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Apples – there are 7,500 varieties in an assortment of colors and tastes and textures. They are standard fruits in our stores and enter figuratively into our literature and culture. Thor and the other Asgardian gods relied on apples. They have been found in prehistoric graves and in the middens of bronze age settlements. The Greeks, Romans and Egyptians were all early cultivators. The Tudors had apple cultivators in their royal orchards.

What is the apple’s origin? Some might guess that they emerged from some Garden of Eden. Most scholars of the Bible agree that “apple” is a translation and other fruits or even just the generic “fruit” is closer to the original meaning. Very few people would say the origin is in Kazakhstan.

The plant is Malus sieversii. It is a wild apple, of which there are few left in the world. Kazakhstan is still pretty undeveloped but new development now threatens these wild apples with possible extinction. Not only building, but using the tree’s wood for that building is a threat.

 

The Turkish word for apple is “alma” and the fruit is strong in their culture. One of their biggest cities is named Almaty, and you will find apples abundant in their grocery stores and at roadside stands.

The range for  M. sieversii is sometimes known as an “Eden of Apples” and covers Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan,  Uzbekhistan (former Soviet republics) and a narrow area of China. Wild apples evolved in the “Fruit Forest” that once was a vast tract of land covering nearly all of what is now Eastern Europe and into Asia.

These wild apples, like most heirloom fruits and vegetables, aren’t what Americans want and find in their supermarkets. One clear difference. They are small, unlike the ones we tend to buy that have been bred to be big. In Turkish stores, they are sold fresh and often have leaves intact on their stems.

Traditionally, apples were used fresh, preserved and used for cider, and the “windfalls” (those that fall and are not eaten by humans) are common feed for pigs.

 

M. sierversii along with  M. sylvestris, another variety that is not very tasty and rarely eaten by anyone but deer, are probably the two varieties that started things off. More than 3,000 years ago, the European crab apple and the wild Kazakh apple were crossbred and led to the many varieties we know today.

 

 

A dictionary might say that to observe is to notice or perceive something, and register it as being significant. It’s that second half that makes observation more than just seeing.

I try to be observant. I try to pay attention to nature and to what is happening in the sky above. “Observations” and “Celestial Observations” are categories on this site.

One way I do that is to participate in the National Phenology Network. One thing they developed is Nature’s Notebook, a project focused on collecting standardized ground observations by researchers, students and just plain old volunteers like myself.

Phenology refers to key seasonal changes in plants and animals from year to year. That means flowering, emergence of insects and the migration of birds or mammals with a particular interest in their timing and relationship with weather and climate.

I was drawn to this because of the idea of things like observing the migration of birds and how the timing relates with weather and climate.

This year the Network had 2 million records submitted.

I don’t live in a wildlife paradise, but there is a surprising amount of plant life and wildlife in almost any neighborhood. In my home area, observing a bobcat is possible but unusual. Observing the budding and blooms on rhododendrons is easy.

As a citizen scientist, observing the rare or the common is important.

bobcat-lynx_rufususda-cc3

Photo: Terry Spivey, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org. Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License

rhododendron_maximumcc4

Photo: © Ben Carter via iNaturalist.org. Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0) License

With plants, you observe the same individual plants each time you visit your observation site, which could be your neighborhood or a nearby woods. For example, you could observe the same red maple in your backyard all through the year.

With animals, you create a checklist of animal species and look for all of them each time you visit your site. For example, if your checklist has robins, wood frogs, and tent caterpillars on it, you should record whether or not you see or hear those species anywhere in your site each time you visit.

You can choose one or more species from the Network’s list of plant and animal species. For plants, they would like you to select at least one plant campaign species. For animals, they recommend that you select several species that occur in your local area or in your state.

It is not difficult. It will help tune you in to the world around you and share it in a useful way to a larger effort.

crocus

The crocuses bloomed three weeks earlier this year in Paradelle.

Things are blooming in Paradelle, so I have started recording them in my garden notebook. Have you noticed any changes in when things sprout or bloom in your neighborhood? Maybe flowers tend to bloom a little earlier in the year or birds that used to migrate are hanging around your yard through the winter?

In some ways my garden notebook is a nature notebook as I find myself also recording first and last frosts, snow storms, the appearances of birds, insects and wildlife. Some of those things I report here, both seriously and also as a kind of weather lore. My posts about predicting the weather based on signs in nature seem to get a lot of hits, so I am not alone in my interest, scientific or not.

Most people have never heard of phenology. but if you have ever paid attention to the timing of natural events, like blooming flowers and migrating animals, you have been practicing this -ology. Phenology is the study of the timing of recurring plant and animal life cycle events.

If you want to make those observation to be more “official,” you can become a citizen scientist by connecting with groups like Nature’s Notebook. It  is an online project sponsored by the USA National Phenology Network. Americans can practice phenology in their own habitat and share their observations with other members and have their data shared with scientists who will use the data for research and decision-making.

It saddens me how disconnected people are to the natural world of plants, animals, the earth and sky. s a lifelong teacher, it really saddens me to see how disconnected kids become as they get older. The interest is always there in very young children, so it is something that is lost.

We may not all be as observant as Sara Schaffer of Nature’s Notebook who suggests that we notice the “slightest blush on a maple leaf that foreshadows the coming fall” or the “new, more vibrant feathers warblers put on days before mating.”

robin-pixabayDo you see the appearance of the first robin on your lawn as a sign that spring has arrived? I grew up hearing and believing that. But I have observed and recorded robins every winter. Once I saw four of them sitting on my fence in a February snowstorm. Robins as indicators of spring is a good example of weather lore.

Most robins do migrate south, but some are probably still around your neighborhood all winter – no doubt better protected in the woods than on your bare lawn. The robins that do migrate to the South in the fall, return in the spring, so then we see many more of them on that soggy lawn and field in search of food.

Geese flying south in Paradelle is a daily occurrence. They fly from the reservoir south to a pond. They never migrate and leave any more. What does that indicate? Perhaps some of it is climate change, but it is also the prime water and grass we provide them in parks, golf courses, school fields and corporate settings. Why leave?

Though thinking a captive groundhog can predict the end of winter is certainly weather lore, paying attention to events like true bird migrations can help us understand long-term trends and predict future events. That is why many observers may be reporting small changes that can help more accurately predict the long-term impacts of climate change and shorter-term events in the near future.

And observing when the smell of smoke from fireplaces changes to the smell of barbecue smoke is a definite indicator of suburban seasonal change!

Plant Phenology Icons

I was looking at this very heavy textbook on phenology that I can’t imagine any of you opening up to read. I’m not going to get to read it through either,  but I find the subject fascinating and there is plenty of information online to keep me busy.

It always makes me sad that we are not the observers of nature that people were in earlier centuries. People paid much closer attention to the world around them and how the plants were changing with the seasons and what phase the Moon was in what the animals and insects were up to. And a long time before we had a scientific name for it, people recorded signs of the seasonal changes.

Today we call this phenology – the study of seasonal change as reflected in plant and animal life. (Not to be confused with the phrenology – a definitely fringe study from the Victorian era when doctors believed they could tell everything about a person from mapping out the bumps and oddities of the human skull.)

Phenology is the study of plant and animal life cycle events, which are triggered by environmental changes, especially temperature.

You would note the first openings of leaf and flower buds, insect hatchings (fly fisherman do some of this) and the return or departure of birds and insects.

I think that this has become a bit more popular the past few decades as the they might be seen as indicators of the impact of local and global changes in weather and climate on the earth’s biosphere.

The father of modern phenology is Englishman Robert Marsham who began recording signs from nature in 1736 and continued for 62 years. The word is derived from the Greek phainō, “to show, to bring to light, make to appear” and logos for “the study of.”

I do my own amateur phenology because I am a gardener and because I enjoy being out in nature and keep my own little field guides and calendars of my little local biosphere. I record the emergence of leaves and flowers, the first flight of butterflies and the first appearance of certain migratory birds.

Spring is a time full of these events. I also record when I start my vegetable seeds, set the plants out and harvest the first crop. Of course, those dates are somewhat in my control and not phenology. But I start those seeds and set out those plants based on my observations from past years of frosts and the appearances of other plants and flowers in my area.

I read that viticultural records of grape harvests in Europe have been used to reconstruct a record of summer growing season temperatures going back more than 500 years.

Some of what I learned growing up might border on folk wisdom, but seem to hold true. Dandelions in full bloom means it is time to plant potatoes. My father told me we could plant peas on St. Patrick’s Day if the soil wasn’t muddy, but I got burned on that a few times. Safer to wait for the full flowering of forsythia to put the peas into the ground.

Frost dates are the usual way to go on planting, but those dates don’t change very often in books and guideseven though they vary quite a bit in my little local records.

Chicory-FlowerObserving insects is a bit harder, but sometimes that mixes with the plants.

If you have the pretty blue wild chicory blooms nearby in summer, it is time for squash vine borers who just love to attack unprotected squash and pumpkins.

Insects are often used as weather predictors. You probably have heard some version of observing insects flying lower to the ground before a storm, or that insects can sense the onset of very wet weather. They will be observed in monsoon and rainy areas invading buildings for shelter before a storm. Some ants will pile up dirt around the entrance to their underground homes to keep out water.

Phenology has gone from being a fringe science to a real way of understanding climate change. It also a citizen scientist activity and there are lots of websites that allow you to record your garden, bird and insect observations into a database which gives scientists a huge amount of data to work with.  Project Bud Burst in the U.S. and Nature’s Calendar in the U.K> are two examples. In the US, you can also participate in the reporting program conducted by the National Phenology Network.  There is the University of Berlin’s International Phenological Gardens that collate observations from 89 gardens in 19 European countries.  And Earthwatch programs in Australia and other countries will increase the database.

A term that I picked up in my reading is “season creep.” People are observing birds laying their eggs earlier and buds appearing on some trees much earlier.  Northern hardwood forests have been leafing out sooner and retaining their green canopies longer and the agricultural growing season has also expanded by 10–20 days over the last few decades.

Does this prove climate change or global warming. Probably not. The Earth goes through long cycles and we are probably on a warming trend now. The many droughts and violent storms are also indicators. Of course, the climate change argument really centers on whether or not it is man’s activities that have caused this change or is it just nature. I side with the blame people side on this because the changes seem to be progressing unnaturally fast.

All that Big Science on temperature, moisture, and changing sea levels is important. But, I am really “thinking globally, acting locally” with my calendar and journal and more interested in getting people to reconnect to plants and animals. My posts on the Full Moons and even those on weather lore are really just part of that idea of observing the place where you live.

Weather is a popular subject in folklore. Historically this comes from the very real need for farmers and sailors to be able to predict the waether to come. The folklore is based in observations not science, though sometimes science does confirm some of those observations.

Ash before oak the summer is all a soak, oak before ash the summer is but a splash.

Translation: This refers to the spring budding season. If an ash tree shows buds before the oak shows budding, then the summer will be a wet season. If the oak buds before the ash tree, then the summer will be drier.

Science tells us that the timings of the first buds to break are actually dependent on the spring temperatures. Generally oak buds first, so the proverb is not very accurate in predicting summer rainfall.

It’s an herb. It’s much sweeter than sugar. It’s almost calorie-free. It does not cause the after-eating spike in blood sugar that aggravates diabetes.

Wait. There’s more.

It’s  actually good for you.

It reduces blood sugar and blood pressure, and boosts immune function. It’s safer than other artificial sweeteners.

And you can  grow it yourself. (see below)

It’s stevia (Stevia rebaudiana).

Stevia had to go through a long U.S. regulatory review, but you can find it now in products.

I have a gardener’s interest in herbs and  natural healing. As with many herbs, Americans are late to the game in using stevia. It is actually native to Paraguay and Brazil. There, the Guarani Indians called it kaa-he-e, meaning sweet herb, or honey leaf.

stevia-packsPart of the delay in getting approval in the U.S. to use stevia as a food additive was a complaint to FDA that tried to link it to cancer and genetic mutations. Those charges turned out to be  false, and some suspect that the whole thing was a plot (conspiracy theorists enter here) to protect the lucrative, existing artificial sweeteners (Sweet ‘N Low (saccharine), NutraSweet (aspartame) and Sunette (acesulfame K).

It was banned until 1994, though you could buy it as a “supplement” in health food stores.

Last year, the FDA  ruling was reversed and 2 stevia sweeteners have been approved as food additives (SweetLeaf and Truvia).

Beyond using it as a sweetener, studies show that it has other natural healing effects. According to Mother Earth News:

1. Researchers in Taiwan gave 106 people with high blood pressure, ages 28 to 75, either a placebo or stevia extract (250 milligrams three times a day). After three months, blood pressure in the stevia group dropped significantly, with no side effects.

2. Other Taiwan scientists gave 168 adults with high blood pressure, average age 52, either a placebo or stevioside (500 milligrams three times a day). After one week, the stevia group showed lower blood pressure, and it remained low for the two years the study lasted.

3. Danish researchers gave a dozen type-2 diabetics a test meal plus a placebo or stevioside (1 gram). Thirty minutes later, the stevioside group had significantly lower blood sugar. The researchers said stevia may be “advantageous in the treatment of type-2 diabetes.”

4.  Indian researchers have discovered that stevia is rich in antioxidants, which means that it should help prevent the nation’s three top killers: heart disease, cancer and stroke. Indeed, a Chinese animal study shows that a compound in stevia, isosteviol, helps prevent brain damage from stroke.

5. An Indian animal study shows that stevia boosts immune function, particularly the ability of white blood cells to devour invading germs.

Stevia-seedlingsAmerican gardeners can grow stevia. Down South it would be treated as perennial that would need to be replaced every few years, and in other parts of the country it’s treated as an annual that would be planted in the spring after the last frost as with many vegetables and flowers.

There are amazingly 280 species of stevia that grow throughout North and South America. But only Stevia rebaudiana, is sweet.

Most people buy plants because he seeds are difficult to germinate for a home gardener.  They look similar to mints. Space them a foot apart, mulch, water once or twice a week and treat them as you would most of your vegetables. It can also be gown in containers.

The plant grows to 3 feet. You harvest the leaves as flowering begins around in midsummer to late fall when the sweetness peaks.  The leaves right off the plant are 15 times sweeter than table sugar. You can also dry and powder the one inch leaves and use them as you would use sugar.

A muffin and cookie recipe using stevia

Stevia seeds

Stevia Rebaudiana : Natures Sweet Secret

The Green Pharmacy: New Discoveries in Herbal Remedies for Common Diseases and Conditions from the World’s Foremost Authority on Healing Herbs

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All around I fear that Jonathan's (and most modern) satire is lost in a world that is itself a satire. The corporation side. All fall down The chenille is blooming its odd flowers again. It's August in NJ.

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