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Of all of the world’s abalone species, the white abalone (Haliotis sorenseni) has the sweetest, whitest, most delectable meat…or so I am told: I have never eaten one.  Indeed, it is increasingly unlikely that anyone will eat one again.  A horrible thing happened to the white abalone in the seventies (and to lots of other people and things too, but we need to stay focused).   A commercial fishery came into existence and, although it lasted for less than a decade 30 years ago, it seems to have dealt a nearly fatal blow to the white abalone.

White abalone are herbivorous gastropods which are not exactly white—they have an orange foot with tan sensory tentacles (!).  They are herbivores which live on rocks surrounded by sand channels at about 25-30 meters of depth (80-100 feet).  They can be found in Southern California and the northern parts of the Baja peninsula.  White abalone are broadcast spawners.  They release…uh, their gametes into open water in large numbers.  The abalone fishery of the seventies and early eighties thinned their numbers so drastically that they do not exist in proximity to each other.  White abalone live a maximum of about forty years, so the last natural specimens are dying off without reproducing.  They are broadcasting their genetic information into the open ocean with no complimentary abalones nearby to produce offspring.

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The NOAA is working with various partners to save the abalone.  The administration and various mollusk lovers and malacologists have created a captive breeding program at the University of California-Davis Bodega Marine Lab.  Although they have successfully spawned enormous numbers of white abalones, the larval shellfish do not do well in captivity and the species’ ultimate survival remains an open question.  Fortunately, in pursuing the goal of saving the white abalone, the scientists have learned a great deal about abalone disease treatment and prevention and how to maintain water suitable for the young sea snails.   The whole sad episode seems to indicate several troubling things about our (in) bility to manage marine resources—and yet, through extraordinary countermeasures we have forestalled complete disaster.  I wonder if the white abalone will manage to come back based on all we have learned.

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In America, the last Friday of April is traditionally Arbor Day, a day for planting and conserving trees. I probably should have written about the cherry tree today…but the blossoms have already largely fallen off so I am going to choose a different blossoming tree to concentrate on—the common hawthorn Crataegus monogyna. The Hawthorn is another of the most beautiful flowering trees of the northern hemisphere. Like cherry trees, hawthorns are members of the rose family. They are small to medium sized trees of great beauty which have thorns and grey-brown bark with orange fissures. Hawthorns bear red pome fruit which is said to taste like overripe apples (the fruit of North American species of Hawthorns was a major food source for North America peoples before familiar Eurasian fruit arrived). The common hawthorn tree was originally native to Europe, North Africa, and Western Asia.
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The Hawthorn is known for beautiful glistening blossoms which appear in May or June and resemble five petaled roses (although the vase-shaped tree is lovely year-round. More prosaically, the trees have been used as hedges because of their dense growth, hard wood, and thorns.
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The tree features prominently in the folklore of Europe and western Asia. The Greeks esteemed it enormously—it was the symbol of hope and blossoming boughs were carried in wedding processions. In Northern Europe, the Hawthorn was identified with ancient gods. For a long time, even after Europe was Christianized, hawthorn trees were reckoned to be found near entrances to the otherworld—the realm of elves, fairies, and magical folk. It was allegedly bad luck to kill—or even cut a hawthorn tree, and the misfortunes of Delorean motor company are said to have started when they cut down a grove to build their factory.
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In Christian mythology, the crown of thorns of Jesus was putatively made from hawthorn wood. Despite this, Christians, apparently stayed fond of Hawthorn and there were medieval legends connecting it with various Saints and miracles. Hawthorn is certainly a miraculously beautiful tree. I would totally plant one for Arbor Day…if I had a sapling…or a place to plant it.
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il_340x270.521166662_98j8The roots of our third most popular topic go back 5500 years to pre-dynastic Ancient Egypt! In those times, the upper kingdom of Egypt (which spread along the Nile banks in the arid highlands to the south) was an entirely separate civilization from the fertile lower kingdom in the north. Sometime around 3100 the kingdoms were united under one ruler—the first pharaoh. The extremely silly yet very beautiful white crown of Upper Egypt—which looked like a narrow white flower bulb–was combined with the even sillier and even more beautiful red crown of Lower Egypt which looked like a flared cylinder with a spiral bee proboscis sticking out of it. The white crown was (and is?) the sacred emblem of the white vulture goddess Hedjet whereas the red crown was connected with Wadjet the pretty cobra goddess. Together these crowns became the emblem of the god king pharaoh for 3000 years.

The combined white and red crowns of upper and lower Egypt!

The combined white and red crowns of upper and lower Egypt!

You can read all about the crowns and their symbolism in the original post, but perhaps you are asking why I write so much about crowns anyway (my mom, a stalwart free American citizen always wonders about it). I find it fascinating that humans endow so much status and power in individuals. The crowns of emperors, pharaohs, kings, princes, and sundry other royal conquerors/hucksters are the absolute embodiment of this tendency to invest mythical potency and authority in other people. Crowns are ancient storied jeweled symbols of the fact that we think other people are better than us. The sacred headdresses accumulate astonishing histories:  yet, in and of themselves, they are also remarkably absurd.  It boggles the mind that people will do anything just because someone is wearing a cylinder of metal with squiggles or shiny stones upon their head.

Yeah, this makes sense.

Yeah, this makes sense.

Pilgrim Geese

Pilgrim Geese!

I’m sorry for the lack of posts for the last week: I was out of the city on a family visit in the bosky hills Appalachia. It was wonderful to get out of the city and spend some time on the farm recharging my mental and emotional batteries! One of the highlights of the trip was interacting with my parents’ flock of pilgrim geese–a heritage breed of medium sized geese noted for their mild manners and gender-selected colors: pilgrim ganders are white (with maybe a few dark tail feathers) whereas the female geese are medium gray with white bellies.

Argh! Back up a little bit...

Argh! Back up a little bit…

Pilgrim geese obtained their name because they allegedly came to America with the protestant refugees who founded New England—the pilgrims–but that dramatic historically interesting story may be an invention. The Live Stock Conservancy describes the various possible origins of the breed on its website:

[A poultry researcher] found numerous references to auto-sexing geese in colonial America, western England and Normandy, France, but the breed was never referred to by a name. According to some authorities, the Pilgrim goose is related to the now rare West of England goose, another auto-sexing breed, which could possibly have arrived with early colonists…But Oscar Grow, a leading authority on waterfowl in the 1900s, claims to have developed the breed in Iowa, and that his wife named them in memory of their relocation – or pilgrimage – to Missouri during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Authorities agree that the breed was first documented by the name “Pilgrim” in 1935, corresponding with the Grow family’s pilgrimage. The Pilgrim was admitted into the American Poultry Association’s Standard of Perfection in 1939.

Pilgrim geese are able to fly short distances and they have a long lifespan (of up to 40 years—not that such an age is particularly old for humans!). They are friendly birds and intelligence shines in their round gray eyes. Goose society is very lively with lots of political squabbling and jockeying for prime mates and nesting sites. Like other domestic geese they largely subsist on grass and green shoots which they avidly graze with their serrated beaks, but they are hungry, hungry birds and they love special treats. In order to socialize her goose flock, my mother gives the birds some corn and mash in the morning and in the evening. The geese all crowd around the galvanized bin where their food is kept and inquisitively nibble on the pockets of the goose tenders. If the food does not appear rapidly enough they will point their beaks upward toward their human keepers and open them wide hoping perhaps that we might funnel grain directly down their gullet. They are extremely hilarious standing around with their bills open like big feathery ridiculous Venus flytraps!

The author with pilgrim goslings (who needed to be gathered up and put in a shed to protect them from predators)

The author with pilgrim goslings (who needed to be gathered up and put in a shed to protect them from predators)

Spring Snowflakes (Leucojum vernum)

Spring Snowflakes (Leucojum vernum)

Although it is the first week of March, it is still deep winter here in Brooklyn…but the days are starting to grow longer and there is a certain fresh new quality to the sunlight.  The birds in the backyard are getting feistier as they stake out territories & mates.  Also, this year, like every year, the squirrels have eaten all of the Christmas lights (which they do as their winter provisions run out).  Nature is taking a deep breath as it prepares for the coming spring (although I would hardly be surprised if there are a few more blizzards in the hopper this year).

My old enemies have at least survived the killing snows and ice

My old enemies have at least survived the killing snows and ice

Every year at this time I begin looking around desperately for the first blossoms and blooms of the coming spring…and every year there is nothing for many more weeks (or months).   The plants are not fooled and know to keep underground until the season is warmer, but that doesn’t stop me from thinking about the first flowers and trees to bloom.  In years past I have blogged about crocuses, redbuds, hellebores, and primroses.  To start out my garden topic for 2014, I will blog about a tiny inconspicuous flower I have not yet tried to grow, the spring snowflake (Leucojum vernum).

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Spring snowflakes originally come from central and southern Europe.  Their natural range starts in the Pyrenees and stretches east to Romania and Russia.  Spring snowflakes sprout in March about a week or two after snowdrops (which are unrelated, despite the common name).  They grow 15-20 cm tall (6-8 in) tall and sport a lovely white bell-shaped flowers which have tiny green or yellow spots at the end of each tepal.  Spring snowflakes can naturalize in great drifts–which makes them popular to gardeners and they have been brought from Europe to other similar temperate regions (like the east coast of America).

Drifts of spring snowflakes

Drifts of spring snowflakes

In the wild, however they live in deep fairytale forests of Germany and central Europe where the wistful beauty of the tiny bells has given them a place in art and folklore.  Although the flowers are tiny and fragile, they contain the highly toxic alkaloids lycorine and galantamine—so they are not exactly unprotected among the witches, wild boars, and mad princes of their native range.  I can hardly wait for the crucial juncture when actual spring snowflakes are replaced by the botanical variety!  I hope you will join me in keeping your eyes on the ground as the winter slowly loosens its grip.

Today is June 21st , which, in the northern hemisphere–where the majority of humankind lives–is the summer solstice.  This is the longest day of the year (and the shortest night).  Rejoice!  Now is the time of light and warmth.

Druid

Druids!

Of course it would hardly be the solstice if we didn’t talk about druids, but here, suddenly things get tricky, because, despite their long-standing popularity, we don’t actually know very much about druids.   There are no writings left to us from actual druids and although we have some archeological finds from Iron-age Western Europe which relate to the religions of the time, we do not have any objects which are directly connected with druids.  Some scholars question whether they ever even existed.

What is known about druids, therefore comes from Roman and Greek writers (including no less a person than Julius Caesar).  Druids were the priestly caste of polytheistic Celtic society.  Druid lore was passed down orally and it was no mean feat to become one of these elite priests:  it could take decades to master the complicated plant lore, ceremonial forms, and other esoteric druid knowledge.

Druids are associated with sacred groves and augury.  Roman writers also believed that druids practiced human sacrifice.  Julius Caesar wrote of druids placing prisoners in huge men made of wicker and then burning the victims to death.   However druid-sympathizers (which is apparently a real thing) dispute this idea and assert that Roman sources were guilty of cultural propaganda.  In fact, an even more extreme faction of scholars asserts that druids were entirely made up by Romans as a sort of fantasy of the other in order to highlight Roman superiority.  To me this seems like an unwarranted assumption: the concept of the hard headed Julius Caesar making up fantastical stories to drive home Roman superiority (which was an indisputable fact to him)  seems suspect, and there is archaeological evidence to support a tradition of human sacrifice, although it too is controversial.

"The Victim" An Illustration by AB Houghton for Tennyson's poem (engraving,1868).

“The Victim” An Illustration by AB Houghton for Tennyson’s poem (engraving,1868).

The only description of a druid ceremony comes from Book XVI of Natural History by Pliny the Elder.  This single highly colorful passage is responsible for most of the popular image of druids.  Pliny describes

“The Druids hold nothing more sacred than mistletoe and a tree on which it is growing … when it [mistletoe] is discovered it is gathered with great ceremony Hailing the moon in a native word that means ‘healing all things,’ they prepare a ritual sacrifice and banquet beneath a tree and bring up two white bulls, whose horns are bound for the first time on this occasion. A priest arrayed in white vestments climbs the tree and with a golden sickle cuts down the mistletoe, which is caught in a white cloak. Then finally they kill the victims, praying to god to render his gift propitious to those whom he has bestowed it. They believe that mistletoe given in drink will impart fertility to any animal that is barren, and that it is an antidote for all poisons.”

Whether he heard about it and thought it sounded neat or just made it up is anyone’s guess.

Neodruids (hahahaha)

Neodruids (hahahaha)

So wait, what does any of this have to do with the solstice?  Why are druids associated to an astronomical event in the way that Santa goes with Christmas?    Druids became greatly popular during the 18th and 19th century Celtic revival.   As romantics and neo-pagans invented rituals they looked towards the Roman sources (and certain Irish Christian sources which set up druids as being the opposite of Christian saints). Druids became associated with the great stone monoliths such as Stonehenge, and, since those ancient constructions are focused on the solar calendar,  it  was logical to assume that druids were too.

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A smew hunting underwater (by DianneB1960)

A smew hunting underwater (by DianneB1960)

The National Zoo in Washington D.C. has a duck pond over by the parking lot entrance.  There are numerous pretty North American ducks in the pond as well as mute swans from Europe, black swans from Australia, and various fancy ducks from around the globe–but these beautiful waterfowl pale in comparison to lions, pandas, and elephants–so visitors are inclined to rapidly push by the little lake.  One day (when I too was rushing by) I noticed a ghostly white presence flitting around the bottom of the pond.  At first I thought I was hallucinating and then I thought that a penguin or puffin had escaped the Arctic area.  It was an amazingly dexterous aquatic hunter swimming underwater hunting for small fish.  I watched for some time before it popped to the surface and revealed itself to be…a male smew!

Smew Drake (Mergellus albellus) from http://birds-ath.blogspot.com

Smew Drake (Mergellus albellus) from http://birds-ath.blogspot.com

Smews (Mergellus albellus) are the world’s smallest merganser ducks.  They may seem alien because, for modern birds, they are ancient. Fossils of smews have been found in England which date back to 2 million years ago.   The smew is last surviving member of the genus Mergellus—which includes fossil seaducks from the middle Miocene (approximately 13 million years ago).  Smews breed along the northern edge of the great Boreal forests of Europe and Asia.  During winter they fly south to England, Holland, Germany, the Baltic Sea, & the Black Sea.  Like other Mersangers, smews are hunters: they dive underwater and deftly swim down fish (showing ballet-like grace during the process).  Like many other sorts of piscivorous hunters, smews have heavily serrated beaks (which are further specialized with a wicked hooked tip).

Smew party (Norman McCanch, 2011, oil)

Smew party (Norman McCanch, 2011, oil)

The drake smew has been poetically described as having the combined appearance of cracked ice and a panda.  Female smew ducks are plainer—they have gray bodies, chestnut crowns and faces, and a white neck. Although smews are from an ancient lineage and live in a difficult part of the world, they are still not doing badly.  Their numbers have declined somewhat, but they are not endangered (which is good news because they are very lovely and captivating).

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One of the problems with writing about living things is that there is a lot of troubling news from the natural world.  If one writes about the many sad or perplexing  issues affecting worldwide ecosystems, people get depressed and stop reading, but if one willfully ignores true problems…well, what is the point of observing and thinking about the world?  I remember CNN’s online newspage used to have a Science/Nature header which was so consistently filled with news of species die-offs, ecological disaster, and worldwide blight that the whole science section was canceled.  Now CNN has more room for “news” about Ashton Kutcher’s all fruit diet and a tech section with reviews of “cool gear” you can buy for your Superbowl party.  Sigh….

All of which is a round-about way of apologizing for today’s upsetting (but extremely important) post concerning the mass die-off of North America’s bats.  Wait! Please don’t go to other site to read about “Miley” Cyrus.  Bats are actually really important. They are key organisms in ecosystems across the continent.   If they all die, the rest of us mammals are also going to be in serious trouble

The culprit behind the bat deaths is a fungus, Geomyces destructans, which causes WNS–white nose syndrome.  Despite its cartoonish name, white nose syndrome is a horrible death sentence for most temperate bats in North America.  Geomyces destructans is a low temperature fungus (like the hideous specimens you find in neglected refrigerators).  As the bats hibernate, powdery white fungus builds up on their little wings and faces.  The poor itchy bats are awakened from hibernation and, because of the irritation, they cannot return to a suspended state.  The little animals quickly burn up their energy reserves and die—to then become macabre bat-shaped clumps of fungus.

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Geomyces destructans seems to have traveled to North America from European caves, probably on the boots or specialized equipment of spelunkers (strange troubled sportspeople who worm deep into the crushing dark of caves).  Now that the fungus is in North America, it appears to be spreading by means of bat to bat contact.  European bats seem to have a native resistance to the fungus, but American bats are unprepared for it and they have died in legion.  Ninety percent of New Jersey’s bats are believed to have already died.  As the plague moves to new colonies similar mortality is expected.  Although the disease started in the middle of New York State, it has quickly spread along the East coast and it is moving west.   Scientists worry that the pestilence could spread from coast to coast (although bats which live in warmer climes might be less susceptible to the low temperature fungus).  Bats reproduce slowly—usually at a rate of one pup (or less) per year, so bat colonies cannot replenish like sardine schools or rodent colonies.  Additionally the spores linger in caves even after all the bats have been killed.

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I personally love bats.  I find them endearing and beautiful (and relatable, since I have my own flighty nocturnal habits).  Western culture has not been so kind and often equates the flying mammals with witchcraft, Satan, demons, and all other manner of underworld fiends (the Chinese, however, see bats as lucky—in fact one of the Eight Taoist immortals began his cycle of incarnation as a bat).  A surprising number of Americans cleave to the old ways and smile at the horrifying curse that jackass cave explorers have unknowingly unleashed on our little chiropteran friends.

This attitude is a big mistake.

Anecdotally, the weather on North America has been worsening.  Great storms pound our coasts, droughts scorch the hinterlands, and mighty cyclones appear everywhere knocking down forests.  Imagine if, to compound these woes, vast plagues of insects descended upon our homes and crops.

Well, without bats, you won’t have to imagine.   Bats are a principal predator of insects—especially nighttime insects like mosquitoes (but also a surprising number of agricultural and forest pests).   Humans, being diurnal, underestimate bats, but insect-eating chiropterans eat 80% to 100% of their body mass in insects per night and they live in vast colonies (especially out west). Without bats we are liable to see great swarms of insects eat our crops and we will experience a resurgence of mosquito born ills.

The pallid bat (Antrozous pallidus) Photography by J. Scott Altenbach

The pallid bat (Antrozous pallidus) Photography by J. Scott Altenbach

An article in Daily Finance outlines some of the potential fall out of the great North American bat die-off (and if cold heartless financiers are worried about the environment, we know that something is really amiss).  So how can we actually help the bats? The Federal government has allocated 1.6 million dollars to study the problem, but this is not a lot of money!  Various agencies and organizations are attempting to curtail cave exploration and keep people from becoming a further vector for spreading the fungus.  Making people aware of the problems bats are facing is also a useful step (which is why I am writing this).  Most of all we need to care for bats before they are gone.  Farmers, bankers, politicians, ecologists, and scientists all need to worry about our beleaguered friends. The mass die-off of honey bees has had a horrible effect on agriculture and forestry:  the effect of a bat die off could be worse.  But even more importantly bats are social mammals—like us.  If suddenly 90% of them are dying off, it is a terrible portent as well as a horrible loss to the planet.

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Discovered by Sir William Herschel in 1781, the seventh planet in our solar system is named for the Greek deity Uranus, the original skygod of the Greek cosmology.  In classical myth Uranus was castrated and supplanted by his youngest son Cronus (Saturn) who then fell before Zeus (Jupiter) and indeed, the third largest planet in our solar system (in volume) is often overlooked by astronomers, whose eyes are trained on the dramatic gas-giants Jupiter and Saturn.  Only one mission has flown by Uranus–Voyager II, which captured the following undramatic photo in 1986 as it whipped through on its way to Neptune.

Photograph of Uranus taken by Voyage II in 1986 (not a cue ball!)

All of this is a shame, Uranus is not only the first ice-giant planet but it is unique in the solar system for rotating vertically rather than horizontally (probably thanks to some apocalyptic super collision long ago in the planet’s history). From our perspective, the moons of Uranus orbit around it like a clock’s hands and its sporty red rings sometimes give it the appearance of a target.  Uranus has an incredibly long rotation around the sun.  One Uranus year equals 84 Earth years.  Because it spins vertically rather than horizontally, one pole is cast in a super winter which lasts twenty of our earth years (remember the poles of Uranus are on the equator).  Voyager flew by during the deep freeze of winter to get that boring photo up there, but now the seasons are changing and spring is coming to Uranus’ northern pole while fall is coming to the south (I wish there were a different name for the side poles—this is really confusing to write about).

Planet Uranus is seen in this composite image by the Keck II Telescope at near-infrared wavelengths. (Lawrence Sromovsky, UW-Madison Space Science and Engineering Center)

Because of the seasonal change, huge storms (the size of a continent on Earth) are tearing through the Uranian atmosphere with 500 kilometer-per-hour methane winds.  Keep in mind that Uranus has the coldest atmosphere in the solar system, probably because the collision which knocked it on its side dissipated its primordial heat (although nobody really knows). Temperatures there get down to a chilly –224 °C.  Brrr!

A similar bright spot photographed by Hubbel in 2005 just before the vernal equinox

The spring storms are apparently dramatic and fierce enough to be seen from Earth.  Yesterday astronomers reported the appearance of a huge white speck with an albedo ten times that of the planet.  This methane storm probably looks like an immense immense thundercloud spreading above the usually placid blue cloud cover of the ice world.  Saturn has been going through its own cycle of super storms recently (in addition to the great hexagonal storm raging on its north pole).  Its tempting to adapt the folksy mannerisms of country smalltalk and suggest that weather in the solar system has been bad lately–but humankind is probably only just now able to apprehend such phenomena!

The Sidewalk Beneath the Mulberry Tree on Ditmas Avenue, Brooklyn

Whenever I have walked to or from the subway this last week, a particular patch of pavement stands out because it has been dyed a ghastly blackish purple.  This is where the sidewalk runs beneath a mulberry tree, a medium sized deciduous fruit tree which produces copious quantities of black multiple fruit.  Ten to sixteen species of trees are accepted by botanists as true mulberries. The three most commonly known species are black mulberries (Morus nigra) which were exported in great number from Southwest Asia to Europe, the red mulberries (Morus rubra) which grow wild in Eastern North America, and the white mulberry (Morus alba) which has been domesticated since ancient times in China as food for silkworms. The different species readily hybridize into fertile hybrids so I have no idea which sort I am walking under every day.  The Mulberry trees give their name to the Moraceae, the mulberry family, which includes figs, banyans, breadfruits, and Osage-oranges.

Mulberries

Mulberry foliage is the preferred food for silkworm larvae (although the caterpillars will also tolerate foliage of the Osage-orange and the tree of heaven).  An ancient Chinese legend relates that Lei Zu, the wife of the Yellow Emperor (himself the mythical progenitor of Chinese culture), discovered silkworm cultivation as she was drinking tea beneath a mulberry tree.  A silkworm wrapped up in a cocoon fell into her tea.  She removed the cocoon from her beverage and was amazed at how the fiber unwrapped around her fingers as a lovely thread.

Mulberries on a Tree

Mulberry leaves, sap, and unripe berries contain 1-Deoxynojirimycin, a polyhydroxylated piperidine, which acts an intoxicant and mild hallucinogen (and produces nausea).  However when mulberries ripen they turn black and become edible.  Mura nigra and Mura rubra allegedly have the tastiest fruit which is said to resemble blueberry in taste and appearance when cooked into pies and tarts.  Cooked mulberries are rich in anthocyanins, pigments which are useful as natural food colorings and may have medicinal value.

Mulberry Pie Made By Anita Marks

Mulberry also gives its name to a lovely purple pink which resembles the color of mulberry jams and pies.  The word mulberry has been used to describe that particular shade since the 1770’s.  I remember it fondly as a Crayola crayon which I always used up before the others (although apparently the color was discontinued in 2003–so today’s children will have to make do with less poetic purple pinks).

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