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Autumn3.jpgI’m sorry.  November is flying by on russet wings and still I have posted no photos of autumn color!  i meant to write about beautiful autumn foliage, but, with one thing or another, I never managed to get out of New York. So…the only thing to do was to head out to my garden in Brooklyn and take some leaf pictures at home.

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Autumn gardens have their own chaotic beauty of fallen leaves, brown spots, and jagged red vines.  Plus it has been warm this year so there are still plenty of flowers.

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However the queen of the garden, as always, is the ornamental Kwanzan cherry tree, which is nearly as beautiful covered in glowing yellow leaves as it is in summer wearing bright grass green…or even in spring when it is a lambent pink cloud.  I love that tree!

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Color transcends history.  The wavelengths of light…the chemical compositions of the pigments…these things are part of the physical universe.  Yet how we apprehend color is a part of our eyes, and our minds, and our upbringings (and involves some quirks unique to human physiology—as demonstrated by the colors magenta and stygian blue).  Most of the colors I write about were first mentioned in the 18th or 19th century.  Some colors are vastly older—like Han purple (which I like more all the time, by the way). However today I am writing about a color first mentioned in the distant year of…2009.  This color found a name after the rise and fall of Britney Spears.  The great recession had already set in by the time this color made the scene.  I am talking, of course about “Arctic Lime” which was invented by Crayola’s for its “eXtreme” line of ultra-bright colored pencils.

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At first gasp, Arctic lime seems like a sad effort by a marketer who was not at the top of his game.  Chartreuse and the Arctic do not initially go together in the popular imagination (nor do tropical limes belong in the frozen tundra). Yet the more one looks at this hue, the more it makes sense.  It is not the color of ice, but it is the color of the aurora as it sweeps past inhuman vistas of alien frozen waste. Also, Arctic lime may not have a beautiful name, but it is a beautiful color (in its own unnatural and eXtreme way).  Perhaps people of the far future will think of this color the way we think of Han Purple and they will imagine us going about our lives in Arctic Lime leisure clothes and neckties.  Come to think of it, the color is pretty similar to the high-visability fluorescent green of my bike helmet.  Maybe the imaginary people of the future are imagining us more accurately than we imagine ourselves!

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Isabel II was queen regnant of Spain from 1833 until 1868, when she was forced out by a somewhat muddled coalition of Spanish liberals and republicans.   Her reactionary reign was a long series of palace intrigues, military conspiracies, and church meddling.

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During the 19th century, there was a fashion for European sovereigns to commission small easily wearable coronet-style crowns (a fashion which was greatly promoted by Queen Victoria, the foremost monarch of the day).  Queen Isabel commissioned this beautiful little yellow crown of diamonds, gold, and topazes.  When she was forced out by the “Glorious” (but ineffective) revolution she took the crown into exile with her in Paris, however she willed it to the Atocha Chapel. If my sources are to be believed (and they are internet sources…so maybe they shouldn’t be) the little coronet is still used to adorn the church’s votive statue on high feast days.

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Oregon-grape (Mahonia aquifolium) by Healthy Home Gardening

Boy, I am ready for spring…but it hasn’t quite sprung yet here in Brooklyn. So far the only things blooming here are hellebores, snowdrops, and… the Oregon-grape? This sounds like some improbable status-item fruit from Whole Foods, but it is actually not a grape at all, instead it Mahonia aquifolium a member of the barberry family.   The plant takes the form of a shrub or tiny tree 1–2 m (3 feet –6 feet) tall which is covered in holly-like evergreen leaves. The plant is indigenous to the Pacific coast of North America where it can be found from southern Alaska to Northern California. It is exceedingly hardy and is one of the first plants to bloom in spring when it is covered with lovely little yellow flowers which look like ranunculuses (for good reason, since barberry plants are close relative of the buttercups and ranunculuses).

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The yellow flowers swiftly turn into little purple black fruits with a glaucous blush. These berries were a big part of the diet of Native Americans from the Pacific Northwest (although I am a bit surprised it is not poisonous like most of the buttercups). I guess I’ll keep my eyes open for these around the neighborhood (they have been widely planted as ornamentals), but I have more hope for seeing crocuses…if any survive the squirrels. Be of good cheer! Spring is coming!

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The fruit of the Oregon-grape

A ghastly Crown-of-Thorns Starfish denuding a coral reef

A ghastly Crown-of-Thorns Starfish denuding a coral reef

Today’s post is simultaneously inspiring and hopeful and terrifying.   Marine researchers have long been worried about the crown-of-thorns starfish, a monstrous invasive invertebrate which eats coral, doing irreparable damage to the Great Barrier Reef (the world’s largest coral reef).  Human divers have proven ineffective at stemming the onslaught, so conservationists have teamed up with mad scientists to build COTSBOT—an autonomous killing robot submarine which will haunt the reef like a bright yellow uboat/shark.  The COTSBOT will locate and identify crown-of-thorns starfish with robot eyes and then jet over and deliver a lethal injection to the vile invertebrates.  The injectable solution is uniquely poisonous to starfish so any goddamn MFAs doing starfish cosplay projects on the reef do not necessarily need to worry about more than being jabbed and pumped full of weird chemicals by a nightmarish (albeit comic) undersea robot.

COTSBOT (image from Queensland University of Technology)

COTSBOT (image from Queensland University of Technology)

COTSBOT (which I should have mentioned stands for “Crown-OF-Thorns Starfish Robot”) is going to debut in Moreton Bay by Brisbane, a starfish free location where the operators can refine its navigation systems.  If all goes well it will then move on the Great Barrier Reef itself.  The robot (or fleets thereof) will scour an area of the reef killing,  Then human divers will sweep in afterwards to mop up any hardened survivors.   I am extremely impressed at how quickly science managed to make my futuristic ocean sketch come true.  I am also struck with admiration at this high-cost high tech salvation for one of Earth’s most diverse and imperiled ecosystems.  Take that, evil starfish!  You have messed with a reef protected by the fell hand of man.  The alarmist in me can’t help but notice that this is like the first 15 minutes of a horror movie, but, presumably if COTSBOT becomes sentient and decides to protect the reef from ALL dangerous invasive animals we can still pull the plug.  I’m also a bit sorry that humankind has so injured the Giant Triton–nature’s COTSBOT–that the lovely snail can not do the job.

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Antennarius commerson - Giant frogfish (Commerson's frogfish)

Antennarius commerson – Giant frogfish (Commerson’s frogfish)

This is Commerson’s frogfish aka the giant frogfish (Antennarius commerson).  It is a voracious carnivore which attacks anything small enough to be prey (which is pretty much anything smaller than itself–since the fish has an extremely extensible body).  Commerson’s frogfish is a chameleon—it can change color to resemble the tropical sponges of its native habitat –yellow, red, orange, gray, or black, with all sorts of stripes and splotches (though the creature seems to betray a predilection for yellow).

Giant frogfish, (Antennarius commerson) photo by Rokus Groeneveld

Giant frogfish, (Antennarius commerson) photo by Rokus Groeneveld

Giant frogfish, Antennarius commerson (photo by "Hole in the wall")

Giant frogfish, Antennarius commerson
(photo by “Hole in the wall”)

The frogfish is an anglerfish and its front dorsal spine is tipped with a pinkish shrimplike lure (a feature known to biology as an esca).  The fish lives in tropical and semi-tropical water of the Indo-Pacific (an eco-region which comes up repeatedly in this blog).  Despite being known in English as the giant frogfish, Antennarius commerson only grown to 38 cm (15 inches) in maximum length which demonstrates that horror is relative (and that frogfish are not large from a human perspective).  Although it is not classically beautiful by any stretch of the imagination, there is something oddly charming about its grumpy expression.  I hope you enjoy looking at it as much as I do!

Antennarius commerson - Giant frogfish (Commerson's frogfish)  Copyright Teresa Zubi

Antennarius commerson – Giant frogfish (Commerson’s frogfish)
Copyright Teresa Zubi

The Yellow Aconite or Winter Aconite (Eranthis hyemalis)

The Yellow Aconite or Winter Aconite (Eranthis hyemalis)

This lovely little yellow flower is Eranthis hyemalis, more commonly known as the winter aconite.  Native to the woodlands of continental Europe, the winter aconite is a member of the sprawling & poisonous buttercup family (which includes beauties and horrors like the monkshood, the ranunculus, and the delphiniums).  Eranthis hyemalis which is now blooming here in New York (in gardens which are eccentric enough to have it) is a quintessential spring ephemeral—it blossoms and grows in earliest spring before any trees are in leaf—or even in bloom.  The plant flowers and puts out leaves and gathers sunlight and stores energy all before the other plants even start.  Then, as the woodland canopy expands above it and as its growing spot is covered with shade, the aconite dies back to its hardy underground tuber which remains dormant until next spring.  Although it lives in verdant forests it could almost be an ascetic desert flower based on its hardiness and hermit-like lifestyle.  It would be a big mistake to mistake the flower for a weakling or a vegetable–like the other buttercups, all parts of it are ferociously poisonous.  Do not eat it (or smoke it…or even look at it funny)!

Illustration Eranthis hyemalis

Illustration Eranthis hyemalis

Forsythia

Forsythia

Spring, spring, spring! Today is the first day that has actually felt like spring. Soon the forsythias will be up and then, suddenly all sorts of spring blossoms will appear in a riot of beautiful color. Forsythias are such a familiar blossoming shrubs that I have never thought to find out where they are from, and how they got here. The instantly familiar yellow flowers grow on long whiplike shoots and appear everywhere in early spring. They are the introductory notes from which the rest of the symphony swells (and yet they are always there beneath the rest of the music). Wasn’t it always that way?

Forsythia in a formal garden

Forsythia in a formal garden

Actually, forsythias are native to East Asia. Out of eleven wild species, only one obscure species had spread from Asia to southeastern Europe prior to the age of exploration. It wasn’t until the eighteenth century that western gardeners and botanists found out about them as traders and diplomats visited the great gardens of China, Korea, and Japan.

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Forsythias are extremely easy to cultivate from cuttings. Low hanging boughs frequently already have rootlets. Europeans wasted no time in bringing the lovely yellow shrubs back home where they fed the public’s insatiable appetite for novelty. Indeed they were part of the 18th century Chinoiserie fad, which also gave us the monstrous invasive tree of heaven [spits on ground and curses]. Soon forsythias were in temperate gardens everywhere. They are coincidentally named for William Forsyth (1737–1804), a Scottish botanist who was the king’s head gardener and a founding member of the Royal Horticultural Society.

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Ironically, despite the fact that forsythias have been omnipresent in American and European gardens since the late eighteenth century, they have not permeated very far into western culture. They are a beautiful shrub which is everywhere, but they do not have the same mythical and herbal associations for us as myrtles, redbuds, crocuses or such. Of course forsythias do have such associations in China, Korea, and Japan. They are one of the fundamental herbs of Chinese medicine and their sticks are used to manufacture a classical Korean stringed instrument. The myths and art of East Asia likewise favor the beautiful golden shrubs. The flower exemplify nature’s promise of rebirth.

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One of my personal all-time favorite moments with flora and fauna involved forsythia…and my favorite animal—the mighty elephant. I was at the Bronx Zoo in early spring and their (then) adolescent female Asian elephant was outside appreciating the first nice day. Elephants eat lots of vegetation of all sorts and a thoughtful zookeeper had put a bunch of flowering forsythia fronds in the enclosure as a treat.

Elephants are arguably the most intelligent land animals except for certain problematic primates. They love to play and show off. The little elephant grabbed the beautiful yellow forsythias in her trunk and ran back and forth holding them aloft like a girl with a bouquet. Then, in a moment of pure exuberance, she threw them all high up in the air and raced back and forth in the resultant shower of bright yellow blossoms.

Adolescent elephant with Forsythias (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, ink and colored pencil)

Adolescent elephant with Forsythias (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, ink and colored pencil)

Since she was such a young elephant, she was still covered with fine downy hairs and the forsythia flowers got all caught up in these. So she became dotted with little golden flowers. She was beaming in delight and had one of the happiest expressions I have ever seen on anyone. The memory is enshrined in my heart as an enduring exemplar of joy.  Although the internet had plenty of other sorts of images, I couldn’t find any happy elephants with forsythias–so I sketched one for you just now above,

A Citrine (gemstone)

A Citrine (gemstone)

Citrine is the name of a deep rich golden yellow. It has been a color name in English since the 14th century (and it was the name for the same color in Medieval Latin—and before that in classical Latin). The word “citrine” also describes a gemstone which consists of yellow colored quartz crystal. Citrines are a semi-precious stone today, but they were once valuable and they can be found in various ancient crowns and classical jewelry. The word originally came from the deep yellow color of the citron, the wild ancestor of the lemon (which is a sacred fruit of the Old Testament), and because it is so descriptive of rich yellow it is used for the English name of numerous different birds and other creatures (like the citrine forktail below).

Citrine Forktail Damselfly (Ischnura hastata)

Citrine Forktail Damselfly (Ischnura hastata)

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In dynastic China, the color yellow was considered to be the most beautiful and prestigious color. Yellow was symbolically linked with the land itself and the turning of tao: thus yellow became associated with the mandate of heaven–the emperor’s divine prerogative over the middle kingdom. Huang Di, the mythical first emperor of China (who was worshiped as a culture hero and a powerful magician/sage) was more commonly known as “the yellow emperor”. Yellow was extensively employed in the decoration of the royal palaces and the royal personage. During the Ming dynasty, when a yellow glaze was discovered for porcelain, it was initially the exclusive provenance of the imperial household.

A Ming Dynasty Stem Cup (ca. 1488-1505)

A Ming Dynasty Stem Cup (ca. 1488-1505)

Here is a stem-cup in imperial yellow from the Ming dynasty. It bears the mark of the Hongzhi period (Hongzhi reigned from 1487-1505). A five clawed dragon, the symbol of the emperor crawls along the side of the piece. The cup perfectly exemplifies the elegant lines and perfect calligraphic grace of middle Ming aesthetic ideas. Additionally the age of the hardworking and morally upstanding Hongzhi was an era of peace and happiness. Alone among all Chinese emperors in history, Hongzhi elected to marry a single wife and keep no concubines. Palace intrigues were thus kept to an all-time low (although the plan backfired somewhat when his sole heir took up a life of prodigal indulgence).

The Hongzhi Emperor in a yellow robe

The Hongzhi Emperor in a yellow robe

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