Category Archives: Botany

The botany category includes the posts I write about plants themselves. Since I am passionate about wildflowers, many of my posts celebrate them in some way. It can be individual flowers, like iris, fireweed, goldenrod, and yarrow; families of flowers, like the Asteraceae; a genus of beautiful vampires, the Castilleja. I write about rare plants, sometimes in extreme conditions. There are posts on the magic of photosynthesis, 0n why lichen is saving the world, and why there’s such a wild abundance of plant diversity. For Halloween, I’ve explored why there are so many ghostly white flowers and celebrated slightly ominous orange flowers. I have fun with the idea of spruce family planning, with comparing cactus flowers to filmy lingerie. And there’s a post on the seedheads I love so much. Many of these essays are also about the ecology of the plants and their habitat.

The galleries don’t get categories, but most would fall under botany: wildflowers from Alaska, British Columbia, Idaho, and Missouri. There are galleries for grasslands in Colorado and two prairies in Kansas, one a ranch, one a remnant tallgrass prairie. There’s one for white flowers, one for cactus flowers, and one for seedheads. Enjoy!

The toxic gamble: genetically engineered seeds

Farmer harvesting hay in British Columbia, Canada by Betsey CrawfordThe most public debate on the use of genetically modified seeds concerns their safety: whether they are safe for the environment and safe for human consumption. These are crucial questions, arguably the most important. But they are accompanied by a host of other very important issues: democracy, public versus corporate control, the rights of communities and individuals, the control of the food supply, the future of plant genetics, the future itself. Issues of culture, sovereignty, heritage, and spirit are involved. Who we are as inhabitants of our mother planet underlies all these issues.

Genetic manipulations can sound promising: rice with beta-carotene to prevent blindness in vitamin A starved children. Spinach that survives frost. Cotton and potatoes that resist their most pernicious beetle pests. Farming is hard and risky. Anything that makes it easier and more predictable is surely worth a look. Drought resistant wheat? Great idea! Especially in the face of global warming.

It was such a great idea that our ancestors started developing drought-tolerant wheat 10,000 years ago. Cereal grain cultivation originated in the middle east, where there was plenty of reason to foster plants that naturally weathered dry seasons. Grasses are wind pollinated, so the different species could mix easily, blending genes, creating desirable traits that were then chosen, grown, and treasured. Some of these ancient grains are in use around the world today, including in our own midwest, helping farmers cope with the effects of warmer, drier climate.

Teosinte, the ancestor of corn, is pictured with its modern progeny. Photos by Matt Levin and CSKK

Teosinte photo by Matt Lavin; corn photo by CSKK. Both via Flickr/Creative Commons

The choosing and mixing of beneficial traits in plants of all kinds brought us most of the food seeds that we had 100 years ago. Farmers who never heard the words genetics or evolution nevertheless were part of those processes. We know from genetic analysis that corn developed from an unassuming grass, teosinte, when we began planting it nine thousand years ago. Slowly and carefully, operating on knowledge acquired from intimacy with seeds and plants, locale and weather, farmers developed plants with the prominent cobs and seeds that became a staple food of what is now North and South America. The other two staples — beans and squash — were developed with the same patient wisdom.

The indigenous people of the Americas planted their three sisters together, starting with a few corn seeds set into a mound of soil. The corn stalks created a pole for the bean vines to climb. Beans are in the legume family, which pulls the crucial nutrient nitrogen from the air into the soil. The large squash leaves shaded the ground, discouraging weeds, conserving water and preventing the sun from baking the soil. Coastal tribes planted a fish in each mound for fertilizer. 

A bowl of jewel-like beans from seedambassadors.org

Photo from Seed Ambassadors

One hundred years ago, after thousands of years of such careful nurture and thoughtful husbandry, there were 307 varieties of commercially available corn seeds. As of the last count in 1983, there were twelve. Monsanto is everyone’s culprit, with good reason, but they didn’t begin it, and they’re not alone. Early in the twentieth-century corporations realized that there was money to be made in creating seeds that had to be bought anew each year, instead of the ancient practice of collecting them at harvest. This led to F1 hybrids, which dominated farm staples such as corn, sugar beets and vegetables. F1 hybrids are genetic crosses designed to use the desirable dominant traits of each parent. However, in the next generation recessive genes can activate, and so the crop is less predictable and likely weaker. 

So, farmers purchased new seeds every year, on the surface a reasonable tradeoff for a reliably hardy crop. But only reasonable if they had a choice, which diminished rapidly. The hybrid breeders didn’t want competition from traditional seeds, so they began to buy up seed companies, something that has accelerated in the last twenty years. The three major chemical corporations heavily involved in GMO seeds have bought 20,000 seed companies among them. In addition, Monsanto is notorious for going into traditional farming regions and buying stored seeds from farmers as they introduce their altered seeds. By refusing to sell the traditional seeds they now own, corporations force farmers to buy their genetically engineered products.

Wheat field in South Dakota by Betsey Crawford

Wheat field in South Dakota

When they want to convince the public of the safety of GMO foods, genetic modifiers say that their work is a continuation and sophistication of the process of hybridization that has been in place since farming began. But all previous combinations, including the F1 hybrids, combined genes of the same or closely related species, using the methods of pollination the plants had used for millions of years. The insertion of flounder and trout genes in tomatoes and spinach, along with viral catalysts and a bacterial signature to identify the corporate owner, is entirely new. Which is exactly what those same modifiers say when they apply for patents.

In 1980 the United State Supreme Court ruled that life forms could be patented. This gives Monsanto and other companies the right to alter a single gene in a seed, claim the patent, and sue anyone who uses that seed for intellectual property theft, even if the use of that seed is unsought and unwanted. There are many examples of farmers whose crops were wind pollinated by nearby GMO seeds and ended up being sued for damages. In addition, and literally caught in the crosswinds, organic farmers can lose tens of thousands of dollars of value when their crops are contaminated.

Given its 117 year history of producing deadly poisons — DDT, Agent Orange, PCBs — and creating endless toxic sites, there is apparently no amount of damage that Monsanto is unwilling to do. It has also, ever since helping make bombs in both world wars, had close ties to the U.S. government. In every administration from Reagan through Trump, Monsanto lawyers and executives have held positions in the FDA, the USDA, and the Supreme Court. Next to the corporations, the U.S. government is the biggest booster of GMO crops, even to the point, during famines, of forcing supplies of GMO grain on African countries that don’t want them.

Corn field in western Kansas by Betsey CrawfordI can’t know for sure how the farmer of the field above treats his land. But the state of the soil — dry, sandy, colorless — suggests that he first drenched the ground with biocides to kill the microbial life. Then another biocide to arm the seeds and seedlings against insects whose predators may well have been killed in the first round. Since there are no weeds sprouting between the corn stalks, he likely applied another biocide, probably glyphosate, to kill them. This is the chemical in Monsanto’s Round Up. Handily, Monsanto’s Round Up Ready seeds are bred to grow into plants that aren’t killed by glyphosate. After seeding the farmer can keep spraying Round Up all season. To feed the plants growing in this sterile soil, repeated applications of petroleum-based fertilizer can be added to the list.

If this were a potato field, he would have followed the same path, adding fungicides, but instead used the eyes of potatoes with the inserted genes of Bacillus thuringensis, or BT. Eating the leaves would then be lethal to the notorious potato beetle. These thrive in monocultures of the potato bred, for example, to provide perfect french fries at McDonald’s. This leaves us with sterile soil, sick pollinators, poisons in the air and water, eating a potato that is, under the Environmental Protection Agency’s rules, technically an insecticide.

In 1903 there were 408 varieties of tomatoes available from seed companies. By 1983 it was 78.

In 1903 there were 408 varieties of tomatoes available from seed companies. By 1983 it was 78. Photo by Immo Wegmann via Unsplash.

Earlier this year Monsanto merged with German chemical giant, Bayer, another company with a grim history. They join two other recent mergers: Dow and Dupont, Syngenta and Chem-China. These are chemical companies foremost, and what they want to sell are chemicals and seeds modified to grow into plants that can sustain repeated barrages of their chemicals. Journalist Mark Shapiro, in his book Seeds of Resistance, quotes a Monsanto executive who describes the ’stacking’ of as many as six different genes into a seed to create resistance to six different pesticides. “We work,” she said blandly, “to uncouple the farm from the environment around it.”

As Shapiro says, this is “a pretty succinct description of the industrial agriculture paradigm…that treats the seed as a foreign entity to be inserted into a chemically reconstituted environment.” It’s also insanity: trying to create life by killing everything around it. A thriving earth means one lively ecological niche after another. A seed and its environment are among the most crucially linked life forms on the planet; they are an ecosystem, intimate bonds that hundreds of millions of years of evolution, of both seed and soil, have created. Every breathing being on the planet has evolved because this relationship evolved first: a soil alive with microbial and fungal life, a brilliant seed, and the plant they produce. 

Soil should be full of life: dark, crumbly, full of decaying plant matter and fungi.

Soil should be full of life: dark and crumbly because it has lots of decaying plant matter, showing signs that fungi are thriving.  Photo by Sam Jotham Sutharson via Unsplash.

Evolution is going to have its way. There are already superweeds that survive Round Up. BT, an important tool used sparingly in organic farming, quickly met its first BT resistant caterpillar in genetically engineered cotton. The companies will invent more chemicals. The organic farmers will be devastated. Thus it isn’t only about safety. There are layers and layers of complications. Pollution, health, farmers’ sovereignty over their own land. The ability to access and trust good science, and the education to understand it. A community’s right to say no to corporate demands. State and federal laws protecting corporations at the expense of those communities.

People assume there have been studies on the safety of GMOs for humans. But there haven’t been. Negative research exists but has been suppressed and ridiculed. The chemical companies say it’s not their business to determine the safety of their products, it’s the Food and Drug Administration’s job. The FDA is peppered with biotech industry insiders. One Monsanto executive went from writing the paper to gain approval for bovine growth hormone to being the FDA appointee who approved it. 

Will there be a safe role for transgenic organisms in medicine and food? We don’t know. It’s being ‘studied’ in real time. We, along with our children and grandchildren, are the long-term epidemiological experiment that may give us the answer. We may not know for generations. The same is true of the environment. There have been recent articles by one-time GMO skeptics who say they are now converts since we’ve been using them since 1994 and they “seem safe.” But twenty-four years doesn’t even register in the scale of human and plant evolution. If every word in this essay represents 500,000 of the one billion years since the first photosynthesizing eukaryotes showed up, homo sapiens’ 200,000-year history would be the last two letters. 

In 1903 there were 463 varieties of radishes available from seed companies. By 1983 it was 27.

In 1903 there were 463 varieties of radishes available from seed companies. By 1983 it was 27. Photo by Lance Grandahl via Unsplash.

Monsanto’s slogan is ‘Feeding the World.’ Well-meaning people and organizations believe genetically engineered seeds are the answer to the seemingly intractable problem of hunger, especially as the population explodes to a projected 10 billion people. But recent studies show that the combination of genetically engineered seeds and their companion chemicals actually produce lower yields than traditional methods. In the meantime, debt-burdened farmers the world over are trapped into a cycle of needing chemicals to produce high yields to pay for the chemicals. The companies and their stockholders are the only identifiable beneficiaries. 

People aren’t hungry because there aren’t enough vast agricultural monocultures being showered with poison. They’re hungry because our methods of growing and distributing food leave them out. The farm workers in California’s Central Valley work among the most abundant vegetable and fruit fields in the world. But they can’t afford the products they raise because they’re not paid enough, a worldwide problem.

We know so little, despite our brilliance. We’ve been here such a short time. The seeds we’re risking for the profits of a few people are our elders by hundreds of millions of years. We’re a young and rambunctious species, dazzled by our capabilities. But we have no idea what we don’t know. Too many have lost a once deep understanding that we are embedded in a vast fabric of being. Lost the knowledge, to borrow from Thomas Berry, that the earth is not made of objects, but interconnected subjects full of life, power, and wisdom. To the Mayans, corn was a goddess. Among those who remember such reverence, there’s a growing movement to save seeds. That’s what I will celebrate in the third part of this seed series.

A farm field on Prince Edward Island, Canada by Betsey Crawford

Prince Edward Island, Canada

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The brilliance of seeds

Micro images of seeds by Alexander KlepnevThese gorgeous seeds and their vast number of relations are the foundation of life. Certainly for the plants that grow from them. And for the entire animal kingdom, which is completely dependent on them for food. Herbivores eat their plants and the seeds themselves. Carnivores eat animals that eat plants. We human animals have a special relationship with seeds. First, as eaters. If you had oatmeal or toast for breakfast you ate crushed seeds. Coffee? Ground seeds containing the energizing alkaloid caffeine, which creates a mild addiction we share with bees. Raspberry jam? Fruit containing seeds. Hummus for lunch? Crushed protein-rich seeds from legumes. Walnuts for a mid-afternoon snack? Seeds themselves, packed with nutritious oil. Some chocolate with that? Seeds filled with luscious fat. String beans for dinner? Pods containing ripening seeds. Spicy salsa on the side? That the heat of capsaicin-containing pepper seeds.

Vivid peppers at the San Rafael farmers market, San Rafael, California by Betsey CrawfordOur whole life is one seed after another. But that doesn’t separate us from our non-human kin. What distinguishes us is that we consciously plant them, and the discovery that we could do that changed everything. Once we found out how to create a reliable source of food by cooperating with seeds, we changed from hunter-gatherer nomads to settled communities. We were launched on a revolution we are still living today. Our 10,000-year history with seeds, and what has happened to this most interdependent of relationships in the last hundred years will be part two of this essay. In part one, I want to celebrate their brilliance.

Here are some of the things that seeds know: they know that the twelve hours of daylight in early April in the northern hemisphere means it’s time to germinate, whereas the twelve hours of daylight in late September means it’s time to disperse themselves away from their mother plant. They know it’s the opposite in the southern hemisphere. 

Fireweed (Chamaenerion angustifolia) seeds splitting out of their red pods in Stewart, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

As the ripe pods of fireweed (Chamaenerion angustifolia) split open, they curve away from the center, pulling tiny seeds with them, ready to be airborne.

Having waited in dormancy all winter, metabolism slowed almost to a halt, embryo protected inside a hard shell, they know how to measure the right mix of light, water, and oxygen. They know a passing shower is not the rainy season they’re waiting for. They know the forest they’ve lain dormant in for decades has burned and nutritious ash and volatile organic compounds have been made available, along with enough light to sprout and grow. When a drought ends, or a road is cut through, or a field plowed seeds know to grab their chance in the sun and air, take in water, begin to expand their cells, and wake up their sleepy metabolism.

They know to send out a tiny root that will find its way into the soil by the gravity sensors in its tip. They know their place well enough that many seeds can confidently do this in the fall to get a head start on the next spring’s growth. Many others know to resist the temptation of germinating in warm autumn soils and thus risk the winter freeze. Those wisely wait until spring. Seeds sense where they are, how deeply they are buried, whether the minerals, bacteria, and fungi they need are available. Some seeds wait years, even centuries, for the right moment.

The seeds of grasses are full of energizing starches that provide half the world's calories. Photo by Betsey CrawfordThey know to send out one or two ‘first leaves’, cotyledons, to begin the work of photosynthesis, adding to the nutrients in the seed itself. Long before that they know to take one of the two sperm that makes it into the ovary as a result of pollination and make nutritious food out of it, usually the endosperm. Until photosynthesis starts, that’s what nourishes the embryo and seedling. And us: the endosperm of grains accounts for over 50% of human caloric intake worldwide

In the long process of evolution, they have created a variety of endosperms and related ways to nourish themselves. Fat-filled avocado seeds have plenty of food for the slow time it takes them to start photosynthesizing in their native forests. The starchy seeds of grains and grasses give them the quick energy they need to take off in any open, sunny spot. Protein-rich nuts drive the long lead time it takes to launch a tree, and promise nourishment to the animals who handily spread them around and then forget where they put them. 

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) seeds ready to take off by Betsey Crawford

The wonderfully fluffy and prolific seeds of common mllkweed (Asclepias syriaca)

They’ve worked out arrangements with pollinators and predators. Hard shells protect against rodents eating too quickly. They carry the heavy nuts — and often bury them — away from the mother plant, enabling young plants to better establish themselves. Seeds create alkaloids like piperine in black pepper, terpenes in citrus fruits, capsaicin in hot peppers to make themselves too unpleasant to eat. Then they work out further deals. Birds, who don’t mind the heat of capsaicin, but whose digestive systems are slowed down by it, thus carry the seeds farther abroad, handily depositing them in a small package of fertilizer.

After a summer of ripening, they take off on wings, feathery filaments, parachutes. They hitch a ride on animals, including humans. They drop at the feet of their parents to form colonies. The pods of lupines and other legumes pop open and shoot seeds away from the mother plant. Seeds can ride ocean currents for thousands of miles to establish themselves on far-off lands. Many know to ripen alongside the flesh they are encased in, which changes from protective bitterness to such sweetness that more and more dispersers are lured to them. Birds, bats, bears, monkeys happily spread apples, cherries, peaches, blueberries far and wide. Humans take fruit seeds and plant them in orchards. Dispersal to a good place for eventual germination is crucial to the survival and evolution of a species. Seeds know how to enlist the help they need, even from the tiniest creatures.

An ant carries seeds in the Anza Borrego Desert in photo by Betsey CrawfordThis varied and amazing wisdom has inspired 90% of plants to evolve the use of these protective, easily dispersed packages of nutrition, embryo, and intelligence to ensure the viability of the next generation. Of those, 80% are angiosperms, from the Greek for ‘seeds in a receptacle.’ The remaining seed producers are gymnosperms (‘naked seeds’) which predate angiosperms by 160 million years. They lack the protective seed coat of the angiosperms, important protection during dormancy. However, many of the gymnosperms, including all of the conifers, have evolved cones as a way to protect their seeds. 

White spruce (Picea blanca) cones protect their seeds. Photo by Betsey CrawfordGymnosperms, among our most ancient plants, are far less diverse than the angiosperms. Try parking your car near a pine grove on a windy spring day. Pines are pollinated by very fine, yellow pollen carried by the wind in fluffy clouds. Many angiosperms, especially grasses, rely on wind pollination, and it works wonderfully. But it’s a scattershot approach to reaching the precise spot you want fertilized, as you’ll see when you get back to your now yellow car. By tucking the egg deeply into the protection of the ovary, angiosperms created conditions for a multitude of goal-oriented pollinators: bees, butterflies, beetles, bats, moths, flies among them. This led to competition for the attention of these creatures, which in turn evolved into a large variety of shapes, petals, sizes, colors, scents, seeds themselves. 

The underside of a fern dotted heavily with spores. Photo by Betsey Crawford

Clusters of ripening spores on the underside of a fern leaf.

This explosion of diversity is possible because seeds efficiently combine the genes of two parents. Ferns mix them, too, via spores. But they use an ancient process so cumbersome that ferns are basically the same plant they were 180 million years ago. Seeds allow for evolution itself: the easy and continual mixing of the gene pool creates an endless array of subtle variations that allow plants to adapt to changes in the landscape, in pollinators, in temperature, in pests. Combining parental genes allows one species of wheat to become more drought tolerant than another, a flower to form purple petals from pink, a potato to better resist fungus.

How these multitalented beings do all this remains full of mysteries, though we have clues. Can seeds see light? Perhaps not the way we can, but they definitely see light and judge its strength and direction. Like us, they possess sensors and chemicals to allow this skill. Phytochrome enables seeds to register light energy, or the lack of it, at the red and far-red end of the spectrum. They judge the season by the length of the night, yet know if darkness comes from overhanging foliage because light filtering through green leaves switches from red to far red. Seeds also rely on knowing the temperature and moisture suitable for their species to judge when it’s time for the seedling to emerge. At that point, phytochrome switches gears, fostering growth and the increasing complexity of the emerging plant. 

The seeds of foxtail grass (Hordeum jubatum) bring to break off from their stalk. Photo by Betsey Crawford

Seeds of foxtail grass (Hordeum jubatum) break away from their stalk.

Are seeds conscious? Not, so far as we know, the way we are, but they are keenly aware of and responsive to their surroundings. They make choices and decisions. One can say it’s a chemically-mediated response to stimuli, but that’s how our brains work, too. I doubt the seeds lying in wait in the brown hills surrounding me are ruing the exciting days of last spring, or planning for the coming rainy season. That kind of consciousness seems to be our unenviable lot. Instead, they have a way of holding the spring that launched them and trusting the rains to come that I would love to emulate.

Those dry, dozing seeds have their own type of awareness. More important, they, like all of creation, hold the consciousness of the whole. The same wildly creative, ardent energy that brought the universe into being flows through every seed, every plant it forms, every creature it nourishes. It flows through us as we spend our days sipping and munching them, or planting a flower garden, or sowing corn to be sure we can feed our families.

Western columbine (Aquilegia occidentals) seeds ready to drop to the ground. Photo by Betsey Crawford

The heavy seeds of western columbine (Aquilegia occidentals) will fall close to home.

As long as we treasure them, does it matter whether we think seeds have any kind of consciousness? The trouble is, too few people are treasuring them. By not regarding them as the vibrant, sacred trust that millions of years of cosmic evolution have bequeathed us, we’ve lost 90% of their vast diversity in the last hundred years. We’re stopping evolution in its tracks. That’s not just losing access to nourishment, which is devastating enough. It’s losing culture, history, connection, spirit. Far from treasuring them, we have given control of seeds to corporations whose only mission is profit at any cost. And the cost is unbearable.

Currently, seeds are treated as a commodity to be bought, traded, used, changed, profited from. That mindset will be explored in the second part of this series. If, instead, more and more of us see ourselves sharing with seeds the same co-evolved energy and wisdom that have made us partners for millennia, we will help prevent their destruction. There are many passionate people on this journey. Their hope and work will inspire part three of this essay.
Seeds in autumn in Meadows in the Sky in Revelstoke National Park, Revelstoke, British Columbia by Betsey Crawford

I’d love to have you on the journey! If you add your email address, I’ll send you notices of new adventures.

[Top photo: Micro images of seeds. Photo by Alexander Klepnev via Creative Commons]

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Living light: the crucial miracle of photosynthesis

Maple leaves and ferns in the forest on Peterson Bay, Homer, AlaskaTo love plants is to be in awe of photosynthesis. Even when you know how it works, it’s still a miracle. And a crucial, we-wouldn’t-be-here-without-it miracle. Its ramifications are so vast that once it showed up, it dictated all of the evolution that followed.

It’s also complicated. There is, for example, a catalyzing enzyme involved called ribulose 1,5-bisphosphate carboxylase oxygenase, with a personality as confounding as its name. Mercifully, we don’t need to go fully into those weeds. For most of us, it’s magic enough to know that somehow sunlight turns into sugar. But it’s so fascinating that I’d like to invite you to take a walk with me through this lovely, cool forest, and on out into the history of life on earth.

Photosynthesis happening in a forest in the Wynn Nature Center in Homer, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

We’re walking in a sea of green because pigment molecules called chloroplasts in the tree leaves and fern fronds absorb all color wavelengths except the green ones. Those are reflected off the plants, and the highly sensitive cones in our eyes pick up the wavelengths and relay the information to our brains. So we see soothing, cooling green, a color widely associated with the serenity surrounding us in this quiet woodland.

Yet, every leaf and frond around us is pulsing with activity. Photons from sunlight hit the chloroplasts and their energy gets moved from one pigment molecule to another until it reaches special molecules in interior cells. There the energy excites electrons, which makes them pop into orbitals farther from their nuclei. Full of verve, these animated electrons start a cascade through surrounding, helper molecules, creating energy that pulls hydrogen ions into the center of the cell. 

Intense green leaves of red monkey flower (Erythranthe lewisii) and false hellebore (Verastrum viride) mean more photosynthesis. Photo by Betsey Crawford

Red monkey flower (Erythranthe lewisii) and a huge leaf of false hellebore (Verastrum viride). Most of the photos accompanying this post are from the north, where leaves are large and intensely green to capture all the light they can during short summers.

Missing electrons need to be replaced, and this first part of the process replaces them by splitting water molecules and grabbing electrons from the hydrogen atoms, whose remaining ions join the gang in the center of the cell. The oxygen disperses through the stomata, holes in the leaves that open and close as needed. This is the oxygen we breathe. The carbon dioxide we have been exhaling then floats into the stomata to be used in the next part of the cycle.

As the hydrogen ions in the cell’s center get more concentrated, they immediately want back out, pushing their way through an enzyme that creates ATP, the same energy storage molecule that our mitochondria create for us, by a similar electron process.

A wild flower meadow on Hudson Bay Mountain in Smithers, British Columbia., showing the wide variety of leaves for photosynthesis even in one small area.. Photo by Betsey Crawford

A wild flower meadow on Hudson Bay Mountain in Smithers, British Columbia., showing the wide variety of photosynthesizing leaves even in one small area.

Having run through their energy, these electrons enter a new cycle where they are re-energized by more photons to create NADPH. Thus the electromagnetic light energy from the fusion reaction in a star 93 million miles away becomes chemical energy in microscopic cells brushing our shins as we walk, along the way providing the oxygen we need for life. 

The chemical energy — NADHP and ATP — is then used by another process to take a gas — carbon dioxide — from the air and convert it to a solid state in the form of carbohydrates, which are strings of carbon molecules of varying complexity. (This is where the catalyst with the endless name comes in.) Thus carbon dioxide turns into food, as well as being ‘fixed’: removed from the atmosphere and stored in plants. This is why preserving and replanting forests are crucial to reversing global warming.

Prairie grasses in the Pawnee National Grassland, Colorado

Prairie grasses in the Pawnee National Grasslands, Colorado

There are variations in the whole process, even in the woods. The leaves at the top of the trees, in the full glare of the sun, are likely to be smaller and thicker than the understory leaves. That way they protect themselves from the full force of the sun’s energy. The lower leaves tend to be larger, thinner and more horizontal, and the ferns grow many wide fronds, allowing them to catch all the photons they can from the sunlight filtering through the treetops. Because it tends to be cool and moist in the woods, photosynthesis carries on with little hitch.

Once we walk out of the woods into a meadow of grasses, there are challenges that require further variation. In the cool, damp spring, grasses are in heaven, soaking up water and sunlight, feeding their blades and roots, developing seeds. Once summer brings its hot, dry weather, many grasses go dormant until fall or even the next spring. The ones that don’t, like the sturdy crabgrass in your lawn, have adopted photosynthetic habits that allow them to keep going in heat and aridity.

Engelmann's prickly pear cactus (Opuntia engelmannii) in Saguaro National Park, Tucson, Arizona by Betsey Crawford

The pads of cacti are modified stems which do the photosynthesizing. The spines are modified leaves, holding air around the flesh to protect it from the sun. This is an Engelmann’s prickly pear cactus (Opuntia engelmannii) in Saguaro National Park, Tucson, Arizona.

If we walk further on, into the desert, the problems of heat and dryness become acute. Desert plants, like cacti and agave, want to keep their stomata closed during the day to preserve water. Instead, they open them as the evening cools, and have evolved a way to take in and store carbon dioxide in the form of malate at night. This they turn into ATP and NADPH during the day, with their stomata closed. It’s a far less efficient way to provide energy for the plant than the photosynthesizing in our woods, which is why desert and other succulent plants grow so slowly.

In addition to helping maintain the appropriate levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in our fragile atmosphere, plants nourish themselves and the entire living world. We breathing creatures are carbon-based life: carbon forms the backbone of every molecule in our bodies. We’re entirely dependent on plants’ ability to take the carbon dioxide from our own respiration and not only replace it with the oxygen we need but also to offer those carbon molecules to us in edible forms. That’s what allows us to make our own ATP to fuel this lovely walk among the chloroplasts. Photosynthesis is the most important biochemical process on the planet.

Pacific rhododendron (Rhododendron macrophylla) in Rhododendron Park on Whidbey Island, Washington. Evergreens can perform photosynthesis all year, but are much less efficient in winter. When cold enough, the process can shut down altogether. Photo by Betsey Crawford.

Pacific rhododendron (Rhododendron macrophylla) in Rhododendron Park on Whidbey Island, Washington. Evergreens can photosynthesize all year but are much less efficient in winter. When cold enough, the process can shut down altogether.

Given its importance, it’s no surprise that it showed up relatively early in the earth’s life. Early forms of photosynthesis are thought to have begun about 3.5 billion years ago, its various systems developing over time. Chloroplasts didn’t evolve until 2.5 billion years ago. When photosynthesis began, there was little free oxygen on earth. Early practitioners were microscopic, anaerobic bacteria, most likely using hydrogen sulfide, better known as swamp gas, to do their work. 

About 2.4 billion years ago, oxygen released by photosynthesis began to build up in the atmosphere, leading to what is known as the Great Oxygenation Event. The existing bacterial species weren’t adapted to it and began either to die out or find their way to anaerobic environments. With the evolution of mitochondria, which essentially use oxygen the way chloroplasts use carbon dioxide, species were able not only to adapt but to harness a much stronger energy source. Fueled by this huge boost to metabolism, life on earth blossomed into ever more diverse and complex life forms and ecosystems.

Salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis) in Brandywine Provincial Park, British Columbia by Betsey Crawford

Salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis) in Brandywine Provincial Park, British Columbia

Besides our dependence on plants, there are a lot of wonderful connections among us. We all inherited our carbon from the very beginning of the universe, when the first particles coalesced into mighty mother stars who, with their enormous heat and compression, made the elements that form every subsequent thing. When we give a baby a fresh string bean to munch on, we’re watching 13 billion-year-old carbon join forces in ever new forms.

We share up to 25% of our DNA with plants, remnants of our ancient, shared bacterial ancestors. Mammalian hemoglobin and plant chlorophyll have the same chemical composition, though where hemoglobin is built around iron, chlorophyll uses magnesium. When we eat chlorophyll, it helps hemoglobin with its work of cleansing and strengthening our blood and increasing oxygen uptake. Chloroplasts and the mitochondria we share with plants have a similar history. Each formed when separate species of bacteria found it so worthwhile to join forces that they’re still at it, one cell inside the other, all while wrapped in their own membranes and keeping their separate DNA. Perhaps the most successful mergers of all time. Both make ATP — adenosine triphosphate — the fundamental fuel of the breathing planet.

Ferns in this woods in British Columbia catch the last light of day. Photo by Betsey Crawford

Ferns in this woods in British Columbia catch the last light of day.

Evolution has no need to keep inventing the wheel. If the DNA we inherited from those ancestral bacteria still work, great! If the methods of producing energy work for plants, why not animals? The same plans get reused, with some evolutionary tinkering. Because our building blocks came from those ancient mother stars, people like to say that we are stardust. Via photosynthesis, we are sunlight. Between the systems we inherited from and share with plants and the fact that they ultimately become part of every cell in our bodies, you could also say we’re recycled plants. An idea that, while not quite so lofty, thrills me no end.

It’s all a marvel. I breathe out carbon dioxide and it’s returned to me nicely packaged in carrots, apples, beans, sweet potatoes, squash. Amazing! The history is stunning, all the way back to the carbon formed at the beginning of the universe. We owe thanks to photosynthesis, and its introduction of atmospheric oxygen, for all the blooming, breathing life everywhere on the globe. We owe it every minute of our lives, every thought we have, every bite we eat, every breath we take, every flower and creature we treasure. I love the science that explores and tracks and theorizes about how this fascinating process operates. But ultimately, we are left with wonder. The whole parade is one miracle after another.

Blue clematis (Clematis occidentals) in Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada by Betsey Crawford

Blue clematis (Clematis occidentals) in Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada

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Pursuing mystery: how we found out lichen has a third partner and is saving the earth

Mixed lichen and moss on a stick Mount Tamalpais, California by Betsey-CrawfordFor 150 years lichen has been known to be a combination of two life forms. The outside is a fungal matrix, rather like the crust of a baguette,  which gives structure and protection to the softer, more filamentous inside, formed by one of the algae family, or occasionally a cyanobacteria. These latter two provide nutrients for themselves and the protective fungus via photosynthesis. The word symbiosis (Greek for ‘living with’) was coined in 1868 specifically to describe lichen’s interrelationships. When I wrote my first post about lichen two years ago, this is where our knowledge stood. A few months later, that changed. A hidden partner had been found, and the story of that discovery is wonderful. 

As is appropriate to its subject, the entire project was a symbiosis. Montana lichenologist Toby Spribille was inspired by an essay by British Columbia lichenologist Trevor Goward. Trailing like long strands of hair from the branches of Pacific Northwest trees are two lichens formed by exactly the same fungus and alga. But they are different colors. Tortured horsehair lichen (Bryoria tortuosa) is greenish yellow, a result of the production of toxic vulpinic acid. Edible horsehair lichen (Bryoria fremontii), also called wila, is dark brown, does not produce a toxin, and was an important food for indigenous northwest peoples. They were thought to be different until genetic testing came along, so we need to include the genome pioneers in the team.

Edible horsehair lichen, or wila (Bryoria fremontii) Peyto Lake, Banff, Alberta. Photo by Jason Hollinger via Creative Commons

Edible horsehair lichen, or wila (Bryoria fremontii) Peyto Lake, Banff, Alberta. Photo by Jason Hollinger via Creative Commons

Growing up in Montana, Spribille had always been fascinated by the forests of hanging lichen. But he may well never have been in a position to explore them. Despite his yearning to study science, he was home-schooled in a family that didn’t believe in it, so he couldn’t do so until he left home. Then he was faced with the hurdles of finding a university he could afford that would accept him without a formal high school degree. He heard that European schools are more open to people like him. Since his family spoke the language, he went to Germany, where the University of Gottingen took him in.

After getting his Ph.D. at the University of Graz in Austria, Spribille showed up at the McCutcheon Lab at the University of Montana, which specializes in symbiosis. ‘I study lichens,’ he said, and was warmly welcomed by John McCutcheon, who urged him to study genomics, as well. Genetic analysis was crucial to his discovery since scientists have spent many years probing lichens under powerful microscopes without seeing the hidden partner. Inspired by Goward’s query, he began poking around in the Bryoria genome to see what caused the two seemingly identical lichens to be different.

A lichen called tree lungwort (Lobaria pulmonaria) Tongas National Forest, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

Tree lungwort (Lobaria pulmonaria) Tongas National Forest, Alaska

Even with genetics on his side, and the McCutcheon team to brainstorm with, Spribille couldn’t find anything new until he decided to expand his search. The fungi long associated with lichen are from the Ascomycota family, and he looked for their genes first. Then he decided to look more broadly at the whole fungal kingdom and discovered genes from the Basidiomycota family, home of the types of mushrooms we’re used to eating. Excited but doubtful, the team wondered if they’d stumbled on a passing impurity or an infection. It wasn’t until he took the basidiomycetes data out of his calculations that he saw that the production of vulpinic acid went, too. That, he says, was the eureka moment.

Actually seeing the fungus cells involved high tech genetic tagging with fluorescent colors to visually separate the alga and the two fungi. It also involved — my favorite detail — a very low tech trip to the grocery store to buy laundry detergent. The basidiomycetes were under a crust of polysaccharides on the surface of the lichen, and Spribille used the soap to dissolve the coating. That enabled him to tag the newly found yeast cells with their own color and to see that they surround the lichen, embedded in the outer cortex. The yellow Bryoria tortuosa had lots more of the yeast than the edible brown fremontii, which is what enables the former to produce vulpinic acid. 

Old man's beard lichen (Dolichnousnea longissima) Tongass National Forest, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

Old man’s beard lichen (Dolichnousnea longissima) Tongass National Forest, Alaska

Soon after he hit his eureka moment, scientists all over the world got involved, and it was quickly found, now that they knew what to look for, that varieties of the newly discovered Cyphobasidium yeasts showed up in 52 other genera on six continents. As with the Bryoria, their presence helps explain differences in appearance in genetically similar lichen. The team expands, the search continues, and the lichen world is forever changed. 

I’ve planned for a while to update my lichen post. What got me thinking about it now is my fascination with the origins of Project Drawdown, which I wrote about in my last post. It started with Paul Hawken asking a question no one else was asking. In his case, it was ‘what are we already doing that can actually reverse global warming?’ It seems like such an obvious thing to ask, and yet brilliant scientists and policymakers weren’t doing so. Like Isaac Newton wondering why the apples in his orchard fell downward and not sideways, many seemingly simple questions, asked by people who then proceed to pursue the mystery, revolutionize our knowledge and perceptions. 

Snow lichen (Flavocentria nivalis) with alpine bearberry (Arctostaphylos alpina), mountain harebell (Campanula lasiocarpa) and other alpine plants make up the tundra of the Yukon. Photo by Betsey Crawford

White snow lichen (Flavocentria nivalis) with alpine bearberry (Arctostaphylos alpina), mountain harebell (Campanula lasiocarpa) and other alpine plants make up the tundra of the Yukon. Note the light and dark lichen on the rock.

Surprises in the lichen world are rare enough that the story made headlines. The more attention, the better, since lichens are crucial to the health of our planet. We know this because another team pursued a question no one had asked. Climate researchers have long studied the amount of carbon held in oceans and forests. But it wasn’t until 2012 that scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Germany wondered about the carbon impact of cryptograms, which are photosynthesizers that don’t flower, like mosses, algae, and lichen. 

Together these tiny life forms cover 30% of the earth’s plant-bearing soil surfaces. Lichen alone covers 8% of the planet, which closes in on 16 million square miles. The team found that cryptograms sequester about 14 billion tons of carbon dioxide each year. That’s 12.7 gigatons, which is the measurement used in Drawdown. The number one solution there is estimated to make a difference of 89.74 gigatons between now and 2050. Using simple multiplication (though I suspect it’s more complicated than that) lichen and its cohorts could sequester over 400 gigatons by then.

Dramatic lichen on toxic serpentine rock doing the incredibly slow work of creating dirt. Mount Burdell, Novato, California. Photo by Betsey Crawford

Dramatic lichen on toxic serpentine rock doing the incredibly slow work of creating dirt. Mount Burdell, Novato, California

The carbon cycle is the most widely studied and reported aspect of global warming. Also crucial is the nitrogen cycle, which, now wildly out of balance, is producing another dangerous greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide. There, too, the cryptograms shine, by taking close to 50 million tons of nitrogen from the air and putting it into the soil each year, where it’s a crucial nutrient. This is part of another important role they play: breaking down rock and creating and stabilizing soil in barren landscapes. 

Given all it provides for the stability of the earth’s fragile atmosphere, it’s ironic, and tragic, that global warming is itself the biggest threat to lichen’s existence. Though most of us rarely think about these life forms, we depend on them. But that shouldn’t surprise us. The slow wisdom of evolution put lichen in place 400 million years ago. DNA analysis shows us that the newly discovered yeasts joined forces with the original partners 100 million years ago. The cyanobacteria that sometimes takes the place of algae in the mix has been here for 2.5 billion years. They were the first photosynthesizers on the planet, creating the oxygen-rich world everything has depended on since.

The fairy cups of the lichen species Cladonia, Denali National Park, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

The fairy cups of the lichen species Cladonia, Denali National Park, Alaska

The first human fossils are a mere 2.8 million years old. Our possibility lay in the same possibility of all the beings we share the planet with: cycles of oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, water, soil building, plate tectonics and temperature regulation. These forces create and maintain the thin crust and surrounding atmosphere that provide our delicate envelope of life. Lichen’s carbon and nitrogen regulating abilities aren’t evolutionary accidents. They are traits carefully evolved to provide a living, breathing world for themselves and each subsequently evolving being. 

In a culture where embracing interconnections within our own species is a huge challenge, it may be hard to fathom how deeply our existence is interwoven with a being that is itself created by an interweaving of beings. All of earth’s forms, including ourselves, are both presence and possibility on our paths through existence. The whole planet is a symbiont, a network of intimately and intricately related parts, each evolving detail generating deepening possibilities for the whole.

Lichen and other cryptograms are dominant in the tundra of northern Canada and Alaska. All the white on the ground in this picture from the Tombstone Mountains in Yukon is a leafy lichen. Photo by Betsey Crawford

Lichen and other cryptograms are dominant in the tundra of northern Canada and Alaska. Here snow lichen (Flavocentria nivalis) lives up to its name in Tombstone Territorial Park in Yukon.

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Songlines 2017: widening circles

A wild rose, Rosa woodsii, in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho by Betsey Crawford

I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world

These words, from Rainer Maria Rilke’s exquisite Book of Hours, are slightly paradoxical because this year we traveled less than any of the other years since we set off on our journey in 2011.  My partner George’s health isn’t up to life on the road at this point, so my songlines this year became widening circles around Greenbrae, California, just north of San Francisco, where there is a whole world to explore. California hosts one of the most diverse native plant populations in the country and is home to snow-capped mountains, oceans, deserts, grasslands, coastal forests. Earlier this year I celebrated this extraordinary mix within easy reach in Wild Abandon: the Mystery and Glory of Plant Diversity. 

Fairy slipper orchid (Calypso bulbosa) on Mount Tamalpais, Mill Valley, California by Betsey Crawford

Fairy slipper orchid (Calypso bulbosa)

Californians also care deeply about saving wild places. Half of the state is preserved land, an extraordinary accomplishment. I marvel at the knowledge of native plants and birds I find when meeting lawyers, nurses, teachers, business people on walks and hikes. In May, I joined a bioblitz for the first time. In fact, it was the first time I’d ever heard the word. I wrote about the fun we had cataloging every living thing within a small area of Mount Tamalpais in Blessed Unrest: the Bioblitz. It’s a celebration not only of our day but of the millions of people around the world who are taking actions, large and small, to save and repair the world.

White-lined sphinx moth (Hyles lineata) Gary Giacomini Open Space Preserve, Woodacre, California by Betsey Crawford

White-lined sphinx moth (Hylea lineata) 

Rilke’s quote comes from one of the highlights of the year: spending three days with the ecological and Buddhist philosopher, Joanna Macy. Her Work that Reconnects helps people to confront their grief at what is happening to the earth, and to renew their commitment to the work they feel called to do. Rilke’s genius has supported her ever since she discovered him when she lived in Germany in her twenties, and her translation of his poetry punctuated our time with her. In The Work that Reconnects: a Weekend with Joanna Macy, I wrote about the extraordinary, moving circle of twenty-eight people, young and old, who gathered to move through Joanna’s spiral of gratitude, grief, and renewal. I found it uplifting, joyous, complicated, loving, inspiring, painful: life distilled into a weekend

California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) El Soprante, California by Betsey Crawford

California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) 

Out of the time with Joanna came other circles. There were several landscape designers there, and one of them, Susan Friedman, had a number of native plant gardens on a tour in early May. So, off I went. I described what I found in Retaining Paradise: Gardening with Native Plants, and wrote about a longtime passion: using our gardens to recreate the bird and animal habitat that built-up neighborhoods inevitably destroy. 

Tall thistle (Cirsium altissimo) and bee, Golden Prairie, Golden City, Missouri by Betsey CrawfordJoanna’s workshop was held at Canticle Farm, an urban farm in the heart of Oakland. While we were there, the bees from the beehive swarmed, as they got ready to leave for a new home. This inspired Susan, who’d been thinking about having a hive, to find a class on beekeeping. It had never occurred to me to do such a thing, but when she asked if I was interested, I instantly wrote back, ‘of course.’ I loved our day with the bees, and chronicled it in Treasuring Bees, Saving the World

Rock tunnel along the road in southern Utah by Betsey CrawfordOur life on earth is tied to the health and life of the bees, which can also be said of many things, including dirt. In The Intimate Bond: Humans and Dirt, I treasure its multi-faceted community and innate intelligence, which made it possible for us to evolve and keeps every living thing on earth going. Dirt is not cheap! Much of the urgent need to take care of the thin layer of soil on our planet lies in the endless time frame it takes to form it. Focusing on Utah, where you can literally drive through the planet’s ancient past, I explored its mysteries and consolations in The Solace of Deep TimeBlack crowned night heron in Corte Madera Marsh, Corte Madera, California by Betsey CrawfordIn Greenbrae, I live near a lagoon that attracts a wonderful, shifting community of shorebirds all year. Around Easter an avalanche of ducklings started, family after family of adorableness so acute I was addicted to that walk for three months. This handsome night heron is part of  A Season of Birds, where I describe my happy visits to the vibrant life there — which included an unusual extended family — and honor the necessity and hard work of preserving and reclaiming such lands. 

Pacific coast iris (Iris douglasiana) along the Hoo-Koo-e-Koo Trail, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Pacific coast iris (Iris douglasiana) 

And, of course, I spent the year celebrating flowers. For a few weeks each spring, California is an iris addict’s paradise. I wrote about my feelings for these bewitching flowers in Elegant, Wild, Mysterious: Loving Iris, and suggested that flowers’ ability to inspire love may help save the planet. I discussed the complications of our gorgeous roses in Passion and Poison: the Thorn in the Rose. In early August I explored one of the most joyful flower families on earth in One Big Happy Family: the Asteraceae, and created a gallery to show their beauty and wide diversity
Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) Westport, New York by Betsey Crawford
Then, later in August, on a trip to New York, I was able to do something I can’t do in California: stand in a sea of goldenrod. Naturally, that called for celebrating the way this extraordinary explosion of luminous yellow connects us to the heart of nature in The Gold Rush: the Joyful Power of Goldenrod. I also visited an early childhood home, set in a magical green world. I wove my memories and my realization about how deeply that time affected the life I’ve lived into A Girl in the Garden of Eden.

For Halloween I thought choosing ghostly white flowers for Happy Halloween: Ghosts in the Landscape would be fun, and it was. To my surprise, the fun turned out to be exploring why we have white flowers at all, and how their chemistry is related to ours. That post, too, inspired a gallery: Luminous Whites.

Bush anemone (Carpenteria californica) white flowered native plants, San Ramon, California by Betsey Crawford

Bush anemone (Carpenteria californica)

The only essay I didn’t write was written by Pope Francis. Laudate Si Repictured is an interweaving of words from his eloquent encyclical on the care of the earth with pictures of our beautiful planet. One of the quotes encapsulates the message I kept finding on my circling songlines this year:

All of us are linked by unseen bonds and together form a kind of universal family, a sublime communion which fills us with a sacred, affectionate and humble respect.

Human and seagull footprints in the dirt in Kenai, AlaskaLoving the place we find ourselves will give us the strength and vitality to preserve it. Damage to the world and its people will be slowed and salvaged by love: for the earth, for our fellow creatures, for its waters and air, for the dirt under our feet, for the wondrously intricate web of all beings of which we are a part.  A profound understanding of our inherence in the natural world– the idea that we are the planet, not on the planet — is a gift we give both the earth and ourselves. 

I wish you all a new year of love, commitment, and beauty.

Celebrating Laudate si: clouds reflected in Dease Lake, British Columbia

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The gold rush: the joyful power of goldenrod

Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) and Joy Pye weed (Euchotrichum maculate) Westport, New York by Betsey CrawfordOne of the blessings of a visit to New York late last summer was seeing something I miss in California: a world awash in goldenrod. A member of the vast and happy Asteraceae family, Solidago canadensis, one of a hundred species of native goldenrods in the US, overflowed fields and banked roadsides near my sister’s house in the Adirondacks. Filled with tiny yellow daisy-like flowers up close, looking like an explosion of yellow fireworks from a near distance, and like a sea of sparkling yellow foam from a greater distance, goldenrod is the late August and September wildflower in most of the country, along with its aster companions.

In her passionately wise and luminous book, Braiding Sweetgrass, botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer tells the story of her first interview with her advisor at the State University of New York’s School of Environmental Science and Forestry. Why, he asked, did she want to study botany. She had her answer ready: she wanted to know why goldenrod and asters look so beautiful together. His answer was crushing. That, he said, was not a valid reason to study botany. Such considerations belonged to art, not science. 

Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) Westport, New York by Betsey Crawford

Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) Westport, New York

Luckily for us, she was, though daunted, not discouraged, and later found other, more sympathetic teachers and mentors. But for a while, she left the indigenous knowing of her heritage behind while studying science as it was presented in her courses. It wasn’t until she was studying for her Ph.D. in Wisconsin that she found herself at a gathering of native elders who could speak of the depths of plants in ways her botany classes had not: their relationships to other plants, to the places where they grew, to the animals, birds and humans in their midst. The stories of their origins and names. The wisdom they have to share. 

And their beauty. As an artist, I would have happily explained (as artist friends did) that yellow and purple look so beautiful together because they are complementary colors. Each primary color, in this case yellow, has a complement composed of the other two primaries, here red and blue, creating purple. Complementary colors have a powerful synergy, both making the other zing, creating a combination more electric than, for example, pink and purple. However lovely the latter combination, it will always be less exciting to our brains than pairing purple and yellow, or orange and blue, or red and green. These are not the combinations you’d think of for a meditation garden. But if you want to look at a field of scintillating color, or add excitement to your garden, your painting or your wardrobe, interweaving complements is a surefire way to do it.

Pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor) and Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin by Betsey Crawford

Pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor) and Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin

Other than red flowers against green leaves, nature hasn’t gone out of her way to combine complementary colors. And red flowers are relatively rare, orange even rarer, and true blue almost nonexistent. Purple is fairly common, and yellow abundant. All are dwarfed by the numbers of white flowers, which offer no opportunity for complementary drama. So it’s especially striking when nature has not only combined complements but thrown them about with as much abandon as she has goldenrod and asters. Robin Wall Kimmerer was talking specifically about New England asters, with their deep purple petals and deeper-than-goldenrod yellow centers. The stronger the purple, the more scintillating the combination, though with the many lighter asters, and with the pink-purple thistle shown here, the combination is still electric. 

New England asters (Symphyotrichum novae angliae) courtesy of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources

New England asters (Symphyotrichum novae angliae) courtesy of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources

But I agree with her about goldenrod and New England asters: their combined gorgeousness is a perfectly good reason to want to study botany. And while it may be true that aesthetics are not the province of science, there’s fascinating science connected to beauty, starting with the exquisitely sensitive cones nestled in our retinas. Millions of neurons, waiting to encode for our brains the light waves bouncing off the world around us. Two-thirds of our cones are dedicated to the longer wavelengths of the warmer colors — like the yellows of goldenrod. Another third is devoted to the seeing their green leaves. Only 2% of our cones are reading the purple aster petals, which reflect back the shortest wavelengths of light. 

Late purple aster (Symphyotrichum patens) and Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) along the road in northern New York by Betsey Crawford

Late purple aster (Symphyotrichum patens) and Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) along the road in northern New York

Why yellow and purple? Carotenoids in the goldenrod and aster centers, and anthocyanins in the aster petals. Chemicals that reflect those colors back to us, and, among other things, protect the flowers from too much of the ultraviolet light we can’t see, and that burns both our skin and the petals’. To bees, who can see in the ultraviolet spectrum,  goldenrod’s yellow is even more incandescent than it is to us. But they hardly need the pizazz. There are so many solidagos, with so many individual flowers per plant, in so many places that they can’t be missed. Bees abound in those fields, picking up the sticky, heavy pollen and bringing it back to the hive to make bee bread for the winter.

I think it’s the sheer exuberance of the solidago phenomenon that I love so much. This is nature at her most joyful, maybe even her whackiest. Why not throw millions of luminous yellow flowers out there as most other flowers fade? Throw in some purple for dazzle! Turn the neighboring leaves vivid red and orange! Provide winter food for thousands of tiny creatures who return the favor by pollinating the flowers. Create larger creatures to stand in the fields, with carefully crafted eyes connected to brains capable of awe. Fill them with wonder at what has been wrought. Those wildly yellow early autumn fields are a sign of a creation that can’t be stopped. 

Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) Westport, New York by Betsey Crawford

Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) Westport, New York

I take a lot of comfort in this vast energy. Although such fields are plowed and bulldozed daily for grazing or agriculture, houses or parking lots, this sheer vibrancy tells me nature is far from fragile in the face of her heedless humans. Another essay in Braiding Sweetgrass details the destruction of Lake Onondaga, sacred to the Onondaga people of upstate New York. After more than a century of pumping industrial waste up to sixty feet deep into and around the lake, along with the sewage of the growing city of Syracuse, it’s now a Superfund site. In fact, nine Superfund sites. Long gone are the wetlands, the trees, the oxygen-generating plants, the moss, the birds, the frogs, the once crystal clear water.

The same story can be told of countless places. The details vary, the heartbreak is painfully similar. There is a lot of restoration going on, even if grudgingly on the part of the corporations and governments that caused the destruction. People the world over are pulling beloved, damaged places back from the brink. The same is happening with Lake Onondaga. There are attempts, some good, some bad, to restore a semblance of natural life to this dead landscape. Of the ones described in the essay, my favorite is the work being done by nature herself, who sent the ‘oldest and most effective of land healers…the plants themselves.’

Seeds of trees took root in the white, gluey sludge and slowly grew. Birds landed in their branches and dropped the seeds of berrying shrubs. Clovers and other legumes, among the most important of our plant allies, arrived and began pulling nitrogen into the muck. The endlessly adaptable grass family moved in. Their roots add humus, and the first glimmering of soil making can be seen. 

It’s a slow process of enormous strength, and one we can trust. That’s where I take comfort. Of course, we should be doing everything in our power to stop the destruction and repair the damage. Nature should be able to rely on us, too. But as she asks, she also inspires.  When we need courage, and ardor, and zeal for this work, she invites us to stoke those fires by standing in the midst of a sea of goldenrod as it pulses with energy, radiating her vibrant, enduring, indomitable heart. 

Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) Westport, New York by Betsey Crawford

Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) Westport, New York

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Happy Halloween: ghosts in the landscape

Cotton grass (Eriophorum angustifolium) Single delight (Moneses uniflora) Wynn Nature Center, Homer, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

Cotton grass (Eriophorum angustifolium) Single delight (Moneses uniflora) Wynn Nature Center, Homer, Alaska

When I first thought of the title for this Halloween post, I had fun in mind — white flowers that have ghostly or skeletal effects — and there are those, like the cotton grass above and the trillium and others below. But the more I thought about white flowers, the more questions I had. How did they become white? Is it a loss of pigment or a color of its own? Why are there so many of them? Depending on the region, they can far outnumber flowers in the blue to red to orange range, and outstrip the numerous species of yellow flowers. Studies show that pollinators, given a choice, will gravitate to colors. So what’s the evolutionary advantage of white? Is there one? It turns out that white flowers are full of mystery. Which is, indeed, fun.

White flowers: Pacific trillium (Trillium ovatum) Blithedale Canyon, California by Betsey Crawford

The very ghostly newborn petals of Pacific trillium (Trillium ovatum) Blithedale Canyon, California

The earliest angiosperms, more than 100 million years ago, are thought to have been white, cream or pale green. Since Darwin, people — including me — have been happily saying that the more vivid colors slowly evolved to attract pollinators, whose vision long predated the flowers. And that appears to be true. Or, at least, there’s no strong body of evidence saying it’s not true. But, as it turns out, there’s no strong body of empirical evidence saying it is true. Empirical evidence implies that we can see something happen in real time, and it’s hard to see an evolutionary process in our brief lifespan. 

White flowers: Ghost flower (Mohavea confertiflora) Anza Borrego Desert, California by Betsey Crawford

This one is actually called ghost flower (Mohavea confertiflora) Anza Borrego Desert, California

There are studies that show, for example, flowers becoming redder in as little as a single generation as more hummingbirds pollinate them. Further studies show that when given choices, pollinators will choose colors over white flowers, though that may be because the colorful ones stand out more vividly against green foliage. Finding flowers efficiently is crucial to the success of both flower and pollinator, so the easier the flower is to see, the better. Very important, the stronger the relationship a pollinator has with a specific color, the more likely it is to bring matching pollen from one flower to fertilize another in the same species.

White flowers: Sitka burnet (Sanguisorba stipulata) Wynn Nature Center, Homer, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

Sitka burnet (Sanguisorba stipulata) Wynn Nature Center, Homer, Alaska

So, we know that pollinators have an intimate relationship with flower color. Or, more accurately, with the color’s wavelength, since the purple we see is not what the pollinator sees. But, with the explosion of genetic information in recent years, there’s also a growing appreciation for other factors that are at play, especially in how white flowers have evolved. Flowers in the blue to purple to red range use anthocyanins to create their color, the chemicals that make foods like grapes and raspberries so good for us. If the dominant anthocyanin is delphinidin, the flower is purple, if pelargonidin, red, if cyanidin, magenta to lavender. Other flavonoids, such as anthoxanthins, along with a variety of carotenoids, create yellows and oranges. 

White flowers: Single delight (Moneses uniflora) Wynn Nature Center, Homer, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

Single delight (Moneses uniflora) Wynn Nature Center, Homer, Alaska

In the course of mutations that alter the expression of specific enzyme and protein pathways, the amounts of these color-inducing chemicals can vary, changing the color of the flower. Mutations may also cause the pathways to stop working altogether. The resulting loss of function can return the flower to its primordial white, a state that’s likely to be irreversible since it would take a series of very specific mutations for those particular pathways to work again. 

White flowers: Sand lily (Mentzelia nuda) Smoky Valley Ranch, Oakley, Kansas by Betsey Crawford

Sand lily (Mentzelia nuda) Smoky Valley Ranch, Oakley, Kansas

There is a widely accepted division of flower/pollinator relationships: bees prefer flowers in the blue range, while hummingbirds gravitate to red, butterflies to pink, moths and beetles to white. And studies do back up these general preferences. But there’s a lot of variation. If bees weren’t interested in pollinating white flowers, we wouldn’t have almonds, apples, plums or any number of other fruits in the Rosaceae family. Thus, other factors are apparently important, among them scent, availability, abundance, learned behavior, competition, as well as the match of plant shapes to pollinator characteristics. It also may be that the subtle pinks that make white apple blossoms so poignantly beautiful to us are neon signs to bees. More mysteries. As every study says, ‘more research is needed.’

White flowers: Fried egg plant (Romneya trichocalyx) San Ramon, California by Betsey Crawford

Fried egg plant (Romneya trichocalyx) San Ramon, California

As fascinating as I find all this, I’m somewhat resistant to the idea that the gorgeous hues of reds, purples and lavenders I love so much are a result of ‘the number of hydroxyl groups attached to the B-ring of the molecule,’ or that tender, luminous whites are due to the functional failure of these groups. Reducing something as magical as color to the action or loss of enzyme and protein pathways seems like a comedown. On the other hand, my seeing and treasuring these colors is possible only because my body relies on similar pathways. Which brings another mysterious dimension forward: the fact that flowers and I share biological functions and genes, and, in sharing them, share each other.

White flowers: white thistle (Cirsium hookerianum) Waterton National Park, Alberta by Betsey Crawford

White thistle (Cirsium hookerianum) Waterton National Park, Alberta

Not only that, but without a strong connection to a variety of pollinating animals and insects, and the biology and genetics we have in common with them, neither flowers nor I would be here to begin with. All those pathways need constant nourishment. Like me, the pollinators depend on flowers for nutrition and survival. Flowers depend on these friendly forces, which can include me, for reproduction. We all depend on a huge array of microbes and fungi to create the nutrients we thrive on from the soil at our feet. We depend on the movements of air currents, the hydrology of water, the minerals released from rocks. 

Sitting among flowers on a forest path, or the desert floor, or out in a meadow, we’re held in a vast array of interlinking pathways, beating our hearts, feeding our cells; moving water, air, nutrients; creating color, vision, scent. All mysteriously designed to keep every one of us — flower, leaf, dirt, human, bee, bird, beetle — alive and blossoming. 

White flowers: White paintbrush (Castilleja occidentalis) Waterton National Park, Alberta by Betsey Crawford

White paintbrush (Castilleja occidentalis) Waterton National Park, Alberta

More beautiful white flowers can be found in the gallery Luminous Whites.

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One big, happy family: the Asteraceae

A sunflower (Helianthus annuus), a memeber of the Asteracea family, In Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, Canada by Betsey CrawfordI took the picture above six years ago this month, standing in a field of sunflowers on Cape Breton Island on the east coast of Canada. It was the first place we went when we started the journey that has taken us to so many wonderful places. I’ve never forgotten the joy of standing in that field, completely surrounded by the happiest of flowers, growing with wild abandon toward the August sun.

With almost 24,00o species, the Asteraceae family is vast and exuberant. It’s literally everywhere you go, except Antarctica. The accompanying photos range from Alaska to the Anza Borrego Desert in southern California. They reflect one of the family’s strengths: the ability to thrive in many different environments, whether hot or cold, dry grassland or wet marsh, in alpine meadows or among desert cactus. Some are important commercially: sunflower, safflower and canola oils. Camomile and echinacea tea. Artichokes, lettuce, tarragon, radicchio, endive. One shrub even produces a form of latex. The horticultural market depends on many of them.

Mule ears (Wyethia anguvstifolia) taken along Chimney Rock trail in Point Reyes National Seashore, California by Betsey Crawford

Mule ears (Wyethia anguvstifolia) Point Reyes National Seashore, California

The most familiar asteraceae configuration is the sunflower and its relatives: a central circle of disk florets, surrounded by a crown of ray florets that look like and act like petals, attracting insects to pollinate themselves as well as the less showy disk flowers. The family name comes from these composite forms: aster derives from the Latin word for star. But there are a variety of other structures. Some, like the thistle and the arnica below, are discoid, with disk but no ray flowers. Others, like the dandelion, are ligulate, with no disk flowers and ‘petals’ of strappy ligules. 

Rayless arnica (Arnica disoidea) Blithedale Canyon, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Rayless arnica (Arnica disoidea) Blithedale Canyon, Larkspur, California

As a group, they tend to develop a fluffy seed head, a pappus of filaments that originally surround the base of the ovary, and grow longer as the flower goes to seed. With their feathery attachments, seeds are easily dispersed by wind, which helps account for the ubiquity of yarrow, fleabanes, dandelions, asters and other family members. Some seeds have hooks on them and spread out by attaching themselves to animal fur or clothing. 

Siberian aster (Aster sibericus) Denali National Park, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

Siberian aster (Aster sibericus) Denali National Park, Alaska

What looks like an individual flower is an inflorescence, a bowl-, vase- or cone-shaped capitulum, holding its lovely arrangement of hundreds of ray and disk florets. The capitulum is held by green bracts, or phyllaries, sometimes many layers of them, constituting an involucre. When you eat the bud of an artichoke flower, you peel off, dip in melted butter, and then eat one phyllary after another, until you get to the heart, which is the capitulum containing the disk flowers. The phyllaries can be plain or beautifully sculptural. Their differences, in number, shape and position, are often a key to identifying close species. 

Analysis of fossil pollen found in Antarctica dates the Asteraceae to 80 million years ago, when the continent was still part of Gondwana, before it floated south to the icy pole. Species were lost during the K-T extinction, which killed the dinosaurs around 66 million years ago. But those that survived thrived and multiplied during the great flowering of the warm Late Paleocene and Early Eocene epochs, as did every other plant family. The asteraceae in turn benefitted their pollinating insects, and were especially important to the evolution of bee species.

Tall purple fleabane (Erigeron peregrinus) with two butterflies Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada by Betsey Crawford

Tall purple fleabane (Erigeron peregrinus) and friends, Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada

They are a pollinator’s dream: one landing, up to 1,000 flowers. The sunflower, our biggest and most dramatic North American native asteraceae, dedicates a most intriguing and charming trait to bees and other pollinators. It starts with buds and young flower heads, still covered with their green, photosynthesizing bracts, following the sun over the course of the day. At night, they work their way back toward sunrise, moving faster near the solstice, and more slowly as the nights grow longer.

 

Brittlebush (Encelia farinosa) Anza Borrego Desert, California by Betsey Crawford

Brittlebush (Encelia farinosa) Anza Borrego Desert, California

This cirdadian heliotropism is driven by growth hormones that spur growth on the east side of the stem during the day, lengthening that side, and tilting the flower head toward the west. At night, another hormone spurs growth on the west side, moving the flower to face east by morning. In experiments that interfere with this sun tracking, plants quickly lose mass and leaf surface, cutting down on photosynthesis and thus vitality and size.

Their sungazing stops at maturity. The ‘clock genes’ turn off, leaving entire fields of sunflower heads facing east. That way they are warmed early in the day, making them five times more likely to be visited by pollinators than experimental plants arranged to face west.  And there are lots of pollinators: bees, butterflies, moths, flies, wasps, wind, and, in South America, birds. With their warm, open faces offering almost unlimited opportunity for fertilizing, reproduction becomes very efficient, which explains the diversity and worldwide habitat of the family.

Pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor) in a late summer sea of goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin by Betsey Crawford

Pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor) in a late summer sea of goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin

Standing in a field of sunflowers, or prairies of thistles, coneflowers and goldenrods,  I am not only surrounded by the sheer exuberance of vividly colored, beautifully shaped flowers, with their attendant bees and butterflies. I am surrounded by a long history of carefully ‘chosen’ evolutionary changes that remain mysterious despite all the genetic information we can now gather about plants. Why so many yellows? And why pink, or white? Why feathery leaves on one family member, big chunky leaves on another? Why is this one so tiny, and this one gigantic? Why a cone on one, a bowl on another? This heavenly exuberance of form and color is a delightful mystery.

Prairie coneflower (Rudbeckia nitida) Konza Prairie Preserve, Manhattan, Kansas by Betsey Crawford

Prairie coneflower (Rudbeckia nitida) Konza Prairie Preserve, Manhattan, Kansas

In that sunlit field I’m also surrounded by a form of life — the flowering angiosperms with their nutritious fruits — that may well be responsible for me, a member of a much later species, being able to stand there at all. That nourishment helped my forebears to develop the eyes and consciousness to celebrate the wonder around me. That may even be the point of evolving me at all: a way for the universe to contemplate its glories.

Prairie blazing star (Liatris pycnostachya) Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin by Betsey Crawford

Prairie blazing star (Liatris pycnostachya) Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin

Relishing the sunny warmth of a summer day, drinking in the beauty and vitality of the flowers around me, grateful for our shared history and destiny — these are moments of transcendence that make life rich and fulfilling. Our beautiful world makes them so available, but we too often rush by. Even when we stop, we feel we must quickly return to the practical tasks that make life possible. But our world is always there, waiting to be treasured. Waiting for the eyes and ears it has gifted us with to turn toward these great and beautiful mysteries. “Life is this simple,’ theologian Thomas Merton wrote. “We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent and the divine is shining through all the time.”

Blanket flower (Gaillardia aristata) in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho by Betsey Crawford

Blanket flower (Gaillardia aristata) in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho

More pictures of this exuberant family can be found in the Asteraceae Gallery.

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Wild abandon: the mystery and glory of plant diversity

Plant diversity: Tidy tips (Layia platyglossa) and California poppy (eschscholzia californica) on Ring Mountain in Tiburon, California by Betsey Crawford

Tidy tips (Layia platyglossa) and California poppy (eschscholzia californica)

If I stand on the rocky ledge that is Ring Mountain on a spring day, within sight of San Francisco and bustling, built-up Marin County, I will be surrounded by a staggering variety of life. Wildflowers will be blooming: three different mariposa lilies, orange poppies, pink checkerbloom, blue dicks, yellow and white tidy-tips, pink and white buckwheat, two different wild onions, milkmaids, iris in all shades of purple and white. They will be growing among a mix of grasses, some three inches high, others up to two feet, with narrower and broader leaves, and tight or airy inflorescences. Above their heads, hawks and vultures will be wheeling. Sparrows, thrushes and wrens will be nesting in shrubs edging stands of wind-sculpted live oak. A coyote might emerge from among the rock outcroppings, stop at the sight of me, and choose another direction. A snake will make a quick, sinuous getaway at a movement of my feet.

Plant diversity: Blue dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum) taken on King Mountain, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Blue dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum)

Butterflies of varied hues will float by. Different species of bees will be busy with the wildflowers. The dirt at my feet will be filled with billions of microbes, yeast, and fungi. When I aim my camera lens at a flower for a close up, I might find it full of tiny beetles I couldn’t see without magnification. If I raise my eyes to neighboring Mount Tamalpais, I’ll know of lives there that aren’t here: orchids, trillium, houndstongue, varieties of ferns cascading down hillsides. Bobcats are roaming there, and the tapping of woodpeckers softly echoes through the forest. Just a few miles north, the redwoods will start. Three hours east alpine plants and bears are coming to life under the snow in the Sierra Nevadas. Another hour and I’d be among the desert plants of Nevada. Just west, beyond Mt. Tam, I’ll float among whales, dolphins, seals, and the countless fish and plants that make up the life of the Pacific Ocean.

That’s just a tiny sample of what’s living in one tiny area of the world. And an area that is also full of a wide spectrum of humans, along with our buildings, cars, and roads. It’s not remotely wild here. And yet the sheer exuberance that has characterized evolution is on full display. It’s estimated that there are between 500 and 600,000 plant species on the earth. We’ve identified about 250,000 of them. More are evolving all the time. A 2011 study postulated that there are 87 million species on the planet, but the fungus crowd immediately disagreed with the study’s parameters, saying that fungus alone could eventually account for 5 million species. 

Plant diversity: Coyote mint (Mondarda villosa) on Ring Mountain in Tiburon, California by Betsey Crawford

Coyote mint (Mondarda villosa)

In other words, we don’t know. It’s a noble effort to track all of this, and crucial for species preservation in the midst of a frightening rate of extinction. But lists don’t tell us why we have all this exuberant abundance of forms, on an earth that itself offers a wide array of habitats: mountains, ponds, forests, rivers, deserts, savannah, estuaries, rolling hill country, prairie, arctic tundra, valleys, mud flats, rainforest, oceans, canyons. Evolution clearly chose variety as a driving force. There is innate wisdom in diversity; we’re living proof of its benefits. The mammalian world, including us, exists today because tiny mammals survived the meteor impact that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

Plant diversity: Floral diversity: Douglas iris (Iris douglasiuna) on the Hoo-Koo-e-Koo Trail, Blithedale Canyon, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Douglas iris (Iris douglasiana)

California hedge nettle (Stachys bullata) in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California by Betsey Crawford

California hedge nettle (Stachys bullata)

Genetic diversity within a species is also a strength, which is why sexual reproduction dominates the planet. Having genes from each parent keeps subtly mixing the gene pool, which makes it more likely that plants will gain resilience so they can prosper in their particular habitats. Combining new genes, generation after generation, allows for mutations that give rise to different colors, shapes, and adaptations, leading to a wider variety of species.

But still, I puzzle about this. Why the unbelievable profusion of forms? Why so many sizes, shapes, and colors, so many wondrous and sometimes odd variations? I accept the idea that the wildflowers surrounding me on Ring Mountain evolved to compete with each other for resources and pollinators, but that just moves the question laterally. Why are the pollinators so diverse, and why are their tastes — in nectar, color, pollen, approach — so varied? 

Plant diversity: Soap plant (Chlorogalum pomeridianum) taken in Solstice Canyon, Malibu, California by Betsey Crawford

Soap plant (Chlorogalum pomeridianum)

Though I’m delighted with the way things worked out, I can imagine an evolution that included less diversity. There are many more yellow flowers than purple, pink or red, implying that yellow has an evolutionary advantage. Why didn’t nature stick to yellow? Pollinators could have evolved to suit an all-yellow-flower world. It’s almost as if the creative forces just couldn’t help themselves. Wide petals! Strappy petals! What’s the oddest shape we can think of? Let’s fill California with orange poppies! Let’s surprise everyone and give luminous, silky flowers to tough, prickly cactus! Let’s perfume the roses!

It’s easy to understand why people for millennia would think all this has been put here for our benefit and joy. But those luminous cactus flowers were there for bees and hummingbirds, for the propagation of more cacti, not for human delight. The ancestors of the wind-blown wildflowers on Ring Mountain and the tiny, vivid spring orchids on Mount Tam were around for up to 100 million years before we cast our receptive eyes and processing brains on them and found them beautiful.

Plant diversity: Fairy slipper orchid (Calypso bulbosa) on Mount Tamalpais, Mill Valley, California by Betsey Crawford

Fairy slipper orchid (Calypso bulbosa)

Carl Sagan and Thomas Berry, among others, have postulated the appealing idea that the universe evolved humans to be able to contemplate itself through those eyes and brains. I love this idea, but I also find it hard to wrap my head around. What kind of a universe would this be?   Humans have long attributed consciousness to the cosmos, called by various names, all under the general category of gods. But our gods have always been a lot like us. The Hebrew bible says that humans were created in God’s image. But in reality, the often temperamental god depicted there shares a lot of traits with a warlord living in the Bronze Age, when the stories were first written.

I don’t attribute our brand of consciousness to the creative powers that brought us here with infinite slowness and incredibly elegant detail. But to say that we evolved so the universe can contemplate itself implies a mystery of intent that I struggle — happily — to fathom. Lately, I’ve been fascinated by a particular link between our mind and the universe. I find the idea that every rule governing the cosmos can be expressed — and predicted — by mathematical formulas both astonishing and hard to comprehend. But those who understand this language are filled with its beauty. It intrigues me that a cosmos bound by this intricate code eventually used it to evolve a brain capable of understanding it.

Plant diversity: Yellow mariposa lily (Calochortus luteus) growing in Old Saint HIlary's Preserve, in Tiburon, California by Betsey Crawford

Yellow mariposa lily (Calochortus luteus)

I love all of these questions, but when I’m standing on Ring Mountain — in the middle of a circle that includes ocean, mountain, desert, forest, meadow, rock, sky — I don’t think about math. I celebrate the gifts showering my senses — breeze, color, scent, birdsong. “The most beautiful and deepest experience one can have,” Albert Einstein said in My Credo, “is the sense of the mysterious.” How did I get here, one of millions of manifestations of the surrounding cosmos? Why did this wild abundance come into being?  How did we come to sense all these wonderful things? These delightful mysteries are part of the beauty and joy of this sunlit spring moment.

Plant diversity: Checker bloom (Sidalcea malvifolia) at Point Reyes National Seashore, California by Betsey Crawford

Checker bloom (Sidalcea malvifolia)

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Elegant, wild, mysterious: loving iris

Pacific coast iris (Iris douglasiana) along the Hoo-Koo-e-Koo Trail, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Pacific coast iris (Iris douglasiuna) along the Hoo-Koo-e-Koo Trail, Larkspur, California

I’m indiscriminate in my love for flowers. There are few that I don’t like, and many that I love. But there is something about my feeling for irises that sets them apart. Which is interesting, because I don’t find them to be the prettiest of flowers, or easy to deal with. As garden plants they are fleeting, leaving you with a mass of sword-shaped leaves to contend with for the rest of the season. They grow from horizontal rhizomes which need to be divided frequently to keep the flowers coming. Their color range is limited, often to whites and shades of purple, though bearded iris cultivars can be many shades of yellows, peaches and maroons.

Bicolor bearded iris growing in Manito Park, Spokane, Washington by Betsey Crawford

Bicolor bearded iris growing in Manito Park, Spokane, Washington

Unlike roses or peonies, which open slowly into luscious, inviting, petal-filled bowls, irises are architectural and, though beautiful and elegant, a bit stiff. They start as sword-shaped buds and then open so quickly that I watched last spring as the petals of one almost snapped into place. They are with us for a few days, and then start to fade. That swift passage and their rigid stems make them difficult cut flowers. As photography subjects they are frustrating. Their stiffness and multiple planes make them relatively unphotogenic. It’s hard to find good angles and close to impossible to get all of their ten, often moving parts into focus. 

And yet I love them. And I am far from alone in this love. For centuries, they have been one of the most popular garden flowers in Europe. Even in Linnaeus’ eighteenth century, gardeners had cultivated so many colors he named them after Iris, the Greek messenger goddess, who journeyed to earth on rainbows. The Japanese cultivated and painted them. Leonardo da Vinci, Vincent Van Gogh, and Claude Monet, among many others, painted them. Chinese brush painting has a calligraphy devoted to them. Georgia O’Keefe dove into their most intimate parts.  They are found in ancient Egyptian palaces as well as Greek frescoes dating from 2100 BCE.

Bearded iris growing in Manito Park, Spokane, Washington by Betsey Crawford

Bearded iris growing in Manito Park, Spokane, Washington

As with most flowers, I prefer the simpler, native forms, found in their native places, but the complex bearded cultivars bred for gardens are beautiful and fascinating, and make it easy to spy on the iris’ sex life. At the top of the hanging sepals, the falls, is a ‘beard’ of filaments, leading between the upright blades of the petals, or standards. This inviting doorway, often marked by vividly colored nectar guides, gives pollinating bees, plenty of room to land and a clearly marked way in. As they arrive, they brush against the stigma, the tiny, purple horizontal shelf above the beard. Here they deposit the pollen carried from the last flower, thus starting the fertilization process. Then, as they sip nectar, more pollen from the anther tucked under the stigma collects on their bodies. On leaving, they back out, under the stigma, so they don’t lose their new load of pollen. 

Pacific coast iris (Iris douglasiana) along the Hoo-Koo-e-Koo Trail, Larkspur, California by BetsyCrawford

Pacific coast iris (Iris douglasiana) along the Hoo-Koo-e-Koo Trail, Larkspur, California

The native irises are simpler, unbearded, smaller and finer textured than the garden varieties. The standards and falls are less opulent, as well as less colorful, being largely limited to pure white, cream, lavenders and purples. On the eastern end of Long Island, in New York, where I spent many years, the blue flag, Iris versicolor, was a rare and lovely sight. I was thus unprepared for my first spring on the Pacific coast. 

The central California natives, like Iris douglasiana and fernaldii, produce nectar for their long-tongued, pollen-laden bees in three tubes formed as the sepals and petals curve into the ovary. They can also be wind pollinated, with plenty of wind available. And they colonize open meadows and woods vegetatively, spreading via their rhizomes. 

Pacific coast iris (Iris douglasiuna) along the Hoo-Koo-e-Koo Trail, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Pacific coast iris (Iris douglasiana) along the Hoo-Koo-e-Koo Trail, Larkspur, California

All this reproductive vigor means that in March and April, the California coastal hills are an iris addict’s dreamscape. Though individual flowers last only five days, more keep coming, so that you can walk among them for weeks, depending on the places you go. The more they spread out their blooming, the more nectar the community produces to attract bees, and thus more seeds get fertilized. The staggered opening of flowers on one stem, and the pooling of nectar in the first flower to open, discourage bees from visiting more than one flower per stem, which means they take their pollen load to neighboring stems. This approach strengthens the colony by cross-pollination, and often creates hybrids by crossbreeding with neighboring species. 

Fernald's iris (Iris fernaldii) on Ring Mountain, Tiburon, California by Betsey Crawford

Fernald’s iris (Iris fernaldii) on Ring Mountain, Tiburon, California

Producing such large and intricate flowers creates an advantage in attracting and accommodating pollinators, but takes a lot of energy. To provide large stores of sugar to tuck in their rhizomes, the upright leaves catch the sun from all directions and are among the few that photosynthesize on both sides, rather than just the top. All this evolutionary intelligence means that iris have found homes on every continent, and almost every state and province in North America. Though native stands are threatened, as ever, by bulldozers and the loss of pollinating bees, the flower communities themselves are strong and resilient.

All of these details explain how the flowers grow and prosper, but they don’t explain irises, and therein lies the mystery. These evolutionary choices are themselves mysterious. Why upright petals? Why stiff stems? Why purple and not orange? Why attract bees and not flies? Those are all fascinating to ponder. Yet flowers, like the rest of us, are not their reproductive habits, their petals, their relationships to bees, their beauty, their extraordinary ability to turn pure light into sugar. They are voices of the great forces that have brought — and are still bringing — the whole cosmos into being. Their alluring beauty wasn’t designed for us; they preceded us by 130 million years. We, more likely, were designed for their benefit, with the right eyes and brains to perceive and love them.

Fernald's iris (Iris fernaldii) on King Mountain, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Fernald’s iris (Iris fernaldii) on King Mountain, Larkspur, California

Why would we evolve to love them? Is loving beauty part of the design, to keep us attached to life and the earth we arose from? Is it part of the earth’s ability to protect herself? In the last week, President Obama added 6,230 acres of land to the California Coastal National Monument. There is science in these decisions, relating to issues like marine and coastal health. There are considerations of the public good, the environmental benefit, the preservations of natural treasures.

But it’s not abstract theory that inspires us to preserve the beauty of the world. It’s the utter gorgeousness of the planet itself that drives people to say, don’t bulldoze this, don’t make this a parking lot, don’t drill an oil well here. We have certainly not paid enough attention, and have let go of enough treasure to break our hearts anew every day. We need plenty of theories to even partially mitigate our losses. But, in the end, the impulse to preserve the coast wasn’t supplied by ideas, but by standing on the bluffs with the wind off the sea, the waves crashing below, knee deep in irises, deeply in love.

Pacific coast iris (Iris douglasiana) on Ring Mountain, Tiburon, California by Betsey Crawford

Pacific coast iris (Iris douglasiana) on Ring Mountain, Tiburon, California

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