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Sunflowers in a commercial field in California

Sunflowers in a commercial field in California

Ferrebeekeeper is always chasing down where domesticated plants and animals originally came from.  Bananas are from Malaysia and New Guinea.  Quinces are from the Near East.  Goats are from Crete and Iran. Turkeys seem to have come from Mesoamerica. Pigs are from Eurasia (sometimes these sites are somewhat less than specific).  All of this leads to the question of what came from here?  Are there any domesticated animals from eastern North America? Are there any domesticated plants that didn’t come from Eurasia or Africa or some tropical wonderland?  It is autumn and the answer is right outside.  All domesticated sunflowers everywhere descend from a variety originally native to the woodlands in the central east of North America.  Some of the earliest archaeological finds of domesticated sunflowers come from 3000 to 3500 year old sites in Illinois, Arkansas, Kentucky, and Tennessee.  Of course answers as to what happened thousands of years ago in societies which did not leave written records are always open to debate and to new findings—so a subset of archaeologists think that sunflowers too were first domesticated in the great temple societies of Mesoamerica.  But until they come up with truly conclusive evidence let’s say the useful yellow plants are from Arkansas.

It is possible I will have to change this article around, but this evocative Aztec-style picture was made by modern artist Zina Deretsky

It is possible I will have to change this article around, but this evocative Aztec-style picture was made by modern artist Zina Deretsky

Sunflowers are a genus (Helianthus) of approximately 70 species of tall aster flowers (asters are a family of flowering plants which include cornflowers, periwinkles, cosmos, and lots and lots of other flowers which I have not written about).  Domesticated sunflowers (H. annus) are annuals which grow to 3 meters (9.8 ft) tall in a growing season. According to my sources, the tallest sunflower on record somehow grew to a height of 9 meters (30 feet), which I find implausible (though I would dearly like to see such a thing).  Sunflowers spend their energy on growing a full head of large oily seeds.  The head of a sunflower is a complex and botanically interesting combination of different sorts of flowers growing together.  The “petals” are produced by sexually sterile flowers which fuse their petals into an asymmetrical ray flower. A whole ring of these peculiar flowers surround the inner head, where individual disk flowers are oriented in mathematically complex relations to each other (seriously, try drawing the head of a sunflower and you will soon appreciate the peculiar juxtaposition of simplicity and complexity going on in the form).

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Sunflowers were first imported to Europe in the 16th century. They have become commercially important in the modern world largely because of their inexpensive high-quality oil (although the seeds are roasted, milled, baked, and otherwise made into every sort of foodstuff you could think of).  Young sunflowers do track the sun across the sky during the day, but they swiftly lose this ability as their buds open.

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The sunflower has garnered a vast variety of spiritual, aesthetic, and cultural meanings as it moved around the world and became one of humankind’s favorite crops. However nearly every culture is inclined to associate it with joy, beauty, abundance, and the sun.  They are wonderful plants.

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Remember when I wrote about Panama disease, the fungal blight which is coming for the Cavendish bananas (after laying waste to the Gros Michel cultivar bananas back in the 50s)?  Well, sadly, Panama disease is not the only apocalyptic fruit blight on the international circuit these days.  It turns out that a bacterial disease is destroying citrus groves around the United States and beyond.  The disease, known in English as “citrus wasting disease” is caused by a motile bacteria, Candidatus Liberibacter, which is spread by the Asian citrus psyllid (Diaphorina citri), an inconsequential Hemipteran insect which lives in citrus groves.  There are multiple strains of greening disease, and there have been for a long time, but the newly problematic strain originated in China where it is known by the evocative name “huánglóngbìng” which means “Yellow Dragon Disease.”

A revolting Asian citrus psyllid, Diaphorina citri

A revolting Asian citrus psyllid, Diaphorina citri

The wild ancestors of most of today’s grape fruits, oranges, and lemons, came originally from the forests of East and South East Asia so it is not a huge surprise that this horrible disease comes from there too.  Unfortunately hemipteran insects can easily proliferate in new ecosystems, so the disease became a problem after these invasive insect pests gained a widespread foothold throughout the semi-tropical regions where citrus is grown.

A tree infected with citrus greening disease

A tree infected with citrus greening disease

Citrus fruit is delicious and wonderful beyond compare…so it is worth big money.  This means that agricultural scientists have been studying huánglóngbìng and attempting to stymy it with medicines, pesticides, and transgenic tinkering.   The scientists themselves have been hampered in their research by the fact that it is hard to maintain and study citrus plants infected with the disease because they die so swiftly (the infected citrus plants, not the agricultural scientists).  Powerful antibiotics work to wipe out the disease, but it is not practical to give these medicines to trees (though we will probably try—with predictable results).  Scientists feel that there may be a transgenic solution, but it is unclear how marketable such a chimera will be (since protectionists and Luddites have been fear-mongering pretty hard against GMOs).

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This leaves mass application of insecticide as the best bulwark against huánglóngbìng.  It is starting to seem that small orchards and groves which are unwilling to commit to this kind of regimen will soon be gone.  All of this strikes me as unbearably sad and frightening.  Why are there so many blights everywhere?  Has this always been a peril of agriculture (indeed of life?) or has contemporary monoculture paved the way for widespread proliferation of these superbugs?  There must be some parasitoid wasp or something which has kept these damn psyllids from wiping out species citruses of wild Asia.  Maybe we could bring that here…but it probably would cause some new horrible problem.

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We’ll keep you posted.  In the meantime you should glut yourself on oranges this winter…while you still can.

Watermelon Slices (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, colored pencil and ink)

Watermelon Slices (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, colored pencil and ink)

It’s another August day that ineluctably slipped away–so here are some illustrations/doodles from the little book I carry around with me.  I drew the garden (?) image above today during lunch (half) hour and then illustrated it on the train and at my desk.I think the little toy ghost is cutting watermelons and peaches held aloft by a penguin, but the real nature of what is going on is uncertain. That many-legged larva is probably not as innocent as it is pretending to be.

Sundry (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, colored pencil and ink)

Sundry (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, colored pencil and ink)

Here is some detritus from our culture (and beyond) with sea creatures mixed in to prevent our junk from being boring.   The three-eyed being peaks in from the future and the ice cream is the promise of sweetness.

Barnyard Characters (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, colored pencil and ink)

Barnyard Characters (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, colored pencil and ink)

Finally here is a goofy scene of barnyard follies with Mother Goose, a handy goblin man, and a clownish ghost.  As happens on the farm, they are all surrounded by geese, ducks, and sundry birds, while a cat looks on with incredulity.  Enjoy the drawings and let me know if you have any ideas for tomorrow’s blog.  it is officially the silly season of journalism and even our twenty-four-hour news cycle is not kicking up much new material.  We’ll have to make our own bucolic summer fun!

Australian Banana Groves Destroyed by Panama Wilt

Australian Banana Groves Destroyed by Panama Wilt

Sooo…I try to keep it light on Mondays so we can get through these long weeks, but one of our recent posts demands an immediate follow-up.  Remember how I was discussing the grim fate of ‘Gros Michel’ (‘Fat Michel’) the strain of bananas which were wiped out by Panama disease in the 50s?  Well, Panama disease has mutated and returned.  It’s baaaack…and this time it destroying the once immune ‘Cavendish’ plants which make up almost every banana in Europe, Africa, and the New World Photos are becoming more and more common of dying banana plants and desperate farmers burning their groves.  ‘Cavendish’ plants are clones and if one is susceptible, they all are. I really like bananas (when they are ripe) and the idea of doing without the radioactive potassium-rich fruit makes me sad. What are we going to do?

We have the technology?

We have the technology?

I guess a good market solution would be to make a transgenic banana that was resistant to the Panama disease, patent the critical gene fragment, and then sell sterile clones of the frankenfruit.  Since I like science and bananas (though not necessarily giant agribusinesses) so this is an acceptable solution to keep the yellow fruit on the table.

Industrial banana washing in Costa Rica

Industrial banana washing in Costa Rica

An alternate idea, however strikes me as far better.  We should send out teams of banana farmers and taste-testers to South East Asia (the first home of the banana) to collect purple, white, red, and gray bananas.  Different folks can start growing all sorts of new bananas around the world.  Undoubtedly some of them are more delicious than ‘Gros Michel” and I bet they are all more resistant to the blight.

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In fact just yesterday, regular Ferrebeekeeper commenter Beatrix reported on the delicious (albeit plain-looking) bananas of Nepal. She writes:

Here in Nepal we have all sorts of different bananas growing wild & in cultivation. They vary from short sweeties to starchy plantain sorts. Nepalis don’t have names for the different types of bananas. One of the tastiest varieties here is the ugliest – it is rather small (fingerlike), sporting a mottled greenish black peel with patches of gray lichen when ripe. The peel is surprisingly paper thin but the the flesh is a rich golden yellow & the taste is the most incredible, sweet custard-y banana flavor ever. I have never tasted this type of banana anywhere but Nepal. Most Asians prefer the starchy, bland bananas that most westerners would consider unripe – they think by the time a banana gets to the yellow mottled with brown stage it’s rotten.

Who here doesn’t want to try these delicious ugly bananas?  I am ready to pack up and head off to Nepal just to try them!  What we have is a marketing problem.  If these charlatans can sell people on stuff like organic food and bottled water, why can’t they sell delicious (but ugly) finger-length bananas?  The second coming of Panama disease needn’t spell the end of bananas (although we may lose the familiar bright yellow “Cavendish”)—perhaps this could be the beginning of a glorious new era of multicolor bananas of all sizes and flavors!

Or we could use technology and modern farm techniques to make some crazy bananas!

Or we could use technology and modern farm techniques to make some crazy bananas!

Minthe

Minthe (source unknown)

Aside from the disturbing tale of his coercive romance with Persephone, there aren’t many myths about the underworld god Hades’ love life…but there is one weird love triangle story.  The river Cocytus flows underground for part of its course.  Because of this it was strongly affiliated with the underworld in Classical thought.  There is a story about this—and an origin myth for one of our very favorite garden herbs.

Nymph in green light by W. Szczepanska

Nymph in green light by W. Szczepanska

One of the river nymphs of the Cocytus, Minthe had a peculiar temperament.  Because of the geography of the river, she spent part of her time in the shady realm below, and there the gorgeous river maiden became enamored of Hades. Some mythmakers speculate that her affection was really for his wealth, power, magic, or for his splendid chariot of chthonic jewels, but, whatever the case,  Minthe devoted all of her beauty and wiles to beguiling the god (who usually received scant positive attention).  Minthe would probably have succeeded in seducing the lord of the underworld but his wife Persephone chanced upon the scene.  The goddess may or may not have cared for her dark husband, but she was certainly a jealous queen!

Persephone and Minthe

Persephone and Minthe (an enigmatic unattributed image from Deviantart.com)

Using her own dark magic, Persephone transfigured Minthe into a weed…but the divine beauty, attractiveness, and sweet smell of the naiad stayed with the plant, and thus was mint created.  The story makes even more sense in a Greco-Roman context when mint was used in funerary rites to disguise the scent of decay.  The herb was also a main ingredient in the fermented barley drink called kykeon, which seemingly was the principal potable associated with the Eleusinian mysteries. Based on accounts of the shadowy rights, it seems like this beverage had more than beer and mint in it and included some really strange psychoactive ingredients.  Yet mint itself has some powerful active ingredients, and we are coming to believe it is a more powerful stimulant than initially thought.  Indeed mint has an ancient heritage as a medicine, flavoring, and crop. The beloved plant merits more explanation than just this strange underworld myth—so I will write the second half of this post tomorrow!

Peppermint

Peppermint

Soybean Field (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, color pencil and ink)

Soybean Field (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, color pencil and ink)

I’m sorry I didn’t write a post last Thursday or Friday: I was away from Brooklyn on a whirlwind family trip to see the farmstead and visit my parents and grandparents.  Now I love Brooklyn with all of my heart, but it was a great relief to be away from it for a little while.  It was lovely to feed the thousand gentle farm creatures, to assess the growth of the plums, apples & nut trees in the orchard, and to walk back through the soybean fields into the true forest.

Parkersburg (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, color pencil and ink)

Parkersburg (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, color pencil and ink)

Unfortunately there wasn’t much in the way of writing time (and there isn’t much internet access in West Virginia and southeastern Ohio anyway).  However I have a few little drawings which I doodled while I was home.  My favorite is at the top of the page—it is a view of the soybean fields as the viewer emerges from the forest and is struck by the dazzling deep green of the plants.  Soybeans are a critical crop in numerous ways, but I never really noticed them as a child–perhaps because I didn’t yet love edamame, or maybe because I hadn’t become used to living in a world of asphalt and bricks.  Anyway, I will write a post about soybeans, but I wanted to share a quick impression of their overwhelming glowing greenness.   The second picture is a drawing from the road of Parkersburg, West Virginia.  The town is actually both much prettier and much uglier than the sketch—there are numerous picturesque Romanesque and “Jacobethan” churches and buildings, but there also some truly dispiriting strip malls along the outskirts (which I represented with a Kia dealership).  Still the town has been improving incrementally for decades—perhaps thanks to my parents’ lovely yarn shop and quilting shop (which you should totally visit if you are ever in the Midwest/Appalachian region).

Paisley (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, color pencil and ink)

Paisley (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, color pencil and ink)

Speaking of quilting, I also drew a purely abstract picture of paisleys after I became fascinated by the printed patterns of the bolts of quilting cloth. Ever since the age of the Mughals, paisley has regularly come into fashion and then fallen out of it.  Yet the concept seems to be much more ancient than the Scottish textile makers of the early industrial revolution or the Mughals.  Paisley is another subject I need to blog about—because I think it is tremendously beautiful.

Goose Pond (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, color pencil and ink)

Goose Pond (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, color pencil and ink)

Finally there is a little drawing of the goose pond.  I sketched it quickly (and from a distance) just before we drove off to the airport, but you can still see a few little pilgrim geese swimming about on it.  My parents’ flock of these creatures has succeeded beyond all measure and now it is like their farm is infested with miniature dinosaurs.  Everywhere you look there are geese busily gnawing on grass, biting each other’s tails, or jumping sadly (with expectant open beaks) beneath tantalizing green apples.  I am sorry I didn’t do a sketch that really does justice to the lovable avine miscreants, however I am afraid that if I had stood among them long enough to draw them, they would have begun to nibble on me like a big ear of corn (which is their affectionate way of gently reminding visitors that geese get hungry for corn and lovely for attention).  Thanks for looking at my drawings—now that I am back from my trip and my mind is refreshed I will try to blog about some of these new subjects!

Gros Michel Bananas

Gros Michel Bananas

A half a century ago, bananas were more delicious. They were creamier with a more delectable tropical fruit taste. When they ripened, they stayed ripe longer instead of swiftly turning to black slime. Since they lasted on the shelf when ripe it was possible to sell them ripe–as opposed to today’s bananas which must be purchased all green and hard and nasty. I realize that this description makes it sound like I have fallen prey to golden age syndrome—wherein a bygone time becomes a misremembered quasi-mythical standard against which today is unfavorably compared (a well-known problem for certain political parties and demographics)—yet I am not embellishing. The bananas of yore were better because they were different. If you recall the earlier banana post, you will remember that there are numerous strange and magnificent varieties of bananas in Southeast Asia—delicious miniature bananas, red bananas, purple bananas…all sorts of fruit unknown to us. For long ages, across many lives of men, farmers hybridized wild species of bananas and selectively bred the different strains into different varieties called cultivars. The most delicious and salable cultivar was “Gros Michel” (Fat Michael) which I described above. “Gros Michel” was so ideal for farming (and so tasty) that it became pretty much the only banana cultivated. Vast plantations around the world produced only “Gros Michel.” It grew on large 7 meter tall trees (21 feet) which produced abundantly.

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I even have a family story of how my paternal grandparents got together during World War II. He finally expressed his interest in her by giving her a banana—which were rare and precious during the war. Grandma was suitably impressed and made a somewhat ribald poetic metaphor concerning the banana’s shape–which left grandpa with no doubts about her feelings…which is to say I am considerably in debt to “Gros Michel”, despite the fact that I have never tasted one.

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So what happened to Gros Michel? Is there by chance a terrifying horror story which provides us with a useful moral lesson about our tastes, our habits, and the fragile nature of the foundations of civilization?

Well, as it happens there is such a story!

Banana Tree with Panama Disease

Banana Tree with Panama Disease

In the 1950s, a fungus Fusarium oxysporum attacked the Gros Michel bananas. It was known as “Panama Disease” and it wiped out entire plantations of fruit in Africa and South America. The blight spread with horrible speed through the great monoculture farms. All Gros Michel bananas were clones, so the contagion spread unchecked. There were years where there were almost no bananas in Europe, Africa, and the Americas: whole empires turned to ashes and rot. To save their livelihood banana growers burned their groves and moved to a new dwarf banana “the Cavendish” which was unsatisfying—but which resisted the terrible killing fungus. Gros Michel disappeared from the commercial world…although there are tantalizing rumors that it exists still in the ancestral homeland of bananas—Southeast Asia. It has even been said that Chinese billionaires import luxurious Gros Michel fruits and have lavish banana parties where they eat magnificent tasting bananas and laugh at the feeble little green bananas of the west.

dsc_1801banana_shopWhatever the truth of these tales, what is certain is that the banana growers outside of Asia immediately fell back into their bad habit of monoculture. The Cavendish is just as vulnerable to blight as its predecessor. Indeed many monoculture crops (crops like wheat, rice, and potatoes) are potentially vulnerable to unexpected disease because of the perils of overreliance on certain favorable strains. It is a somewhat sobering thought for people who eat!

Ceres with Poppies and Snakes (Roman, ca. 50 BC-50 AD, Stone Bas-relief)

Ceres with Poppies and Snakes (Roman, ca. 50 BC-50 AD, Stone Bas-relief)

I was going to write a post about the dwarf planet Ceres–which is currently being explored by the NASA New Horizons robot probe. The more we learn about the failed planetary fragment, the more enigmatic it becomes (the little exploded world seems to be covered with giant pyramid-shaped mountains and weird super reflective craters). However I decided to wait to write this Ceres post until August when New Horizons dips closer to the dwarf planet and we get some clear answers (or at least some better photos). Fortunately, as I researched the mysteries of Ceres, I came across the above statue of the goddess Ceres, and it immediately became one of my favorite artworks from classical antiquity (which is saying quite a lot).

The statue is Roman from the Augustan period. I assume the figure is Ceres (Demeter) but it is possible that it may be her daughter Proserpine (Persephone). Ceres is portrayed as the gentle and munificent goddess of agriculture who is friend to humankind. She is clad in the flowing raiment of a goddess and she holds the bounty of Earth, but her eyes are sad and full of wisdom. Her hands flow with full heads of wheat, but mixed in are the addictive poppies that soothe pain. Beside her two snakes whisper the secrets of the underworld. Agriculture gave us our knowledge and our power, but it also made our world of masters and slaves, and it looks like the goddess recognizes this in her ancient eyes.

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