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Mountbatten pink is a color invented by and named after Admiral of the Fleet Louis Francis Albert Victor Nicholas Mountbatten (1900-1979), the 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma, KG, GCB, OM, GCSI, GCIE, GCVO, DSO, PC, FRS, and the last Royal viceroy of India. Mountbatten was a nobleman and a Royal Navy officer (as you could probably tell from his rank and title there). In 1940 he was escorting a convoy carrying vital war supplies, when he noticed that one ship would constantly vanish from vision at twilight. This phantom ship was still painted a strange grayish pink color from pre-war days. Mountbatten became convinced that the pink was an ideal camouflage color and he had all of the destroyers of the Fifth Destroyer flotilla painted in the same shade (which not surprisingly came to be identified with him).
Mountbatten pink was a mixture of medium gray with a small amount of Venetian red. The resultant neutral pink mimicked ocean and atmospheric colors of dawn and dusk. Additionally, the German navy used pink marker dye to identify their shells, so Mountbatten pink ships often threw off spotters who were unable to tell ship from clouds of smoke (at least according to some Naval historians). One cruiser, the HMS Kenya, was even nicknamed the Pink Lady because of its color and panache.
Other British captains also painted their ships in Mountbatten pink (or used it as a component of the dazzle camouflage) either because of its effectiveness as battle camouflage, or to suck up to Lord Mountbatten, or out of genuine fondness for the surprisingly attractive lavender-pink, however the color had a critical flaw which ultimately caused the Royal navy to abandon it. Although Mountbatten pink blended into the offing at dawn and dusk, it stood out against the ocean at midday. By 1942 the color was phased out for large ships (although some smaller ships still had the color for a while). Most photos and films of the day were black and white. Imagine that some of the grim British fighting ships engaged in life & death fire fights with the Germans were actually pink!
Dioscorea alata is a naturally occurring species of yam from tropical Asia. Yams are perennial vines which are widely cultivated for their starchy tubers—a dietary staple in great swaths of Africa. Dioscorea alata is different from the African yams in that it is principally used as a dessert or a dessert flavoring. The yam, which goes by other names such as “water yam”, “winged yam,” “ratalu”, “purple yam” or, perhaps most characteristically as “ube” (in the Phillipines, where it is highly esteemed) is also different from virtually every other food stuff in that it is a shocking shade of bright lavender.
Although Ube is valued for its high starch content and esteemed as a folk remedy for various ailments, it is principally a foodstuff and has the highest distribution of any yam—being the principle yam of South Asia, Indochina, and the Pacific. Even in Africa, it is the second most popular yam. Although sometimes cooks stir fry it as chips or cook it as a curry, ube is most famous for its sweet flavor and is a main flavor and ingredient of all sorts of pastries, ice creams, cakes, jams, and confections.
I am blogging about ube because of the striking color—and indeed ube has given its name to a bright hue of lavender. I would love to describe the flavor, but I have never had ube anything—a particular shock since one of the most critically lauded restaurants in my neighborhood is named “The Purple Yam”. Perusing the online menu makes me particularly regretful that I have never dined there since the menu is filled with deep fried pork belly, mussels in curry, duck, goat, and shrimp in addition to pomelos, jackfruits and, of course, purple yam themed sweets.
Last month, in a fit on excessive spring exuberance, I blogged about the redbud tree, one of the first trees to blossom as the weather warms. Spring has been a bit delayed here and tree enthusiasts have yet to spy the redbud’s lovely reddish-pink blooms. Nevertheless, I am going to continue the theme by writing about another tree which stands out on account of its beautiful pastel flowers–the empress tree (Paulownia tomentosa), a deciduous tree from western and central China. Also called the foxglove tree and the princess tree, the empress tree is covered with huge pale purple fountain-shaped blossoms in early spring. Growing faster than virtually any other deciduous tree, the paulownia readily proliferates throughout temperate climates. Its wood is easy to tool and carve while also durable and pretty.
In Chinese culture, paulownia wood was used for all sorts of ornamental cabinetry and carving. Most traditional Chinese musical instruments were (and still are) made of paulownia wood. A custom in China was to plant a paulownia tree upon the birth of a female child. When she reached adulthood, the tree would be felled in order to fashion a trousseau for her marriage. On a darker note, the wood is one of the preferred materials for Chinese coffins.
Because of its prettiness, quick growth, and usefulness, the tree was planted throughout East Asia and it quickly spread to temperate forests of Korea and Japan (where the official symbol of the Japanese prime minister is a paulownia flower). The seed pods of the tree are abundant, soft, and durable. This made them the perfect “packing peanut” of the 18th and 19th century when Chinese porcelain was being exported around the world. International trade disseminated paulownia seeds across Europe and the United States and they remain common near railroad lines. Because it is so hardy and quick growing, the empress tree is a formidable (albeit charismatic) invasive plant from coast to coast in the United States. Looking through the internet I have found many websites on how to deal with invasive paulownias…as well as many websites selling the trees for landscaping and sound barriers! Thanks to this latter use, paulownias are also common near major interstate highways.
Fortunately, European and American woodworkers are coming to appreciate the toughness and ease of tooling which made the lumber popular throughout Asia: empress tree wood is now frequently made into surfboards, skis, and electric guitars. The tree’s popularity as lumber and as a swift-growing reforestation tree is causing its numbers to swell, despite the best efforts of anti-invader purists.
It should be increasingly obvious that the empress tree is one of the winners of the Holocene world. It is a formidable and successful organism with many competitive advantages. Even without human interference, it would probably be spreading. However, like the pig or the rose, is appealing to humankind on many levels and we have carried it all over the place. I love pork and suede and roses. I also like the purple cascade of paulonia blossoms in April and May and the dulcet tones of the guzhen. I hope you do to, because the empress tree is here to stay….
In continuing celebration of spring, I’m returning to the microscopic world to appreciate the beauty of pollen grains. Ancient shamans intuited the generative nature of pollen and used it for ceremonial purposes: bright yellow pollen powder is still popular in Native American rituals today. However it was only with the advent of microscopy that we began to understand true range and beauty of pollen grains.
Pollen grains contain male gametophytes which are ultimately meant to alight upon the proper carpel to unite with the female gametophyte cell and ultimately germinate into a genetically different offspring (my apologies to any impressionable readers out there). Spring is such a difficult time for allergy sufferers because many common trees and grasses utilize this time of year for pollination: flowers are unblocked by mature leaves and a whole growing season stretches ahead. It boggles the mind to imagine the immense community of tiny plant sex cells flying through the air around us and clinging to our bodies.
Most of our favorite flowers and fruit have pollen which is entomophilous (i.e.carried by animals) and designed to stick to the leg of a bee or moth or some other pollinator. Such grains tend to be like burs, with all sorts of strange miniscule hooks and spikes (they thus pose less of a problem for allergy sufferers–since they never make it to the nasal cavity). Other plants literally cast their hopes upon the wind. These anemophilous pollens are lightweight explorers produced in vast quantities and they get everywhere (to the misery of those with hay fever).
Of course pollen is only one component of the microscopic jungle around us. Right now you are sitting amidst an immense collection of fungal spores, infinitesimal mites, decaying skin cells, animal hair, bacteria, viruses, and even more esoteric flora and fauna. Just imagine the coming world of nanotechnology where these various biological entities will be joined by infinitesimal man-made objects…