Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Flora of Eagle Rock: Sweet orange, or Citrus sinensis

Orange tree on Hill Drive
The history of the orange tree -- specifically, the sweet orange, or Citrus sinensis, -- reads like a miniature history of the world.  The tree appears to have been domesticated in Asia, Southeast Asia, and/or South Asia roughly 2500 years ago.  It seems clear that widespread domestication of the tree first took place in China.  (Indeed, the sinensis in the species name means "Chinese.")  From Asia, the fruit was brought back to Europe, by various means, including the Silk Road, trade with Arabs, crusades, etc. -- the history of its introduction to Europe seems a bit murky.

The orange was spread from Europe to the Americas by the Spanish.  Columbus brought orange seeds over to North America in 1493.  The first orange orchard in California was reportedly planted by Spanish missionaries at Mission San Gabriel in 1804.  [Wikipedia.]

The origin of the term "orange" in English ultimately links back to the Sanskrit word for "orange tree" (नारङगम्, nāraṅga).  The Sanskrit word came through Persian نارنگ (nārang) and its Arabic derivative نارنج (nāranj). The word entered Late Middle English in the fourteenth century via Old French orenge (from pomme d'orenge).  The French word, in turn, comes from Old Provençal auranja, based on Arabic nāranj -- which goes back to the Sanskrit.  [Id.]  (The French word presumably came over into English when William the Bastard led the Norman invasion of England in 1066 and William got to change his name to William the Conqueror.)

Because Portuguese merchants were among the first to introduce the sweet orange in Europe, in several European languages the fruit was named for the Portuguese: e.g., Albanian portokall, Bulgarian портокал (portokal), Greek πορτοκάλι (portokali), modern Persian پرتقال (porteghal), and Romanian portocală.  Related names show up in other languages, such as Arabic البرتقال (bourtouqal), Georgian ფორთოხალი (p'ort'oxali), and Turkish portakal.  Various Slavic languages use the variants pomaranč (Slovak), pomeranč (Czech), pomaranča (Slovene), and pomarańcza (Polish) -- all from Old French pomme d'orenge.  [Id.]

Orange is arancione in Italian, l'orange in French, and naranja in Spanish -- the last of which is strikingly similar to the Sanskrit.  The orange is known as "Chinese apple" in the Germanic languages: e.g.,  sinaasappel and appelsien (Dutch),  Apfelsine (German), appelsin (Danish).  Interestingly, the connection to China also appears in the Puerto Rican Spanish word for orange: china.  [Id.]

There is no word in English that rhymes with "orange."

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Flora of Eagle Rock: Agave americana, or the century plant

Agave americana in inflorescence
The Agave americana, sometimes called the century plant, maguey, or the American aloe, goes out with a bang.  After living an uneventful life looking like a relatively normal, unassuming desert plant for ten to twenty years, it dramatically signals the end of its life cycle by storing energy and resources to produce, very quickly, a towering stalk with flowering branches.  (Hence the somewhat misleading name "century plant.")  The stalk that the plant suddenly throws up is like a radio tower of sorts.  The plant tries to shoot up the stalk as high as possible, for the widest possible dispersal of its seeds, which are often spread by the wind.  After it flowers and disseminates its seeds, the plant dies.

First drafts of our own future inflorescence?
The agave's life cycle pretty much tracks the plot line of any escape-from-dying-Earth sci-fi.  Earth is used up and done, so humans must pool our remaining resources to flee.  We make one last push, with our remaining resources, to build a massive vehicle to escape, spreading ourselves with the solar wind.  The agave has already shown us how it's done.  When it reaches the end, it makes the big push, saying, more or less: "Let's get off this rock!" 

Artist's rendering of potential solar-sail dissemination

Flora of Eagle Rock: Melaleuca leucadendron, or the weeping paperbark

Melaleuca trees on Hill

There's a row of five or six strange, ancient-looking trees on Hill Drive, near Eagle Vista.  These trees have a very distinctive white bark, that looks as if it's composed of hundreds of paper-like layers, all in a state of constant eruption and peeling.  (See below.)  The trees looked familiar to me.  They had small leaves, and the bark looked like something I had seen in the Australian section of the Los Angeles Arboretum.  A woman was watering her plants at one of the houses behind this row of trees.  I asked her if she knew what kind of trees they were.  She said they were Melaleuca trees.  I asked if they were from Australia.  She said that sounded right.

I've tentatively identified these trees as Melaleuca leucadendron.  I thought they were possibly  Melaleuca quinquenervia, but they seem a bit to tall for that species.  Melaleuca quinquenervia apparently tops out around 25 feet.  These trees on Hill Drive are much taller than that.  The species in the genus are native to Australia.  A cousin of the species on Hill is the species commonly known as the tea tree, from which tea tree oil is obtained.

detail of the leucadendron

The name "Melaleuca" comes from the Greek, a combination of "black" and "white," which apparently refers to other species in the genus.  "Leucadendron," you can probably guess at, now knowing that "leuca" means white.  "Dendron" also comes from the Greek, for tree.  So this is the "white tree" in the Melaleuca genus, for obvious reasons: its distinctive, perpetually peeling chalky-white bark.  This tree is apparently also sometimes called the weeping paperbark, and it does seem to have a slightly weeping quality to it.

The bark on these trees is incredible.  The trees look as if they were never young.  The trunks look like you could just peel away layer after layer, and just keep going like that, until everything was gone.  They're reminiscent of some kind of flaky Turkish or Greek dessert.  (Maybe I'm thinking of phyllo -- which is Greek for "leaf" -- as in a leaf of paper.)  They bring to mind ancient, rotting manuscripts, written in lost languages