Saturday, September 17, 2016

Aggressive Herbivore Defense - Halt All Cell Division at Metaphase

Fall approaches, and with it comes the Meadow Saffron flowers.

The first thing you notice about the flowers, is that they exist long enough to be seen. That may sound odd, but we live in a wilderness of sorts, the northern Santa Cruz Mountains. Long ago I came to understand that despite my urges towards farming, all my efforts ammounted to was feeding the wildlife.

Then the Colchicum autumnale flowered. And, the flowers stayed.

The reason is simple: these plants are full of a deadly alkaloid, Colchicine.

Colchicine is an amazing alkaloid, in that it has a very specific mode of action: it prevents chromosome pairs from separating during mitotic cell division. It sounds odd, but this mode of action has proven invaluable to genetics.

Before sequencing, people looked at and counted chromosomes as a way to study organisms. Karyotyping is dependant on Colchicine.  This is the plant that is the source of Colchicine.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

xBrunsdonna Flowering Underway

These are our own selections - we crossed an atypical white-flowered Brunsvigia littoralis with a deep red Amaryllis belladonna, and of the hundred or so seedlings that resulted over three years, six have pristine white flowers or at most yellow highlights. It has taken a decade to find this out - the last seeds in this cross were planted in Fall of 2004. If this seems a long time, at least they flowered faster than the Brunsvigia parent (which took 28 years from seed).
Our young helper enjoys the fragrance and especially the picking of the flowers (with occasional bouts of dubiously-advised swordplay and derring-do, flowers abused such never make it out of the yard....). Some of them do leave the yard, those are available only at one florist, in Half Moon Bay, California: Alena Jean carries our flowers when in season.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Madrone Bark Tea - Warm Tea for Foggy Mornings!

In high season now, the bark actually began to fall in August and will run into October! This bark makes my favorite tea made from local trees, and my favorite year-round locally foraged tea.

Most trees have bark that come off in granules or big chunks, but the bark of the Pacific Madrone (Arbutus menziesii) curls and peels in thin layers, falling to the ground when the mornings are foggy and the afternoons are sunny in the late summer and early fall. Just clear an area under a Madrone tree on a foggy morning, and then pick up bark curls in the late afternoon when the air is warm and dry. The barks curls and uncurls as the humidity changes, often fast enough that it can be watched dancing in realtime.

To make tea, I crush a handful of bark curls into a cup (or grind them), add boiling water, and let steep for 5 minutes, then decant or filter off the bark. This makes a lovely tea with very little bitterness or astringency and a mild flavor vaguely in the range of Raspberry Leaf or Cranberry - you will have to taste it yourself to form a proper opinion. Sweetening the tea a bit strengthens the flavor. Stronger tea can be made by boiling the bark - the flavor gets stronger, but does not seem to change other than that.

Some important notes: (1) there are many species of Madrone, some common in landscaping. I recommend being very careful to identify the tree that you are getting bark from, and be certain it is Arbutus menziesii. While other Arbutus may make tea, I've not tried it - and getting the tree identification wrong could lead to serious problems. (2) Pick bark from trees away from roadsides and landscaping - often these are sprayed for bugs or by who-knows-what. We maintain a few acres of wild trees for this among other purposes.

If you need help identifying a tree, contact us and we can attempt to assist, or contact your local agricultural extension office. Enjoy!

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Mushroom Season Starts Early

Picture a tall, cylindrical mushroom - with a great flavor that matches well with eggs and salsa. It is the tasty Coprinus comatus, or Shaggy Mane.Yum! These showed up at the edge of our apple orchard just from the "rain" that our fir trees made from the recent fog (we live in a seasonal cloud forest).

This has another name - the Inky Cap. Why would it be called that? Well, if you let it stay out in the wilds just a little longer, you are left with white stems only - the cap of the mushroom dissolves into a black liquid that makes a good ink. The mushroom ink was once mixed with more common inks to validate official documents - the spores could easily be spotted with a microscope, and would provide evidence the document was real. This mushroom is even part of the Declaration of Independence - even though there were 56 cosigners (document authentication not an issue), the ink still contained Inky Cap ink so King George III would take the document perhaps just a little more seriously... You can read about it here. This makes it the only mushroom making an appearance in Hamilton (had to include a cultural relevance note!).