Al Stahler: Time off at Bridgeport
It’s no accident that flowers are show-offs – they’ve evolved to make themselves noticed. Not that they care about humans noticing them … they want to be noticed by birds, bees, beetles, bats … critters will carry male pollen to a female flower, so they can make babies.
Different critters are attracted by different lures. Beetles love strong, fruity smells … roses evolved to attract beetles. But the aroma only alerts the critter that a flower’s nearby. The real lure for the animal is food – sugar-rich nectar – a reward for visiting the flower … for picking up pollen from the male part of the flower … delivering that pollen to the female part of another flower.
Butterflies don’t need an aroma to alert then to a flower – flying by day, they look for color. But color is not very useful to night-flying moths (from which butterflies evolved). Moths sniff the air (which is why their antennae are “hairier” than the antennae of butterflies – antennae are their “noses”).
Inside the flower, a fruit develops. The fruit is a container – a vessel- for holding seeds.
The prefix “angio-” comes from the Greek word for “vessel”; if the vessel is tubular, and conducts fluid, the prefix can refer to our circulatory system; but “angio-” can also refer to a container-type vessel – a fruit.
“Sperm” means seed. Flowering, fruit-forming plants are angiosperms.
I visited the state park at Bridgeport last week. This is a good time to go – flowers are blooming. But there’s more to the park than just flowering angiosperms.
Pine trees do not bear flowers … nor, therefore, do they bear fruits.
Rather than flowers and fruits, pines bear strobili – male and female cones. Without a fruit to hold their seeds, pines set their seeds on the scales of cones, with nothing surrounding the seed.
Among the Greeks, a couple thousand years ago, indoor exercise was the province only of men. Since there were no women in the building, there was no need for the men to wear clothes. Such buildings came to be called gymnasiums … from the Greek word “gymnos”, meaning “naked.” (Times change, fortunately. Now both sexes can work out in the gym).
Pines do not put their seeds into a vessel – the seeds are borne on the scales of the cone … naked. Pines are gymnosperms.
Over millions of years, pollinators – be they bugs, bats or birds – have learned what to look/smell/taste for, to know they’re in the right place, to get their nectar reward, for transporting its pollen. Which makes plants conservative – super-conservative – about their flowers. Even though it’s been millions of years since today’s garden peas and beans shared an ancestor with the redbud – a tree now blooming at Bridgeport – the flowers of both beans and redbud look pretty much the same – putting them both into the pea family. (The lowest part of the pea flower – the “keel” – provides a landing pad for an insect looking for nectar. When the insect lands, its weight forces the keel open. Spring-loaded stamens (the male parts of the flower) slap pollen onto the bug’s back. The pollen will stick to pistils (female parts) of flowers it visits later.).
Such conservatism allows us to group flowering plants into families. The roses in our gardens – with gazillions of petals – originated from the wild rose, with a much simpler flower: Just five petals, surrounding a large clump of (male, pollen-bearing) stamens, in turn surrounding a clump of (female) pistils.
Having described the flower of the wild rose, I’ve also described an apple blossom – five petals, lots of stamens surrounding a bunch of pistils. Apples are in the rose family … they’re roses … as are peaches, pears, plums, apricots, almonds, cherries, strawberries, raspberries, hawthorne and kit-kit-dizze (“mountain misery”). All bear the same flower (their fruits, obviously, have not been held to quite the same conservatism).
At an elevation of around 600 feet (the bridge itself is just under that), Bridgeport hosts a lot of plants familiar to those of us living higher in the foothills … and a number of plants that are not. Some plants to look for:
Blue oak, with a small, bluish-green leaf, now leafing-out.
Male strobili grow on the lower part of the gray pine, preparing to release pollen (female strobili grow in the upper parts of the tree, where they are less likely to be dusted by pollen from their own tree. Right now they’re tiny, but they will grow into large cones. Don’t confuse the male strobili, on the lower part of the tree, with female strobili, growing much farther up).
A vine to watch for is wild cucumber. The fruit, later this summer, will be round and spiny. While this is a true member of the cucumber family, to quote the Redbud Wildflower guide: “The fruit is not edible!”
Fiddleneck has small, orange flowers; the ends of some of the stems are shaped as the name implies.
Dudleya, now blooming, is a native succulent.
California poppies (the state flower).
Red maids, just a few inches high.
For some reason, plants in the mustard family create decorative fruits. Here in the upper foothills, shepherd’s purse is blooming; at Bridgeport, lace pod bears small, flat fruits, decorated with holes around their edge.
A plant that is not yet blooming, but easy – and worth learning – to recognize: Shiny green leaves, touched with red, in clusters of three: poison oak.
Back to the Greeks: Achilles was a warrior of mythological times. His mom was a sea nymph – a goddess – and was therefore immortal. But his dad was a mortal, and therefore Achilles, too, was mortal.
In an attempt to allow Achilles to live forever, his mom brewed up an herbal broth, and dipped her baby into it. It worked – Achilles could not be slain. But as she dipped her kid into the brew, she held him by his heel … and his heel did not get dipped. Years later, Achilles was slain by an arrow – a poisoned arrow – shot into his heel.
An herb very closely related to the European herb in which Achilles was dipped grows here, and all over the foothills. It is not yet blooming, but its ferny, several-inches-long leaves are easy to recognize. The plant is yarrow – rub it gently, and smell your fingers – a very pleasant aroma.
Please do not pick the flowers (many can be found growing outside the park, if you want some for pressing).
This is a place to take one’s time … to walk, to breathe, to get away.
Al Stahler enjoys sharing science and nature with friends and neighbors in The Union and on KVMR-FM. He teaches classes for both kids and grown-ups, and can be reached at email@example.com.
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We can live a month or two without food … a couple of days without water … but just a few minutes without oxygen … like a fire, we die without oxygen.