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Pōhutukawa trees in bloom at Christmas time

Around the world the Christmas season is celebrated with conifer trees–symbol of undying life in the winter darkness….except…in some places Christmas is celebrated in the middle of summer! Some places don’t have pine trees.  This introduction takes us wayyyyy down south to the New Zealand archipelago, home of the pōhutukawa tree (Metrosideros excelsa) “The New Zealand Christmas tree.”

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Sort of “Gilding the Lily” but more so

‏Pōhutukawa trees‏ are indeed evergreens (of the myrtle family) but they are not pine trees…or conifers at all.  These hardy coastal trees are known for tenaciously clinging to sea cliffs, but, above all, they are known for brilliant displays of exquisitely colorful flowers.  The blossoms, which are composed of huge spiky masses of colorful stamens, peak just as summer begins—the end of December.   Some flowers are yellow, pink, white, or orange, but the most characteristic specimens have blooms of brilliant red.

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The trees are native to the northern island. Ancient specimens can grow to be 25 meters in height (about 83 feet) and they are wider than they are tall, but invasive animals and agricultural deforestation have reduced the great forests to a spectral shadow of their former glory.  The hungry brushtail possum is a particular menace to the tree since the marsupial invader strips it of all its leaves. Nineteenth century mariners were guilty as well—the tough arching boughs of the tree were ideally suited for building and repairing beams of wooden ships.

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Gasp! Bad Possum! Bad Possum!

Fortunately New Zealanders love the magnificent trees and plant them everywhere.  There are numerous cultivars growing in gardens throughout the lovely islands.  The trees are sometimes decorated at Christmas just like more familiar Christmas trees.  Devoted pōhutukawa conservationists are working to restore the forests. Additionally the trees are not without their own toughness. They are one of the most efficient plants at colonizing naked lava rock where volcanoes have spewed out new lands.

PohutukawaCornwallis

DSC07154I’m sorry there was no post yesterday–I was busy trimming my holiday tree.  Tree worship was a common custom in many ancient cultures from China to Egypt to the Hebrews (and it is an underlying topic of this blog).  Pagan Europeans—particularly Scandinavians and Celts also venerated evergreen trees as a symbol of undying life.

DSC07186To symbolize life, I decorated my tree as a tree of life with all sorts of different animals from different epochs of life.  Looking at the detail photos you will notice familiar animals from past Ferrebeekeeper posts.  The mollusks are represented by the squid and the octopus.  There is a pangolin, a walrus, a rabbit, and a muskox, as well as a variety of other mammals. Best of all, you will notice a tom turkey!

DSC07157It took a while to gather all the different toy animals and put screw eyes and string on them, but I think you will agree the results were worth it!  My Christmas tree actually does represent my feelings about what is sacred and numinous in our world of amazing living things.  Hopefully it can get my friends and me through the dark yule/solstice season.  Merry Christmas and seasons greetings to everyone out there!  I hope you get the gifts you want and spend the season with the people whom you care for.

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A previous Ferrebeekeeper post described the largest living bivalve mollusk–the magnificent giant clam which is indigenous to the South Pacific. However there are other large bivalve mollusks out there which are nearly as remarkable (and possibly even stranger looking).  One of these creatures, the geoduck clam (Panopea generosa), causes a unique amount of controversy, pride, consternation, and outright greed along the Northwest coast of North America where it lives

Geoduck Clam (Panopea generosa)

Geoducks are the largest burrowing clams in the world.  Specimens weighing up to three pounds (0.5–1.5 kg) are widely known and 15 kilogram monsters are alleged to exist.  Although the clams’ shells can grow quite large–sometimes exceeding 20 cm (8 inches) in length–the outstanding features of geoducks are their obscene siphons/necks which regularly reach 1 metre (3.3 ft) long (and can reputedly grow to twice that length).  Thanks to these long necks, geoducks can bury themselves deep in the coastal sands while still filtering huge amounts of plankton rich water through their digestive system. .  Geoduck (which is apparently pronounced “gooey duck”) is a word from the Lushootseed language, a tongue spoken by the Nisqually tribe.  It means “dig deep” although the Chinese name for the clams “xiàngbábàng” (which means “elephant-trunk clams”) seems equally apt.

Geoducks of Wasshington and British Colombia do not have many natural enemies (although apparently in Alaskan waters they are preyed on by sea otters and dogfish).  If left undisturbed, the bivalves can live to the fabulous age of a century-and-a-half.  Lately however, the geoducks, which dwell in giant cold-water colonies beneath Puget Sound, are being gobbled up en masse by humankind.  Although Anglo-Saxon settlers to the Pacific Northwest found the suggestive sight of the clams to be unbearable, the mollusks are hugely popular in China and Asia, where price can exceed US$168/lb (US$370/kg). Chinese diners believe that the geoduck’s…manly shape indicates that the unpreposessing mollusk will act as an aphrodisiac for those who consume its flesh. Price has shot upwards as China’s economy has grown.

Wow--Puget Sound is Beautiful.

In order to cash in on this bonanza, aquaculturists are attempting to stake out larger and larger swaths of coastline as geoduck farms. Such use of the tidelands causes consternation to real estate developers. Not only do developers object to the unaesthetic appearance of PVC pipes used as nurseries for juvenile geoducks, but the interests of both parties are entirely opposite.  Coastal land development involves bulkheaded beachfronts, deforested land, and nitrogen waste from gardens and septic systems—all of which are inimical to successful geoduck beds.

As the conflict rages on, some people (figuratively!) embrace the geoduck and its strange appearance for non-financial reasons. The Evergreen State College of Olympia, Washington has adopted the remarkable burrowing clam as a mascot.  Although the school’s official seal features a conifer tree, the unofficial coat of arms features a geoduck rampant d’or on a rondel azure (or however you say that in heraldry speak).  Additionally the school’s teams are all named the geoducks and they actually have a guy dressed up like a giant filter feeding clam to root for them.

"Speedy" the Geoduck--don't even ask about the fight song....

Conifers are amazing! Also happy holidays from Ferrebeekeeper.

It is the holiday season and decorated conifers are everywhere. Seeing all of the dressed-up firs and spruces reminds me that Ferrebeekeeper’s tree category has so far betrayed a distinct bias towards angiosperms (flowering plants). Yet the conifers vastly outdate all flowering trees by a vast span of time.  The first conifers we have found date to the late Carboniferous period (about 300 million years ago) whereas the first fossils of angiosperms appear in the Cretaceous (about 125 million years ago) although the flowering plants probably originated earlier in the Mesozoic.

The first known conifer trees resembled modern Araucaria trees.  They evolved from a (now long-extinct) ancestral gymnosperm tree which could only live in warm swampy conditions—a watery habitat necessitated since these progenitor trees did not cope well with dry conditions and also probably utilized motile sperm.  Instead of relying on free-swimming gametes and huge seeds, the newly evolved conifers used wind to carry clouds of pollen through the air and were capable of producing many tiny seeds which could survive drying out.  Because the evergreen cone-bearing trees could survive in drier conditions, the early conifers had immense competitive advantages.  These advantages were critical to survival as the great warm swamps of the Carboniferous dried out.  The continents, which had been separated by shallow oceans and seas, annealed together into the baking dry supercontinent of Permian Pangaea.  In the arid deserts and mountains, the conifers were among the only plants which could survive.

Pay attention to the Trees in this Painting not the Dinosaurs (art by Jon Taylor)

This ability to live through any condition helped the conifers get through the greatest mass extinction in life’s history—The Permian–Triassic (P–Tr) extinction event, (known to paleontologists as “the Great Dying”).  Thereafter, throughout the Mesozoic they were the dominant land plants (along with cycads and ginkgos which had evolved at about the same time).  The Mesozoic saw the greatest diversity of conifers ever—the age of dinosaurs could just as well be called the age of conifers.  Huge heard of sauropods grazed on vast swaths of exotic conifers. Beneath these strange sprawling forests, the carnosaurs hunted, the early birds glided through endless green canyons, and the desperate little mammals darted out to grab and hoard the pine nuts of the time.

The Great Boreal Forests of Canada (photo by Chad Delany)

Although flowering plants rapidly came to prominence towards the end of the Cretaceous and have since become the most diverse plants, today’s conifers are not in any way anachronisms or primitive also-rans.  They still out-compete the flowering trees in cold areas and in dry areas. Conifers entirely dominate the boreal forests of Asia, Europe, and North America—arguably the largest continuous ecosystem on the planet except for the pelagic ocean.  They form entire strange ecosystems in the Araucaria moist forests of South America—which are relics of the great conifer forests of Antarctica (the southern continent was once a warmer happier place before tectonics and climate shift gradually dragged its inhabitants to frozen death).

Contemporary Araucaria Forest in South America (photo by Garth Lenz)

The largest trees—the sequoias and redwoods–are conifers.  The oldest trees—bristlecone pine trees and clonal Spruces–are conifers (excepting of course the clonal colonies).  Conifers are probably the most commercially important trees since they are fast-growing staples of the pulp and the timber industries. Timber companies sometimes buy up hardwood forests, clear cut the valuable native deciduous trees and plant fast growing pines in their place to harvest for pulp.  In fact all of the Christmas trees which are everywhere around New York come from a similar farming process.  The conifers are nearly everywhere—they have one of the greatest success stories in the history of life.  It is no wonder they are the symbol of life surviving through the winter to come back stronger.  They have done that time and time again through the darkest and driest winters of the eons.

A Grove of Giant Sequoias (Sequoiadendron giganteum)

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