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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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Eastern Milk Snake (Lampropeltis triangulum triangulum)

Eastern Milk Snake (Lampropeltis triangulum triangulum)

Thanks to a milk snake, I now have a beautiful new set of cookware!  I know that sounds like a Russian fable or something that happened on a sadistic Japanese game show, but it is true.  For years my mother has kept an extra set of hard-anodized nonstick cookware along with a full surplus set of spatulas, whisks, tongs, etc…  The other day one of her spatulas broke and she went out to the garage to find a replacement.  She reached her hand into a dark dusty drawer of dark red kitchen implements and pulled out a dark red eastern milk snake!  Eek!  Apparently the little reptile had been living in the spare utensil drawer and subsisting on field mice which sometimes seek shelter in the garage.

Red Spatula

Red Spatula

After this unfortunate encounter, Mom decided that she had too many pots and pans lying around–so actually the snake was just a catalyst and, as with most of the good things in my life, I have my parents to thank for my new dishes.  I don’t need to join a snake cult just yet (although it is always in the back of my mind).

The eastern milk snake (Lampropeltis triangulum triangulum) does not merely startle parents and dispense fancy pots, pans, and spatulas.  The snakes, which range from Ontario down to Alabama are a species of kingsnake.  Milk snakes often live on farms where they prey on the local rodent populations (although the snakes can also be found in meadows, fields, and forests).  Since milk snakes have always been frequently spotted in dairy barns, our credulous forbears believed they milked livestock.  This is obviously a myth since, even if serpents did enjoy dairy, they would hardly wish to venture among they heavy sharp hooves of sheep, cows, and goats, however it has provided the milk snake with a colorful name.

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Like the mighty giants of the snake world, milk snakes are constrictors, which wrap up their prey within a suffocating coiled embrace.  Milk snakes, however, are little: adults range in size from 60 to 91 centimetres (24 to 36 in) in length.  The baby snakes are only a few inches long and they are insanely colorful (although the beautiful bright red fades to maroon, rust, or brown as they grow older.

The milk snake in the garage was escorted out to the field.  The snakes live up to 12 years in the wild and it’s good to have them around since they eat pests.

And what is the review of my new pots?  Of course I was extremely excited to use my lovely new cookware which can be used in the oven as well as on top of the stove.  I turned the oven on and waited eagerly for the little beeper to let me know when the temperature was hot enough to cook…and then I waited and waited and waited.  I guess the wild electrical surges that have been hitting the grid must have knocked out the little electronic lighter/valve in the oven—so no more baking for me until we get that fixed (or convince the landlady to buy a new range).  It also seems like a Russian fable that I have wonderful new pots but no oven…

Is this snake laughing?

Is this snake laughing?

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.

Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis)

As the world starts to awaken for spring the first trees begin to come into bud.  Here in the east coast of North America one sort of early-blooming tree particularly stands out along the highways because of its bright purple-pink blossoms.  It is the eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis) a hardy small tree native to eastern North America.  Although it is native to deciduous woodlands from the Atlantic coast to Oklahoma and from southern Canada down to northern Mexico, it has been grown elsewhere as an ornamental tree.

Cercis siliquastrum in Greece (a stunning photo by Waqas Ahmed)

The eastern redbud is a member of the Cercis genus, (part of the pea family Fabaceae) which consists of approximately ten species which live in a temperate belt stretching west from China all the way around the world to California.  Probably the most well-known member of the family is the beautiful Mediterranean redbud, Cercis siliquastrum, a 10-15 meter (30-45 feet) tree which lives from southern Spain and France to Syria and Israel. The tree has lovely magenta flowers in spring and its tangy buds have featured in salads or fritters for centuries, however the little Mediterranean redbud is most famous to Christians as the tree upon which Judas hanged himself when the agony of his betrayal grew too great for him to live with.

Aagh! Why you gotta be that way, religion?

Of course I’m cheating somewhat by writing about the eastern redbud a whole month before it blooms here in Brooklyn, but it should be flowering soon (or now) in the south. Additionally, if you live in eastern China, Yunnan, South Asia, Persia, Asia Minor, middle-to-southern Europe, or California, there will be some sort of native redbud to watch for as well. Now that you (and the larger portion of humanity) know to watch for it, you will be alert during the rest of early spring when its slender boughs of brilliant purple-pink stand out against the gray-brown and the pale green. It is a short-lived and singular grace note to the season.

Jamaica Bay (Photo: Kathy Willens/Associated Press)

New York City is fortunate to have a thriving wetland inside the city. Visitors who have flown in or out of JFK have seen the huge intertidal salt marsh known as Jamaica Bay which lies along the boder of Brooklyn and Queens.  Unfortunately the wetland has been eroding away into the Atlantic Ocean.  This is partly because the east coast is a receding coastline and partly because of overdevelopment: there are numerous large sewage treatment facilities around the bay.  The City’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has been trying to clean up the bay and prevent the loss of a uniquely beautiful wilderness.  To do so they will need allies…little gray faceless allies. 

Jamaica Bay is there at the bottom right

Jamaica Bay is still host to 120 species of bird and 48 species of fish, however one particular keystone life form has gone missing. During the last 5 decades the Eastern Oyster (Crassostrea virginica) has vanished entirely from Jamaica Bay. The mollusks used to be so plentiful as to be a hindrance to navigation, but they gradually fell victim to overfishing and the pollution caused by 8 million pushy, pushy New Yorkers. 

All of this was true until two days ago (October 5, 2010) when the city laid down huge beds of oyster shells and reseeded Jamaica bay with endearing baby oysters.  The DEP has spent hundreds of millions of dollars modernizing and improving the water treatment plants around the bay to shrink nitrogen levels and give the oysters a fighting chance.

Artist's Conception of Jamaica Bay at present

Hopefully the young oysters will thrive and again become a backbone of the recovering bay ecosystem.  There are terrible perils out there facing the stalwart bivalves.  Stressed oysters are susceptible to two horrid diseases known as “Dermo and “MSX“, both virulent pathogens with the names of German industrial bands.  If the little mollusks can establish a foothold, filter feeding oysters are an immense boon to water quality.  One large adult can clean up to 48 gallons of water in 24 hours.  I’m rooting enthusiastically for the new neighbors. 

"They never asked to be heroes."

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