March Showers, Spring Flowers: The Gold

Mar 27 2011 Published by under Biology & Environment

Yesterday I posted about the variety of blue and purple wildflowers that have sprung up after the recent rains.  But while the lupines and bellflowers and blue dicks provide spots of color, it was the yellow flowers that brightened the hillsides on an otherwise gloomy evening.

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March Showers, Spring Flowers: The Blues

Mar 26 2011 Published by under Biology & Environment

I love spring rain.  It makes the air fresh, the weather cool and after a day of sunshine brings a profusion of yellow and blue and purple flowers.

Admittedly I consider most of those flowers weeds when they appear in my garden. But they look lovely on the local hillsides and add color to the less-well-tended bits of pavement around town.

Yesterday evening I walked the nearest hillside trail and took pictures of some of the flowers underfoot. I've done my best to identify them, but I wouldn't be surprised if some are mis-identified. Corrections are welcome!

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Cat Burglar Caught on Tape

Feb 19 2011 Published by under Biology & Environment

GrrlScientist reports on her Punctuated Equilibrium blog over at the Guardian that a cat burglar has been stalking a San Mateo, California neighborhood. In this case the thief is 6-year-old Dusty, a mixed-breed housecat.  Dusty prowls the neighborhood at night and grabs gloves, shoes, toys and other items from his neighbors' yards and carries them home to share with his family.  His record is 11 items in a single night, and he seems to favor drying swimsuits.

Local station ABC 7 caught him in the act with their night vision camera. Watch their report:

Apparently Dusty's neighbors are understanding about his behavior, as they know where to go to find their missing items.

Dusty isn't the only feline thief roaming our cities and suburbs. Apparently this sort of "misdirected predation" behavior is not uncommon in urban cats. The UK cat site Moggies.co.uk has a whole collection of cat thief stories - and those are just the ones who both got caught and had stories written about them.

Personally, if I had a cat I'd much prefer a "gift" of the neighbor's flip flops than a half-dead mouse.

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Green Christmas Trees

Dec 13 2010 Published by under Biology & Environment

This weekend was the annual Christmas tree lighting in the small  park in front my local City Hall.  As you can see from the picture, the decorations aren't the most inspired - nothing but white lights, large ornaments (which you can't see after dusk) and a broad white garland that unfortunately looks a bit toilet paper-like when viewed from a distance.

I personally prefer more brightly colored holiday decor. But one of the nice things is that no tree was killed to decorate our civic center. It grows there year round, providing greenery even in the hottest part of summer. Very ecologically sound, that.

Of course a living tree isn't a usually a practical option when you put up a Christmas tree in your living room. It's not just that a tall potted fir is difficult to move. You also need someplace to put the tree when Christmas is over and the decorations have been removed – planting it in your yard requires a lot of space, considering that firs and spruces and pines can grow as tall as 100 feet.

But I was interested to read about another option in the LA Times this weekend.  The Living Christmas Co. rents potted Christmas trees for the season. You just pick out your tree, and it will be delivered to your home - assuming you live in western LA County, then picked up again after Christmas.  You can even adopt a special tree of your own to be delivered year after year. It's both easy and "green".

The company's owner,  Scott "Scotty Claus" Martin explains his philosophy:

"How, on one hand can something mean new hope, new joy, new love, and on the other hand be so easily discarded? And is that really Christmas?" he said.

The company's mission is not just to be sustainable but "regenerative," he said. Beyond saving trees, that means using all recyclable materials, running delivery trucks on biodiesel and employing adults with disabilities to maintain the trees around the year.

There are similar companies in San Diego, San Francisco, Portland and many other cities.

The down side is that it seems a bit pricey. A 6 foot tree costs $80 to rent, plus another $40  for delivery and pickup.   Adopting a specific tree costs another $50 per year, only offset a bit by a $20 credit towards the next year's rental. And of course a living tree requires more TLC than one that's going to end up on the curb come January.

Despite the cost and extra care required, I find the idea pretty appealing. It just seems so wasteful to cut down a tree, only to toss it out after a couple of weeks. We usually don't spend Christmas at home, so the past few years we've only put up a token little artificial tree.  But if tree rental becomes popular enough to spread way out the the 'burbs where we live, maybe we'll give it a try.

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Fall Color, SoCal Style

Nov 01 2010 Published by under Biology & Environment

It's fall here in the Northern Hemisphere. The nights are getting longer and temperatures are getting cooler.

Trees in cool climates are preparing themselves for winter by breaking down the chlorophyll in their leaves so that the nutrients can be used  in their roots and trunks. As the green-colored  chlorophyll disappears, yellow pigments in the leaves are revealed.  Some also start producing red pigments, likely to help the trees store up nitrogen.  The result can be spectacular, with whole forests clad in fiery yellow and orange and red.

That said, as a California native, I never fully understood the New England fall color frenzy when I was living in Boston. Along with the weather forecasts the local news stations would have fall color reports., apparently so you would know where to join the zillion other leaf peepers who jam the back roads of Maine and New Hampshire in late September and early October. I'd just as soon see the forest past it's peak if it means fewer people.

Here in the southwest, the foliage has apparently just hit it's color peak. That's not really noticeable, at least where I live.  Few of the native trees and shrubs here change color in the fall. Many don't even lose their leaves for the winter.  Not surprising, considering that winters here are pretty mild. At higher elevations where snow is common, the forests are pine, not leafy trees.

That's not to say that there aren't plenty of colorful reminders that fall is here and winter is approaching.

Non-native trees like liquidambar (sweetgum) provide color to residential neighborhoods and parks.

Colorful apples are ripe and ready to pick - and delicious to eat.

Pyracantha berries are plentiful, much to the delight of the local birds.

The lakes are stocked with colorful fish.

Lantana and other flowers are in bloom.

Pumpkins - both real and artificial - add orange to the landscape.

And of course there are the colorful political signs, which will vanish (hopefully) after tomorrow.

Of course this coloration is due to human intervention - non-native plants and animals, man-made signs and decorations.

You have to look to the hills and skies for the true natural colors of autumn: hillsides sprouting green from the first rains of the season, blue skies, and orange sunsets.

Fall is my favorite season.

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(If you are interested in my nerdy take on seasonal change, check out my post about Night and Day at Science in My Fiction)

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Stinkbug Invasion

Sep 01 2010 Published by under Biology & Environment

Healthy Sweet Alyssum

One of my favorite flowering plants is Sweet Alyssum: it's low maintenance, heat and drought tolerant, and flowers year-round (at least here in Southern California).  Since it grows low to the ground, it makes a nice addition to the pots with seasonal bulbs, which would otherwise just be bare dirt for a good part of the year.

Because Sweet Alyssum is usually so easy to grow, I was a bit surprised to see that in several of my pots it was starting to look dried out and sickly. Even though there was a heat wave last week, my other potted plants look just fine, so lack of water was unlikely to be the problem.

On closer inspection of one of the plants, I noticed that it was swarming with little red beetles. My first thought was "Yay, ladybugs!",  since they are great for controlling insects pests like aphids.  But when I looked a bit closer, I noticed their markings were more ornate than the simple red-with-black-spots of ladybugs. And while the bugs were teeming on the Sweet Alyssum, other nearby plants appeared bug-free. What could they be?

Painted Bug (Bagrada hilarus) eating my Alyssum

Painted Bug (Bagrada hilarus) eating my Alyssum

After a bit of research I identified the critters as the Painted bug (Bagrada hilaris) or Bagrada bug, a type of stinkbug. It is an invasive species native to East and Southern Africa that first appeared in Los Angeles County in June 2008. Last year it reached the inland low desert. And now it's widespread in Southern California and western Arizona.

Bagrada bugs primarily eat Brassicaceae, a family of plants that includes cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage, mustard, broccoli, cauliflower, radish, turnips, and kale.  Sweet Alyssum is an ornamental Brassicaceae, which explains why those plants (and only those plants) were infested.

Unfortunately Bagrada bugs are quite hardy, and resistant to most organic methods of control. According to the UC Riverside Center for Invasive Species Research the heaviest Bagrada infestations are in "organic farms, community gardens and residential vegetable gardens where little or no pesticides are used."  The easiest way to control them without pesticides is to remove the infested plants, cultivate the soil to kill the unhatched eggs, and squash any bugs that remain.

Lots of stinkbugs!

So that's what I've done. All my Sweet Alyssum is gone.  Fortunately I'm not growing any other members of the mustard family, and there aren't any reports of the pests attacking tomatoes or eggplant or zucchini or the remaining ornamental plants I have growing in my yard.

I probably won't try to grow any related plants in the future, since we live adjacent to a field with mustard plants growing wild. A natural reservoir for the pest.

But while my garden will easily recover, the rapid spread of Bagrada bugs has the potential to be a serious problem for Southern California's organic farmers. Hopefully, they won't end up on the state's 10 most (Un)wanted list.

All photos on this page by me. Click to see larger images.

More bug photos:

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Exploding Peat Moss

Aug 13 2010 Published by under Biology & Environment

This is a cool high speed video from Science Friday of spores exploding from Sphagnum moss. It's based on the research of Williams College biologist Joan Edwards and Pomona College physicist Dwight Whitaker.

The plants generate vortex rings that ensure the spores are dispersed by air currents.

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