July 7 2016: Let's talk about decline. Not my own, but of trees. The #1 cause of tree decline and death in the urban/suburban environment is due to soil compaction. It's a slow and insidious process that can take years, in some cases, to manifest itself and often by the time it's noticed it's too late for meaningful corrective action.

I recently have personally experienced decline (again, not me personally, but my trees). Some Douglas firs that I have been parking trailers, trucks, cars, tractors, etc under their shady boughs for 16 years have been exhibiting signs of decline. Typical signs of decline, in conifers, due to soil compaction are loss of lower branches and dropping of interior needles leaving just the needles on the ends of branches. They slowly die from the bottom up and the inside out. It's interesting that deciduous trees generally have just the opposite progression of compaction symptoms - they die from the outside in (ends of branches drop leaves first) and the top down (branch dieback).

Here's how soil compaction works to debilitate a tree. As soil becomes compressed from the weight of something on top of it , like trailers, trucks, cars etc. it squeezes out and smashes the pore space through which roots grow. The roots of a tree must grow continually. If they cannot grow, they will die and as they die that affects the crown (what's aboveground) of the tree. As the crown dies, then there is less food produced to sustain remaining roots. It can be a slow deadly spiral. In conifers, such as my Douglas firs, by the time you notice the signs of compaction decline, the final demise of the tree occurs quickly, within a year or two.

I'm feeling distraught that not only do I have several large trees that I will have to remove but that as an arborist I did not have the foresight to foresee that before parking my fleet underneath them. Not bright. Ah, physician heal thyself. And so, I've become inspired to sensitize people to the dangers of compaction decline and since this is a big urban problem, I thought I'd go more urban with my message. I've written a rap song. It is my first and perhaps a little technically rough around the edges.


(Imagine a strong hip-hop beat in the background. Say similar to Snoop Dogg, 50 Cent, or Lawrence Welk)

I can see da forest, but I can't see my trees.
I doctor other people's, but not my tree's disease

Compaction is the action from which there's no retraction

It takes ages, man, to happen, while you freakin' or you chillin'
Your parking lot be real tight , but your trees you do be killin'

Compaction is the action from which there's no retraction

Them roots you cannot see, but they will not take a slammin'
The soil gets compacted and da roots be smashed and crammin'

Compaction is the action from which there's no retraction

My firs are losing needles and they're looking really dead
My homies in the wood see this, they'll think I lost street cred

Compaction is the action from which there's no retraction

Da crime of decline is messing wid my mind
I done the crime, I'll do the time, I wish I weren't so blind.

Compaction is the action from which there's no retraction

So listen fool to this golden rule
Don't park no wheels where the roots can feels . ... .it.




June 16, 2016: It has recently come to my attention that all the not-so-boring botanists I have highlighted in the past have been men. In my own defense, I'd like to say it was myself that brought this to my attention and in the interest of fairness and parity I should like to highlight some female botanists and that is just what I will do in this new series - Bold, Bodacious Babes of Botany (or BBB of Botany).

Considering that your typical male not-so-boring botanist of the past could devote their lives to trekking the far reaches of the planet searching for rare flora and getting their names splashed about the botanical news rags of the day. All the while unencumbered by things like child birth, child rearing, care giving , and all that other stuff women were responsible for back then, it's no wonder that most people (or, let's be honest now, men) have not heard of the achievements of women botanists of yore. That's why I was determined to discover the BBB's of Botany through an intensive, all-day, self study on the internet course in women's botanical studies. And I found them. And I'm proud to present my first bold, bodacious babe of botany - Ynes Mexia.

What's really bodacious about Ynes was that she didn't even start her career as a botanist until she 55. 55! When I was 55 I was crossing off the years left till retirement.

Born of a Mexican diplomat father and an Anglo-American mother in 1870, she spent her childhood and teen years in the US and then moved to Mexico with her father to take care of him in the last ten years of his life. Shortly after her father's death in 1896, she married a Spanish-German merchant and also began a long legal battle to claim the family's inheritance (a hacienda and poultry business) from her father's mistress. In the end, she won in 1904 but then her first husband died.

Ynes married a second time, but to a real schmuck. He ran her family poultry business into the ground and she divorced him after a year and went to San Francisco, where she became a social worker. In 1921 she started attending classes at UC Berkeley and became active in the Sierra Club. A class in botany sparked a keen interest and in 1925, at the age of 55, she accompanied a woman botanist on a field collection trip to western Mexico. On that trip, she fell off a cliff and about died, but it didn't stop this BBB of Botany. She went collecting to Argentina, Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, Chile. She traveled the length of the Amazon from its mouth to its source in a canoe with 3 guys and guide, which I'm guessing was also a guy. She also spent 3 months with a remote indigenous Amazonian tribe, then she climbed Mt. McKinley, probably to cool off.

For 12 years she was on the move, collecting plant specimens which she sold to private collectors and institutions to fund the next collecting expedition. Colleagues described her as tough, resilient, sometimes remarkably charming, sometimes impetuous and difficult, always generous. She is credited to having discovered as many as 50 new plant species and two new genera of plants.

Ynes died in 1938 of lung cancer. She left much of her money to further scientific pursuit, including money to the mammologist, Vernon Bailey, who developed one of the first humane live traps, a precursor to the Havahart trap.

She was one bold, bodacious, botany babe.


April 28, 2016: When I was growing up, my father and I never had a serious conversation about verticilium wilt. We had other conversations, which I'm sure he felt were more important, but we never talked about that. I do not blame him for I never had the same conversation with my child. I guess as parents we rationalize by thinking it's not that important or its too delicate a topic, and let the moment, which may never return again, pass by. They will figure it out on their own we think. And some day they will, but wouldn't it have been nice if we could have prepared them for it.

If I had that moment back again, here's the conversation I would have:

FATHER : Sit down a minute, kid. I want to have a talk and I think you're old enough now that you'll understand. Is that OK?

KID: (Nods)

FATHER: You're growing up so fast! Soon you'll be leaving home to start a life of your own. You may have a garden, some property or perhaps just a nearby park, but it is my hope that you will find and fall in love with trees. Love is what makes us human. It gives us the potential to really see ourselves and the potential of others. Where there is the warmth, light and life of love, there is also the darker opposite lurking -cold, dark, death - the two sides of a coin. It is a fact that we must acknowledge but not necessarily dampen that which makes us human. If you happen to fall in love with one of more than 350 species of trees, shrubs, annuals, perennials or vegetable crops, then that dark side may well come in the form of verticilium wilt, a disease that can cripple and often kill a plant.

I know this is disturbing to hear , but it's really important to both of us that you understand. I'd like to tell you how this might happen and what are the signs that it may be coming. Is that OK?

KID: (Nods)

FATHER: Verticilium wilt is a fungus disease that lives in the soil. It can live unseen and undetected by mortal eye for up to 14 years in the soil. It invades a plant through the roots and will travel to the xylem, the water conductive tissue of the plant. There it will grow and flourish and block water conduction to the leaves. It causes the leaves to wilt and die, which leads to branch dieback and eventually crown death. As leaves die, the roots that supply them die for lack of food. In trees, this process can go on for several years before tree death can occur.

There are a number of other diseases and environmental disorders that can cause branch dieback. One of the ways to identify that V. wilt is taking place is to slice a newly wilted twig diagonally. You will see olive-brown, brown or black streaks in the sapwood (the last few rings of growth).

(Father sighs. Wipes some moisture from his eye and looks away out the window)

I once had a big leaf maple I was very fond of. It was old and venerable and shaded the yard. We had a summer that was very, very dry followed by a very, very wet winter and the next spring I found some dead Sapwood streaksSapwood streaksbranches in my beloved. The next summer over half the branches died and that winter it blew over taking out a chunk of the garage There was little in my power I could do, except repair the garage.

Once a tree has verticilium, there are no effective treatments for it. One can prolong or temporarily reduce the effect by watering the tree during droughts but there is no un-inevitabling the inevitable. Does that make sense?

KID: (Nods)

FATHER: Here in the Pacific Northwest it is our maples, elms, ashes and cherries that are some of the most susceptible. In my opinion verticilium is everywhere in the soil. It can't be avoided. Healthy, relatively stress free trees seldom show signs of it so reducing drought stress or overly soggy soils can help where practical. If replacing a verticilium killed tree, do not put another susceptible species back. You're just asking for heart ache then.

I guess what I'm saying is that the things we love will eventually die. Let not the hurt of that keep you from loving.

Hey! HEY! Will you please take your Ipod earbuds out! I don't understand how you can hear a word I'm saying!

KID: Whatever.

FATHER: Well, I'm glad we had this little talk. Love you, now.



April 23, 2016: When one thinks of industrial espionage, which if you're like me is not very often, you probably have an image of high tech or industrial formula theft, not something as mundane as tea. But one of the greatest cases in history of industrial espionage involved tea and how a crusty Scottish botanist, Robert Fortune, stole it and its processing secrets from the Chinese.

By the mid 1800's, the tea drinkers of the British Empire had been enjoying that beverage for a couple hundred years. It came at a very heavy price for tea and how to process it was the sole monopoly of China. Furthermore. the Chinese were very particular in how they would be paid - by silver. No checks, no cash, no byte coin, not even debit cards. British tea importers had to first buy the silver to buy the tea, which was expensive.

The prime British tea importer, the British East India Company, came up with the idea of introducing and selling to the Chinese opium grown in British India in the mid-1700's. They sold it for silver and turned around and bought Chinese tea with it. This worked out well . . . for the British, until some Chinese emperor saw that having an opium addicted populace wasn't all that good a deal and prohibited under severe penalty the usage and trade of opium.

The British, much like their former colonial Americans, became highly insulted by this cavalier act of restricting free trade and proceeded to go to war with China in what was called the First Opium War (1840-1842). Britain won, they forced China to resume trade in opium and they got the port of Hong Kong to boot.

Robert FortuneRobert FortuneEnter Robert Fortune. The British East India Company thought it would be a great idea if they could just bypass the whole Chinese tea connection by growing tea in India. The problem was no one had tea plants nor the knowledge of how to process tea, which, surprisingly, is quite complex. China closely guarded its tea secrets. So in 1846, they sent botanist Robert Fortune to the newly acquired Hong Kong to infiltrate the Chinese tea trade.

Fortune had already been to China three years before on a plant collecting trip. He had developed the art of blending in by adopting Mandarin dress and speech, complete with shaved head and queue (pigtail). Feigning that he was a official from a far off province, Fortune and his interpreter were admitted to tea factories where he observed how green tea and the more highly processed black tea were made. While observing he noticed that the Chinese added two curious components to their tea for export - a chemical called Prussian Blue and gypsum, the major component of plaster. Both of these chemicals were added as colorants to make the green tea look green. The Chinese felt really green green tea was much more marketable to western barbarians. (I wonder if this is the start of our modern day food additive industry?). Both of these chemicals are toxic to the nervous system in lower concentrations over time causing dizziness, confusion, memory loss and irritability and perhaps, dare say I, the proclivity to go to war over the slightest provocations.

Fortune ended up successfully smuggling out the Chinese tea processes, 20,000 tea plants in Wardian cases (miniature greenhouse-like bell jars) and several Chinese tea techs to India, where a thriving tea industry was built that, to this day, produces more tea than China.

You would have thought that once the British Empire got their own tea the trade troubles would have ended. Not so. In 1856, the Second Opium War erupted this time with Britain, America, France and Russia demanding China open up to more free trade and the legalization of opium in the country. They won. Who'd have guessed that a century and half ago there had been a "war for drugs" instead of the current war against them.

Robert Fortune continued with plant collecting trips to Formosa and Japan and introduced to Western gardens such now common plants as chrysanthemums, tree peonies, several species of azaleas and others. In botanical nomenclature, the species name of "fortunei" appears a lot indicating yet another plant introduced to us by the Scot who dressed in Chinese drag.

For more on this, I highly recommend reading the book "For All the Tea in China" by Sarah Rose. There is even a novel written, "The Secret Mandarin" (which is on my to-read list) with Robert Fortune as a major character.

Chinese opium partyChinese opium party
English tea partyEnglish tea party
American tea partyAmerican tea party


March 3, 2016: This is about honeybees in the landscape. Before I begin though, I'd like to apologize for the title. It's corny. I have noticed that with advancing years, I and many other fellow senior peers seem to be getting cornier. I have wondered why this is. I have trolled through the Internet hoping to find some scholarly research, something like "Observational Studies of Humor Change in Humans and Other Primates as a Function of Age", but to no avail.

So I ponder. Is it because time dulls the razor edge of our rapier wit? As faculties diminish, do we forget the more complex nuances and timing of humor? Do we revert to childhood again? Will I be calling up strangers and asking them if their refrigerator is running? (Then you'd better catch it! Yuk, yuk) Or is it because we don't give a damn anymore? After years of having to be cool and repressing our inner corn, do we decide to drop the facade? Perhaps beneath the banal veneer of a corny joke lies a greater truth that only with time and wisdom can be seen. . . . . But, I digress. Have you ever noticed that some seniors will start talking about something and then ramble off onto a whole different topic? I have pondered on this and . . . . I'll save that for another day.

I keep bees. It is a delightful hobby and a wonderful asset in the landscape. I would like to suggest bees as a planned component of your landscape - part of the landscape design. We all know that bees are Octagonal WarreOctagonal Warrepollinators (many solitary bees as well as honeybees) and if you have fruit trees or a vegetable garden, they can dramatically increase your bounty. Colorfully painted or artistically built hives (such as Langstroth hives with gabled copper roofs or Warre hives) can be hardscape features that can be strong focal points or accents in the landscape design. The sounds and the motion that come from a healthy hive add further interest to a landscape. And then there's the honey!

Beekeepers are very sensitive to stress that they "keep" bees, they don't "have" bees. The difference Decorated LangstrothDecorated Langstrothbeing that in beekeeping you actively manage a hive versus simply having a hive that does its own thing without your meddling. Though the latter seems more sustainable, that's not the case. Honeybees don't fare well in our clime without some management. If you're going to be a bee-haver, I'd suggest being a beehivebox-haver. Have the colorful bee-utiful (sorry) hive boxes without the bees. You might get lucky and have a swarm take residence.

if you decide you'd like to keep bees, here's a few bullet points you ought to know.

- Beekeeping isn't cheap. The woodware and frames for a Langstroth hive (the most common type of hive) will set you back $100 - $150/hive and that's not counting the bees (another $100-$160) or the protection wear and starting equipment (~$150-$200).

- Bees don't last without your meddling. There would be some that would disagree but they would be in a very small minority. For honeybees to get through our long damp winters, you have to control for mites and other diseases. You also have to feed them (sugar syrup) from time to time - like right now when the temperature is warming but there's not a lot of flower nectar out. Nationwide annual colony loss due to starvation and winter has run as high as 45% and that's amongst commercial and hobby beekeepers. Amongst bee-havers? Probably a lot more.

- Bees swarm. A bee colony is a superorganism - something that we regard as an individual that is in fact Old Guy with SwarmOld Guy with Swarmmade up of thousands of individuals - as many as 60,000 in a healthy hive. It's natural reproduction is to increase in size to the point that it splits into two colonies. The old queen and half or more of the old colony comes exploding out of the hive and flies off to a new location leaving behind a weaker and more diminished colony. Beekeepers try to control swarming by adding more living space to the hive or other techniques.

- Bees sting. Unless you're allergic to bee stings (~.2% are), it is of my opinion that the fear of being stung is greater than the actual sting. If you have bees though, expect to be stung sometime. I average about 4-5 stings/year. Some beekeepers less. Accidently bump a hive over or drop a frame and you can expect more. If you keep bees in urban/suburban areas, it'll be your neighbors fear of bee stings that you should fear more. Proper placement of hives to lessen neighbor/bee interaction and the occasional peace offering of a jar of honey can be helpful.

- Bees are complicated. There is a lot to know about keeping bees. The best way you can learn about keeping bees is to keep them. Fortunately there is lots of educational support for new and old beekeepers. Joining a local beekeeper's club and participating in their springtime bee school is a great way to get that education started.

I hope I've encouraged you to welcome bees into your landscape. If you'd like the much easier route of Mason Bee CondoMason Bee Condohaving bees, I would like to suggest solitary bees, like the Mason bee. They don't form colonies but live in their own individual "tubes" that can be combined into very nice and artistic Mason bee apartment complexes. You won't get honey, but they pretty well take care of themselves and it is of the rarest occurrence that one ever gets stung by Mason bees.

I hope I haven't dissuaded either from keeping bees. I have never had a more pleasurable, satisfying, nor challenging hobby. It's a lifetime hobby and one I plan continue until I depart for that great Bee-yond. (sorry)

Hey, have you got Prince Albert in a can?

F & P