Tag Archive | science

Thoughts and geekery about autumn

I have two favourite times of year here in Los Angeles, spring and fall. And yes. L.A. has both spring and fall. Spring is easier to see since California has more varieties of wildflowers than any other place on earth. Partly because we have more varied ecosystems and partly, well, no one really knows why and it can give a budding botanist a headache. The key guide for California plants will always be the Munz and mine is well thumbed and has way too many leaves stuck in it. If you have to have one, here it is but be warned it’s all keys and few pictures. You want pictures get a Sunset Western Garden Book or an Audubon Plant guide. http://www.amazon.com/Flora-Southern-California-Philip-Munz/dp/0520021460

But my other favourite season is now, autumn or fall. And contrary to non-native belief, it isn’t all brown. We do have colour. Some of the colour is from non-native species but others are from natives. Fall/Autumn also involves one of my favourite English words – abscission. What is Abscission? Abscission is why leaves change colour. Abscission is the process that makes leaves separate and fall from the trees. Trees form what is called the abscission layer between the leaf and the tree. Deciduous trees do this seasonally. Evergreens and conifers do it all the time and isn’t as noticeable

The layer forms at the base of the petiole. A petiole is a fancy word for stem of the leaf. Leaves turn colour as the chlorophyll recedes from the leaf back into the tree. (well, they don’t really turn colour, the green fades away.) Some plants do this chemically or functionally such as the light changing as the day gets shorter or the temperature changes or changes in salinity and some do it hormonally with hormones like ethylene and auxin. Either way, it activates the abscission layer and says “Hey! Time to give a show and drop your leaves!”

Interesting fact: Trees that turn yellow are trees that are found in open areas and trees that turn red are trees that have a longer time to send nutrients back to the tree and need more protection from the sun. The red is called anthrocyanin and it is a sunscreen to protect the leaf just long enough to send more food back to the trunk. Warm sunny days followed by cold nights bring the brightest reds out of the red turning trees, according to the US Forest Service.

The yellow is caused by carotene. The same thing that makes carrots, orange and is what’s left when the chlorophyll is gone.

In California, we have mostly trees that turn yellow that are native like alders and cottonwoods. But in the city you find whole streets of liquid amber trees that are specifically bred to change to certain colours. If you buy one in a nursery you can choose a burgundy or a scarlet “Palo Alto” or yellows and oranges. It’s a lovely sight to see whole streets lit up in fall. It’s native in the Americas and was introduced to Europe in 1681 where they call is Sweet Gum. I’ve never heard anyone call it that here.

So now you know why the leaves change and fall and you know one of my favourite words – abscission, and what it is.

Musing on gender restrictions and not being restricted – Throwback Thursday


These were some of my favourite books as a kid. I had almost all of them and I’m very grateful that not one of my family ever told me girls couldn’t do science. So I did. The best present I got for the Christmas when I was 6 was my Lionel microscope. I loved that thing. I had to inspect everything. The same year mom enrolled me in summer science classes up at Descanso Gardens where we spent many happy hours watching birds on the lake, walking around the gardens, observing water life under their microscopes. The only bad memory I have was of having to be slave labour when someone decided that the iris beds needed to be divided and the iris beds were immense. I still don’t like bearded irises. It took days to do it and it was horrid and hot.


We also went on trips to the Arboretum and the Natural History Museum and as I’ve said before the Museum of Science and Industry. Dad took me whale watching, I have no idea why my brother didn’t come but I got to be with my dad. He took us to Cabrillo Marine Museum and the Southwest Indian Museum. He took us to Scripps Oceanographic Institute. We went prowling through the backyard and spent hours outside all summer long making volcanoes and hanging out in Cam’s tree house or in the garden or under the redwood or in the bamboo grove. We walked to the park to hike all over the mountains behind our house. Following streams and chasing lizards and horned toads. We spent spring capturing tadpoles and watching them grow in the fishbowl in the dining room where mom could keep an eye on us.

We had to go to summer school when we got older. Dad was a 6th grade teacher and he said kids lost too much over the summer so between that and frequent excursions to the library every week, I don’t think we lost a thing over the summer. I wasn’t allowed to join the kid’s reading clubs because I read too much and the librarians thought it wasn’t fair to the other kids because I was reading in the adult section by the time I was 10. I was still reading every Danny Dunn (http://www.amazon.com/Danny-Dunn-Homework-Machine-williams/dp/0590468901/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1428012196&sr=1-1&keywords=danny+dunn) book as they came out and anything about the Mad Scientist Club which I loved, loved loved, (http://www.amazon.com/The-Mad-Scientists-Club-Scientist/dp/1930900538)

I also read every one of the Childhood of Famous Americans series that were in print when I was a kid, now there are a lot more.

And no one ever told me, not once that I couldn’t do something I was interested in until I was in high school when I wanted to be an archeologist and had already taken 4 years of Latin when a woman archeologist from UCLA told me unless I was rich, not to bother. I kept going for awhile but eventually quit college burned out and broken hearted until I went back 10 years later to get my degree as a Naturalist.

So I really don’t understand the emphasis on gender and science, have we socialized little girls so completely that they are more dependent on male opinion than a little girl in the 1950’s and 60’s? It’s why I don’t think there is any such thing as “laydee brain” it’s all socialization. Or was I just lucky that my parents were gender blind or had given up trying to socialize me into being girly? Goddess knows mom wanted a girly girl and never got it. My sister and I were the least girly girls you could ever find.

The only really big battle I can remember was over having to wear a shirt in summer. I ran around topless like my brother until I was around 8 and he was 6 or 7. And one day mom told me I had to grow up and put a shirt on and I wouldn’t because Cam didn’t have to so I wouldn’t. The only way she got me to put a shirt on was to make Cam wear one because there was no way I was wearing one if he didn’t. So she made him wear a shirt. And boy was he mad but as far as I was concerned I had won.


So It never occurred to me that I couldn’t do anything scientific that I was interested in doing. It also explains having way too many minors because my magpie brain took anything I was interested in AND anything I had to take as a Naturalist so I took classes in biology, ecology, ornithology, astronomy, botany, horticulture, anthropology, geomorphology, (that one pissed off the professor when I told him I was taking it for fun), and tons of photography, art and history and art history. I ended up having way more credits than I needed to graduate but I loved learning all kinds of cool stuff.

Unfortunately, this has infuriated people ever since because I get “how do you know that?” which  leads to people being mad when they go look up something I’ve said up and I’m right and pointing out sometimes where Wikipedia is wrong. But it also  explains the fact that my coven is mostly scientists and the fact that one of the reasons I rarely hang out with Dianic witches is that they often are anti-science and militant about the fact that they know nothing about how science works including how seasons and the planets cause the Wheel of the Year. And why our equinoxes and solstices over the years have often featured a globe circling the sun as part of the ritual.

So I thank my parents and grandparents for raising me to do what I wanted and was interested in and not what society thought I should do.