Omicron Hypovirulence?

Published at 14:43 on 4 December 2021

It is starting to look as if, contrary to initial expectations, it might actually be a thing. If so, coupled with its hyper-contagiousness, this is only to be expected from an evolutionary standpoint.

If you are a virus, killing your hosts is a bad strategy. You need your hosts in order to reproduce. And if you are a fragile virus with a limited viability (like the COVID-19 virus), you are under the imperative to reproduce or go extinct.

The most successful viruses are the ones that:

  • Do not cause severe illness,
  • Spread easily,
  • Mutate rapidly.

This keeps the virus spreading and freely replicating amongst a large host population. So it would be no surprise if COVID-19 evolved along these lines.

If so, expect it to become much like your typical common cold virus in terms of concern. In fact, it might simply become yet another common cold virus; many colds are caused by coronavirus strains already.

It All Shows How Badly Nationalism Works

Published at 07:36 on 28 November 2021

New variants are precisely what one would expect in a world were many are left unvaccinated.

The Third World is precisely where most unvaccinated people are, thanks the the rich nations being unable to agree that it would be a net win to weaken (not abolish, merely weaken) intellectual property laws to facilitate more widespread manufacturing of (and lower prices for) vaccines.

That the new variant was detected in Botswana and South Africa is no surprise. Those are two of Africa’s most developed countries. The variant could have easily evolved in a neighboring, less-developed nation, and only been detected when it showed up someplace with the public health infrastructure to readily detect it.

As with the initial spread of the virus, border controls proved inadequate in preventing its spread. The variant was, however, nurtured by nationalism-driven greed: European nations (and the EU are the real bad guys in this one, the Biden Administration has been much more open to sharing the vaccines) valued their business elite’s short-term gains more than any longer-term benefits to humanity of sharing their vaccine technology more freely.

The one border control that would have probably helped is stricter and more-comprehensive testing of travelers. I expect countries to realize this, and institute such restrictions. It is for this reason that I do not expect the planned relaxing of testing requirements at the US/Canada border to last. I will consider myself lucky if the border remains open to non-emergency travel at all.

But it will all be a very poor substitute for the sort of sharing and cooperation that is really needed.

Little Shop of Horrors Part III, Cordata Edition

Published at 19:57 on 14 June 2021

This is a post I was planning to make about a year ago, to complete the ones I made about two other native carnivorous plants of Whatcom County. I had a location all set with multiple herbarium records of it and everything.

I went there, and nothing. I searched for hours in vain. Either it was growing in a remote part of the lake in question, one which I could not readily access, or it had died out. Frustratingly, one of the records was for an easily-accessible dock area, where there were now none to be seen. I made a mental note to try again next year, then forgot about it.

Just this evening, while on a bike ride in my neighborhood, an photogenic clump of tule catch my eye. Hoping to get some shots of their flowers (which are not showy, but still are flowers, and which I have none of in my library of images), I notice something at the base of the clump:

There are in fact quite a lot of them blooming across the surface of this little pond:

This is the plant I was hoping to find last year, the Common Bladderwort (Utricularia vulgaris). Being an aquatic plant, the real action is happening below the surface (they sort of blend in with rest of the leaves, but look carefully, they are there):

Here we see the bladder-like traps that give this plant its common name. They prey for the most part on zooplankton, and are some of the most rapidly-moving plant structures known, capable of acting in under a millisecond and subjecting their prey to forces of 600 G, approximately 200 times faster than the traps of the Venus Flytrap (that link contains a slow-motion close-up action shot of a bladderwort trap in action).

What a treat, finding these in my own neighborhood!

Evergreen Violet (Viola sempervirens)

Published at 22:05 on 28 April 2021

Evergreen Violet (Viola sempervirens)

This is probably the most common violet in our woods. As the first part of its common name implies, its foliage stays green through the winter. The second part of its scientific name implies the same thing; “sempervirens,” literally “ever-living,” is often used to denote a species with evergreen foliage.

The second part of this plant’s common name implies a color other than the yellow of this violet. For some reason, actual violet-flowered violet species are in this region outnumbered by white- and yellow-flowered species.

You might also notice the Stream Violet (Viola glabella). This violet also has yellow flowers, but its leaves are thinner, slightly lighter green, not evergreen, and come to a slight point at the tip. The Stream Violet is more fond of deciduous woods (and, as its name implies, damper locations) than the Evergreen Violet. It also tends to grow taller, although “taller” is in this case relative, since no violet is what one would call a tall plant.

The flowers and young leaves of all violets are edible. In fact, one of the most delightful characteristics of the Evergreen Violet is the slight wintergreen flavor of its blossoms, which in my opinion makes it the tastiest of our native violets.

Naturally, one should not eat the flowers of any plant unless it is numerous to the degree that consuming its reproductive parts is unlikely to endanger its survival. Thankfully, the Evergreen Violet frequently occurs in great numbers and thus a little snacking on it is often within the bounds of ethical use.

Two Woodland Flowers

Published at 08:39 on 25 April 2021

Pacific Bleeding Heart (Dicentra formosa)

Western Trillium (Trillium ovatum)

Time for another quiz: What do the above plants, specifically the seeds of these plants, have in common?

The answer is ants. Both bear seeds which have an attached oily appendage that is attractive and nutritious to ants, who tend to carry the seeds for some distance before detaching the appendage and returning to their nest with it. This is actually quite a common characteristic, particularly in forest understory species, and has evolved independently many times in the plant kingdom. It is a particularly common trait in the hardwood forests of Eastern North America, which have many more species of these “ant plants” than we do here.

Trilliums in particular often seem to decline in abundance in woods near urban areas with higher amounts of human impact. Those same woods tend to no longer host populations of our native Western Thatching Ant (Formica obscuripes). These red-and-black ants build large anthills of forest debris, and are themselves significantly larger than most introduced ants. It is my theory that these ants, being larger, do a better job of dispersing ant-dispersed seeds for the simple reason that they are capable of carrying them for longer distances.

Both the Pacific Bleeding Heart and the Western Trillium are presently in bloom in our woods.

Pacific Bleeding Heart

This is a member of a small genus of plants, all of which have oddly-shaped, bilaterally-symmetric flowers. Indigenous peoples made limited herbal use of this plant, and such experimentation is not recommended, as all species in this genus are quite toxic.

The common garden Bleeding Heart (Dicentra spectabilis) is a close relative of this plant. If you head east across the Cascades in the spring, you might encounter the related Steer’s Head (Dicentra uniflora). If you head south to the Columbia Gorge, you might see the Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria). This latter species has an unusual distribution, being found for the most part in eastern and central North America, but with some disjunct populations in the Columbia Basin.

Western Trillium

This is one of about 50 species of trilliums worldwide; like the Pacific Bleeding Heart it is the only member of its genus found in this area. It is by far the most common trillum in the Western United States.

It is generally a bad idea to pick our native wildflowers, and trilliums in particular are set back more than the average plant by having their flowers picked, for the simple reason that picking a trillium involves destroying the entire above-ground parts of a plant. This is quite the serious setback for an organism that produces but three leaves and one flower per season. It is likely that picking as much as (or more than) the lack of suitable ants for seed dispersal figures in how woods nearer “civilization” tend to have fewer trilliums.

If you explore the woods south of Olympia, and you are lucky, you may spot the Sessile Trillium (Trillium chloropetalum), which has narrower petals and whose flower is not held above the leaves on a stalk. Yet more trillium species are found as one heads further south into Southern Oregon and California.

Back to Rain Soon

Published at 07:27 on 23 April 2021

We sort of won the lottery last weekend: a completely sunny, warm one. In fact, if you are a sun-lover we won the lottery for nearly a fortnight.

Well, that “lucky” streak is about to end quite decisively. It is looking like the temperature on Saturday might struggle to reach the mid-fifties Fahrenheit. Quite a change from the “spring tease” we have recently been experiencing. Or more precisely, the rainy and chilly relapse is itself part of that tease.

Fire managers do not consider this recent warm and dry stretch to be good luck; it has done a frighteningly good job of drying things out. There was in fact a grass fire near Chilliwack last week, and there have already been red flag (i.e. extreme fire danger) warnings issued in Oregon.

While warm and dry spells are not unusual in April, this one has been astoundingly warm, and in particular it has been astoundingly dry. It is the low dew points that have done as much to dry things out as have the warm temperatures.

It is my feeling that the anomalous nature of this warm spell is probably related to global warming; however, that is only a hunch and it will take further data to establish the trend and settle the question.

Enemies of taking action on the climate crisis are fond of pointing such things out; however, it is critical to keep in mind that settling such questions and the issue of whether or not to take action now are two different matters. Although it is not possible to state the exact nature of the disruption that climate change will cause, it is still quite clear that odds are extremely high there will be significant disruption of some sort, thus common prudence dictates taking action so as to minimize those consequences.

It feels tedious to have to point the above out, but having to do so is simply a natural consequence of living in a political system badly divorced from obvious reality.

Anyhow, I hope everyone enjoyed how warm the last weekend was, because the coming one certainly will not be.

Black Cottonwood (Populus trichocarpa)

Published at 10:55 on 21 April 2021

Now scenting the air.

Cottonwood leaves are unfolding and scenting the air with the fragrance of their balsam. The ground under our cottonwood trees is also littered with bud scales sticky with that same fragrant balsam. Indigenous peoples used the balsam to prepare salves and ointments; this tree is part of a small group of related poplar species that produce such balsam.

The Black Cottonwood has something in common with the the Bigleaf Maple, Red Alder, Douglas-Fir, Western Hemlock, Western Red Cedar, and Pacific Madrone. Can you guess what it is?

If you guessed that it is the largest species of its genus, you were correct. Our climate is favorable to the development of large trees, and has selected for them across multiple families and genera.

Like most poplars, this tree has something of a bad reputation for invasive roots that break up pavement and invade pipes. Such traits will likely serve the this region well when our civilization suffers the inevitable demise it is hurtling itself towards; paved surfaces are not very useful to organisms other than civilized humans, and many species will benefit by their return to more productive use.

Many people are surprised to learn that the Black Cottonwood is not our only native poplar. The Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides) is also native to the Bellingham area; the Cordata neighborhood in particular has quite a lot of them. Far from being only a Rocky Mountain tree, aspens are in fact the most widely-distributed tree in North America, found from Mexico to Alaska and the Atlantic to the Pacific.

Compared to the Black Cottonwood, the Quaking Aspen has smaller leaves which emerge later in spring, are a lighter green, and much more prone to fluttering in the slightest breeze. Aspens also have lighter bark and more frequently reproduce asexually by sending up suckers from their roots; the latter trait means they typically occur in groves. As with the balsam poplars, the aspens form yet another small, related group of poplar trees; our aspen is a close relative of the aspens of Europe and Asia.

Now that I have mentioned poplars, someone is sure to chime in about how much their seeds trigger their allergies. Actually, it is unlikely that cottonwood seeds would do such a thing; their “fluff” consists of almost pure cellulose, which is not typically considered to be an allergen. Instead, blame grass pollen, whose concentration typically peaks at the same time that cottonwoods are dispersing their seeds.

Mazzard Cherry (Prunus avium)

Published at 10:41 on 20 April 2021

I snapped the above picture just north of Squalicum Marina a few days ago; the tree is growing on a railroad embankment. This tree is native to Europe but is now widespread in the coastal Northwest. It is the parent species of most cultivated cherries, and these are in fact its origin here.

Although it is not surprising to see an introduced species growing in an urban, disturbed environment, there is no shortage of these cherries in our native wooded areas, and its blooms are brightening the woods right now.

As with many species that have escaped from cultivation, it has for the most part reverted to wild form, with a larger overall size and thinner-fleshed fruit. It makes perfectly tasty cherries each summer (unless you are unlucky enough to find the random tree with bitter fruit) but good luck reaching most of them, as they will be for the most part high above you.

Evolution explains the smaller fruit in this and most other wild relatives of cultivated fruits. It is needlessly wasteful for a tree to expend energy creating more than the minimum food reward needed to entice animals to consume its fruit and thereby disperse its seeds; trees that expend more energy on growing taller and better competing for light in forested areas will tend to be naturally selected for. This process can be quite rapid if, as is the case here, the large-fruited characteristic is a recessive trait.

We also have a native cherry, the Bitter Cherry (Prunus emarginata). As its name implies, its fruit is unpalatable; Seattle author Arthur Lee Jacobson accurately describes it as “bitter enough to make one grimace in agony.” Its flowers are less showy than its introduced relative, and it blooms slightly later in the season.

Evolution also explains the bitterness of our native cherry’s fruit. Birds, being gifted with flight, are more mobile than the typical mammal, and thus more effective at spreading seeds far and wide. Birds also have a far different sense of taste than most mammals, and cannot perceive the presence of many substances that us mammals find unacceptably bitter. The Bitter Cherry’s fruit is thus quite literally for the birds.

Arctic Outflow

Published at 22:11 on 14 January 2020

Today’s high was 19˚F. In Seattle that would break a record. Here in Bellingham, it’s definitely much colder than normal, but the record is still significantly colder. We’re close to the mouth of the Fraser Canyon, and if the interior of British Columbia fills up with frigid air, it can spill through that canyon and hit us without having to pass over any salt water to moderate it.

The arrival of the arctic front was dramatic. My building shuddered as a sudden gust of northeasterly wind hit it. The falling snow changed from sloppy and wet to dry and powdery. Within a half-hour, any wet pavement surfaces that had not been treated had flash-frozen.

Tonight it is snowing and 14˚F. That’s cold enough to experience something rare on the West Coast: snow that squeaks when you walk on it. That’s a fairly common occurrence in a continental climate, but I never once experienced it in Seattle. Here, the cold snaps really are a taste of what winter is like in a continental climate.

But only a taste. Within about 24 hours, the wind will shift. When that happens, the arctic air will depart as quickly as it arrived. The ocean is right here, ready to supply mild air the moment the wind resumes its normal westerly to southwesterly direction. The departure of the cold snap will be as abrupt as its arrival was.

And that’s the way I want things to be. The past few days have been fun because they have been a departure from the norm. Were they the norm, these conditions would become tiresome and unpleasant. Winter would mean not a green thing in sight, and spring would mean waiting seemingly forever for all the snow that accumulated in winter to melt, and all the while it melted it would get increasingly dirty and drab.

Why Gardening Is Not for Me

Published at 09:53 on 10 May 2019

There’s basically two kinds of plants you can grow: annuals and perennials.

Annuals come up fast but require a lot of tending during the growing season. But the growing season is also the outdoor recreation season, and I’d much rather be communing with native plants someplace wild than stuck at home trying to repeatedly assert control over a tiny plot of urban land. Yard work sucks.

Perennials are not nearly so high-maintenance, but they are slow to settle in. I, by contrast, just don’t settle in. It’s never happened in my life, and given that I’m well into my fifties, that means the odds are it’s never going to happen.

I tried to settle in to the home I am sitting in right now, but it didn’t work: I had overlooked how ageist and cultish the high tech world would become, and how much this would adversely impact my employabality in it. And if I can’t have a high-paying, high-tech job, it’s very hard to justify the expense of living in a region as costly as the Seattle metro area.

So this year I’m leaving. The year my native cacti in the window boxes are finally going to put on a huge bloom. The year my thimbleberries (after years of getting settled in) have flower buds on them. The year the dewberries finally flowered (female flowers, we’ll see if there’s a nearby male and I get fruit). The serviceberry is still a little thing, a decade or more from looking settled in.

Someone else is going to enjoy the results of the work I did. Not me. Or, someone else won’t appreciate all those “weird plants” that are not the ornamentals everyone else grows, rip them out, and replace them. Either way, I am going to get little benefit for the work I did.

It would be nice if my life were more compatible with gardening, but it’s just not.