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delphinium larkspar.JPG

Lately I have been extremely fascinated by seeds.  Not only do I garden (remember when this blog started out sort of as a garden/musing blog?) but I am increasingly fascinated by the seed as a symbol of enormous unknown potential of the future.  This is a controversial and contentious way to look at things. Lately the anxiety-fueled news seems almost utterly pessimistic about the future (unless it is a glorified ad for an i-phone or a watch that tells your heart beat or some such tech garbage ).  I can certainly understand why thoughtful forecasters are downbeat: the California wildfire (and all other ecological news) is a wake-up call about climate change and the detrimental effect of our exponential growth species/lifestyle on the planetary ecosystem.

Yanping Wang purslane seed.jpeg

Yet without hope and an objective (above and beyond selling more plastic junk and dodgy financial services to each other) what do we have?  Looking at my proposed long-term mission statement for humankind, I notice the word “seed” is the prominent object (and perhaps the most ambiguous & figurative word in an objective filled with ambiguity and uncertainty. Oh! I should provide that mission statement:

to bear the seed of Earth Life beyond this planet and upwards into the heavens

That’s, um, a big goal.  We’ll circle back to it in future posts (long-term and short term).  For now though, I want to show you a few actual pictures of seeds so that you start thinking about the future too…and because they are possibly even more beautiful than flowers.  Two of these images (the ones at the top and the bottom) are from the remarkable Rob Kesseler (robkesseler.co.uk) a master of microscope photography (I just ordered his book on Amazon, so hopefully he won’t care that I took two of his meticulously photographed and hand-colored images for this post.  The seed at the top is a Delphinium pergrinum (a member of the Larkspar family).  The iridescent seed in the middle of this post is a Portulaca (moss rose) seed as photographed by Yanping Wang from the Beijing Planetarium in Beijing, China.  The scary spiky seed at the very bottom is a Daucus carrota (wild carrot).  Seeds have not just been on my mind.  They are invading my art as well–so watch for them on a flounder near you!  We’ll talk more about this in the depths of winter when sleeping seeds will be on everyone’s minds.

Seed2.jpg

 

An optimistic artist's conception of lunar farming

An optimistic artist’s conception of lunar farming

Earth is the only known home of life.  For all of humankind’s aspirations and ambitions, we have only succeeded in walking on one other celestial body and putting a few people, rats, and ant colonies in some leaky tin cans in low Earth orbit (I’m sorry to be so brutally honest about Skylab, Mir, and ISS). This is deeply troubling since I believe humankind can only survive and redeem itself by moving into the heavens (although some of my cynical friends worry that we will only be exporting humankind’s problems and appetites wherever we go).  Whatever the case, we are not moving very quickly towards the skies.  Political gridlock, greed, and a lack of engineering and imagination have kept us from making any real progress at space-steading.   So far we have proven to be maladroit stewards who are incapable of bearing life’s luminous seed into space (although we are amassing a nifty robot fleet around the solar system, and, despite our many flaws, we keep learning).

FullMoona

This is why I was so excited to see the most recent space exploration news:  NASA recently announced that they are teaming up with the mad moguls of Google in a project to grow crops on the moon!  The space agency is constructing a tiny (approximately 1 kilogram) capsule to grow a handful of plants on the lunar surface.  The little growth capsule with its cargo of air water and seeds will be dropped off on the moon by the Moon Express (a lunar vehicle built by Google in hopes of obtaining the lunar X Prize).

fmoonexpress

The initial project will not exactly provide much produce for a lunar greengrocer.  An online article by James Plafke describes the contents of the lunar garden canister, “Currently, the chamber can support 10 basil seeds, 10 turnip seeds, and around 100 Arabidopsis seeds. It also holds the bit of water that initiates the germination process, and uses the natural sunlight that reaches the moon to support the plant life.”

The Moon Farmer from Futurama

The Moon Farmer from Futurama

Arabidopsis is not exactly a favorite at the supermarket, but it was the first plant to be genetically sequenced and it is used in biology labs everywhere as a model organism.  In a pinch though, the basil and turnips might be good for some sort of impromptu Italian farm-style dish.  NASA will monitor the seed growth and development from Earth with an eye on how lunar gravity and radiation levels impact the germinating seeds and the growing plants.  Admittedly the microfarm is a small step towards colonies beyond Earth, but at least it is a step (and frankly the beginnings of agriculture here on Earth were similarly small and incremental).  Or, who knows? Maybe the turnips will climb out of the canister and start dragging their knuckles along the lunar plains and throwing rocks at the Chinese landers.

You never know where science will take you

You never know where science will take you

Behold a dreadful strangling monster!  This entity cannot be easily killed by conventional means and it reproduces both by asexually spawning duplicates of itself (at first attached to the parent by runners) and by releasing tens of thousands of wind-born flying pods.  When these pods land on something they take root and start to grow—even if it is another tree or a roof or a bit of concrete.  This monster comes from the primeval forests of China, indeed it is mentioned in the most ancient Chinese texts, but today it has spread everywhere.  It eats toxins and is not affected by most pollutants or even by high doses of toxic metals. It produces a poison which kills plants. If you live in a major city there is probably more than one outside your door right now!

Ailanthus altissima, the Tree of Heaven (photo by Cheryl Moorehead)

Thanks to the title at the top of the page, perspicacious readers will probably already have guessed that the monster I am writing about is Ailanthus altissima, aka the tree of heaven.  This is one of the most successful invasive species out there.  People unfamiliar with the plant are probably chortling at my rhetoric, whereas people who do know this tree, especially gardeners, are most likely making murderous gestures and exclaiming wild oaths.  The tree reproduces like crazy and it grows with seemingly supernatural speed.  Anyone who has tried to garden anywhere near a tree of heaven has spent a great deal of their time pulling up saplings or sawing them down only to see them rise again and again like the fearsome horde of hellspawn which they are.  When chopped down the tree grows back with redoubled vigor and produces suckers (basal shoots which grow from the roots and produce independent trees).  The tree of heaven may not be a massive clonal colony like Pando, but fighting the suckers and the seedlings and their many offshoots makes it seem like a single malevolent entity. And it is everywhere—when you see a tree growing on top of an abandoned building or sprouting improbably from sheer concrete, it is most likely the tree of heaven.

So Many Seeds!

The tree was not always despised. Eighteenth century European gardeners (under the spell of Chinese gardens and all things Chinese) were beguiled by its swift growth and elegant looks.  They brought the tree to Europe in the 1740s and to the United States in 1784, but, as soon as the tree was planted, the honeymoon ended.  In formal gardens Ailanthus trees tendency to sucker and set seed became very apparent as did the abominable smell of the male trees which produce a urine-like stench to attract unsavory pollinating insects (European botanists should probably have translated the Chinese name before planting: 臭椿 literally means malodorous tree). The tree’s prettiness though undeniable is not as great as that of other Chinese invasive trees like the lovely Empress tree (which is not nearly as aggressive or malodorous).

Samia cynthia--the Ailanthus Moth (note the lack of a mouth--saturniid moths do not feed in their final adult stage)

Aesthetic concerns were not the sole motivating factor which caused European gardeners to import the fearsome tree.  Although the finest silk comes from the silkworm, Bombyx mori, which feeds only on the mulberry tree, a more durable and coarse silk can be produced from the cocoons of the ailanthus moth  (Samia Cynthia) which, of course, eats ailanthus leaves. Ailanthus silk is distinctly inferior to true silk in that it does not readily take dyes, but it is durable and pretty in its own right.  Unfortunately it proved to be too labor-intensive for western production. Ailanthus moths, the huge saturniid moths, which produce these cocoons also went rogue and are now spreading across North America and Europe in tandem with the trees.

The discerning reader may have apprehended that I am no fan of the tree of heaven.  Even literary allusions to the ailanthus are problematic (it is the tree from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, a novel about alcoholism, poverty, cheating, and misery in early twentieth century immigrant life). However, having said that, Ailanthus altissima demands respect as a supremely effective life form.  It is probably the fastest growing tree in North America and is able to grow 2 meters (6 feet) in a year (as I know from cutting down 15 foot tall suckers in my tiny garden). Additionally the tree produces a chemical, ailanthone, which inhibits or prevents the germination of other seeds and is toxic to other trees.  Ailanthus altissima can live in locations that are dry, salty, or toxic and can survive on water as acidic as tomato juice. For these reasons as well as its staggering number of wind-born twirling seeds it can be found in industrial or urban wastelands where nothing else grows.  It is impossible not to feel a bit of awe for a 50 to 90 foot tall weed.

Ailanthus Trees Growing in a City

Not only is the tree is an opportunist which can live by itself in places too dry or poisonous for other trees but its incredible rate of growth allow it to compete with other deciduous trees by quickly growing into unoccupied canopy space (although adult forest trees in healthy woods can probably out-compete it in the long run).  The tree of heaven pays a price for its quick growth and heavy suckering.  Its life is short and specimens rarely live past 50 years.  However one individual tree is not the problem—if you have one tree you already have many.  Like the Lernaean Hydra, the tree of heaven is a exponentially increasing monster, but something so tough must have a use.  Perhaps a future generation of space colonists living in Konstantin Tsiolkovsky’s fantasy will spend their time wrinkling their noses and wandering why anyone chose to plant such a thing.

A photo from my nearest train station in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn

During my break from blogging, I visited the Getty Villa on the Malibu coast, which has a tremendous collection of Greco-Roman objects from the classical and pre-classical eras.  One of the more lovely artworks in their collection was this first century Roman statue of Pluto carved from marble.

Statue of Pluto (Roman, ca. First Century, Marble)

The Getty’s label for this sculpture reads as follows:

Pluto (Hades to the Greeks) was the Roman god of the Underworld.  He is depicted here in the guise of Plouton, a Greek deity associated with wealth and agrarian abundance.  The mature bearded figure stands draped in a long cloak.  A large cornucopia (now broken) rests in his left arm as a symbol of prosperity.  Although sculpted in the Roman era, this statuette is modeled after a Greek work of the Hellenisitic period (323-31 BC)

Like Poseidon, Pluto/Hades was the older brother of Zeus. When he was born he was consumed by his father Cronus. Once rescued from that predicament by Zeus’ cunning, he joined his siblings in the terrible war against the Titans.  When the Olympians were triumphant, Zeus gave Pluto suzerainty over the underworld, the dead, and all things within the ground.

Although Pluto appears in many myths, the most important story about him concerns the manner by which he obtained a spouse.  The other deities feared and avoided Pluto, who was solitary and gloomy.  The goddess Demeter, the goddess of growing things, had a radiant daughter named Persephone, a maiden of unsurpassed loveliness. One day, as Persephone was gathering flowers, Pluto opened a chasm in the world and drove up from the darkness in a chariot drawn by midnight black horses.  The god of the underworld captured the trembling girl and bore her down to his opulent palace in the land of the dead.  No longer a maiden, Persephone took no joy in the rich jewels and precious metals of Pluto’s great mansion.  The only consolation to her was the dark garden of the underworld where she beguiled her time surrounded by the silent weeping shades of the dead.

Rape of Proserpine (Niccolò dell'Abbate, ca. 1571, oil on canvas)

Although Zeus had consented to this arrangement, even he was unprepared for Demeter’s wrath.  She withdrew her gift of fertility from the world (a theme seen in both the story of Psyche and the myths concerning Oshun, an Afro-Brazilian love goddess) and everywhere people and animals starved.  The world began to wither into a lifeless desert and Zeus was forced to send his messenger, Hermes (Mercury), to retrieve Persephone. But, while in the garden of the underworld, she had eaten four seeds of a pomegranate. Thereafter she was forced to return to the underworld for four months of the year to rule beside Pluto as queen of the dead.

Statues of Hades/Pluto are much less common than statues of the other Olympian deities.  Greeks and Romans feared drawing his direct attention but they also feared to anger him by not sacrificing to him in worship.  There were therefore a number of euphemisms for the deity such as “rich father” or “giver of wealth”.  Additionally, since Pluto ruled all things under the ground, the Plouton identity, seen in the statue, came to be associated with wealth and with agricultural fertility–after all, gold and jewels came from the ground—as did life-giving crops. The Eleusinian Mysteries celebrated a more positive aspect of Pluto–as the god of wealth and the spouse of the life-giving Persephone. It was believed that initiates of these mysteries would enjoy Persephone’s favor in the underworld and would be granted access to the beautiful glowing fields of asphodel which she planted in the underworld.

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