Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Galls, Monocotyledonae, and RGB or: What I learned today in school

Ant soaking up some buttercup sweetness

It was a day filled with learning for my 32 year old mind.   I keep a running list of all the things I would love to write about sitting on my bedside table.  The three things I learned about today feel so unrelated I feel I have to write about them all at once just to check them off.  When I think about what led me to learn about each of these things, I see a window into my current obsessions.  

Fly enjoying daisy

Galls:  I went for a nature walk with my 12 year old this weekend, each of us photographing the newness of spring around us.   I found ants crawling in buttercups and flies lounging on daisies.  My lens pointed toward the sky from beneath a horsetail, depicting what a slug's view might be.  

Horsetails from the slug's point of view.

Spit bug larval goo

We wandered across the street to the neighbor's stand of wild roses and were photographing a spit bug's masterpiece when someone noticed these little poky pink balls, the size of my pinky fingernail.  They were fixed on the leaves of the wild rose, looking like they might be a part of it, but seemed fully detachable, wanting to possibly hitch a ride on some animal's fur.  They also looked a little ominous in their spikiness, so I didn't dare touch them.  (I had learned the day before of poison hemlock and was a little gun-shy of touching wild plants).

Spiny Rose Galls

  I photographed them in excess, attempting to surmise where they might have fallen from, but no such luck.   We walked on, and I posted the photos online and even asked people at the kids' school what they might be.  Finally, today, my wondering was satiated with an answer!  These were not seeds, as I had first supposed, they were spiny rose galls!  These are the product of a little wasp doing its best to ensure protection for its progeny.  The cynipid wasp enters into a relationship with the wild rose, allowing its larvae to grow safely inside a thorny case created by a chemical reaction it creates within the rose stems or leaves.  This case, called a gall, keeps larval cynipid wasps protected at this vulnerable stage.  The wild rose can be damaged if too many galls form on its leaves, but are otherwise unharmed by this relationship.  This style of case forms only on wild roses, I learned.  There are galls formed by the egg cases of other insects on other plants too!  Now I'll look at every plant bump in a new way, wondering if a baby insect is forming within.

Monocotyledonae:  This is the family of flowering plants with just one cotyledon, or first leaf in its embryo or seed stage.  This cotyledon provides food for the seed upon germination until it can make its own using photosynthesis.  It reminds me of the yolk sac that's in the egg of a chicken or attached to a human embryo in its earliest stages.  These monocots include grasses, irises, corn, onions, garlic, bananas, and even plantain!  We've been studying the differences between corn and beans as a science unit in our home school time, and today we learned that the veins of the monocot leaves are parallel.  


The leaves of the dicots, or those flowering plants with two cotyledons in embryo or seed form have branching veins.  I had never truly looked around and actually classified the plans in my garden in this way!  The monocots grow straight up, becoming strong corns stalks and irises, making straight veins in their leaves logical.  Dicots branch into things like broccoli plants and maple trees, necessitating leaves that behave in the same branching way.  I imagine walking around my garden and then neighborhood, first looking at the shape of a plant's leaf, noting how it might mirror the overall shape or growing pattern of the plant.  There is grass, lanky and tall, begging to flower and immediately produce seed in the field. Then there is the columbine, asking to be beautiful to as many bees as it can, branching, creating flower upon flower.  

RGB:  This morning I continued my formal education in photography.  There's only so far a person can go with a natural sense for composition, form and beauty.  In photography, ever increasingly, there is technical and scientific knowledge that must merge with art to create the perfect image.  Though I've been fascinated by photography since childhood, always enthralled with capturing a beautiful image, I've been reluctant to take this next step.  I'm slowly forcing my artsy self to do this, realizing it will only increase my wonder at the natural world, and more practically, the wonder conveyed to the viewer of the photographs.  I had to first become comfortable with using a camera in manual mode, understanding the very most basic ways it works: aperture, shutter speed and ISO, all being set to fit the light. Then I decided it was important I understand more about that light, and how I was manipulating it.    

I was drawing a rainbow for my 5 year old a week or so ago, following the ROY G BIV mnemonic to remember the order in which the colors appear, when a familiar question bothered me.  If blue and yellow make green, why aren't they right next to each other on the rainbow doing just that? As a kindergartener, I had learned that the three primary colors were Red, Blue and Yellow.  When I began studying my camera, I found that it records light in different primary colors: Red, Green and Blue.  This was infinitely confusing to me, so I had to read more.  

The kindergarten primary colors are those of pigments and are considered subtractive primary colors.  Think of your white poster paper:  you make a swath of green paint on it, thus blocking the green wavelength of light from reflecting from the white paper.  Our eyes have 3 main types of cone cells in them that respond to red, green and blue wavelengths of light, to varying degrees.  These three wavelengths of light are perceived by those cones in varying intensities, overlapping in our minds to form the colors we see in print.  

Red, green and blue wavelengths in the visible light spectrum are the "additive" primary colors.   When they overlap--or add together-- in our minds, as they do when perceived by the optical sensor of our cameras, they create the Red, Blue and Yellow primary colors we grew up with.  I have no idea how printers interpret the data my camera records and turn it from one type of primary colors to the other.  I do, however, love having a larger understanding of what light is doing as it is bent by my camera lens and focused on that optical sensor within.   Don't even get me started on the things I learned about some of the first color images that were created using this additive method.  Just google work done by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii in the early 1900s to document the Russian Empire.  It's beautiful.

I realize these three new things I learned today might be old knowledge to many people, but to me they were a new discovery, expounding upon old knowledge tucked away from my elementary school years, and my brain is happy.  I love how my fascination with gardening, photography and history merged today!

all rights to photographs used reserved by me.  please ask permission before reproducing.


  1. wow
    this is fascinating
    thanks for sharing
    I remember spittle bugs and how I could often find a tiny yellow bug in all that foam.

  2. Hi there Angie! Great post! Brought back lots of warm memories of plant taxonomy, symbiotic biology and finger-painting. Great photos too!


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