Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Buckeye Seeds

When I was a child growing up in Germany I would gather horse chestnuts (conkers) when they fell to the ground in autumn. Even as a young child I loved the shiny reddish-brown color. We would bring the conkers home and use them for crafts project. The tree itself - a European horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) - is a very large majestic tree with white or red flower spikes in the spring - a stunning sight along the streets and in parks.

The Northern California climate doesn't allow horse chestnuts to thrive here. But we have a different tree that is related to it.

The California buckeye (Aesculus californica) is native to California and southwestern Oregon. Compared to its European relative it is rather short and almost has an umbrella shape. The flower spikes that appear in the spring after the leaves have emerged are white (with just a hint of light pink) with bright orange pollen. The entire tree is covered with these flowers and is quite a sight!

After the flowers are gone and we get into summer the tree does something remarkable: in order to survive the drought of the long summer months it drops all of its leaves and waits for the winter rain. However, the tree will develop its fruit in late summer that ripens in fall. It is sitting in a leathery capsule that hangs from the bare branches.

Slowly, those capsules will split open. I have read somewhere that this is the reason it was named "buckeye".

And then - in November the buckeyes will fall to the ground, either still sitting in the capsule...

... or popping right out of them. Their color is lighter than their European relatives, with reddish hues. It's a beautiful warm and earthy color, fitting for autumn.

The tree is poisonous in all its parts including the nuts. Some animals eat them if they don't find anything else, but usually they go unnoticed and just make new buckeye trees.

There are several buckeye trees at the lake and every autumn I check when the buckeyes will drop. This year they started to fall just last week. I gathered up three of them to bring home and use for decoration; the rest I left where they dropped. However, whenever I am at the lake I take a short detour to check how many more have fallen.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Where the Wine Grapes Grow

Just like in 2017 I have a difficult time finding my "normalcy" again after our latest emergency. I struggled with that back then and I do it again right now. I've finally unpacked all the evacuation items, realizing that I packed less than last time. For example, I could leave behind all the scrapbooks because I had scanned them since the 2017 wildfire. Obviously I learned a lesson or two.

Anyway, I decided to get back to blogging, hoping to ease back into my "normal" life. I was thinking of the Alexander Valley north of town which was at the center of the Kincade Fire, our latest big wildfire. It is a beautiful valley with the Russian River lazily meandering through it. Vineyards stretch out to the foothills of the Mayacamas Mountains with majestic lone trees, mainly old oaks, standing either at the edge of the vineyards or right in the middle of them. Back roads pass the many wineries and restaurants that serve farm-to-table food.

The Wappo who with the Pomo used to live in the Alexander Valley prior to Spanish colonization call the valley "Unutsawaholmanoma"  which translates to "Toyon Bush Berry Place". Viticulture started back in 1843 when Cyrus Alexander began to establish vineyards in the area with vine cuttings collected from Fort Ross. The valley has become a renowned wine growing area, and AVA (American Viticulture Area) status was established in 1984.

The wine grown and produced here is truly delicious. The Cabernet-Sauvignons are top notch, but my personal favorite is the Zinfandel - for me it is THE California grape. It is a rich wine with a dark red color and flavors that explode on your tongue - I can't believe I'm writing this at 8:30 in the morning! I sure look forward to my glass of Zin tonight (probably from an Alexander Valley vineyard).

Despite the wineries that bring quite some tourism and therefore traffic to the area on a weekend, the valley has retained its sleepy agricultural character. It's a pleasure to trundle along Highway 128, a quiet back road, with a stop at Jimtown (a deli and a church) to grab a sandwich. The Mayacamas Mountains can be seen from anywhere in the valley with the peak of Mount St. Helena towering over them.

Today, Alexander Valley is the largest and most fully planted wine region in Sonoma County. It is also one of the warmest areas in Northern California during the day, but at night experiences a wide diurnal temperature variation (the variation between a high temperature and a low temperature that occurs during the same day) that offers cool climate conditions. This enables the Alexander Valley to grow a wide range of grape varieties. No wonder you can find so many wineries here.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

An Image and Its Story - October 2019

Before I go on to my photo I want to let you know that the Kincade fire is 70% contained. Almost all of the 190.000 people who have been evacuated have returned to their homes. Power has been restored, but some homes are still without gas. Almost 200 residences have been lost in the fire and many more structures destroyed. My heart breaks for those who have lost their home - while this is on a much much lower scale than back in 2017 when we lost over 5000 homes in Santa Rosa alone, it is awful for the people who did lose theirs.

Once again our community came together to help and support. The warnings this time came early and in an orderly manner - evacuating so many people within 24 hours is not a small feat. Our law enforcement did an excellent job - and the 5000 firefighters who helped containing this very large wildfire (more than 77,000 acres) and put their lives on the line are simply amazing and deserve all our gratitude.

A few days before this stressful week I came home from my grocery shopping. I had parked the car in the garage and wanted to take the bags out of the trunk when I saw this guy right across the street from my house. He was lying there at the edge of the driveway in the woods, relaxing in the sun. He stared at me, but never tried to run away even when I was crossing the street to get a closer look with my camera. Maybe he thought "ah, that's the lady with the wonderful salad buffet" (= my front garden) and knew that I didn't pose any threat to him.

About ten minutes later my neighbor drove up this driveway in his pick up truck and stopped when he saw the buck on his property. Even then, the buck didn't move a muscle - as if he knew that we would never harm him. His message was clear; "this is my place".

And rightfully so.