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Cream from Cow's Milk

Cream from Cow’s Milk

Today’s bland but pretty post features a bland but pretty color—and one which traces its roots back to the beginnings of agriculture!   Cream is the color of, well… cream.  If one milks a grazing animal (cow, goat, sheep, camel, mare, etc…) the milkfat will rise up to the top of the bucket.  Cream from grazing animals takes on a lovely pale yellow color from carotenoid pigments which occur in the chloroplasts and chromoplasts of meadow plants.  This effect is greatly attenuated in processed cream from factory-farmed milk, so, if you want the original effect as appreciated by Roman and Medieval colorists, you will have to wonder up to a green mountain pasture and milk the goats yourself as though you were Heidi (eds note: please, please do not wander around unfamiliar mountain pastures and grab at the teats of strange ruminants!).

A Cream-Colored Charolais Cow

A Cream-Colored Charolais Cow

Cream was a premium source of energy, nutrients, and sustenance throughout recorded history (and a costly ingredient in the foodstuffs of the rich and privileged for just as long).  Cream shows up in Homer, the Bible, Roman pastoral poems, Scandinavian sagas, and Renaissance metaphysical poetry.   Throughout all of these times, the word has been used as a description of the pale yellow/off-white color.

Osborne1

As a renter, I have a bitterness towards the color cream: rental flats are invariably painted cream because: 1) cream does not show dirt and age as much as white; 2) the bright color still makes rooms seem spacious and bright; and 3) you can always paint over it.  Yet as an artist, I love cream color!  It is perfect for vestal virgins, angel wings, and abandoned human skulls lying around dragon warrens!  Cream is the highlight color of flesh seen in incandescent light and it forms the shadow side of clouds on perfectly bright sunny days.  Even the oil-primed Belgian linen that painters like to paint on is cream-colored.

The Guardian Angel (Guercino, oil on canvas)

The Guardian Angel (Guercino, oil on canvas)

Because the color strikes such a note with humankind for aesthetic and historical reasons, a great many birds and animals have it in their Latin or common names.  Thanks to the ancient ties between cream and luxuriant desserts, it also has a strange double life as an aristocratic color (which belies its use on the walls of rental garrets).   As I keep writing, I realize how complex my feelings are about this beautiful pastel color….

The Cream-colored Woodpecker (Celeus flavus)

The Cream-colored Woodpecker (Celeus flavus)

Don’t expect any resolution–you will have to figure out how you feel about the multitudinous meanings and associations of cream on your own!

Rolls-Royce-Silver-Cloud-Mk-I-cream-1957-01AL8271533917A

 

A wild Prairie Trillium

A wild Prairie Trillium

In the wild there are all sorts of brown flowers.  Trees, grasses, vines, and wildflowers frequently bear tiny brown or green blossoms so as not to draw the attention of herbivores.  Yet brown is an unusual color in the flower garden for the same reason.  For centuries (or millennia) gardeners have tried to breed, hybridize, or mutate flowers into increasingly vibrant shades of pink, purple, yellow, orange, red, white, and blue.  However, if you look through botanical gardens and flower catalogs for long enough, you will find a pretty brown variety of nearly every popular sort of garden flower.  Here is a tiny gallery—and the familiar favorites are surprisingly pretty (and unfamiliar) in shades of chocolate, caramel, auburn, and sienna.

Brown Hybrid Orchid (Warren Arthur Wilson)

Brown Hybrid Orchid (Warren Arthur Wilson)

Paphiopedilum faireanum

Paphiopedilum faireanum

Velour Frosted Chocolate Viola (from swallowtailgardenseeds.com)

Velour Frosted Chocolate Viola (from swallowtailgardenseeds.com)

Chrysanthemum (Brown Disbud Cremon)

Chrysanthemum (Brown Disbud Cremon)

Brown Bearded Iris

Brown Bearded Iris

Terra Nostra Roses (NIRP International)

Terra Nostra Roses (NIRP International)

Copper toned daylily

Copper toned daylily

Absalom Tulip from 1870 at Old House Gardens

Absalom Tulip from 1870 at Old House Gardens

Brown Gerbera Daisy

Brown Gerbera Daisy

Voodoo Magic Hibiscus

Voodoo Magic Hibiscus

 

Brown Gladiolus

Brown Gladiolus

Brown Sunflower

Brown Sunflower

Texas Coral Snake (Micrurus tener)

Many reptiles and amphibians are beautifully colored, particularly the poisonous ones. When I was growing up, I had a set of field guides of the creatures of North America.  Of all the land animals of North America, the animals which I thought were most beautifully colored were the coral snakes. Coral snakes constitute four genera of snakes within the family of elapid snakes (cobras, mambas, sea snakes, kraits, and other poisonous snakes from warm climates).  Many coral snakes live in South America and the old world (where some coral snake species are evolving into sea snakes), but I’m going to stick to writing about the gorgeous red, yellow, and black coral snakes of North America.  These snakes are brightly colored to warn potential predators that they are extremely venomous.  This strategy has failed somewhat when it comes to intimidating humans, who have a collective fascination with pretty colors.

Eastern Coral Snake (Micrurus fulvius)

There are three coral snakes which live in the United States.  The eastern coral snake (Micrurus fulvius) ranges from North Carolina to Texas (including Florida and the Gulf Coast swamps). The Texas coral Snake (Micrurus tener) ranges from northeast Mexico up through Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas.  The Arizona coral snake (Micruroides euryxanthus) lives in the Sonoran desert through Southern New Mexico, Arizona, and Sinaloa.  All species of coral snakes in the United States can be identified by the fact that their red bands touch the yellow bands (which is in marked opposition to mimics like king snakes and milk snakes).  Coral snakes from Central/South America and from Asia do not always follow this rule: the black bands can sometimes touch the red bands, or the bands can be colors other than red, yellow, and black–or there might be no bands at all!

Arizona Coral Snake (Micruroides euryxanthus)
Photographer: Wayne Van Devender

Coral Snakes are fossorial predators which spend most of their life just beneath the leaf litter or loose topsoil where they hunt lizards, frogs, insects, and smaller snakes.  Baby snakes are 18 centimeters (7 inches long) when they hatch from their eggs. Adult snakes can grow to 0.6 meters (2 feet) in length. Coral snakes can live up to seven years in captivity.

Coral Snakes are extremely poisonous, but they are also shy and retiring. Instead of hanging around biting, they would prefer to escape as quickly as possible.  This makes sense from the snake’s perspective, since their fangs are very tiny and they have to chew directly on their prey in order to inject a fatal dose.  Since they have tiny mouths, it is not necessarily easy for them to score a direct bite on humans.  Additionally their venom acts slowly—at first there is only a mild tingling associated with the bite. Lethargy, disorientation, and nausea set in hours later.  In extreme cases, coral snake bites can cause respiratory arrest.  Fatal bites are extremely rare: most sources state that nobody has been killed by a coral snake in the US since antivenin was released in 1967 (although I also found allusions to a 2009 case where a man laughed off a bite only to die hours later).

A coral snake’s little teeth.

Coral Snake antivenin was solely manufactured by one US drug company, Wyeth Pharmaceuticals (now a wholly owned subsidy of Pfizer Inc.). In 2003 Wyeth ceased manufacturing coral snake antivenin since too few people were bitten to make the product profitable.  There is still a small supply left on hand (although the expiration date has been extended twice), but Pfizer does not seem to have any intention of pursuing a microscopic niche market when it has more profitable businesses to pursue.  Foreign pharmaceutical companies continue to produce coral snake antivenin, but they do not sell it in the United States because of prohibitive licensing and regulatory costs (hooray! the United States health care system is unsolving problems which were figured out 40 years ago!).

Actually Wyeth just doesn’t want to save this guy.*

*Don’t be this guy.

Woodblock prints of ages past show giant octopuses ripping apart boats and feasting on sailors like popcorn.  These artifacts of ancient sea-lore make for rousing images, but they are quite wrong:  octopuses are fierce and cunning hunters but they present little danger to humans—with a noteworthy exception.  The truly dangerous octopuses are not giant monsters (perhaps the artists of yesteryear were thinking of the mighty giant squid?) but rather tiny jewel-like beauties from the genus Hapalochlaena which includes only three or four species.  Known as blue-ring octopuses the tiny creatures swim in tide pools and shallows of the Indo-Pacific Ocean from Japan down to Australia (where they are most prevalent).  Blue-ringed octopuses live on shrimp, crabs, minnows, and horseshoe crabs.  They are tremendous hunters who use camouflage, stealth, and guile to catch their prey.  However, these tools pale before their greatest weapon: the little octopuses are among the most poisonous creatures on planet Earth.

(photo by Aluki from Flickr)

Like the flamboyant cuttlefish, the blue-ringed octopus does not like to bite without giving warning but advertises its toxicity with vivid coloration.  The octopus can conceal itself with tremendous prowess however, as soon as it becomes aware of a predator or some other threat, it dials up its coloration changing from muted reef tones to brilliant yellow with iridescent blue rings.  If you see something like this in the ocean, for heaven’s sake don’t touch it.  The octopus’s warning colors let ocean predators know to leave it alone but immediately attract humankind’s magpie urge to grab shiny things.  Although blue-ringed octopuses are good natured and have been known not to bite people who were provoking them rather intensely, their bites have caused more than seventy recorded fatalities in Australia. The octopus has a tiny beak and often a victim does not realize they have been bitten until they began to fall into paralysis and their respiration starts to fail.

Argh, I said don't touch it

The venom of the blue ringed octopus is a complicated pharmacological cocktail which includes tetrodotoxin, 5-hydroxytryptamine, hyaluronidase, tyramine, histamine, tryptamine, octopamine, taurine, acetylcholine, and dopamine. The most active ingredient tetrodotoxin blocks the sodium channels which conducting sodium ions (Na+) through a cell’s plasma membrane.  This causes total paralysis for the octopus victim, however if clever and persistent rescuers are present at the time of the bite they can rescue the unfortunate soul with continuous artificial respiration.  This is no small matter as bite victims are often rendered completely unresponsive by the paralytic victim.  Although completely conscious they are unable to communicate in any way or even breathe.  If artificial respiration is initiated immediately and continued until the body can metabolize and eliminate the toxin, bite victims can survive (although it sounds like rather an ordeal).

Blue ringed octopuses are tender and solicitous mothers.  The mother octopus lays a clutch of approximately 50 eggs in autumn which she incubates beneath her arms for about six months (during which time she is unable to eat).  When the eggs hatch, the mother octopus dies. The baby octopuses reach sexual maturity in about a year.  Despite their cleverness and beauty, the animals are as ephemeral as they are deadly.

Under its mother's watchful eye a baby southern blue-ringed octopus (Hapalochlaena maculosa) emerges from its egg.

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