What are crab apples?

One one end of my son’s kindergarten is a tall, spreading tree that’s been bearing little green apples for a while now.  Just about every day we contemplate this tree, because he passes it on the way around the back of the building to wave goodbye to his friends.  One one particular day, though, he stopped to really look at the tree.  And at the little green apples covering the ground around the trunk.  Then he stoops and picks one up.  “Can I take this home?” he asks.

I’m not surprised by the questions.  He’s five, after all.  He collects things.  Rocks.  Acorns.  Sticks.  Anything that catches his eye as interesting or unusual or just fun.  All of it comes home with him, sometimes to end up in his “treasure box” and sometimes to be quietly disposed of by mommy and daddy.  “No,” I tell him.  “They’re yucky.”

He nods sagely at that.  “And poisonous?” he asks, voice half worried and half hopeful.

“I don’t think so,” I tell him.  “But don’t eat one.  They don’t taste good.”  I say that with confidence, although I’ve never actually tried to eat one.

He tosses the apple aside.  “Well,” he declares with confidence, “I think they’re poisonous.”  Then he looks at the tree again.  “Why do they grow it?”

I shrug.  “Because it looks nice.”

Crab Apple Trees

Crab apple trees (also known as “crabapple trees” and “wild apple trees” are one of between 30 and 55 (depending on how  you classify them) species of the genus Malus, making them close relatives of the domestic apple tree (Malus pumila) that provides the apples we eat.  They are small to medium trees, with five to ten petaled flowers (depending on species) that develop into fruit that is an average of two inches in diameter.  The fruit is edible and non-poisonous, but is often quite sour due to high concentrations of malic acid – the same acid that makes grapes ‘tangy’ and Sweetarts ‘sour’.

Why would we grow crabapples?

Reasons for cultivating crabapples vary.  You’ll find them planted as ornamental trees because the flowers (and even the fruit) and considered pretty and worth the effort of cleaning up the fallen fruit.  The small (for a tree) size also means they reach full size quickly (again, for a tree).  This makes them good choices for planting a wind break, or for use in small areas, or for planting when power lines may be overhead.

Crabapples don’t have a lot of commercial uses, as the fruit tends to be sour.  However, the fruit is a good source of pectin (used as a gelling and thickening agent) and the wood provides a pleasant smell when burned (and is one of the sources of “apple wood smoking”).  Also, some commercial apple farms plant crabapples to allow cross-pollination with domestic apples and to serve as rootstock when grafting limbs from prized apple trees.  I also found some claims that crabapple preserves are quite tasty and that adding some crabapple juice to apple cider adds an interesting flavor, but I can’t vouch for that – “interesting” can cover a lot of sins with food, after all.

So they have uses.  But that doesn’t mean my son can bring the crabapples home.


Do Yellow Flowers Turn Into White Flowers?

Late in the spring, my son and I were walking home from preschool. I’m lucky, that way – my schedule is odd and early enough that I get to go pick him up, and we live close enough to his preschool that I can easily walk to get him after I get home. The weather was nice on the day in question, and like all usual he’s asking me questions left and right. Then he hits me with a stumper.

“Do yellow flowers turn into white flowers?”

I’ll be honest, here. I wasn’t certain what he was talking about. So, my response was a generic (and confused) “I… guess they can.”


“I don’t know,” I confessed. “What flower are you talking about?”

That’s when he grabs a dandelion, and blows it. Cottony seeds fly everywhere, and he laughs and chases them for a moment. Which is when it dawned on me what he meant. Specifically, he meant this:


Dandelions, scientifically, are Taraxacum officinale, a name that is thought to have come from tarashaquq (which was the Persian name for the plant) and the Latin officina (meaning an office, store-room, or pharmacy). The name comes from the fact that it was used as a diuretic and a mild laxative, as well as a mosquito repellent. The English name comes from the French dent de lion (meaning ‘lion’s tooth’). They are perrenial plants, growing from a thick tap root, and they have a bright yellow flower that looks a bit like a shaggy head of hair. Seriously, if you’ve seen grass in your life you’ve probably seen a dandelion.


Just in case you haven’t…

Why am I so confident about this? Because, although the plant is native to the Eurasian landmass, it grows everywhere. North and South America, India, Australia, and New Zealand at least.

So what’s up with those seeds?

You have, I’m sure, seen a dandelion that’s gone to seed.

Dandelions are apomictic, capable of producing anywhere from 54 to 172 seeds per head without fertilization. The seeds are generated twice a year, once in early sumer and once in early fall. Because of this, a single dandelion plant can produce more than 2,000 seeds per year. The seeds are designed to be spread by the wind (or by small, excited children) with the cottony fluff at the end of the seed functioning in a manner similar to a kite or parachute – any wind over about 4 mph will make them fly.

So, yes. Yellow flowers turn into white flowers. And once they do, you will never get rid of them.

Is Pineapple an Apple?

It’s May 1, and we’re at church. The service has just started, and our Youth RE Minister comes to the lectern to announce what the children are going to be doing today. “The pre-kindergarten class will be celebrating Lei Day,” she announced, dropping a pun on the congregation, “and they’ll be eating bananas and pineapple.”

Now my son’s excited, because those are two of his favorite fruits. “Pineapple and banana!” he repeats over and over, bouncing in his seat.  “Pineapple and banana!”  Then he looks up at me and, as if it’s just occurred to him, asks “are pineapples an apple?”

I’m relatively certain the answer is “no”, but it’s a good question.

What is a pineapple?

The pineapple is a tropical plant originally native to southern Brazil and Paraguay. It was domesticated by Native Americans and spread by them throughout Central and South America, Mexico, and the West Indies well before the arrival of Christopher Columbus.

The plant itself is

…a terrestrial herb 2 1/2 to 5 ft (.75-1.5 m) high with a spread of 3 to 4 ft (.9-1.2 m); a very short, stout stem and a rosette of waxy, straplike leaves, long-pointed, 20 to 72 in (50-180cm) 1ong; usually needle tipped and generally bearing sharp, upcurved spines on the margins. The leaves may be all green or variously striped with red, yellow or ivory down the middle or near the margins. At blooming time, the stem elongates and enlarges near the apex and puts forth a head of small purple or red flowers, each accompanied by a single red, yellowish or green bract. The stem continues to grow and acquires at its apex a compact tuft of stiff, short leaves called the “crown” or “top”. Occasionally a plant may bear 2 or 3 heads, or as many as 12 fused together, instead of the normal one.

The spiky, pinecone-looking part of the pineapple is the fruit. Interestingly, the primary pollinator of the pineapple is hummingbirds – domestic pineapples cultivated in regions without these birds must be pollinated by hand.

What is an apple?

First of all, I just need to say that my first attempt to research “Apple” online led me to nothing but information about the technology company. I actually had to specify “apple fruit” in my search to get apples. Good grief.

Anyway, you probably know what apples are.  They are the fruit of deciduous trees originally native to Central Asia, and they are part of the Rosaceae family – the same family as roses. By he tree general stands

…1.8 to 4.6 m (6 to 15 ft) tall in cultivation and up to 39 ft (12 m) in the wild.  When cultivated, the size, shape and branch density are determined by rootstock selection and trimming method. The leaves are alternately arranged dark green-colored simple ovals with serrated margins and slightly downy undersides.

Are they related?

Not to any significant degree, no – a fact that shouldn’t be too surprising, since pineapples are native to South America and apples are native to Central Asia.

Apples are Malus domestica (regardless of variety), part of family Rosaceae, which is part of order Rosales, which is part of kingdom Plantae.  Pineapples are Ananas comosus, part of family Bromeliaceae, which is part of order Poales, which is part of kingdom Plantae.

So, yeah. You have to go way back on the phylogenetic tree to find a common ancestor.

Where did the names come from?

All of this begs the question:  if they’re not at all related (beyond both being plants), and they look nothing alike, why on earth do they have such similar name so?  Did Christopher Columbus get drunk and think they were apples that grew on pine trees or something?

Well, no.

The Spanish did call them piña (pine cone), because of their resemblance to pine cones. They also called them ananá, which came from the Tupi word nanas, meaning “excellent fruit”.

Honestly?  I think the Tupi had the right idea.

What is Plankton?

One night, we’re reading a book about whales. It was the prize in a kid’s meal from Chik-Fil-A, and chock full of pictures of whales and dolphins, and he loved it. So we get to the page about the Blue Whale, and he asks what it eats. “Plankton,” I tell him.

He thinks about that for a moment. “What’s plankton?”

I think about that for a moment. “Little tiny plants,” I say. “And tiny shrimp.”

“Ew,” he says, wrinkling his nose.

So there you have it. Whales eat gross stuff.



It turns out that I was wrong. Plankton is not a type of creature, but a lifestyle – it’s defined as “the aggregate of passively floating, drifting, or somewhat motile organisms occurring in a body of water, primarily comprising microscopic algae and protozoa.” This is contrasted with nekton, which is “the aggregate of actively swimming aquatic organisms in a body of water, able to move independently of water currents.” The word comes from the German word Plankton from the Greek word plankton, meaning “wandering, drifting”. That words derives from the proto-Indo-European word *plak-, “to strike, hit”.

There are two different ways to divide plankton:  either by the kingdom the plankton falls into (phytoplankton, zooplankton, and bacterioplankton), or by whether or not the organisms are permanently plankton (holoplankton or meroplankton).


Phytoplankton, also known as microalgae, is “little tiny plants”.  They’re chlorophyll-containing organisms that float in the upper reaches of the ocean where sunlight can penetrate – generally the euphotic region, which is about 200 meters deep.  For the most part, phytoplankton is found along the coasts, in the upper northern and southern latitudes, and along the equator.

There are two magor groups of phytoplankton, dinoflagellates and diatoms.  According to NOAA, “Dinoflagellates use a whip-like tail, or flagella, to move through the water and their bodies are covered with complex shells. Diatoms also have shells, but they are made of a different substance and their structure is rigid and made of interlocking parts. Diatoms do not rely on flagella to move through the water and instead rely on ocean currents to travel through the water.”


Zooplankton include the “tiny shrimp”, just like I told my son.  However, there is a whole lot more to them than “tiny shrimp”.  They include shrimp, worms, water fleas, isopods, tunicates, the larval form of larger organisms, and any other sort of poorly-swimming oceanic ocean life.  This includes jellyfish.

Zooplankton are further classified by size:

Size categories include:  picoplankton that measure less than 2 micrometers, nanoplankton measure between 2-20 micrometers, microplankton measure between 20-200 micrometers, mesoplankton measure between 0.2-20 millimeters, macroplankton measure between 20-200 millimeters, and the megaplankton, which measure over 200 millimeters (almost 8 inches).


Many sources classify bacteroplankton as part of zooplankton, but others classify them as seperate because bacteria are in one of two kingdoms (Archaebacteria or Eubacteria) that is entirely separate from Animalia.  In brief, bacteroplankton are ocean-living bacteria, and there are a lot of them.  Estimates are that the ocean contains 3.1 x 1028 of them, which is a number I won’t type out because it is long and tedious to do so.

Holoplankton and Meroplankton

These two classifications merely describe whether the planktonic organism remains planktonic throughout its entire lifecycle.  Holoplankton are larval organisms, eventually maturing into nektonic creatures, while meroplankton are organisms that remain planktonic throughout their entire lifecycle.

So, next time you go… have fun at the beach.

What Are Those Things? (Prickly Pods)

The weather’s getting nicer, and I’ve been working on losing weight, so my whole family has been getting out and walking more and more. Recently, because it was a lovely warm day, I walked to my son’s preschool to pick him up. We both enjoy it as a way to spend time together, and he loves it because I’m rarely in a hurry to get home. So we explore and talk and have fun.

On the day in question, he stops and picks something up. “Daddy?” he asks, holding that something out. “What is this?”

I scratch my head, staring at a sort of prickly pod that I’ve seen for years and never really thought about. I mean, I’ve thrown them. And I’ve played with them, and stepped on them barefoot. But I don’t really know what they are.

“I think they’re a seed pod,” I answer, hazarding a reasonable sort of guess.

“Can I take it home?” he asks, because he’s curious and five and his room would be full of rocks and sticks if we let him.

“Sure,” I agree, because I don’t see any harm in it. “But only two.”

“Three?” he immediately counters.


So what are those things?

It turns out it is the seed pod of the American Sweet Gum tree, Liquidambar styraciflua.  The sweet gum tree is a deciduous tree native to the Americas, with a range covering the eastern and southern United States and down into Mexico.  It has star-shaped five-pointed leaves, and grey bark, and can grow to be up to 120 feet tall.  The seed pods are technically fruit, as (biologically speaking) fruit is “an organ that contains seeds, protecting these as they develop and often aiding in their dispersal”.  It is composed of 40 to 60 capsules, each containing one or two seeds and a fitted with a pair of spikes.

Historically, sweet gum trees were raised for commercial purposes, including a call-back to an earlier post on this blog:

Known in Europe for its medicinal and aromatic qualities, sweetgum has long been valued in the New World. It is documented that in 1519. Montezuma shared xochiocotzoquahuitl (sweetgum) balsam with Cortés. Its genus name, Liquidambar, comes from the Latin liquidus (liquid) and ambar (amber) and refers to the bark’s aromatic resin. Pioneer families used sweetgum as it has been used through the ages: for healing wounds, chewing, incense and perfumery. The resin was used in manufacturing drugs, soaps and adhesives during World War I and World War II.

Also, if you’re a bird watcher, it’s handy to have a sweet gum tree around.  The ruby-throated hummingbird is a frequent visitor during the spring, when the tree is in flower.

Where Do They Grow Bananas?

My son loves bananas. I can’t say I blame him. They taste good, they’re colorful, they have a distinct shape (none of this round business, like so many other fruits), and they have a convenient and easily removed peel. What’s not to love?

So he’s sitting on the couch eating a banana, because daddy is being bad and letting him eat in the living room. He contemplates the half a banana he’s got left, then looks at me and asks “where do they grow bananas?”

I shrug. “Uhm… Central Ameria, I think.”

“I think they grow in California!”

I look at him. “Really? Why do you think that?”

“Because they do!”

Five-year-old logic, ladies and gentlemen. But, it’s a good question. And so we’re off to the internet to research.

What is a banana?

This is a banana.

So is this.

And this.

Strictly speaking, bananas are berries. And no, I didn’t know that either. But a berry is defined as “a fleshy fruit without a stone produced from a single flower containing one ovary”. They are part of the Plantae kingdom (meaning they are plants), are angiosperms (meaning they are flowering plants) and monocotyledons (meaning their seeds contain only one embryonic leaf). They fall with in the order Zingiberales and genus Musa, a genus which contains about 70 species of bananas and plantains, and are considered herbaceous flowering plants (meaning they hae no persistent woody stem above ground).

Most likely, you are familiar with the Cavendish group banana, which is generally the cultivar you find in the fruit section of your local grocery store. These are seedless banana, in the sense that they do not form mature seeds. The little black dots in the center are immature seeds, but those seeds do not develop in the Cavendish cultivars. Instead, new plants are grown from transplanted rhizomes – little buds from the primary root, that can grow into new plants.

Note that the Cavendish is unusual in this regard. Many bananas, particularly wild ones, have seeds (as seen in this image from the University of Hawaii):

Where are they grown?

There’s a great little article called Banana Market, available from the University of Florida’s EDIS site, that examines banana production. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has also produced an Overview of World Banana Production and Trade that independently supports the information in the article. World production of bananas hit 97.3 million metric tons (mmt) in 2009, with 61% of those bananas being grown in India, the Philippines, China, Ecuador, and Brazil.

LyraEDISServletWorld’s top producers of fresh bananas

The united States accounts for approximately 0.01% of world banana production, with Hawaii producing the majority of those bananas.

Interestingly, only about 15.3% of the global banana production is exported. The remainder of the banana crops are used within the country that produced them. Ecuador exports 38% of that total volume, Colombia 13.2%, the Philippines 11.7%, Costa Rica 11.5%, and Guatemala 9.9%. 33% of those bananas are imported by the United States, almost as much as the EU and Japan combined.

Globally, the Cavendish banana accounts for 47% of all bananas cultivated. India alone grows 19% of all the Cavendish bananas, followed by Ecuador (12%) and then China (10%).

Are they grown in California?

The answer to that, as far as I can find, is yes. However, I couldn’t find any specifics on production quantities. I’m assuming that, given Hawaii’s dominance in U.S. banana production, the amounts are negligible.