15 August 2010


During the month of July I spent my time working in IPM. IPM is an acronym for Integrated Pest Management but I've also heard it called Integrated Pest Murder, which is not entirely but sorta-kinda one of the things that IPM entails (just don't let my Entomology instructor hear me say that!).

While the definition of IPM likewise varies, the bottom line is this: to manage pest populations and minimize their damage to ornamental and agricultural plant crops without automatically reaching for evil, noxious chemicals. This means protecting people, animals, and the environment by employing biological controls, known as "the good guys" (or "beneficials" if you want to be really scientific about it) such as Lady Bugs, Praying Mantis, Mealy Bug Destroyers, those kinds of things, and using the least harmful chemicals available before resorting to the big guns.

I learned a lot in IPM, not just about bugs, but about how Longwood goes about protecting the health of its plants. One way is this:


No, it's not a makeshift coffee brewer. Close, though. It's compost tea. Every week the IPM crew brews about 14 buckets of compost tea for use in the Pierce's Woods area and inside the conservatory. This entails filling mesh bags with fresh compost, tying them to the bucket handle, filling the buckets with water and letting them steep overnight with the help of aeration devices like the ones you'd see in an aquarium. Come morning, presto! Compost tea! Everyone knows how good compost is for the soil with all the nutrients and microbes that feed the plants. Compost tea offers the same benefits. You probably don't want to pour this stuff on full-strength, so the tea is diluted with plain water then the plants are irrigated with it. And what living organism doesn't love a nice cup of tea!

Our work carried us outdoors and in and back again as we scouted throughout the property for pests and signs of plant disease. One such sign is this fungus growing on a maple in Pierce's Woods. As best as I've been able to find out it's a shelf fungus, actually the fruiting body of a fungal organism, also called bracket fungus in the phylum Basidiomycota. Some of the websites I visited trying to ID these called it Chicken Mushroom and stated they were edible (apparently everything tastes like chicken!). I wasn't inclined to find out but they have fascinated me almost the whole time I've been at Longwood. Shortly after I first noticed the growths last year, their weight caused them to fall off! They obviously regrew and I estimated the larger one on the bottom to measure about 2' from top to bottom. Signs like this indicate the tree is infected with some sort of pathogen that could potentially kill the tree. These structures are growing on area of the tree that was previously wounded - possibly where a branch was removed - which is an easy entry point for plant pathogens to enter and infect their host.


In another part of the garden I spotted another similar fungal growth and dubbed it the 'Bear and the Honeycomb'. Can you see why?

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Doesn't the knot on the tree look like bear's face!?

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OK, lest you think I'm nuts for seeing things like bear faces in tree knots, may I remind you that people see far stranger things in the clouds! For instance, one day the intrepid IPM Intern, Keeley, and I were scouting in the Idea Garden and when we returned to our trusty vehicle (a golf cart - THE way to get around the gardens!), we both noticed little brown specks of stuff all over the seat. We looked skyward and exclaimed, "FRASS!!".

Frass, in case you didn't know, is the proper scientific term for 'caterpillar poop'. And it was all over our cart. The culprit? A whole posse of Yellowneck Caterpillar in the branches of a Hawthorn tree directly above us! 

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So what do we do when we find nemesis such as these? We snipped one of the branches they were munching and took it back to the lab in order to correctly identify the pest (that one was easy - it was the cover model for the pest ID book we used!). Then we ascertain the level of damage they cause and weigh that against the acceptable damage threshold. We notify the section gardener (in this case, he already knew about them. Kind of hard to miss when whole branches of leaves are munched off over night and you have frass everywhere), then we notify the Plant Health Care Division Leader who develops a Plan of Attack. In a case like this, one could use a biological control like Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis), which is a natural soil-dwelling bacteria that specifically targets caterpillars. Because of its specificity, it's considered environmentally friendly as it won't hurt people, animals, or plants.

Other insects we encountered were the obstreperous and omnipresent Cicadas. These guys feed on tree sap and cause scarring on branches. The shells they leave behind after molting can also be a little off-putting but if you're of a mischievous frame of mind (not that I am, no sir!) they're fun to stick on your friends' clothing and see how long before they're noticed (not that I've ever done that, no, not me!).

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The IPM department is even breeding its own population of Vedalia Beetle (a relative of the Lady Bug) to combat Cottony Cushion Scale and Mealy Bug in the Conservatories to not only minimize the pest population but the use of chemicals. In order to grow the population, we had to feed them with their favorite snack, which meant collecting vials full of the Cottony Cushion Scale almost daily. Had the infected plants been sprayed with a noxious Cottony Cushion Scale killing chemical, there would be no scale to feed the beetles, hence, no beetles to release in the conservatories to quietly - and safely - eat the scale! Let's not mention how the presence of such a noxious chemical would affect the guest experience! I, for one, was very happy to collect the scale for our little beetle friends knowing I was doing my part to lessen the use of chemicals in the garden!

The thing about spending an entire month looking for bugs is that suddenly you begin to see them everywhere and IPM scouting begins to take on this "I see dead plants" sort of comedic quality. I spotted this guy by chance while walking home through the woods. It and several of its mates were happily munching on a native Ascelpias.  This is the larvae of the Spotted Tussock Moth-Lophocampa maculata. Another name for it is Yellow Spotted Tiger Moth, which I think is more accurate since both the larvae and the moth have a yellow tiger-y appearance. They tend to feed on Birch, Maple, and Oak, all of which are abundantly available in the woods near our homes, but these were quite happy feasting on the Milkweed so I let them have at it!

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IPM is just one small part of the Plant Health Care Division at Longwood but some of my favorite employees work in this department! Meet Smokey, the Idea Garden's resident IPM cat. Smokey is a full time employee and enjoys benefits such as employee housing and a health plan. He's a good mouser and does his part to keep the rodents from eating the annual flower displays. He can often be seen in the Idea Garden entertaining the guests and is quick to take advantage of an unsuspecting lap. Of the 15 or so IPM cats that call Longwood home, Smokey is my favorite!


One thing's for sure: being a student at Longwood means you are constantly learning new things and making new discoveries - some surprising, some shocking. While with IPM I was able to use my hand lens and occasionally a microscope to peer into the secret world of insects. You just never know what you're going to encounter!


10 August 2010

The Generalife

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According to my new friend Washington Irving, who heard it one night about a hundred years ago at a noble feast in the Nasrid Palace, the palace and gardens of Generalife were built by one of Granada's early kings  in order to keep his young son and heir sequestered from the world so that he would remain ignorant about that idle passion called love, and therefore not ruin his life. A good plan, that, until the King hired an all-knowing sage to teach the prince, threatening the sage with his life if he gave his charge even a hint of what love is all about. The wise tutor kept his word, but he made the fatal mistake of teaching the prince the language of the birds. When the prince reached the tender and hormonal age of 20 he was locked in the highest tower (I thought only maidens were locked in towers?) for writing sonnets to the trees (ah, perhaps that explains it), and chanced to meet with a dove who flew in and explained to him about the, er, well, the birds and the bees.


I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Sangria was flowing rather freely at that feast of Irving's. Nevertheless the Generalife (pronounced hen-er-al-LEE-feh), from the Arabic Jannat al-'Arif or Architect's Garden, was built in the early 1300's as a summer palace and retreat from the drama of courtly life at the Alhambra. To reach the gardens, we walked through what was once the orchard and market gardens dating back to the 1200's. Now they contain geometrically clipped cypress and more water channels. Entering an outer courtyard filled with Jasmine instantly gave me a headache. The scent of the bloom was so thick you had to slice your way through it with a scimitar.  This would have been where visitors parked their horses and I wondered if the walls had been papered with such a fragrant vine in the days of the Sultans to mask other more equine scents? Up a short flight of stairs is the entrance to the Generalife gardens. Perhaps the most famous view of the palace is this one:

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This is the Patio de la Acequia (Court of the Water Channel). The parallel jets down either side are modern, added in the 19th century. Archaeologists doing excavations after a 1958 fire discovered that the pool did have at least 12 jets in its original design, so the addition of the present spouts is in keeping with the historical renovation of the palace. Originally the garden was laid out in a Char-Bagh style with four sunken flower beds bisected by the water channel which draws water from the Alhambra's Royal Canal (Acequia Real), which provided the palace's water supply, and perpendicularly by a stone walkway at the center of the canal that leads through the arcade into a mirador on the hillside overlooking the gardens and orchards below.

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The open arcade is new as well. During the Christian era, sometime in the mid 1600's, the solid wall on that side was replaced with the corridor of repeating arches. Before the arches, the mirador would have been the only place where one could look outside. I tried to imagine how this would have changed the feeling of the space, from an almost entirely enclosed intimate courtyard to the semi-open space it is now and wished for a genie to take me back in time to experience it first hand. Like the Alhambra, decoration of the Generalife was elegant and intricate - Moorish carvings, filigreed lattice, opulent apartments, cooling water features outside and in.

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At either end of the courtyard are two small pavilions once used as palace apartments. One has a view of the entire city of Granada and the valley of the Darro River, flowing in the distance below the palace. Throughout its history, many a forlorn prince and princess have sat imprisoned in the Generalife's lofty towers and gazed longingly at the world beyond. This one was no exception...

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Through what was once one of the royal bedchambers is another arcade dating back to the 1500's which looks out to the Courtyard of the Cypress or Sultan's Court. This area used to be the palace bath and was converted to a garden during another royal remodel. The water in this garden comes from the Royal Water Channel where it continues through the middle of the Patio de la Acequia on the other side of the wall. From there the water flows out into the market gardens and orchards below where it joins a third water channel called The Third Water Channel (catchy, huh!).

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Another legend has it that a Sultana was engaged in an assignation with a knight from the rival Abencerrajes clan under a large cypress tree, kept from falling down now by a large metal brace, when her husband the Sultan came on the scene. The Sultan was so incensed that he massacred all 37 male members of the rival family in a hall of the Alhambra that is now known as the Hall of the Abencerrajes. Reputedly the stains in the fountain basin there are all that remain of that bloody day.

In contrast, the floor of the Sultan's Courtyard is paved in a beautiful pebble mosaic with white pebbles taken from the river Darro and black ones from the river Genil, the only stains here being the ones left by decades of tourists' feet.

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On a terrace above the courtyard is a water staircase leading up to yet another small palace, converted to a chapel. The banisters themselves are carved rills which the water runs down and there are basins in the circular landings with water bubbling from the center. Visitors can't resist trailing their hands in the cold water as they ascend the stairs. Some sources say this ingenious water feature is not common to Moorish gardens but was invented by the Egyptians and have been found in Romanized gardens, which is where the Moors probably got the idea. This is the entry point of the water diverted from the river Darro that feeds both the Generalife and Alhambra complexes. Throughout both sites water is celebrated with ornate yet practically functional channels and rills, fountains and basins, all once fed by gravity.

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Reaching the top of the water stair, you almost immediately start down again via another stairwell covered in Wisteria. Here terraced gardens filled with clipped hedges, roses, fruit trees, and - yes - more water, step their way down the hillside. At the bottom you enter a corridor covered by Oleander trained to arch over the walkway, providing a shady walk back to the main entrance of the palace grounds. Through the leafy canopy you can catch glimpses of the gardens and fortress of the Alhambra beyond.

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I'll bet you're wondering what happened to our love-struck prince? Through his friend the dove, he was introduced to a portrait of a likewise imprisoned princess in a distant land. He escaped the tower, fled in search of his beloved and with the help of a recalcitrant owl and a parrot who was, according to Irving, on very good terms with itself, found her and competed for her hand. Wearing a magic suit of armor and riding a bewitched horse, he vanquished the other princes and the king in a mad rampage which sent the princess into an incurable swoon.

The bereaved prince vowed never to show his face again but when he heard that the king was offering anything within his kingdom as a reward for curing the princess of her delirium, he then dressed himself as a traveler and by playing a little music and reciting the love letter he had sent her via the dove, she snapped out of it and they rode away on a magic carpet - his reward for bringing her back to her former self - and they lived happily ever after.

I'd sure like to know what was in that Sangria, Mr. Irving!

05 August 2010

The Alhambra

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When I first saw the fortified castle at Edinburgh brooding over the city atop a hunk of volcanic rock I thought, "Hey! Those Scots really know how to build a fort!". Now I'm wondering if they hired the same consulting firm as the ancient Moors because the Alhambra has some striking similarities. It likewise sits atop a rocky promontory, dominating the Granada skyline. Both contain once opulent but still impressive royal palaces. Both were centers of military activity, execution, murder, romantic intrigue, history making ceremony, and religion. Both are heavily fortified to protect against invasion. And both are absolutely jaw-droppingly magnificent.

The Alhambra's name comes from the Arabic Al-Ḥamrā', which literally means "the red one". The complete form was Al-Qal'at al-Ḥamrā' or "the red fortress" from the color of the red clay of which it was constructed but the ancient Moorish poets called it "a pearl set in emeralds" because the whitewashed walls contrasted with the surrounding forest. From the outside all you see is a solid wall punctuated with watch towers and a few balconies. There is nothing to give you even a hint that there are lush gardens and lavish palaces within.

It was another hot Spanish summer day when we visited the Alhambra and I was struck by the way water was used to convey a sense of cool serenity in the midst of this baking "stony pile". Everywhere we went, water flowed silently in rills along the pathways, burbled cheerfully down stair-step channels, clapped joyfully in fountain jets, and waited serenely in shadowy reflecting pools. Everywhere there was water, carefully controlled.
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At the center of the complex is the Palacios Nazaries, or Nasrid Palace, which is actually a series of palaces. Built from the late 13th century, the decoration of the palaces contains some of the best of Moorish and Andalusian art and architecture.

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Intricate carved stonework, Islamic horseshoe arches, colorful tessellated tile mosaics and beautifully painted walls stop your breath at every turn.
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Most of the palace buildings are quadrangular in structure and contain an open central courtyard. The interior walls facing the courtyards are decorated with columns, arcades, fountains or pools, intricate latticework, and flower beds. One such courtyard is the Patio de los Arrayanes (Court of the Myrtles). Another name is the Patio de la Alberca (Court of the Blessing or Court of the Pond), from the Arabic word birka, meaning "pool". At one end of the birka a single jet rises ruffling the surface of the water. The jet wasn't running the day we were there so the surface of the pool offered a still reflection of the surrounding architecture. Notice the latticework on the upper balcony. It is said that the King's harem could watch the goings on in the courtyard below while remaining modestly concealed.

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The Hall of Comares, otherwise known as the Throne Room, is the largest room in the Tower of Comares. It was here in 1492 that Christopher Columbus waited on Their Royal Personages Ferdinand and Isabella, dazzling them with his PowerPoint presentations and colored pie charts to convince them that funding his voyage around the world was really a pretty good idea. And aren't we glad he did!

The domed ceiling in the Hall of Comares is an artistic and structural masterpiece of inlaid circles, crowns, and stars. A room fit for a King - or Queen - indeed.

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Through the Hall of the Muqarnas is the Patio of Lions, famed for its fountain featuring 12 spouting lions. The fountain and courtyard is currently undergoing an extensive renovation which means I'll have to go back when it's complete!
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The ceiling in the Hall of the Abencerrages will inspire awe and a sore neck, because all you want to do is stand there and stare up at it! The most notable feature is the eight-point stalactite star of the cupola that spreads out into eight trunk-like stalactites carved from stone. Sunlight streams through latticed windows to illuminate the intricate scroll work on the walls.

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In the early 1800's our compatriot Washington Irving lived for a time as a guest of the palace. It was during this time that he enjoyed leisurely strolls through the grounds, midnight ramblings through deserted apartments, and long talks with his Spanish factotum, who regaled him with many a tall tale of the Alhambra and its inhabitants. It was in Mr. Irving's apartment that our own classmate met with a rabid pre-teen Spanish fan following who insisted on posing with him for a picture!
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Every time we passed their group afterward, they would point and call his name, giggling! I've never seen a guy blush so easily!
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Throughout the palace garden courtyards could be seen and heard from every window or balcony. Always there was the sound of water, always a shady glade offering a cool respite from the summer heat.
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The Alhambra is one of those places so steeped in history that it positively drips from the rafters, and every room, every nook, every piece of carved and painted stone has a story behind it. If you have the immense fortune to go there, plan on two full days to see it all. And one night. I can't wait to go back again and spend more time investigating it. Having seen it the once, I can't even come close to doing it justice here so I'll leave you with some of the images that made me stop and give up ever finding the words to describe what I felt.

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Yup. Those ancient folks sure knew how to build a fort!