Fire Pines

aired on KQED public radio on December 1, 2000

By Michael Ellis


In the SF Bay area we have four native pine trees that are collectively called Fire pines – Gray, Coulter, Knob-cone and Bishop. These trees grow in the chaparral and are adapted to periodic fires. Most of them are also known as closed-cone pines because the cones require intense heat in order to open up and release their seeds.

The Gray pine is a much more appropriate word than the old name – Digger pine. “Digger” was a derogatory term used by white settlers to refer to all of the Native Americans, regardless of their respective tribe. Because their culture was destroyed, many of the natives were reduced to using sharpened sticks to dig out roots and seeds or poke through the refuse left by white settlements. Gray pines furnished them with tasty and nutritious pine nuts. On the slopes of Mt. Diablo is the best place to see this lovely tree, standing in isolation on the steep hillsides.

The Coulter pine looks a lot like a Gray pine with its long, lacy needles but the cones are even larger — up to 20″ long and weighing 8 lbs. Do not camp under this tree! Coulters are mostly found in southern California and reach their northern limit on Mt. Hamilton and Mt. Diablo.

The knob cone pine as the name indicates has its cones located right along the trunk in conspicuous knobs instead of out at the ends of the branches like most pines. The cones are so persistent and long lasting that often the tree actually grows around the cones. It is known as “the tree that swallows its cones.” On Mt. St. Helena are extensive forests of knob-cone pines.

Marin County only has one kind of pine – the Bishop pine – and it is found almost exclusively on the Inverness Ridge. The 1995 Mt. Vision fire burned large portions of Pt. Reyes National Seashore including the Bishop pine forests. The cones on the blackened charred dead trees popped open like beautiful gray flowers and cloaked the earth with seeds. Five years later there are literally tens of thousands of little Bishop pines that now stand 5′ or more. Like all of the fire pines it takes death to give birth to a forest. This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

Flower Sex

Flower Sex (KQED March 1994)

by Michael Ellis

Once on San Benitos Island off the coast of Baja I was with a group and we were watching elephant seals mate. Earlier we had seen copulating gray whales and courting ospreys. Finally one lady could take it no longer and shouted. “You biologists are nothing more than frustrated voyeurs.”

I replied, “I beg your pardon, I am not frustrated.” Ah but I readily admit to being a voyeur. Right now I am thoroughly enjoying looking at the reproductive organs on display throughout the SF Bay region. Now I am not referring to some racy billboard but to the wildflowers. Spring is the time for breeding and brightly colored flowers attract insects with an enticement of pollen and nectar, this facilitates transfer of plant sperm from one flower to another.

The first person to make the comparison between the genitalia of animals and the flowers was Herr Sprengel, a schoolteacher in Spandau, Germany who published a book in 1787 entitled “The Newly Revealed Mystery of Nature in the Structure and Fertilization of Flowers.” in which he described in detail, flower sex. The citizens were shocked and immediately dismissed him from his teaching post.

But the most poetic description of plant love comes from that uptight Swedish taxonomist, Carlos Linneaus, who described the wedding night of flowers thusly:

“The petals of the flowers themselves contribute nothing to procreation, but serve solely as the bridal bed, for the great Creator has thus splendidly arranged it, a bed equipped with such noble curtains and perfumed with so many lovely scents in order that the bridegroom may consummate his marriage there with all the greater festivity. When, then, the bed is prepared, it is time for the bridegroom to embrace his dear bride and to offer her his gifts: I mean, we see how the testicuii open and pour out pulverum genitalem which falls upon the
tubam and fructifies the ovarium.”

Don’t you love it when I talk like that? Anyway enjoy the spring flowers and I hope this gives you something else to think about when you stop to smell the roses. This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

Largest Living Thing

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Largest Living Thing- KQED Perspective aired October 2002

Ok when I ask a group of folks “what is the largest living thing on the Planet Earth?” Invariably someone responds – the blue whale! They have just exposed a common bias. I never said largest animal. But blue whales are the biggest sentient beings to have ever lived – 100 feet long, 100 tons! That’s equal to 5 brontosauruses, 25 African Elephants or 1500 human beings!

Many of us know that the largest single tree in the world is the General Sherman- a giant sequoia that weighs 4.5 million pounds! But in 1992 two biologists in Michigan got a lot of media attention when they announced they had found the largest living thing – a fungal mat that covered 40 acres. Of course in typical competitive fashion another group soon claimed that their organ-ism was bigger. It covered 1500 acres. And several years ago an even bigger mycelia mass of 2200 acres was found in Oregon. Stop boys! While the area covered by these lowly fungi may be extensive, their weight is nowhere near that of General Sherman.

But now we know that even the giant sequoias of California can’t compete with the Quaking Aspens of the Rocky Mountains. “What!” you say, “those wimpy little trees with the nervous leaves?” Yep. Years ago I noticed that when the aspens were changing color in the fall that certain clumps of trees would be a different hue than the adjacent clump. Even though the slope exposure, the soil, the moisture would all be identical there were clear differences in the leaf color. I was perplexed. I now know that I was observing adjacent clonal groups of aspens.

Researchers in Utah’s Wasatch Mountains have found what they claim is the largest living thing in the world- a 106-acre patch of aspens, which are totally connected by the same root system. There are 47,000 tree trunks, which are genetically identical and weigh over 13 million pounds. They have named this “individual” Pando, which is Latin for “I spread.”

But before they could break out the champagne marine biologists were clamoring for their favorite candidate – Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. It may be that the largest living thing is a coral reef, which also consists of identical clones in a common matrix. Will it never end? This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

Lassen National Volcanic Park

Lassen (KQED Perspective aired September 2003)
By Michael Ellis

Mt. Harkness Lassen Volcanic National Park

Below the surface of the earth anywhere from 15 to 60 miles deep is a very large reservoir of molten rock called magma. When this molten rock gets to the surface we then call it lava. There are four different kinds of volcanoes throughout the world that funnel this magma upward. There is a place in California from where you can see all four types. This is very rare and yet another superlative for our great state.

Seventy miles to the north from this spot is a very large volcano. This is the classic Mt. Fuji type called a composite or strato-volcano. These occur where an ocean seafloor plunges underneath a continental land mass and the seafloor is melted into a huge pool of magma which then rises. These volcanoes are famous for cataclysmic eruptions because they contain large quantities of gases and high concentrations of explosive silica. This one last erupted in the 1790’s.

In the foreground about five miles away is the classic cinder cone or tephra volcano. These are probably the most common type. They are often not the main vent but parasitic cones. Their explosions are usually violent and they are composed of lava thrown into the air and cooled into ash, obsidian and/or cinders.

To the west is the world’s largest volcanic plug dome. This one rises over 10000′ above sea level and was formed by pasty lava so thick that it could essentially not flow and plugged the neck of volcano.

And finally this mystery spot itself is a mountain composed of nothing but basalt. This very runny lava usually is found in spreading ocean sea floor bottoms or in so-called hot spots like the kind that form Hawaii and the Galapagos. This lava tends to flow smoothly and quietly and forms volcanoes that have a very rounded top hence the name shield volcanoes.

So where is this location? This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

Local Theater

KQED Perspective aired Dec. 29, 2000

NEW YEARS RESOLUTION- Support Local Theater

By Michael Ellis

January is considered the first month of the year simply because Julius Caesar said so in 46 BC. Janus, the two-faced deity the month was named after, was believed to look simultaneously at the past and toward the future. So that is what we are supposed to do – reflect on the previous year and resolve to change things in the upcoming one.

And in case you don’t have enough of your own resolutions I have another for you.

Support your local theater company. There are many of them in the Bay Area – Shotgun Theater in Berkeley, the City Light Theater in San Jose, the Marin Theater Company in Mill Valley and my local one is Actors Theater of Santa Rosa. They are such a gift to the community. They consist of your friends and neighbors involved in a labor of love. Believe me no one is in it for the money, there isn’t any. Local productions are convenient and inexpensive. They are intimate. They take chances and push against the edges. They do fail sometimes but they mostly they succeed grandly. Buy a season ticket, take your friends, introduce children and young people to live performance. It is much better than TV – real, not virtual.

I recently saw Actors Theater do Tony Kushners Angels in America . It was ten minutes from my house, no problem parking, a third row seat, superb acting in an excellent script. Three nights later I am at the hottest theater production in America – Sam Shepherds the Late Henry Moss staring those bad boys – Sean Penn, Nick Notle, and Woody Harrelson. Tickets are being scalped at 300 bucks. Travel time from home is 2 hours in heavy traffic, parking $15, I’m sitting in far off balcony seats, and after 3 hours of screaming alcoholics and Nolte crawling around on the stage, I have a headache and am thinking that Sam Shepherd really should be over his miserable childhood by now. What was all the hype about? I began to long for my hometown theater group.

So next year buy a season ticket to yours, you’ll be glad you did. This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.