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A purple clam pearl discovered by a Virginia woman in her bucket of clam shack clams

A purple clam pearl discovered by a Virginia woman in her bucket of clam shack clams

Ferrebeekeeper has rhapsodized about Atlantic clams (which grow to fabulous old age) and we have written about pearls—the nacreous sort which come from oysters and the big orange ones from Melo gastropods.  However did you know that ordinary clams can also produce pearls?

A collection of quahog (clam) pearls in front of a polished quahog shell

A collection of quahog (clam) pearls in front of a polished quahog shell

This fact has been much in the news this week because a Virginia Beach woman bought a sack of clams from Great Machipongo Clam Shack in Nassawadox and discovered an extra consonant—er, I mean a rare clam pearl.  The clams were farm-raised littleneck clams which were about two years old (before they were harvested and cooked, I mean).  When the unsuspecting woman bit into one, she found a 4.5 carat lavender pearl.  The gem is slightly acorn-shaped and lustrous with alternating horizontal bands of lighter and darker purple.

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National media outlets (which are having a slow week, I guess) are playing up the clam pearl’s value, which could range as high as three thousand American dollars.  The estimation may not be incorrect.  The classic compendium of pearl information The Book of the Pearl: The History, Art, Science, and Industry of the Queen of Gems (Kuntz, 1908) informs us that:

Pearls also occur in the quahog, or hard clam (Venus mercenaria), of the Atlantic coast of the United States. Although these are rare, they are generally of good form, and some weigh upward of eighty grains each. They are commonly of dark color, purplish, ordinarily, but they may be white, pale lilac, brown, and even purplish black or black. Fine dark ones have a high retail value. They are often referred to as “clam pearls.

I kinda like the quahog pearl—like precious Melo pearls, it reminds me of an alien planet or an exquisite elfen turnip. However if they cost $ 3K apiece you all probably should not expect to get any in your stockings from me.

quahogscaled

CD Catfish (Tim Vogelaar and Joel Smythe for "Nashville Catfish out of Water")

CD Catfish (Tim Vogelaar and Joel Smythe for “Nashville Catfish out of Water”)

I suspect that ever since the color of the year was announced to be radiant orchid, my readers have only been asking themselves one question: “Are there any purple catfish?”  There are many imaginary purple catfish in the arts and in fantasy (and in a world of fluorescent lights, all sorts of things can take on a lavender hint), but there is also a real purple catfish!  Native to the clear flowing streams of Guyana, here is Centromochlus reticulatus, also known as the purple oil catfish or the driftwood cat.

Centromochlus reticulatus (image from msjinkzd)

Centromochlus reticulatus (image from msjinkzd)

Centromochlus reticulatus is a shy and retiring catfish which likes to hide by day in driftwood and come out at night to feed on whatever tiny invertebrates or other foodstuffs they can find.  The adult fish are extremely tiny and measure only 1 inch (2.7 cm) in length.  Like many little catfish, the fish may be shy and nocturnal but they are also social and friendly with each other.  Indeed aquarists report that they can sometimes be seen coming out to feed in little pseudo-schools where they frisk and dance in happiness at being together. Their most distinctive traits are the handsome honeycomb spots on their backs, their long whiskers, and cute all-black eyes (which are covered in adipose tissue and “lack orbital rims”).   Because they are so furtive, their wild range is somewhat unclear: although they are most common in Guyana’s Rupunun River, they reputedly also live in various nearby South American waterways (including the northeastern tributaries of the mighty Amazon).

Young Centromochlus reticulatus

Young Centromochlus reticulatus

The little fish are not exactly a Pantone dream color: younger fish are a demure purple/pink (although in older specimens the purple may fade somewhat).  And yet I find the tiny lavender catfish to be very endearing.

Mountbatten Pink

Mountbatten Pink

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).

A Model of the HMS Kelly built by Ian Ruscoe

A Model of the HMS Kelly built by Ian Ruscoe

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.

Mountbatten pink (top) versus USN 5-N Navy blue (bottom)

Mountbatten pink (top) versus USN 5-N Navy blue (bottom)

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!

A freighter with a WWII era dazzle paint scheme based around Mountbatten pink.  Is it just me, or does it look ready for an 80s installation?

A freighter with a WWII era dazzle paint scheme based around Mountbatten pink. Is it just me, or does it look ready for an 80s installation?

Dioscorea alata

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.

Purple Yam Ice Cream

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.

Ube Cake

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.

Ube Halaya

 

The Empress Tree, Paulownia tomentosa

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.

A Guzheng (Chinese Zither) Made of Paulownia Wood

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.

The Emblem of the Prime Minister of Japan

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.

Paulownia Trees in a Park

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….

Flowers of the Empress Tree, Paulownia tomentosa

Grains of Pollen Photographed by an Electron Microscope

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.

Acacia Pollen

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.

Himalayan Iris Pollen

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).

Pollen Nestling in the Cilia which Lines Your Upper Respiratory Tract

A Grain of Lavender Pollen Lying on a Lavendar Petal

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…

Insect Scales, Pollen, Hair, Manmade Fibers, Fungal Spores, and Dander

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