Monday, May 25, 2009

Botanical and Ornithological Musings

Recently here in Berlin we have been somewhat blessed by little wisps of white, floating on the breeze. I look out of the window and I can see these bits of cotton here and there, anywhere in town it seems. It seems obvious that they are coming from some trees or other, but I am a bit challenged as the parlance goes, concerning trees. Birds now, I can rattle off your English and your German names as well, but trees? Hmm, not so good.

In my teaching of English as a foreign language to Germans, I often throw out questions to them
to compare things in America to here in Germany. Recycling, cell phones, hot water heaters. This time it was little wisps of cottony stuff floating almost wherever you look.

They said, unanimously I believe, that the stuff came from Pappeln, poplar trees in English. Oh, I said, having in my mind a generic picture of a poplar as a tall thin columnar tree which you often see lining roads in pictures of Tuscany and other such romantic places. I further told them that I remembered back from Denver that at some time of year you would have a similar phenomenon, but it would come from a different tree altogether, which we call a cottonwood. The stus got a laugh out of that, after translating cotton back into German: Baumwoll, to get Baumwollbaum. We laughed.

So today I went online to expand my knowledge of this poplar tree which causes these spring snow flurries to fall. I find it's a large family of trees which include the aspens, those lovely trees with the gold bark and bright yellow leaves when they turn in autumn, up in Colorado's Rockies. And - hey! What do you know. The family also includes my 'completely different tree', the cottonwood. Did I feel sheepish. But online here too, I then asked my brother if the same phenomenon was going on now there too, back in Denver. He said no, but he remembered that cottonwoods do that too at some point in the year.

Well. I think of myself as a bit of a naturalist, in some respects. I am a birder, am interested in sky phenomena and astronomy; but as I say trees and plants are not my strong suit. Now with birds, it is interesting to compare the avifauna of Europe with that of North America. The species on the two continents are different for the most part, though many are related. So you will find jays on both land masses, but the lovely though raucous Blue Jay looks quite different than the mostly tan european Jay. As I understand it this is tied to the geological history of the Earth, the continents having once been one connected land mass. As they parted, the species became differentiated more and more over time. A few kinds are interestingly the same on European and North American soil however, like the Magpie, or Elster as they say here in Germany. Same bird.

Having read about this, I naturally assumed the same to be true for trees, and indeed it does seem to be. The cottonwood is in the same family as the Black Poplar of Europe but is a different species. I'm learning. For example, I have always loved the word sycamore. What a lovely name for a tree, one which I thought was a peculiarly North American kind. On researching, I see that again I was wrong - it's a member of the plane tree family, which is found throughout Europe too with other species. In German it's Platane. I've heard of them, sure, but never connected them with sycamores because I never really knew what a sycamore looked like, just liked the name.

You know:

Pennies in a stream
Falling leaves - a sycamore
Moonlight in Vermont

But to go back to the topic, yes the tree species on the two continents seem to have split over the eons into different versions of similar trees. Interesting, like the birds.

In North America there are many more different species of birds than in Europe, also because of geologic history, as I have read. During the various Ice Ages, the ice sheets covered all of Europe down to the Alps I believe, wiping out many species which had been there before. As the ice receded, only animals which had been able to survive in more southerly areas were able to repopulate the country. In North America on the other hand the ice only came down to the middle of what is now the United States of America; hence there was still a great buffer zone to the south for birds to retreat to - the continent was not competely covered. The birds simply moved north again as the ice receded. More species survived.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the the report, Rog!
    (For all you fans of this blog, this is the blogger's brother, reporting from North America!)

    I just wanted to pass along the fact that indeed, last weekend, the weekend of June 13 & 14, the cotton was flying in the air, here, too. I'm assuming, perfectly rashly, that it is from the cottonwoods.

    As I told you on the phone, it reminds me of the beginning and ending of Fellini's AMARCORD, when such botanical cotton flying heralds a new season, and is commemorated with bonfires, ceremonies, and even a little folk rhyme.

    Different time of year, though, that Fellinic cotton. The cotton-filled air of the film heralds the end of Winter and the coming of Spring.

    For what it's worth.