Saturday, December 5, 2015

Fascicles for a frosty day

Fascicle and White Pine branch
I love it when two worlds that I study meet over one word. The word “fascicle” comes from Latin fasciculus and it means a small bundle or cluster of all different kinds of things.  It’s used for small collections of letters, books, and poems.  In biology, fascicle is used for nerve clusters and muscle clusters, in botany for bundles of stamens and leaves, and in literature I learned it in terms of Emily Dickinson, who created bundles of her poems by threading 6 or 7 poems together in little packets that her friend Mabel Loomis Todd referred to as “fascicles.”  And tight bundles of pine leaves or pine needles are called fascicles, nature’s little winter poems.  The number of needles per fascicle distinguishes one pine from another.  Even though it seems counterintuitive because they don’t look like leaves, pine needles are leaves or modified leaves in that they perform photosynthesis and manufacture food, cell respiration, and transpiration (exchanging CO2, oxygen, and water vapor with the air) for the tree all year long because they are “evergreen.”  The shape of the pine needles has evolved to help “sift” snow to the ground instead of staying on the branches and breaking them.  The more I learn about pines, the more amazed I am. 
    The Eastern White Pine, Pinus strobus, a relatively common tree in northeastern forests and a valuable one for lumber, has five slender flexible needles.  As a child I learned to identify the White Pine from other pines because in its tight little sheath, it had a needle for each finger, and I could move them apart and back together to form a hand of sorts.  It is a gymnosperm and like many of them it is evergreen, so we, or at least I, appreciate seeing that deep dark forest green color among the bare brown branches of the winter woods.  Our house upstate is on Tall Pines Road, and as we drive up the incline from the main road to our house, we pass stands of 100 foot tall white pines, the only green around most of the winter, and I stare up at the wonder of them.  

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