From steel mill spoils to prairie

What to do on a rainy day in Sydney, Nova Scotia, the biggest little city on Cape Breton Island?  Not enough time to drive all the way to Cape Breton Park, so we opted for a walk in Open Hearth Park, formerly a hazardous waste area created by runoff of coke sludge from the large steel manufacturing plant in Sydney.  The transformation completed in 2013 is impressive, with a clear, fresh water stream flowing through wide expanses of prairie grasses and forbs.

Muggah Creek in Open Hearth Park, Sydney, Nova Scotia

Muggah Creek was once clogged with tar pits that formed from the runoff of coke sludge from the steel mill.  Tailings of coal mines are still visible along the creek.

Sydney produced great quantities of steel for England bound convoys in both WW1 and WW2, but the steel mill finally ceased production in 2001.

Muggah Creek in Open Hearth Park, Sydney, Nova Scotia

Replanted evergreen, birch, and prairie plants has changed the landscape here dramatically.

New England aster at Open Hearth Park in Sydney, Nova Scotia

Several species of aster were blooming in Open Hearth Park.

Prairie flowers at Open Hearth Park in Sydney, Nova Scotia

Wildflowers at Open Hearth Park

Canada Geese in Sydney, Nova Scotia

Canada Geese where they belong…in Canada

Black Duck, Open Hearth Park, Sydney, Nova Scotia

Black Ducks are rarely seen in MN, but are common here.  They look like Mallards but have yellow instead of orange bills, and a black eye stripe.

Muggah Creek estuary, Open Hearth Park, Sydney, Nova Scotia

Muggah Creek is a tidal estuary, largely salt water here at its mouth on the Atlantic shore.

the beginning of the end…of summer

It’s down to the asters and goldenrods, among the last of the blooms for pollinators to visit before it’s too cold to visit anything.

Bumblebees sleeping in asters

A couple of very cold bumblebees must have spent the night in these asters. They were pretty comatose on this chilly morning.

Hoverflies on goldenrod

The yellow jacket mimicry of these very large hoverflies was so good, I almost walked away from this Stiff Goldenrod plant to avoid them.

Bumble bees on showy goldenrod

Later in the day, a hoard of bumblebees attacked the few remaining flowering stems of Showy Goldenrod. It’s a last chance to harvest nectar and pollen to store away for the winter.

All this work, and then what happens to these insects?

The bumblebee queen who founded her colony in the spring (the old queen) and all of the workers she produced will likely die in the first freezing weather of the winter.  All their work over the summer and fall was to ensure that new queens would be born and survive the winter to found new colonies the following spring.  New queens hatched during the summer feed voraciously on nectar and pollen in the fall to lay down fat stores that will carry them through the winter in their underground nest.

Bumblebees on dahlias

Dahlias keep producing their glorious blooms well into the fall until the first hard frost, another good source of nutrition for young queens.

Hoverflies (depending on the species) might overwinter as adults or as late-stage, fully grown larvae, by taking shelter in protected nooks and crannies of  tree roots or bark.  In Minnesota, they will have to withstand freezing solid, as temperatures drop well below zero.  Individuals that overwinter as adults (probably females) are the ones we see flying around in the spring looking for aphid-infested plants on which to lay their eggs before they die.  When the larvae hatch, they have a food source waiting for them. A second wave of hoverflies join the party after warmer temperatures have spurred them through the pupal stage to emerge as adults.

Hoverfly on New England aster

Hoverflies slurp up nectar from fall flowers to build up their fat reserves. Some of the fat will be used to produce a glycerol anti-freeze compound so that their cells can tolerate freezing without damage from ice crystal formation.

A short history of apples

This is a rewrite of a post from September 2015, during the first fall harvest of my “apple orchard” (four dwarf trees).

This is apple harvest time in Minnesota, home of the Honeycrisp variety of apples, so loved by everyone who has tried one.

honeycrisp apples-

My honeycrisp apple trees are so loaded with apples, the branches are bending down to the ground.

It seems to be a Fall for bumper crops of all types of apples, from crabapples to honeycrisp, judging from the loaded branches of the apple trees on my street.

apple tree-loaded with fruit

An apple tree loaded with fruit awaits harvest. Squirrels take one bite and spoil a perfect apple, and the deer finish them off when they fall to the ground. 

Originally native to Kazakhstan, this highly productive forest tree has spread around the globe, even though the original progenitor was a small, sour, shriveled fruit that probably was more often used for a fermented beverage than eating.  After all, its genus name is Malus which is Latin for “bad”, as in bad-tasting.

michael-pollan-apple-origin

Quote from Michael Pollan on the origin of apples in his book, The Botany of Desire

From Kazakhstan, the seeds of better-tasting and fleshier types of apples were dropped by traders along the Silk Road to Asia and to Europe, and eventually made their way to North America with the early colonists who planted apple orchards, spreading the apple genes throughout the northeast, and eventually throughout the U.S.

apple harvest-Kazakhstan

Apple harvest-Kazakhstan marketplace. At its center of origin, there are 56 species of the wild Malus species, only 30 of which have been semi- or wholly domesticated for apple production.

But apples, like humans, do not produce carbon copies of themselves in their seeds, so each seed in an apple is as different from another seed in that same apple or from another seed in an apple on the same tree, as children are different from each other and from their parents.  And this is where the human-apple tree mutualism becomes important in the spread of apples to every corner of the globe.

We humans perform much the same service that bees do in pollinating the apple’s flowers, by selective breeding for appealing varieties and then growing new trees of that variety from grafts merged onto hearty root stock.  In return, like the nectar and pollen the tree supplies to its pollinators, the apple tree repays its dispersers (animal and human alike) with crisp, sweet fruit that lasts several months when stored properly at cool temperatures.

What is it that makes apples so delicious and so appealing to us humans?

cross section of apple-

A cross section of a Honeycrisp apple (which I ate while writing this) shows the star-shaped endocarp housing the seeds. Each of the 5 chambers houses 1-2 seeds. The total number of seeds per apple (5-10) depends on the energy resources of the tree.

Around the star-shaped seed capsules are ten yellow-green dots that are the remnants of the flower stamens. The sepals (that surround the petals of the flower) are at one end of the apple, and the flower stem (now a fruit stem) is at the other. In between is the greatly expanded floral cup that grows up and around the ovary housing the soon-to-be seeds, and is filled with starch granules synthesized by the leaves over a summer’s worth of sunlight.  At the end of the summer as the skin takes on its rosy blush, those starch granules begin to break down to individual sugar molecules — and voila, sweet, juicy, crisp Fall apples are ready to be harvested.

honeycrisp apples

A sample of the harvest from just one of my dwarf honeycrisp trees. 

The Honeycrisp apple is an invention (!) of the University of Minnesota’s Agricultural Experiment Station Horticulture Research Center (quite a mouthful — pun intended).  As an experimental variety, it was almost cast aside because the tree was not cold tolerant and couldn’t survive Minnesota winters.  But the fruit was exceptionally pleasant, with large cells with stiff cell walls that stored great quantities of starch and water and a relatively thin skin that made biting into its crisp sweetness a gustatory delight.  Moving a few genes around to introduce cold heartiness made the next version of the Honeycrisp a winner — to markets and palates everywhere.

Beautiful, but deceitful and poisonous!

What is beautiful, but deceitful and poisonous?  This blog usually focuses on things biological, so it must be an animal or a plant, and perhaps it could be either.  In this case it is the oleander shrub that fits that description.

Nerium oleander flowers

Beautiful pink flowers of the highly poisonous oleander 

Oleander is such a popular addition to roadside plantings and gardens that it now occurs world-wide in warm, wet Mediterranean type climates where its long-lasting profusion of white, pink, or red flowers brighten up the landscape.  It is remarkably drought-tolerant and protects itself from being munched by herbivores by sequestering toxic cardiac glycosides in its tissues, from its roots to the tips of its leaves.  No wonder it’s the dominant plant along freeways in California.

Large milkweed bug on Nerium oleander flowers

An indicator of oleander’s toxicity is the presence of insects, like the large milkweed bug, with warning coloration feeding on flower parts and seeds.

Oleander is, in fact, one of the more poisonous plants, but mammals, especially humans seem to be more sensitive to its toxins than birds.  However, folk tales about drifters during the Dust Bowl years dying from having stirred their stew with oleander twigs are probably false.

Clearly, oleander is beautiful and poisonous, but what about being deceitful?  How can a plant be deceitful?

Nerium oleander flowers

Oleander flowers are brightly colored, sometimes fragrant, with a central opening meant to entice pollinators to explore.

But oleander flowers produce no nectar, and thus there is no reward for pollinators to keep exploring the profusion of flowers on the plant.  It’s false advertising and deceptive on the part of the plant.  But does it work, that is, does enough pollination occur to allow seeds to be produced?

flowers and seed pods of Nerium oleander

How many flowers with no nectar reward will a pollinator visit before it gives up and moves on?

Apparently, insects that pollinated this oleander explored many of the flowers in a cluster, moving enough pollen to produce several seed pods.  But the number of seed pods on the entire plant is scanty.

flowers and seed pods of Nerium oleander

Only a single pod was produced in this group of flowers

The only good news for bee pollinators is that the lack of nectar in the flowers means they would not contaminate their honey with cardiac glycoside poisons.

Roadside gardens

Quite a few years ago now, the city decided our street needed a walking trail, not just a mere sidewalk, along the roadside.  As a consequence, residences lost 10-20 feet of their front yards, and some embellishments like granite boulders or brick walls were added to separate hillsides from walking trails.  Somehow this spurred a roadside gardening movement, and the result is a long boulevard of very attractive gardens which have become a mecca for bees and butterflies.

Roadside garden

Monarch butterfly on Shasta daisy

A female monarch butterfly visiting a patch of Shasta daisy, but there is milkweed nearby as well.

Roadside garden

Daylillies of all colors brighten up the roadside.

Roadside garden

A profusion of pink and purple…

Roadside garden

Hoverflies love the pollen of these Asiatic lillies

Roadside garden

Thank you roadside gardeners for brightening up my morning walk!

Mid-summer scenes

Mid-summer, it’s the time when fruits are ripening, profusions of flowers light up backyards and prairies, and we see lots of birds, butterflies, and bees everywhere.  It might be hot and sticky, but this is the time we’ve been thinking about on those cold winter days.

Monarch butterfly on Shasta daisy

Monarchs have made it to Minnesota by July, and begin laying the generation of butterflies that may be the ones to migrate south in a couple of months.

Lake water warms up, and mats of water lilies and duck weed clog the shorelines.

Fish lake, Cedar Creek nature preserve, MN

Warm summer days, scenic Minnesota lakes, one of the more than 10,000.

Butterfly weed with Monarch and Fritillary butterflies

Butterfly milkweed is in full bloom, attracting butterflies and bees.

Sandhill Crane

Sandhill Cranes may have chicks following them around through the prairie meadows, and occasionally you see and hear them fly overhead.

Fruiting smooth sumac

Fruiting heads of smooth sumac light up the green forest of sumac shrubs. Did you know that the seed heads are high in vitamin C? Crush them in water to make sumac-ade!

Black morph, Tiger Swallowtail butterfly

The black morph of the Tiger Swallowtail butterfly has been visiting the backyard garden this week. It must be relatively newly emerged, with no bites in its wings yet.

Minnesota backyard in summer

What’s not to love about mid-summer days in the Minnesota backyard?

Morning visitors

It’s that time of the year again, when the bugs and the deer discover all the tasty plants in my garden.  While the Japanese beetles ravage the leaves of the apple trees and raspberries, the deer fawns chow down on the wildflowers.  I don’t mind them, though, they are pretty cute, and very shy.

White-tailed deer fawns

Breakfast at the wildflower garden buffet

White-tailed deer fawns

The twin is completely hidden underneath the giant cup plants.

White-tailed deer fawn

Hyssop must not taste good to deer; they left it for the bumblebees.

Springtime in London

i left the 16 inch snowfall in Minnesota to come to this lovely place where it is unseasonably warm and where spring is budding out everywhere.

Springtime, University College London

Springtime at University College London grounds.  Flowering trees, new leaves, lots of green…

Tulips in Regents Park, London

Tulips in Regents Park, London — what a welcome site to see so much color!

Gray heron selecting nest material

A very picky gray heron was searching the ground around a pond in Regents Park for just the right size sticks for its nest.  Small ones won’t do.

Gray heron selecting nest material

On the other hand this one seems too large…

Into the rainforest

We left the delightful warm weather in Lima for the steamy jungle in northeastern Peru, where plants thrive, insects diversify to eat them, and birds that eat both the insects and or the plants adopt outlandish colors and decorative feathers to show off.  In other words, we are immersed in DIVERSITY.

Explorama lodge, Amazon river

Explorama lodge on the Amazon river

We headed down the Amazon river about an hour from Iquitos (in northeastern Peru) by motor boat, to Explorama Lodge, where we would stay in non air-conditioned lodging, with cold showers to cool us down after trekking through the steamy jungle. Boat trips out on the river and walks through the rain forest provided opportunities to see some of that diversity.

Passion flower butterfly

Passion flower butterfly

Heliconia flower

Heliconia flowers, a relative of banana, are actually colorful, waxy bracts, in which the actual flowers hide. They advertise their sweet nectar to hummingbirds with bright red and yellow colors.

Scarlet macaw

Scarlet macaw, really up-close, a family pet of river villagers

White-cheeked Jacamar, Explorama lodge, Amazon

The White-chinned Jacamar is shades of iridescent teal and green with a chestnut cap and a white chin of course.

Poison dart frog, Amazon forest

Poison dart frogs are tiny but bright and can be found in the moist forest floor or lower vegetation.

Are you seeing a pattern here of vividly bright colors of tropical flowers and animals?  I wonder why that is?  Your thoughts?

From here to there

Left this scene…

Turkeys in the snow

Turkeys in the snow — my winter landscape of white and shades of brown.

To enjoy a brief respite of color and warmth in sunny California

Magnolia in bloom

Magnolia just ready to bloom

Spring green

The hummingbird visited these jasmine flowers after I had put the camera away — of course.

Winter rains have brought on a flush of new green in the California landscape, my favorite color.