Monday, June 28, 2010

Dragons in the Garden, Part I

Every flower in my garden sparks pleasure and satisfaction in me when I see it, but the ones that plant themselves and spring up seemingly out of nowhere to shout "Surprise!" are my favorites. In this category of "Best Impromptu Performance," the award would definitely go to the snapdragons.

I've purchased and planted snapdragons in the past, but in recent years there's been no need to do so, because their descendants send up spears of color every spring not only in the pots that held their parents, but also in the most unlikely corners and dry spots in the yard.

And what colors! Snapdragons blaze in sunset colors of orange, yellow, pink, red, purple, and red-purple. And lavender, melon, ruby, and crimson. You can also cleanse your palate (or "palette," in this case) with snapdragons as white as cumulous clouds. Any of these may also boast fringes and highlights in other colors.

My current crop of snapdragons tend toward the cooler colors--there's a lavender, a pink-purple, and a nearly-black purple snapdragon growing in the front yard as well as one crisp white plant. Recently a yellow and plum snapdragon snaked out from the rockery wall over the driveway.

Snapdragons range in size from petite six-inchers to tall three-footers; mine seem to top out at about two and a half feet. The shortest one grows in a pot outside the door. It's about 18 inches tall but makes up for its short stature in bulk: this plant is a five-headed dragon, with each flower-bedecked raceme curving in a different direction.

Some of these 'dragons may actually be springing back to life in the manner of a phoenix, because snapdragons (which are native to the Mediterranean) are actually perennials, though they are generally regarded and sold as annuals in the United States. My growing zone in the Northwest, however, is often likened to a Mediterranean climate (though without the spanikopita, ouzo, and endless-summer "Shirley Valentine"/"Mama Mia" romantic atmosphere).

Did I know they were perennials because I'm, like, a totally know-it-all gardener in touch with Earth and all her children? No, I did not. I had to look it up. In the process, I learned the following:

The snapdragon's scientific name is Antirrhinum majus. "Antirrhinum" is derived from Greek words that come together to mean "like a nose." Since "majus" means "larger," this poor flower's name basically means "big schnozzola." Fortunately, its common name "snapdragon" comes to the rescue here. Gently squeeze the sides of a snapdragon flower to see it snap its jaws, and you won't be in any doubt as to how it acquired this evocative name.

And not just any insect can come along and dip into a snapdragon flower's largesse of nectar. Oh, no. Only one of the right size, with enough heft to make the flower's lower lip drop, will be able to burrow into the blossom. This lucky insect is typically a bumblebee (honeybees are apparently too light to tip the lip).

The flower welcomes this pollinator by providing a landing platform complete with "conical epidermal cells" (what you and I would call by the more technical name of "tiny little bumps"). This provides traction for the bee, a no-slip grip mat to help it get a foothold. Studies show that bumblebees shun mutant flowers that lack these cells.

But other studies show that some naughty bees don't live up to their end of the bargain, either, and drill into the flower from the side so as to nab the nectar without doing the work of burrowing and thereby getting daubed with pollen. Very bad bee-havior.

In other snapdragon news: In Europe, the flower was believed to repel witchcraft and other trickery. The Victorians, those wacky purveyors of fun who created a whole language of flowers, labeled snapdragons as symbols of presumptuousness (Who would one send a bouquet of snapdragons to, in that case? To a presumptous suitor who sent you a dozen red roses?). And like many plants, it's found its way into dishes, though please take heed that I am not suggesting you do so; I've merely read that its seeds were used to make cooking oil and its petals and leaves to make tea. (One book I found online will even tell you how to whip up a dish of Pan-Fried Pork with Snapdragons.)

A snapdragon that manages to avoid being brewed, stir-fried, or pressed will no doubt be glad to hear it has not only dodged being known as the Giant Nose Plant but also that "snapdragon" is unlikely to yield to such other common names for the plant as toad's mouth, dog's mouth, lion's mouth, rabbit's lips, and lion's lips.

Oh, and incidentally, even though snapdragons may seed themselves freely in the garden and aren't native to the Pacific Northwest, they're not considered invasive--unlike the dalmatian toadflax that looks a lot like a yellow snapdragon and sometimes passes itself off with the alias "wild snapdragon," but is really a very distant cousin in a completely different genus that the snapdragons would prefer you not mention at all.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

No iPod, but lots of isoPods

Memorial Day weekend brought gray skies and extra-low tides to the Puget Sound area. The conditions were excellent for beachcombing at Carkeek Park--foul weather kept crowds at bay, and the low tides revealed all sorts of squishy, squashy, scuttling, and secretive seashore creatures.

Ochre sea stars in neon orange and purple clung to the undersides of rocks amid a welter of barnacles and mussels. Also nestled among the rocks were a multitude of green anemones and what looked to be a painted urticina (a red and green anemone that can live for up to 60 years). A red-orange blob of what might have been a reclusive octopus lurked deep inside a crevice. If you stood close to a big rock, you could hear the clicks and whispers of barnacles scrabbling inside their shells.

Life in the tidal zone is packed tighter than a subway car at rush hour. The first photo shows a limpet, which clings to a rock; tiny barnacles, in turn, cling to the limpet.

I especially liked the teeming zoo I found under a looseleaf-sized thin slab of red slate. It was dense with tiny mussels, hermit crabs the size of peas, and weird worms that I think were sand or pile worms. (A field guide suggested gently pressing the worm behind its head to cause it to evert its "sharp black pincers," a suggestion I found it easy to ignore.)

The best critter hidden under the slab was a rockweed isopod, a marine cousin of the pill bug and the sow bug (those little gray army-tank minibeasts that live in your yard and are sometimes called roly-polies or potato bugs). This one, as you can see, was bright olive green.

Apparently the isopod wears this color most frequently but can also be black, pink, or tan, depending on what color its background is. It's also called Vosnesensky's isopod. Which is a lot of name for a little guy like this to tote around, even if it can grow to be 2 inches long.

Vosnesensky was some Russian guy who studied marine isopods on the west coast in the mid-1800s. And he got to have one named after him. Some people have all the luck.

Apparently there is a similar species in the southern regions of the coast that looks much the same but has "round eyes instead of kidney-shaped" ones. Remember that if you ever go eye to eye with an isopod.

The birds were out in force, too. Crows poked and probed at the rocks, as did gulls, feasting on the bounty laid out by the extra-low tide. A bald eagle circled over the beach. The song of a Swainson's thrush spiraled up from the woods, and this cheerful song sparrow piped away in a shrub near the entrance to the beach.