Jan 28, 2009

Royal Paper

AP reports that a Fagus sylvatica 'Purpurea', or purple beech tree, planted in 1786 at Versailles Palace for Marie Antoinette has been felled by a storm.

The 82-foot high specimen, whose canopy measured 72 feet across, will be cut up and sold to paper makers.

I love just about everything about beech trees, from their smooth muscular bark to the undulating leaf margins, and the purple-leaved variety is particularly handsome. Unfortunately, in places like Palo Alto and Los Altos I rarely have the chance to specify such large and thirsty trees, which are much better suited to riparian areas with cooler, wetter summers (like, you know, Atherton). On the other hand, if I were king, I suppose I wouldn't be burdened by such practicalities.

If the Sun King and his progeny lived and landscaped a Bay Area version of Versailles today, I wonder what species they would choose?

Jan 27, 2009

A Family Affair

BlueberryArbutusAs your blueberry bushes start blooming, you might notice the flowers look almost exactly like the little bells of madrone (Arbutus). And then you might think, "no, I'm going crazy: one's a smallish deciduous shrub that makes tasty little antioxidant bombs, the other's a big evergreen tree that makes barely-edible globes of mush. No way they're related."

Not that you're not necessarily going crazy, but they are in fact related, in the botanical family Ericaceae. I've written before about binomial nomenclature in horticulture, distinguishing between the different species within a common genus. Now, we're talking about different genera (plural of genus) within the next higher group, the family.

While Karl Linnaeus gets most of the credit for his systematic classification of things great and small, the idea of biological families actually comes from one of Linnaeus' contemporaries, French botanist Pierre Magnol. Families tend to be named for one of their genus that typifies the group on the basis of some physical characteristic (e.g. flower structure). In these cases, the suffix "-aceae" simply gets tacked on to the stem of the botanical genus name. Thus, the genus Rosa (i.e., the rose) was determined to be representative of a group of plants with common reproductive characteristics, so that group was given the family name Rosaceae (pronounced "rose-ACE-ee-ay". Other families include:
    -Aquifoliaceae (named for the aquiline leaf margins of the holly, the only living genus in this family)
    -Caprifoliaceae (named because the leaves resemble the cloven hooves of goats)
    -Graminaceae (the grass, or grain (grass seed), family)
    -Leguminaceae (the legume or bean family, aka Fabaceae (think fava beans)

(Because the Rosaceae tend to produce delicous fruits — from rose hips to apples, pears, stone fruits, strawberries, almonds — as well as flowers that stir the soul, one of my favorite instructors Quin Ellis was fond of saying that the grass family may have set the dinner table for civilization… but the rose family provided dessert.)

If you want to geek out on this even more than we already have, the Department of Biology at St. Louis University has a very nice discussion of biological nomenclature; for the "lite" version, see the Dummies Guide. But back to the humble blueberry: its family Ericaceae also includes, not surprisingly, cranberry and huckleberry; the aforementioned Arbutus and its cousin Arctostaphylos (manzanita); azaleas and rhododendrons; and the eponymous Erica, genus of heaths and heathers. And while I noticed the similarities between the flowers, in fact the most common trait is the foliage structure: smooth-edged, single leaves arranged alternately along the stems. (Good thing, too: to develop a more robust root system and better fruit yields, I strip the flowers off for the first three years.)

Jan 22, 2009

Today in the Times

Today's New York Times holds a plethora of good stuff, from inspiring advice on winter-blooming shrubs and greenhousing, to a sobering outlook for New York's famed zoos and gardens, to an encouraging (if vapid) effort by PepsiCo to assess how much carbon it takes to make orange juice.

The moral of the latter story: it's nitrogen fertilizer, not transportation, that leaves the biggest footprint. Anyone have any suggestions for how PepsiCo might clean up their act? Anyone?

Jan 20, 2009

Good Day, Mr. President

Now that Senator Obama is President Obama, I'll set down my champagne for a moment to briefly digest his environmental past and promises.

In 2006, Obama introduced the Healthy Places Act in Congress, an effort to create accountability by helping local governments assess health impacts of new projects. His website details his new administration's "comprehensive plan to invest in alternative and renewable energy, end our addiction to foreign oil, address the global climate crisis and create millions of new jobs." He also puts some focus on sustainable urban planning.

Grist.com last month set out a review of Obama's environmental policies. Most of these are centered around changes to U.S. energy policy, but the article also includes a few quotes from Obama interviews indicating that his religious faith plays an important role in his outlook on the environment, a fact confirmed in this AP article by Amy Lorentzen.

It's also instructive to read into Obama's picks for environmental and energy policymakers. These folks are not only luminaries in their fields, but clearly bring a bias toward research-based policy, from the reality of climate change (regardless of its origins) to the potential of renewable energy sources. I'm particularly optimistic that under new EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, both forest and wetland wildlife habitats will be increased.

The ASLA has been optimistic as well that a change of administration will bring a change in priorities. Their site publishes a list of initiatives, as well as proposed angles on the economic stimulus package that will help the profession and the planet.

Our new President has the opportunity — obligation, even — to reform America's farm bill, a la Michael Pollan's recommendations. A couple of weeks after Pollan's letter, Obama was interviewed by TIME and indicated that he had not only read it, but also understood the costs of an agricultural system "built on cheap oil":
    "There is no better potential driver that pervades all aspects of our economy than a new energy economy. I was just reading an article in the New York Times by Michael Pollan about food and the fact that our entire agricultural system is built on cheap oil. As a consequence, our agriculture sector actually is contributing more greenhouse gases than our transportation sector. And in the mean time, it's creating monocultures that are vulnerable to national security threats, are now vulnerable to sky-high food prices or crashes in food prices, huge swings in commodity prices, and are partly responsible for the explosion in our healthcare costs because they're contributing to type 2 diabetes, stroke and heart disease, obesity, all the things that are driving our huge explosion in healthcare costs. That's just one sector of the economy. You think about the same thing is true on transportation. The same thing is true on how we construct our buildings. The same is true across the board."

Obviously there are plenty of pressing issues that will demand President Obama's attention. Even though he has invited our participation to an unprecedented degree, I'm under no delusion that he can (or would) reform all our bad habits with the stroke of a pen. We have sky-high expectations, for sure, and there are plenty of voices more than willing to keep our new Ecologist-In-Chief in check. But I am encouraged that those of us who love our planet now have at least a fighting chance to see some redemption.

Today is a very good day, indeed.

Jan 12, 2009

Pantone Color for 2009: Mimosa

Pantone, perennial tastemaker and producer of fun swatch books, has decreed that mimosa yellow is the new black.

Uh, okay.

Jan 10, 2009

Planting The Seed

"In 1994, Congress transformed the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday into a national day of community service to further commemorate a man who lived his life in service to others. Never has it been more important to come together in shared purpose to tackle the common challenges we face."

Actually, Jan. 17-19 is a three-day weekend of service, and this handy event finder will show you plenty of opportunities in your backyard... everything from blood drives and food sharing to habitat restoration, tree planting, and parks beautification. Many of these are perfect opportunities to introduce children to the values of volunteerism and service; you'll find me and mine planting trees in Castro Valley.

Making a difference in your neighborhood, community and world is as simple as making some time to volunteer. Even if it's just an hour, won't you join me in lending a hand?