration of Starlings

Drawing of European Starling on ledge
Murmuration of Starlings

At about 2 p.m. on Sunday, as we were driving near exit 16 on the NY State Thruway, we saw what appeared to be a midnight ballet in the cloudless afternoon sky.  Thousands of small flying dancers twirled, swirled, dipped, and twisted.  Traffic slowed.  We sat in awe staring at a murmuration of hundreds or even a thousand European starlings.  Scientists think that the murmurations are precipitated by a nearby falcon.  But whether that is the case or not, they mystify us. Researchers examining the phenomena closely say that there is no leader in the flock.  They communicate as a collective. Their behavior continues to fascinate and puzzle us.  But one thing we do know for sure is how European starlings got to North America and why.  As Steve Mirsky explains in his article in Scientific American, in the late19th century, a group called the American Acclimatization Society made a decision to introduce to the United States every bird mentioned in Shakespeare’s writing, and by the way, Shakespeare mentioned some 600 birds, so the task was big.  The starling was only mentioned once in Henry IV, Part I and then because of the starling’s ability to learn to speak.  And what the bird was going to be taught to say was the name “Mortimer,” a name that would drive Henry bats.  In any case, it is said that Eugene Schieffelin, a member of the group and a Bronx resident, took the responsibility of bringing some 60+ starlings to Central Park in 1890 and 1891. To say that they are prolific is to put it mildly.  Mirsky tells us, “By 1950 starlings could be found coast to coast, north past Hudson Bay and south into Mexico. Their North American numbers today top 200 million.” To many they are pests because of the way they compete with native birds for nesting spots and food. But like them or not, they seem to be here to stay along with their awe-full murmurations.  I enjoyed drawing this starling with all the beautiful spots that decorate the ends of the feathers for the Field Guide.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

It Smells Like What?

Callery Pear Leaf in November Drawing

The Callery Pear, Pyrus calleryana, in the family Rosaceae is a beautiful little deciduous tree that is one of a species of pear trees native to China and Vietnam.  They were named after Joseph-Marie Callery, a missionary, who sent specimens of the tree to Europe from China.  You can find them in all five boroughs.  The “Survivor Tree” that survived the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center and that was replanted at Ground Zero by President Obama is a Callery Pear tree. Callery Pears bloom early in the spring and produce lovely five-petaled white flowers that people say have, well let’s just say, an earthy smell.  They only smell in the spring when the flowers emerge, unlike the ginkgos that smell in the fall when the fruit emerges.  Everyone knows that ginkgo fruit smells like vomit.  But not everyone knows that the Callery Pear flowers smell like semen.  So if you are walking down the street admiring the white flowers covering spring trees and reminding you that summer is coming, but then you find yourself wiggling your nose and saying, “Hey, what’s that funky, spunky smell,” well, now you know what it is.  New York City has lots of Callery pears, some 63,000.  And lots of birds are appreciative because they enjoy the berries. In the 2005 tree census, Callery pears were number three right after the London Plane and Norway Maple trees.  We’ll see what happens when the results are out for the 2015 tree census.  Some people think the numbers will go down even though the total number of trees is likely to go up.  Callery pears aren’t planted as much as they used to be and it’s nothing (or I think it is nothing) to do with the spring flower smell.  Some people find their flowers messy.  Others consider them invasive. Not only that but the trunks split easily as they age, and many are lost to storm damage.  But ooh la la, the fall colors of the Callery Pear are something else.  They are often deep, wine colored, which is the color I am trying to show in my drawing of one of the leaves I gathered in my neighborhood this week. 

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Perils of Acorns

Drawing of acorns and dried pin oak leaf

Lana, the acorn hunter

You have to watch where you walk or you’ll trip on the acorns.  That’s the way it is in my apartment these days.  My little dog, Lana, secrets pin oak, Quercus palustris, acorns in her mouth while we are walking and then brings them in the apartment and hides them—sometimes under the pillows on the sofa, sometimes in the soft creases in her bed used by her for her toys, sometimes carefully placed in the patterns on the rugs so they go unnoticed until—oops—another acorn.  I worried about her desire to suck acorns, open them up, and sometimes eat the innards, but it turns out Lana is onto something.  We all know squirrels eat acorns.  We may know that many Native American tribes eat acorns, but how many of us know that Korean cuisine includes acorn jelly and that cultures all over the world have traditional ways to make acorn flour, jam, soup, and pudding?  Bill Logan’s book Oak: The Frame of Civilization tells us that the Tunisian word for oak is “meal-bearing” tree and that there are references to acorns as food in even ancient Greek literature.  Acorns actually contain healthy fats, proteins, and minerals, and some say they are good for controlling blood sugar levels.  But don’t try to eat them right off the street: they contain the bitter tasting and not so healthy tannin.  In order for us humans to eat acorns, we remove the tannins—they are water soluble so they can be leached out, but remember first you have to crack the shells and not by tripping on them in my living room. 

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Clones do exist

Big-Toothed Aspen Drawing by Trudy 
The Big-Toothed Aspen, Populus grandidentata, is a common tree in New Paltz and Gardiner, where I found my leaves.  When I saw the leaves scattered about all through the dried grass , the bushes, and the stones, I thought they were from the Quaking Aspen, but then I noticed the deep-toothed leaves that are the marker for a close relative, the Big-Toothed Aspen.  The leaves are simple, alternate, and ovate in shape.  One interesting characteristic is the flattened petiole or stem, which is what makes it tremble in the wind.  Aspens are dioecious, with male and female flowers on different trees. The Aspen is known as a pioneer tree—after fires or harvest—the roots of the dead or cut tree will send up suckers along long lateral roots, creating identical trees or an aggregate called a “clone.” All the trees in a clone have the same features and share a root structure--Think "Orphan Black."  Aspen clones can be less than an acre and up to 100 acres in size.  There can be one clone in an aspen grove or many.   This is a characteristic of most aspens.  So aspens are important trees for regenerating forests and fields. It is also interesting that when an aspen tree dies, chemical signals from the tree to the roots stimulate new sprouts.  So the clone survives even though individual trees die.  Clones can live to be hundred of years old: According to the USDA Forest Service,  the oldest aspen clone is the “Pando” clone in Utah which is over 100 acres in size, weighs more than 14 million pounds, and is thought to be around 80,000 years old.   Deer, bears, and rabbits browse the aspens for food and especially birds use the bark, twigs, and buds as food.  In the autumn, the Big-toothed Aspen is particularly beautiful when the bright green leaves turn to gold, apricot, red, and orange.  They were irresistible to me, and I gathered up a big bunch to draw.