Saturday, February 27, 2021

Eigendecor using Brunsvigia littoralis seed heads and Clip Leads

Both my spouse and I went to a Science and Engineering university. A side effect is that various mathematical terminology now gets warped and bent to our needs.

Allow us to introduce EigenDecor!

And who said Botany, Horticulture, Geometry, Electronics, and Home Decorating could not beneficially mix?

What you see is the seed head from a South African tumbleweed, Brunsvigia littoralis, jauntily perched on the light in the corner of the living room, and being used to organize our electronic test clip leads. Viola!

The Brunsvigia littoralis are enormous South African bulbs related to the Belladonna Lilies of Southern California (actually from South Africa) and the Dutch Amaryllis sold around the holidays. We have to hand pollinate them (see to even get seed set. Once we have seeds we plant them, these take about ten to fifteen years to reach flowering size. Not the fastest plants to grow... We recently evacuated from the SCZ Complex fire, and we brought these with us, providing a rare reason to dig up our mature bulbs. The one shown below is just beginning to push up its flower bud, and is sitting on a sheet of 8.5x11" paper.

This particular bulb came to us via the University of California Botanic Garden (the one in Berkeley) semi-annual plant sale and rare plant auction in 2000. It has grown and flowered reliably for me ever since, and eventually produced a single offset bulb about five years ago.

The clip leads are not specifically interesting, though they came from a recently  defunct chain of electronics and eclectica stores called Fry's Electronics. While Fry's had been declining for some time being faced with fierce competition from online retailers, the eccentricity of the early Dot-com era remained visible in their thematic stores and interior decor. For example, the Burbank store contained scenes like this inside:

I am glad to have been able to have shown my son these eccentric and fun stores before they passed into memory. We did both enjoy them.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

A genus that no longer exists, of plants that stop cell division at metaphase

Animals eat plants. Plants seem to generally object in their varied ways. Over the few hundred million years this has been happening, plants have gotten clever about fighting back. The thorns of the rose are one example of the results of this long running battle between the herbs and the herbivores.

Androcymbium is a genus that no longer stands as valid - it is now part of the genus Colchicum. Like many plants and animals that have been grouped together by morphological taxonomists in decades and centuries past, the groupings have proven to be correct in some ways, and grievously in error in other ways. Those errors started becoming visible when people started sequencing the genomes of these organisms. Molecular phylogenetics has reworked hundreds of years of looking at plants and comparing their features to understand how they are related to each other. Sometimes this has upended what had appeared to be well understood groups.


Androcymbium ciliolatum has a new name, Colchicum capense subsp. ciliolatum. My plants came from a Garden Club meeting at the Los Angeles County Arboretum in 1986. I've grown them ever since. This is the first year I've convinced these natives of Namaqualand, South Africa to flower.

This plant has flowers that are actually not the flowers (the same is true of Poinsettia, where the colored "petals" are actually specialized leaves called bracts in some cases. The true flowers hide in the center of these white-green desert chalices.

There is a single flower hiding down in there, with six petaloid filaments ringing the three carpels and styles.

What does this have to do with defenses? 

Androcymbium are poisonous plants if ingested. Their toxin, Colchicine, is a strange one, as it is used in taking photographs of chromosomes. Colchicine is an alkaloid that stops cell division at metaphase. That is the part of cell division where all the chromosomes are lined up in pairs preparing to separate to two new cells. 

Careful use of Colchicine on the growing tips of plants can cause a kind of error in copying the chromosomes. They fail to separate. Then the cell proceeds to go on to more ordinary affairs as if it had divided. The cell now has twice the number of chromosomes that it had prior to its encounter with colchicine. This is how tetraploid plants are made from diploids. Tetraploids are often larger and more vigorous than the diploid plants that they once were.

This same treatment does not work with animals. In animals, the chromosomes line up and do not separate, but the cells do not restart the cycle normally. Often, they die. Sometimes they wait until the colchicine clears the system, then try the cell division again. Generally the more complex the animal, the worse the effects of colchicine. Hence large herbivores that survive taste testing the plant often avoid it for the rest of their lives. Hence the plants are left a bit more alone to grow and reproduce.

This species is native to Namaqualand, an amazing and wonderous part of South Africa - a subtropical humid desert. The same place the "living stones" of the genus Lithops are found. There is little vegetation, and lots of animals looking for a meal. Few bother the Androcymbiums.

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Medlars, Australian Finger Limes, and Chinottos Oh My! Harvest Season is here!

Medlars embody the exotic and wonderful fruit time of Autumn! This year we are still processing (and picking) three of the fruits I had to grow myself just to have the opportunity to taste them.

Even in a year such as this one, the plants have managed to follow the flow of the seasons and do what they do so well - grow amazing fruits.

The Medlar


The Medlar is still a minor enigma to me - five hundred years ago in England this was one of the most popular Winter fruits. Admittedly, that is a pretty sparse competitive space, yet these mild flavored and strange to ripen fruits are a delight. The golden foliage of Autumn even looks wonderful on a murky, smokey day:

The enigma comes from my trying to adapt recipes for other fruits to the Medlar. It needs its own recipes, its is not an apple, nor a pear, nor a persimmon, all of which it has been compared to in some way or another. 

Medlars are picked when the leaves turn, while still essentially hard as rocks. My son eats them like this and enjoys them - I certainly can eat them like this, though they are much crunchier than I really prefer and the flavor has not fully developed.

Then, Medlars must be bletted. This is essentially over-ripening them until they are soft. Experimentally, I've determined this is hard to get the timing exactly right on, so instead of setting them on shelves in a single layer to slowly soften, I put them in a large pot, cover them with water, and bring to a simmer for about an hour until they are soft. 

At this point, skins need peeled off, and the soft pulp pushed through a strainer or collander to separate it from the large seeds in the center of the fruit. Collect the paste, and freeze it until you need it.

Australian Finger Limes

What is fantastic about the rainforests of Australia? Lots! In that list near the top, at least for me, is the Australian Finger Lime. It almost makes up for the very existence of things like Arboreal Leeches in the same forests...

Australian Finger Limes actually come in a wide range of fruit and juice sack colors, though I've only got one that is green (pink when very ripe). They also have kin in the area, like Blood Limes.

Something I did not appreciate when I planted these trees is exactly how spiny they are - picking the fruit is work, mostly because of the effort to deal with the long, sharp thorns these trees bear abundantly. Still, there is room to be creative, especially when my son helps invent prickle-free picking tools.

One problem I faced in previous years is a short harvest season starting around the beginning of October and only lasting through December. This year, we are experimenting with freezing whole finger limes. To use them, take them out of the freezer and allow them to thaw for about an hour. Then cut open and allow the juice sacks to come out just like in the fresh fruit. I wish I'd run across this idea a few years ago!

The Chinotto

This is how Switzerland lays claim to being a Citrus-growing nation! It is also part of the flavor of an Italian drink of the same name, and can be candied, juiced, or the rind grated into dishes to add a rather distinct flavor not too far from Oil of Bergamot.

This is a ridiculously slow growing tree. Ours is five feet tall and wide, and nearly twenty years old. Still, it bears glowing orange-yellow fruits on the ends of the branches, on display for many months, and holding well on the tree right through the Winter, snowfall and all.

I'll  be honest - aside from candied and as a really lovely bush for the Winter (and a spectacular source of Vitamin C), I don't really know what to do with these fruits yet. I feel there is more to them than I've yet coaxed from them. 

Now the rains have finally started, the next event will be Mushrooms!

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Kukumakranka - the wonderful edible fruits of Gethyllis bulbs

Kukumakranka - except the "K" letters represent clicks in the seemingly extinct Southern African language of the Koina people instead of the normal consonant sounds - besides being a name I cannot reliably accurately pronounce, names a group of bulbs, or rather their fruits. In botanical latin, the species below is Gethyllis verticillata.

My son describes the taste of this, the very first fresh fruit of this group I've managed to grow in California thus: "watery and tart, with a fruity fragrance". The fragrance of the fruit is intense and pleasant. To my spouse it is like "fruit cocktail in sweet syrup but with a slightly perfume-y strong strawberry component added to the flavor". 


The fruit has about the texture of a very ripe strawberry, with a lot of seeds that are soft and easily chewed - and which taste like the rest of the fruit.

A note about plant names - the useful part of the plant seems to most often be named first, then the rest of the plant gets that name applied, often with a nod to it denoting the rest of the plant rather than just the interesting bit. Examples are "Apple" and "Apple Tree", or "Walnut" and "Walnut Tree".

In rare cases, the plant has more than one amazing or useful bit - for example, the Oak Tree bears Acorns, not "oak tree nuts". In Hawaiian, the 'Ohia tree has the Lehua flowers.

In the case of Kukumakranka, the fruit is the bearer of the name, with the name of the plant or the bulb from which it arises seemingly lost.

These bulbs are from Winter rainfall/Summer dry deserts of South Africa, Botswana, and Namibia (with the exception of two species from the Summer rainfall areas of the Nama Karoo).

There are about 32 described species of Gethyllis. While many of them are rare, mostly due to being quite localized and/or habitat conversion, many remain abundant enough for the fruits to be made into brandy and show up in local markets when in season.

The flowering is day length triggered - flowers appear about one week after the longest day of the year. As these bulbs live in the ground, they must have some sort of clever strategy to keep aware of day length changes. (See light pipe leaves). The flowers push right out of the bare ground without any leaves. In fact, when in flower, only the flower is above ground. When in fruit, only the fruit is above ground, and when in leaf, only the leaves are above ground. At no point in the growth cycle do I get two of these at the same time!

  This is Gethyllis villosa, named for its hairy leaves.


Sunday, November 8, 2020

Hemihyalea edwardsii and and the Tanoaks

Around the first day of Fall, several things happen in a usual order. The Brunsvigia josephinae and B. littoralis flower, the Haemanthus coccineus flower, and the Edward's Glassywing moths appear on our front deck.

Arctiinae: Hemihyalea edwardsii


This year, the question is: how many more years will they grace our evening lights?

Edward's Glassywing moth is the adult phase of a woolybear caterpillar that eats Oak leaves. The deaths of massive numbers of oaks is one of several factors fueling, literally, the unprecedented fires in the Coast Ranges, including our Santa Cruz Mountains.

Our own oaks are in trouble. About one third of our Tanbark Oaks (Lithocarpus densiflorus) have died of Sudden Oak Death in the past year. The forest I fell in love with is fading into the past.

The area above our driveway is shown here - this is literally on the ridgeline of the Santa Cruz Mountains at around 2300'. 

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Our evolving wildfire story #CZULightningComplex

We are rushing to protect what we can. At present, we are not under any wildfire evacuation warnings or orders but we are taking things very seriously.

We safeguard rare and extinct species on our acreage.

The storms that unleashed the lightning and thunderstorms igniting over 360 wildfires in California are more common due to a warming climate. 

Please take a moment to consider how you can take direct action or provide monetary support to scientists and organizations working to understand and build a low carbon future for human civilization.

Thank you.

Donate to Puente Pescadero to support Coastside evacuees.

#CZULightningComplex #SaferatHome #globalpandemic #WildfireSafety #climatechange

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Plasma-Braised String Beans

We grow pole beans. Due to an invasion of cutworms (which of course are not actually worms, they are caterpillars that turn into moths), we have a lot fewer plants bearing beans than we intended. However, our son is very diligent in watching, watering, and harvesting the beans when they are ripe.

This has led to a dilemma - how to best prepare three individual string beans?

This time I didn't have something where we could just add them with the other vegetables - so I cut them to length and arranged them in a bowl in the microwave.

I gave them about 30 seconds expecting uneventful cooking. The loud sound and bright orange light that erupted almost immediately from the microwave put an early end to that exercise.

It turns out the beans had been cut into bits that were well separated - except where two had rolled back into each other. At that point, something like the grape in a microwave event developed (for a decent YouTube video go here, for an actual peer reviewed paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences go here).

For the record, the beans were delicious. I'm suspecting that there was a bit more chemistry in the small burned areas where they were in contact than in a normal dry-braising cooking protocol, so I don't intend to make a habit of this particular method.

However, in my roughly half century, this is the first time I've cooked my food with ionized plasma as the primary thermal source... My son now wants the plant to grow even more beans so we can do this again...