Friday, November 16, 2018

There is Ilmenite in them thar hills!

And magnetite! Actually, quite a few heavy minerals. None of which appear to be gold...
This afternoon I and my son tried our hands at panning for gold in the Sierra Nevada foothills of California just east of Sacramento. After a while, we began to understand that there might be some art to this whole "panning for gold" thing.

To start with, pick a stream that actually contains gold.

However, we really weren't looking for gold. We were looking for magnetic sands - my son is intensely interested in magnetism (and mushrooms, and lizards, and many more things). The dark, heavy sands that, in many nearby streams, often indicates you are in the right general area to find gold, in this case indicate that you are in the right general area to find dark, heavy sands.

To many folks, these sands are not interesting.

We are not those folks.

With a small Rare Earth magnet (any decent magnet will work), a plastic bag (magnets rust if they get wet), and a gold pan, we successfully collected many grams of real, genuine, magnetic sand.

First, it is fun to play with with a magnet and is a clean material for field visualization.
Second, it is a neat organic additive to soils low in iron to add that critical mineral as well as potentially other trace minerals to our soils.

Next up: what is the mineralogy of this sand? We'll explore that using some simple tools next.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Stubborn Honey Mushrooms

Our area (the Santa Cruz Mountains) often has rain before the end of October, though not this year. We haven't had real precipitation in six months or more now. What we have had is a tiny amount of fog drip. These are not good conditions for mushroom hunting.

Even so, Armillaria mellea is a determined species. The Honey Mushroom connects to oak trees (admittedly it seems to be a pathogen more often than a symbiont), and is ubiquitous in Western Oak forests this time of year. This connection seems to give it access to water that other local mushrooms cannot access. Here they are fruiting in our yard a few days ago!
Notice that the caps are drying out even as they begin spore production. The cap on the right has cracked from desiccation in the unusually dry Fall air, but these still successfully fruited, pushing through the bark of a fallen tanoak log.

The dry caps were bug-free, even though the stems had some insect damage. I rarely see mature Honey Mushrooms without damage to the caps from bugs.

We're looking forward to the start of the main season with the rains, which may not begin until the start of December!

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Maximum Acorn is here!

Stand in the tanoak woods on a warm Autumn evening for the visceral definition of the season's shorter name, "Fall". All around is a percussive symphony of acorns falling through leaf and limb, finally collecting in patches and pockets and piles on the forest floor.

What most people think of as decorations of the season we think of quite differently: food.


Because when properly prepared, these make a flour as tasty as Chestnut flour. The trick is twofold: dry the acorns without overheating them, then use a slow cold water process to leach out the tannins. More on that in a later post. For now, gather them and spread them in thin layers in dappled sun at most, with good air circulation, for several weeks until the nuts are dry and hard.

We shell them when dried and discard any with problems. The good nuts get dried more in a warm (not hot) air fan. We gather in October and November with drying done by late December most years.

The  abundance of bedrock acorn mortars in our area was my first unsubtle hint that these might be worth the effort. After several false starts, we seem to have this down to a stable process.

In addition to Tanoak (Lithocarpus densiflorus), the Canyon, Valley, and Blue Oaks have excellent acorns - they all get the same treatment.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Brunsvigia pollination time!

Brunsvigia littoralis is an endangered bulb related to Amaryllis from the Cape Province of South Africa. Ours came from the U.C. Berkeley Botanical Garden fall plant sale years ago (more than a decade...). While habitat destruction is an important cause of this plant's endangerment, it has another problem: it is pollinated only by the longer-billed Malachite Sunbird (Nectarinia famosa). These birds perch on the flower stems and reach into the flowers for nectar, providing effective pollination. Malachite Sunbirds do not like disturbed habitats and areas altered by people, and are not known from California regardless. What is a plant to do?

Enter the local stand-in for Malachite Sunbirds: our son.
He has been pollinating these since he was two and saw me doing it. He is also the hand pollinator for pretty much everything he can reach this time of year - we grow several Haemanthus species as well as some other South African bulbs far from their native pollinators. He is great at it. Without hand pollination, we typically get one or two seeds per flowerhead. With hand pollination, we get thirty or more.

In his words: "I'm not going to tell you". OK, perhaps he is protective of his methods. However, the basic game is getting the pollen from the anthers (where the yellow powder of pollen is made) to the stigma when it is able to accept pollen (the tip gets fuzzy and white). If the pollen gets where it needs to be at the right time, each flower can produce two to six seeds.

These are not plants for impatient folks. From seed to flowering can easily be more than a decade. The bulbs are larger than footballs (American type) when ready to flower. They are worth the wait! In California they tend to flower in September, before the leaves emerge from the dry late summer soil for their fall and winter growth period.

Friday, October 19, 2018

The Fall Apples Begin: Greensleeves

This year we are beginning to harvest the Fall fruit - Apples figure large in that process. We have the first fruiting of three trees this year - White Pearmain, Honeycrisp, and Greensleeves.

When buying apples at the store, they barely resemble their homegrown kin. I very much enjoy these apples - nevermore than when picked in fully ripe perfection straight off the tree. Honeycrisp was startlingly sweet, crunchy, and phenomonal. Perhaps it was even more so because I regularly eat this one bought from the supermarket, which sets a certain basis for comparison.

An apple I had no basis for comparison with is Greensleeves. Indeed, after reading it's description, I had to simply find and buy a grafted tree, plant it, and wait. This is the tenth year of that process... and it was worth the wait.

Greensleeves is a firm, smooth, sweet and tart apple with a great flavor. It is a yellowish apple of medium size.