Monday, November 17, 2014

Wild Berries and Pineapple Guavas - A Meditation

     When Boyce Thompson founded the Arboretum way back in the days before penicillin and Starbucks, it was with the idea that arid plants should be studied for their value to humans. With that in mind, I have generously undertaken the odious task of sampling various plants around the park to better “understand” their edibility. It’s a difficult job, full of possible danger and woe, but as you might expect from someone who used to listen to Jimi Hendrix at full volume on Klipsch speakers, I am comfortable with danger. I want to share this information with you, dear reader, regardless of the consequences. (And, no, I don’t expect a Nobel Prize for Grazing – if they had one – but would feel a tad thankful if you would submit my name anyway because the prize money could pay for a longer ladder to better pick the ripest fruit.) 

     Here at the BTA there are common plants such as prickly pear cacti, olive trees, carob trees, cattails, and roses that can provide you with delectable comestibles. (Never had rose petal jelly? Steep two quarts of fragrant pink – not red – petals in hot water and then add pectin and sugar.) But there are also less common plants with more exotic flavors such as Texas persimmon, hackberry, wolfberry, and pindo palm.

     It's completely irresponsible for me to say this and there are lawyers who would advise against it (thus the subtle qualifiers), but it is fairly safe to taste (not eat) almost anything in small quantities except for water hemlock, death camas, Albert Camus, and certain mushrooms of the Amanita and Galerina families. Those red berries on the pyracantha? Perfectly edible, but the seeds are, like apple seeds, apparently toxic. Myrtle berries? Not really that tasty but they won’t kill you. Manzanita berries? Now, they are very good to eat. A freshly picked olive is unbelievably bitter until it is “cured” by either salt or poisonous lye. I guess what I’m intimating here is that, in general, people are unreasonably horrified by the idea of tasting unknown wild fruit, just as they are unreasonably horrified by spiders, mice, snakes, clowns, and folks from foreign countries.  However, with a little knowledge and curiosity, the world can be your oyster and - who knows? - maybe you can get a pearl out of the deal. (Then again, when it comes to oysters, there’s also a chance of getting vibriosis. That’s the problem with using metaphors - taken too far, they become unrestrained.) 

     Let’s now move on to the topic at hand – the pineapple guava - which is, confoundingly, neither a pineapple nor a guava. (Pineapples, also misnamed, are neither pines nor apples, so go figure.)  The pineapple guava could have just as ridiculously been called a “crocodile pumpkin”, but no, it’s a pineapple guava and the binomial name is Acca sellowiana.  This plant is in the myrtle family.
     The pineapple guava is either a small tree or a large shrub depending on whether you are a “glass half full or glass half empty” kind of person. It originates in South America which is, to my understanding, where piranhas and llamas live. In the spring, this large shrub-like small tree produces some exotically beautiful blooms that look vaguely like passion flowers. The succulent red and white petals are a sweet delicacy and add nicely to salads provided you eat salad and not just meat and potatoes. So, in the spring, by all means, eat some of the flower petals, taking care not to destroy the flowers entirely in your gluttonous rage because, ultimately, you want them to turn into fruit. In the fall, the fruit develops into something similar in appearance to small green eggs. Since the fruit is green, it is hard to tell by sight when it is ripe. A sure way to get ripe fruit is to lightly shake the limb. What falls to the ground is ready to eat. It is advised not to pick the fruit as it may not yet be ripe. Collect the freshly fallen fruit, cut them in half, and scoop out and eat the pulpy middle (leaving only the skin to compost).  You can eat it “as is” or cook it into a jam of some sort. Pineapple guava has a slightly citrusy taste and mealy texture. It’s good but it’s not “mortgage the house and start a pineapple guava farm” good. Would I cross the street to have one? Well, if Selma Hayek (dressed as Frida Kahlo) were handing them out for free then, yes, yes I would. 


Thursday, November 13, 2014

QR Code Access. Find us on Social Media!

If you have been here recently you may have noticed a few small signs with a funky looking waffle-thing on them. Many will know what these are right away. It is the ever so common Quick Response (QR) Code. In conjunction with a smartphone one may scan a QR Code using a QR Code reading app to access the website the QR Code leads to. To put this all in simple terms, a QR Code is like a website link you can click in real life! – with your phone.  

What’s great is that whether or not you own a smartphone, this concept illustrates a very important idea.  Visitors have been able to discover our media along the trails through these QR code signs. However, a related response may be observed in social media itself, and that involves you! Whenever you comment, like, or especially share anything we post, it is much like putting a little sign up for your friends to find us through. This helps the Arboretum grow as it increases our potential to share what we have in order to spread a greater appreciation of nature on the web. If you are yet to discover our vast online presence feel free to click the links provided below. We would love to have you. :)

FB, Twitter, YoutubeInstagramFlickrOfficial Website 

Question of the week: Is Technology integrating with Nature a bad thing? Comment below!

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Arboretum featured in video production

As I write this on a crisp morning in early November it’s still dark, and a blanket is draped across my bare legs to temper the chill of the 69 degree temperature inside my house. Had this been mid-summer, I would have been more than half way through a four-mile run. The sun would just be peeking over the mountains, and I would feel the extra degrees of heat immediately, as if a switch had been thrown. The usual dogs would bark from behind the usual fences—fresh from their morning constitutionals— and I’d pull the brim of my hat down till it almost touched my nose to block the sun.

This past July, a film from Arizona Public Media came a-calling. They didn’t just show up, mind you; this had been prearranged for about a week. They are based out of Tucson at the local PBS affiliate, and even though they left the station at 5 am, they weren’t finished unloading their cameras, tripods, and other equipment in the Arboretum parking lot until well after 7:30. I could already feel the heat of the asphalt parking lot through my shoes.  

“Does everyone have water? ” I asked. Tony, the producer, said that he drank a lot on the way here. The videographer and still camera person let the question kind of bounce off of them, too distracted with readying their equipment to think about dehydration and potential kidney failure.  They were from Tucson, after all, which is the same elevation as the Arboretum, so they certainly knew what they were getting themselves into. We finished loading up the golf cart that I had waiting and headed down into the Arboretum.

Earlier in the week, Tony had sent me an example of another video that he had produced so that I had an idea of the style of production that he had planned. He wanted to identify a small handful of Arboretum highlights and focus on those. I was acting as the field producer, of sorts, and tasked with identifying these locations and chauffeuring the crew to them. Because the videos he produces don't use a separate narrator, he wanted to interview several BTA staff members on camera and let their voices tell the story.

Ready to fill that role was Cathy Babcock, Director of Horticulture, and the first two hours of the morning was spent interviewing her about the diversity of plants in Boojum Cove and the Chihuahuan Desert exhibit. Director Mark Siegwarth was next and he took on Arboretum history and administration, his shots appropriately staged on the suspension bridge with a commanding view of Picket Post House. 

As compellingly charismatic as our staff is on camera, the crew had to break away here and there--including a few extra hours at the end--to capture what is called B-roll, a jargonish term for the backround footage that's always needed in any production. In our case, it was comprised of the flowers, plants, exhibits, and scenery that would be blended together with the prerecorded interviews of the “talent” (Mark and Cathy) during the editing process back at the studio in Tucson.

What about the heat factor? By ten o’clock, the day had warmed as expected—with the concomitant human suffering—and one of our supporting staff had already made a cold drink run to the Gift Shop to bring everyone’s core temperature down to a survivable level. At least one other hydration halt was required not long after that.  Later, during the b-roll phase of the production at mid-day, the primary video camera even shut down from the persistent full sun and heat and required some down time in the shade to get it to restart.  Such are the effects of the summer we all know and love.

All of this back story is really just to introduce the final product: a video that was shown on local public television stations in both Tucson and Phoenix in mid-October, then posted online. Several hours of video footage and hundreds of still photos were edited down into a succinct and entertaining 5:46 minutes. The video also included some archival black and white photos from the 1920s that we later sent to them. They "photoshopped" many of these to give them a unique three-dimensional effect, a time-intensive technique that I've never seen done before in a local production. For the film crew, it was a ten-hour day of filming and travel, plus untold hours of editing and post production back in Tucson. Many thanks go out to the crew for their time and effort, and to Arizona Public Media for featuring the Arboretum in this production. 

Kim Stone

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Better Than a Zoo

New visitors to Boyce Thompson Arboretum are often surprised at how “wild” our park can be. Besides over 2000 species of plants growing here, we are also surrounded by the wide open desert. On a normal day you can see a snake under a tree or a deer on a hill or butterflies flitting around flowers.  Just last week, a visitor saw a coatimundi traipsing along the rocks near the High Trail. Coyotes, bobcats, fox (pictured), and bighorn sheep also make occasional appearances here. And, as many of you know, the numbers of birds that pass through the Arboretum attract birdwatchers from around the world. (Nearly 300 species of birds have been sighted here over the years!) Too, a wide array of reptiles and insects make the park their home. It’s as if the entire fauna of the Sonoran Desert has been distilled through this narrow band along Picketpost Mountain and, in a way, it has.
There are three main reasons for the lively diversity of animal life you find at the Arboretum:
First we are a riparian area – our land bisected by Queen Creek, which has water in it much of the year. That’s why we have a canyon naturally lush with cottonwood and velvet ash trees. (In local canyons you will also find sycamores, Arizona walnuts, and, once in a while, catalpa trees and mulberry.)
The second reason is because we are located in a transition zone between high and low desert. We sit right above the Phoenix valley and below the Pinal Mountain highlands. Here we have native jojoba and saguaro cacti. But just five mile east, above the sleepy town of Superior, you will find yourself in manzanita and pinyon pine country.
And, finally, even though we have been in a drought these last few years, this portion of Arizona averages around 17” of rain annually. Compare that with Tucson’s 12” and Phoenix’s 8”. For a desert, we are reasonably wet.
For the person interested in plants and wildlife, the BTA presents a unique opportunity to experience a truly living desert landscape. We are a zoo without cages; a place where nature moves unbounded. One thing we aren’t is tame.

T. Stone

Monday, October 27, 2014

Textile artist Susan Corl

At the Arboretum’s recent Herb Festival, Patagonia textile artist and exhibitor Susan Corl demonstrated a technique of working with merino and angora wool called felting. She handed me one of her specialized felting needles and asked, “Can you feel the tiny barbs at the end?” I could, but only if I ran my finger nail over the stainless steel tip. It’s these barbs that allow the felting to work.

She uses these needles to plunge into a wad of wool with even more wool, closely mimicking the arm movements of a voodoo practitioner. But instead of doll in the form of a strongly disliked coworker, she was creating objects like sunflowers and cats’ play balls with dozens of varying colors. She even had a wooden case that unscrewed to show four holes that each held an individual felting needle, essentially quadrupling her production output with each reticulating movement of her wrist.

She demonstrated the technique, then let me try it. I used a single needle to push a small tuft of sienna-colored wool into a mass of other felted strands that collectively had the size and density of a pincushion. She suggested that I use a thick piece of foam underneath to protect me from accidentally stabbing myself. “There have been accidents,” she told me, with a half smile. After about 30 seconds, I was exhausted.

Dry felting is what she had allowed me to experience, but there is also wet felting, the technique that she used to create a rack of beautiful rack of scarves with wool flowers felted to silk fabrics. The wet kind is even more lengthy and labor intensive process than the dry, involving rolling pins and rolls of bamboo. This method requires the confines of well-equipped studio, and not as prone to blood-letting incidents.

A true Renaissance woman, Susan has been farming  her own silk worms for about ten years. She feeds the caterpillars increasing amounts of mulberry leaves as they progress through their multiple instars until they create a cocoon. This is where the silk comes from, and it is unwound in a single strand, rather than spun like yarn. “Each strand is stronger than steel,” she said. She also creates her own paper, basketry, and candles, all with a floral or faunal theme. Fish, flowers, butterflies, insects: she uses them all. She even had a meticulously stitched quilted piece the size and shape of a dining table place mat, the kind of place mat you would never rest a bowl of pasta marinara.

I have been familiar with her work for about twenty years, but after talking to her again on Sunday, I was reminded that this is a woman who just can’t stop creating.

Kim Stone