A berry by any other name would taste as sweet: Sneaky Saskatoons

Saskatoons, juneberry, bilberry, wild-plum...why does this tasty berry have so many names? Photo by John Freeland, Saskatoon Berries, CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/john_f/5992290371/

Saskatoons, juneberry, bilberry, wild-plum…why does this tasty berry have so many names? Photo by John Freeland, Saskatoon Berries, CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/john_f/5992290371/

Okay, get ready for a rant. A rant against common names. Common names are the handles most people use to describe plants and animals, like daisy or robin. Scientists prefer to use Latin names like Bellis perennis and Turdus migratorius. I think you’ll understand why in a second.

But before I rant, I need to tell you a story.

A few weeks ago I wrote about strawberries. Strangely enough, then I wanted to eat strawberries. And not imported ones from California. I wanted local strawberries fresh off the bush that still had bugs on them. So I ended up at a U-pick farm outside Shawinigan, Quebec.

To my great disappointment, there were no strawberries to be found! They had all been picked the previous day by hungry customers. However, the owner told us (in French, bien sûr) that “les amélanches” were ready for picking, and urged us to try one from her basket. Cautiously, we popped one of the blue-purple berries in our mouths. We were not disappointed. Whatever these berries were, they tasted like sweet blueberries and had a great texture. Soon we were ripping them (carefully) off the 7-foot tall bushes. Some of the berries even ended up in our buckets. Compared to picking raspberries and strawberries, picking these was a breeze! But what the heck were they?

I turned to the internet for an answer. It turns out that “les amélanches” are Saskatoon berries. Before my berry-picking experience, I had never encountered raw Saskatoon berries. The most common uses are baked in pies and pastries, or made into jams and syrups. I can attest that Saskatoon berry syrup on pancakes is darn delicious. But the raw berries are even better!

As I shared my divine berry picking experience on Facebook, I discovered out that many other people had picked Saskatoon berries, but under a different name. It was hard to talk about the berries, because everyone called them something different! What was going on?

As it turns out, Saskatoon berries go by many different names. Serviceberry, sarvisberry, shadbush, juneberry, bilberry, wild-plum and (my personal favorite) chuckley pear! Whew! That’s a lot of names to go on a passport! And kind of ridiculous if you ask me. Do I have to memorize all of these common names just to have an intelligent conversation about berry picking?

Sasktaoon Berries chillin' on a bush. Photo by John Freeland, Saskatoon Berries, CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/john_f/5992849320/

Sasktaoon Berries chillin’ on a bush. Photo by John Freeland, Saskatoon Berries, CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/john_f/5992849320/

In Latin, the plant is called Amelanchier alnifolia. One name. Okay, a complicated name with lots of vowels, but still easier than memorizing 13 different common names. It was this problem of too many names that inspired Carl Linnaeus to give every organism a single universal name. And that’s just what he did. Now scientists all around the world can talk about Amelanchier alnifolia without being confused. It’s called the Latin name. Or scientific name. Or binomen. Okay, that’s a little ironic.

Where did all these names for Saskatoon berry come from, anyway? Well, they’re found from BC to Western Ontario and also in the Yukon. The different populations of people who lived in these areas probably ‘discovered’ them independently and named them different things.

Speaking of names, there is a city in Saskatchewan named Saskatoon. So Saskatoon berries were named after the city, right? Wrong! The city was actually named after the berry. Apparently there were oodles of bushes in that area. Yum yum yum! The name ‘Saskatoon’ is probably an English mangling of the Blackfoot or Cree name.

I wished I lived in a city named Strawberry. Or Raspberry, for that matter.

Okay, thus ends my rant against common names. They are great in most cases, but if you want to be precise, the scientific name is the way to go.

Want to learn more about the mysterious Saskatoon berry? More history, facts and revelations to come next week!

References
http://saskatoonberrycouncil.com/sbcc/about-sbcc/processing.php
http://saskatoonberrycouncil.com/sbcc/health.php

Click to access saskatoon.pdf


http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/en/article/saskatoon-berry/
http://www.gov.mb.ca/agriculture/crops/production/fruit-crops/saskatoon-berries.html
http://cwf-fcf.org/en/discover-wildlife/flora-fauna/flora/serviceberries.html
http://saskatoonberrycouncil.com/sbcc/about-sbcc/history.php

Crimson chanteuse: Interview with a Northern Cardinal

Female Northern Cardinals are one of the few female birds in North America that sing. Photo by William Klos, Northern Cardinal (Female) CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/wjklos/11610478/

Female Northern Cardinals are one of the few female birds in North America that sing. Photo by William Klos, Northern Cardinal (Female) CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/wjklos/11610478/

When I moved to Ottawa from Calgary, Northern Cardinals were one of my favorite birds to discover! I mean, they’re brightly coloured, they sing beautifully, what’s not to love?

Even though Northern Cardinals are around all year, I only notice them in the winter and spring. Their red plumage is easy to spot against white snow or an icy blue sky. In the spring, their whistling song is one of the first things I hear in the morning (other than my alarm clock and the buzz of the refrigerator). I was lucky enough to find a female sitting on her nest this morning and decided to ask her some burning questions.

A: I love to hear male cardinals sing in the spring! Why do they do it?

C: Hey now, the men can’t take all the credit! I sing too!

A: Really? Isn’t that unusual for songbirds?

C: That’s right, we’re one of the only songstress birds in North America, and we’re proud of it!

A: I can see that. Okay, so why do you sing? Are you trying to attract a mate, or guard a territory like the males
do?

C: Goodness no! Our songs are much more subtle than the guys’. I often borrow phrases of my husband’s song and add my own flavour. That way he knows it’s me.

A: Where is your favorite place to sing? In the shower?

C: Um, no. I don’t take showers. I sing quietly on my nest. After all, I don’t want to attract every predator within 20 metres.

A: Okay, so why do you sing?

C: A lady can have her secrets, can’t she? Maybe I’m saying “I’m hungry” or “I’m full” or “There’s a predator nearby” or “The kids are driving me crazy!” or even “Where is that grasshopper pizza I ordered?” Let’s just say that I’m telling my husband to bring me food, or not bring me food. If that handsome red guy came by every minute, he might lead a predator right to our nest. Singing to him can cut down on unneeded trips.

A: So your husband brings you food? That sounds like a great system. I wouldn’t say no to breakfast in bed every day.

C: He is quite sweet. But let me tell you, when the babies are demanding food every few minutes, he gets quite a work-out! He only brings me food when I’m nesting in the spring and summer. In the fall and winter I go back to getting my own food.

A: What kind of food does your husband bring back to the nest? You mentioned grasshopper pizza?

C: I was joking, but if you know a joint that makes grasshopper pizza let me know. He brings me seeds, fruit, and berries. My favorite are the sunflower seeds you fill your birdfeeders with. Mm-mm! When we have babies in the nest he’ll bring them lots of insects, like beetles, flies, centipedes, butterflies and crickets. They also like spiders. It must be all those legs.

A: Ugh, that’s an unpleasant image! It seems to me like your husband is doing all the work. I mean he defends the territory and brings home the bacon while you sit on a nest all day.

C: I resent that! Sitting on a nest is not as easy as it looks. I’m protecting my kids from becoming a predator’s snack. And let me tell you, there are lots of animals that love to snack on young birds. It’s a stressful job. The babies in 4 out of every 5 nests don’t survive to adulthood.

A: That’s awful!

C: Yes it is, but we move on and try harder next year. Every spring I go house-hunting with my husband, scoping out good nest sites in tangled vines or bushes. We like to nest close to the ground, but unfortunately that makes it easy for predators to get at the nest.
I work really hard on that nest. Each one is a 4-layered feat of engineering! I bend twigs into a circle, then add a layer of leaves, a layer of grapevine bark and then finish it off with some cozy grass and pine needles. Each nest takes 3-9 days to build! And for the next batch of eggs, I do it all over again. If conditions are good,
I’ll build two nests a year.

A: Okay, so it sounds like you’re working hard too, and work is pretty equally distributed between you and your husband. But there’s something that doesn’t make sense to me. If you’re on the nest all the time, how do predators ever get at your babies?

C: Well, I’m not on the nest every second of the day…

A: I feel like there’s something you’re not telling me. Want to get it off your chest?

C: Okay, fine, I’ll tell you! I’m having an affair with the next door neighbor! He’s just so….red!

A: Okay, that explains it. Does your husband know?

C: I’m sure he suspects it. At any given time a tenth to a third of chicks in my nest are not his, and he can tell. Anyway, he cheats on me too. Everybody does.

A: But you’re still a couple?

C: Yep, we’re completely devoted to each other. I’m the only female he feeds and takes care of. We drift apart in the winter, but usually get back together in the spring. That sweet song of his gets me every time.

A: Do most couples mate for life?

C: Goodness no! About 1 in 5 relationships won’t last the winter.

A: Speaking of winter, how do you like the cold here? I always seem to see you frolicking in the snow.

C: I hate it. I’m not frolicking, I’m desperately trying to stay warm! But we like the neighborhood, and there’s plenty of food here so there’s no point in migrating.

My ancestors were tropical birds who came to Canada from the US in the 1800s. They were following Europeans who were cutting down forests, creating the open bushy spaces that we love. We love living in backyards and parks and forest edges, so our numbers have only been growing as the numbers of humans living here grows.

What a hunk! Photo by Flyn Kynd, Northern Cardinal, CC.  https://www.flickr.com/photos/79452129@N02/14025876635/

What a hunk! Photo by Flyn Kynd, Northern Cardinal, CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/79452129@N02/14025876635/


A: Very interesting! One last question. Why are cardinals red?

C: Because we eat red berries. Duh. Just like flamingos get pink from eating shrimp, we get red from eating berries. Any bird you see that is red, orange or yellow is eating something that colour. We can’t make those pigments by ourselves.

A: Fascinating! Thank you so much. Best of luck with those eggs!

C: Thanks! My pleasure.

References

http://www.highparknaturecentre.com/2014/01/colourful-cardinals/#respond
http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/northern_cardinal/lifehistory
http://curiousnature.info/A1-Cardinal.htm
http://eol.org/pages/1052070/details

8 things I didn’t know about native bees

Bees come in a rainbow of colours. Check out this shiny green sweat bee. Photo by Jim McCulloch, CC. Sweat bee on coral vine flower. https://www.flickr.com/photos/jim_mcculloch/2950920481/

Bees come in a rainbow of colours. Check out this shiny green sweat bee. Photo by Jim McCulloch, CC. Sweat bee on coral vine flower. https://www.flickr.com/photos/jim_mcculloch/2950920481/

I have a confession to make; I’m an insect geek.

And when it comes to social insects like bees and ants I’m even geekier than usual.

So when I learned that the Learning Garden at the University of Ottawa was holding a free workshop on insect identification, I jumped at the chance to learn more.

One of the coolest things we learned was how to tell the difference between flies and bees. You would think this would be easy, right? Bees are fuzzy with yellow and black stripes. Flies are black and shiny.

In fact, it isn’t that simple! Many of the native bee species in Canada look like tiny flies. Also, many fly species are camouflaged to look like bees so predators won’t mess with them. So how do you tell them apart? Well, look at the antennae. In most cases, flies have short, stubby antennae and bees have long, languorous ones.

Armed with this information, we stepped out into the University’s learning garden to find some insects. Now that I knew what I was looking for, I was amazed to see how many bees there were! They came in all shapes and sizes, from 2mm to 2cm. They also came in an exciting palette of colours, from black to grey to bright green! Even cooler, all these bees were native to Canada!

I first learned about native bees while writing an essay on the possible causes of the major honey bee deaths in North America. I learned that these unsung-heros do a great job of pollinating farmers crops for free! It’s sad that we aren’t taught more about them in school. So I did some reading, and here’s what I found out.

1. Everything you’ve been told about bees is a lie

Okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. It’s more like ‘everything you’ve been told about bees only applies to honey bees’.

Out of 19,000 bee species worldwide, most museums, science centres, schools and documentaries only talk about one: the European Honey bee. You know, the queen with thousands of female workers, the yellow and black-striped workers bringing back nectar and pollen to feed the larvae, the waggle dance to communicate where flowers are located. You’ve heard it all before.

And there’s a good reason to talk about them. European honey bees are commercially valuable. They were domesticated a long time ago to produce honey and pollinate crops. Without pollination, we wouldn’t have fruits like apples, tomatoes, cherries, pumpkins, strawberries or blueberries. In fact, we need pollinators for 1 out of every 3 mouthfuls of food we eat!

The European honeybee is so essential to agriculture that European settlers brought them to Canada. The European Honey bee is now a mainstay of the Canadian economy. However, there were bees in Canada already, around 730 species to be exact! And even though we don’t talk about them very much, they’re still here! For some crops, like blueberries, native bees are even better pollinators than honey bees.

2. They came from underground

Bees weren’t always cute and cuddly pollen-eaters. They used to eat meat! Yep, bees evolved from predatory digger wasps, which still exist today.

Why this drastic change from munching on other insects to sipping nectar? Well, it had everything to do with the arrival of flowering plants. Believe it or not, flowers didn’t exist until the Cretaceous period (1465-65 million years ago). This means that dinosaurs pre-date flowers. Can you imagine a world without flowers? Weird, huh? The evolution of flowers created a whole new food source, and bees, wasps, butterflies and moths evolved to eat it up. Maybe sipping nectar was easier than catching live prey!

3. All by myself…

Considering that honey bees are the poster child of the social insect, I was surprised to learn that most native bees in North America not social at all. They live by themselves, and are called solitary bees. Each female builds her own nest, lays her own eggs, and collects all her own pollen and nectar. Who needs hundreds of sisters when you can be independent?

What does a solitary bee’s life cycle look like? A female finds a male to mate with, then digs or finds a burrow to lay eggs in. She collects a huge ball of nectar and pollen, then lays an egg on top of it. When the egg hatches, the larvae feeds on the pollen, and in the fall becomes an adult. The adults hibernate through the winter to emerge in the spring.

4. Hives? No thanks.

Bee exiting a burrow. Photo by Rob Cruikshank, CC https://www.flickr.com/photos/84221353@N00/5713786629/

Bee exiting a burrow. Photo by Rob Cruikshank, CC https://www.flickr.com/photos/84221353@N00/5713786629/

Most solitary bees don’t live in fancy hives, but in holes in the ground. Yep, kind of like hobbits. 90% of native bee species lay their eggs in burrows in the ground.

Osima bees have by far the cutest homes. They like to nest in tiny spaces including snail shells, keyholes and even locks!

5. Busy bee? No, lazy bee.

Some bee species trick someone else into doing all the work for them. They lay their eggs in the nests of other bees, and avoid the work of collecting pollen and making a nest. This behaviour is called cleptoparastisitm. So much for busy bees!

6. Bumbling around

The fuzzy Bumble bee is indigenous to Canada. It’s the only bee that sticks around to feed its growing larvae. All other native bees hightail it out of there once the eggs are laid. In the wild, bumble bees also nest in the ground, but usually let someone else do the work. Holes in trees or abandoned rodent dens make a cozy nest. However, domesticated honey bees are managed using hives.

7. Picky, picky

Some Canadian bees are picky eaters. They only collect nectar and pollen from one kind of flower. They aren’t doing this to be difficult. They’re doing it because they have evolved to be perfectly suited to that flower. For example, the bee Melissodes desponsa only visits thistles. Ecologists call picky eaters ‘specialists’. Most Canadian bees are ‘generalists’ which means they can get food from many different kinds of flowers.

8. The extinction factor

Because of their sensitivity to environmental factors, some bee species are prone to extinction. This is especially true for specialists that only feed on one type of flower. If the flower disappears, they are in trouble. And it’s not just climate change that is causing their food to disappear. Many of the flowers we grow in our gardens come from Europe, and most native bees can’t use them for food.In addition, chemical pesticides meant for pesky insect will also kill bees.

Okay, enough doom and gloom. What can you do to help native bees? You can give them food by planting native wildflowers, or by waiting to mow those pesky ‘weeds’ until after they have flowered. You can give them places to live, by leaving bare patches of ground in your garden. You can even install woodblocks with holes drilled into them. These are called trap-nests, and will attract bees that like to live in pre-existing holes.

Want to learn more? Check out this user-friendly field guide to native pollinators by the David Suzuki Foundation. The photos are incredible!

Click to access Pollinator_Guide_5pg.pdf

Oh, and I’ve also decided to open up my blog to comments. If you have comments, questions or suggestions for a post, feel free to post them!

Also, if you haven’t checked out my Art page, you might like it.

References
http://sci.waikato.ac.nz/evolution/plantEvolution.shtml
http://www.pollinationcanada.ca/index.php?k=358
http://www.biology.ualberta.ca/bsc/ejournal/pgs_03/pgs_03_main.html

Click to access Recommendations%20for%20Conservation%20of%20Pollinators%20on%20FarmlandFinal_DSC.pdf


http://www.gnb.ca/0171/10/0171100025-e.asp

6 things I didn’t know about strawberries

Behind that red juiciness lurks hidden secrets. Strawberry. Photo by Vladimir Fishmen, CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/117611265@N05/13537327374/

Behind that red juiciness lurks hidden secrets. Strawberry. Photo by Vladimir Fishmen, CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/117611265@N05/13537327374/

It’s strawberry season in Ontario, and you know what that means: strawberry shortcake, muffins, trifles, and my personal favorite, spinach salad with strawberries!

Growing up it was my job to gather the strawberries from our small patch in the backyard. We never had many berries, as the squirrels got there before we did! To celebrate my largest harvest I decided to take initiative…and wash them in the kiddie pool. The one my brother and I had recently vacated. Not one of my best decisions. My mother was not impressed with the pool’s sanitary conditions, so I had to donate my beautiful strawberries to our local Feed the Birds and Squirrels Fund. Sigh.

In spite of this disappointment, my passion for eating strawberries only grew. Realizing I know very little about strawberries other than the fact that they are delicious, I decided to do a bit of research. I came up with the following list of reasons why strawberries are awesome.

1. A strawberry is not a berry

Strawberries aren't berries, but a banana is. Photo by D. Sharon Pruitt, Pink Sherbert Photography, CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/pinksherbet/4853010035/

Strawberries aren’t berries, but a banana is. Photo by D. Sharon Pruitt, Pink Sherbert Photography, CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/pinksherbet/4853010035/

Mind blown! In botanical terms (and I love botanical terms), berries are fleshy fruit that develop from a single ovary. Think blueberries, tomatoes, bananas, avocados, and even pumpkins. Real berries have seeds on the inside. Strawberries have seeds on the outside. Oops.

2. A strawberry is not even a fruit

Whaa? This is getting ridiculous. Of course strawberries are fruit, it says so in the food guide! Not according to botanists. They consider strawberries to be an accessory, or compound fruit. The green spots we call ‘seeds’, but botanists call ‘achenes’, are the real fruit. Each of these 100 mini-fruits must be pollinated separately.

The red stuff we like to munch on is the receptacle, the part of the flower that supports all of its sexual organs. When you think about it, fruit is just an assembly of plant lady bits. Maybe not a topic to bring up at the dinner table.

If you don’t believe me, these photos of developing strawberries might help:

Close-up of the hundreds of achenes and their leftover pistils. Each one has a seed inside. Photo by Stephen Shellard IMG_2771 CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/stephen_shellard/8816417025/

Close-up of the hundreds of achenes and their leftover pistils. Each one has a seed inside. Photo by Stephen Shellard IMG_2771 CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/stephen_shellard/8816417025/

The receptacle in this image seems to be doing it's own thing. Photo by Jessie Hirsch, CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/jhirsch/3626022615/

The receptacle in this image seems to be doing it’s own thing. Photo by Jessie Hirsch, CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/jhirsch/3626022615/

Photo by Jessie Hirsch, CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/jhirsch/3626022615/

3. Attack of the clones!

Runners shooting out from the mother plant. Photo by Colleen Ellse CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/colleen_ellse/3514453376/

Runners shooting out from the mother plant. Photo by Colleen Ellse CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/colleen_ellse/3514453376/

Strawberries have strange sex lives. The flowers are hermaphroditic and pollinate themselves. However, for a beautiful, well-formed receptacle, they need bees to help out.

Strawberries don’t normally reproduce using seeds. Instead, they reproduce asexually. The mother plant sends out runners that set down roots, creating daughter ‘clones’. The clones are genetically identical to the mother plant.

Farmers who want big berries cut off the clones, leaving the mother plant more energy to produce the fruit. The fewer runners, the bigger the berries. Farmers who grow berries for processing let a few runners go, and their berries are smaller. But if they’re being mashed into jam, size doesn’t matter! About 75% of strawberry crop is processed to make frozen strawberries, jams and yogurts. Only 25% is sold fresh.

4. Have a heart!

The elusive double strawberry. Photo by Petra Chill Mimi, stawb CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/chillmimi/7879135588/

The elusive double strawberry. Photo by Petra Chill Mimi, stawb CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/chillmimi/7879135588/

In many Western cultures, the heart-shaped strawberry symbolized love, passion and purity. For the Romans it was a symbol of Venus, Goddess of Love.

Next time you go into a Medieval church, look up, waaaay up, and you might see strawberries at the tops of the pillars. Stone masons put them there as a symbol of purity and perfection. In Shakespeare’s play Othello, Othello gives his wife Desdemonda a handkerchief embroidered with strawberries, which symbolize her purity.

According to one legend, if you share a ‘double strawberry’ (those ginormous strawberries where it looks like two have grown together) with someone, the two of you will fall in love. Aww. Nice thought, but there’s no way I’m sharing my strawberries! Not only are they expensive, but want all the health benefits all to myself.

5. Marvelous Medicine

The Ancient Romans believed strawberry fruits and leaves had many medical uses, such as a treatment for kidney stones, fevers, liver problems, throat infections, bad breath and fainting.

Maybe they weren’t far off. Today we know that strawberries contain antioxidants (like vitamin C, Folate) that prevent cancer. Eating them daily has been shown to reduce cancer cell growth. They also have omega-3 fatty acids. Fat in strawberries, who knew? They contain Vitamin K, which is important for bone health and most people don’t get enough of it. They also contain iodine, a chemical that kick-starts the thyroid, your body’s powerhouse. The acid in strawberries also whitens teeth and heals the gums. Huh, maybe the Romans were right about bad breath!

Eating 8 strawberries will give you 160% of daily your vitamin C. By weight, that’s more than oranges. No wonder they are one of the world’s most popular fruits!

6. What’s in a name?

Why strawberry? In English, they used to be called strewberries, because the low-hanging fruit appear to be ‘strewn’ along the ground. Once farmers started bringing these delicate fruit to market packed in straw, the name was changed to strawberry. But you can use strewberry if you really want to. Happy strawberry eating and picking!

References
http://www.koppert.com/pollination/fruit-crops/crops/detail/strawberry/
http://ontarioberries.com/site/berry-info/strawberries.html
http://urbanext.illinois.edu/strawberries/history.cfm
http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/568585/strawberry
http://www.agf.gov.bc.ca/aboutind/products/plant/strawberry.htm
http://www.inspection.gc.ca/food/fresh-fruits-and-vegetables/quality-inspection/fruit-inspection-manuals/strawberries/eng/1303696857326/1303696941051
http://www.foodland.gov.on.ca/english/fruits/strawberries/index.html
http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/cultivated-berries/
http://www.chpcanada.ca/en/blog/health-benefits-strawberries

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