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UC California Naturalists interpret nature with art

Art is an expression of creativity, a conveyance of beauty, and for naturalists, it is a way to process, remember and interpret nature.

Many branches of nature art are popular, such as photography, painting and sketching. The UC California Naturalist Regional Rendezvous in October introduced an old but uncommon method for documenting natural objects – cyanotype.

A completed cyanotype print.
Cyanotype is a photographic printing process invented in the mid-1800s. It is best known as the long-time technique for duplicating building designs and the reason they are still called “blue prints.” Now the deep cyan blue can be an artistic backdrop to the interesting shapes and forms of natural treasures.

At the CalNat Rendezvous at the Pepperwood Preserve, Santa Rosa artist Jessica Layton taught the cyanotype process to volunteers certified by the UC California Naturalist program, giving them a new tool to use in educating and engaging children and adults in conservation organizations they work with around the state.

The cyanotype process begins by mixing two chemicals - ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide – to create the blue photo reactive solution. The chemicals may be purchased at art stores and online by searching for cyanotype solutions.

California Naturalists paint on the cyanotype solution in a darkened room.

Once blended, the chemicals are painted on paper or cotton cloth and allowed to dry. Leaves, grasses, seeds, pine cones, flowers, stones – any number of natural objects collected outside may be artfully arranged on the blue background and, if needed, held in place with a pane of glass.

The project is then set out in bright sunlight for 5 to 7 minutes, brought back inside to be washed in clean water and allowed to dry. The areas of the paper or cloth exposed to the sun are a radiant lapis blue; the areas that were shaded by the natural objects appear in silhouette.

Director of the UC California Naturalist program, Adina Merenlender, collects natural objects at Pepperwood Preserve for making cyanotype art.
The director of the UC California Naturalist Program, Adina Merenlender, participated in the cyanotype training.

“I have come to appreciate art as a way to improve observation skills and deepen an appreciation for nature,” Merenlender said. “We offered this session to our volunteers for them to improve their capacity and become better naturalists.”

Artist Jessica Layton, left, shows a cyanotype mural project made by the group. The fabric was commercially treated with the cyanotype solutions and captured the silhouettes of a wide variety of objects, including feathers, hands, sunglasses and a water bottle.
 
California Naturalist Kat Green said she's seen cyanotype before and always want to try it, so jumped at the chance to practice the project at the CalNat Regional Rendezvous.
 
"Different people connect with nature in different ways," Greene said. "I don't have an artistic knack, so being able to share this experience with people allows me to connect with them in a way I couldn't connect otherwise."
Posted on Thursday, October 19, 2017 at 10:15 AM
Tags: art (3), California Naturalist (21), nature (10)

Autumn's Majesty: Tithonia

A Gulf Fritillary, Agraulis vanillae, lands on a Mexican sunflower. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

If there's any flower that should be crowned "Autumn's Majesty," that would be the Mexican sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia), aka "Torch."A member of...

Posted on Wednesday, October 18, 2017 at 5:00 PM

Why This UC Davis Course Is Sweet

Home is where the bees are. A beekeeper at the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Facility, UC Davis. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

"The bee hive is the ultimate home sweet home," Amina Harris, director of the UC Davis Honey and Pollination Center,  told the crowd at the...

Posted on Tuesday, October 17, 2017 at 5:00 PM

Kadota Figs in Solano County

Years ago, I purchased a Kadota fig tree, also known as a honey fig, from a local nursery here in Solano County.  Although it took a few years before the tree became established and started to produce, it is now one of the most productive trees I have in my backyard.  The Kadota fig tree is pest- and disease-resistant, hardy to 15 degrees Fahrenheit, self-pollinates, requires very few chill hours to set fruit, and minimal pruning; in other words, the Kadota fig tree will reward you with great returns for a minimal amount work and a few years' worth of patience.  Kadota fig trees generally ripen from August to October in Solano County,  Although I have not independently verified this, I have been told that Kadota fig trees will tolerate container planting if space is an issue  A Kadota fig tree will provide you with a steady supply of fresh fruit for eating, canning and baking.  

 
A ripe Kadota fig, is pliable, yellow-green on the outside, and guava pink on the inside.  They are sweet, although they bear no resemblance to the taste of honey.  Although Kadota figs can be found now and then at grocery stores and farmers market (black mission and figs similar to it, are more common place), they are a small luxury, with a small basket of organic Kadota figs costing you about $5-6.  At that price,  Kadota fig tree (or any fig tree) will quickly pay for itself.
 
Below is a picture of my recent harvest. It is one of the most wonderful experiences in life to walk out into one's own backyard in the morning, ask a fruit tree for fruit for that day which the tree willingly gives up, and then being able to harvest the fruit right on the spot.  I call my fruit trees my "other refrigerator."     
Posted on Tuesday, October 17, 2017 at 10:48 AM

Hybrid oak trees muddle identification at California Naturalist Regional Rendezvous

Knowing the names of trees is a point of pride for many California Naturalists. So a walk among the diversity of oaks at the Pepperwood Preserve left many feeling humbled.

The three-hour excursion was part of the UC California Naturalist Regional Rendezvous in October at the 3,200-acre nature preserve nestled in the foothills between Napa Valley and Santa Rosa.

Excursion leader Steve Barnhart, academic director emeritus at Pepperwood, said there are 500 oak species in the world; 21 in California. But cohabitating on the rolling hills and valleys of the Golden State, many oaks have produced hybrids that combine characteristics, making identification challenging.

Steve Barnhart opens the 'Oaks of Pepperwood' excursion during the California Naturalist Regional Rendezvous.

Doctoral candidate Phrahlada Papper, who is studying oak tree genetics, said, “I'm of the mind that you shouldn't ever name an oak.”

Even the tan oak, long thought to be misnamed, is coming under new scrutiny.

“It's not an oak,” Barnhart said. “It has acorns, male and female flowers on the same stalk, but tan oaks are insect pollinated. True oaks are wind pollinated. Tan oaks are closer to chestnuts.”

But Papper raised his hand. “Genetically, it might be an oak,” he said.

Barnhart laughed. “So tan oak is up in the air. That's why it's so much fun to be in science,” he said. “I learned something today.”

Doctoral student Phrahlada Papper discusses oak tree genetics.

In popular culture, oaks are thought to be majestic, towering trees, with wide spreading branches. However, Barnhart said, most California oaks are shrubs, including the leather oak.

Leather oaks grow in serpentine soils and have the ability to produce two types of flowers, one in the spring and another quite different in the fall. Leather oaks are monoecious, they have both male and female flowers on the same plant. On a particular leather oak at Pepperwood, Papper was surprised to find male and female flower parts in one bract and surmised that weather patterns may be responsible.

“California has weird weather and with climate change, it's getting even more weird,” Papper said.

Leather oak details.

Papper believes tracking phenology, the cyclic and seasonal changes in plants, is an ideal citizen science project for California Naturalists. One such project underway at Pepperwood is led by Wendy Herniman. A University of Edinburgh, Scotland, master's student, Heniman is documenting the phenology of 10 Pepperwood oak trees: 2 blue oaks, 3 coast live oaks, 2 black oaks and 3 Oregon oaks.

“Pepperwood is looking at climate change. It's a designated sentinel site. We're monitoring fog, we have soil probes, and we're collecting all weather and climate information. We can tie that to phenology,” she said. “We're trying to find out if phenophases are changing.”

Understanding the changing phenophases is important, Barnhart said.

“Everything is connected,” he said. “If acorns are produced early, animals species that depend on the food source will be disrupted. You have imbalances in the timing of the natural world. With climate change, what are the effects we'll be seeing?”

Wendy Heniman talks about her research near a hybrid Oregon-blue oak.
 
The acorn shape is Oregon oak-like. The leaf contours are blue oak-like. The specimen is evidence of hybridization in oaks.
 
California native poison oak is also found on the Pepperwood Preserve. It is unpopular with humans, but birds like the golden berries.
A 15-year-old Douglas fir was mechanically removed to stop it from crowding a 50- to 60-year-old oak tree, Steve Barnhart said. Fire suppression is giving oak competitors like firs a greater foothold in oak woodlands. "Fire suppression was an unhealthy thing to do," Barnhart said.
Posted on Monday, October 16, 2017 at 1:30 PM
Tags: California Naturalist (21), oaks (8)

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