Stories tagged leaves

If the leaves ever actually fall from the trees this autumn, it will be the last fall for us to use standard garbage bags to bundle them up here in the Twin Cities metro area. We're going green with yard wastes starting with in the spring due to a new state law. Read all about it here.


An early Hawaii-area triviashipman: Hopefully this triviashipman will come to a better end. I've tried to be courteous to the locals, at least.
An early Hawaii-area triviashipman: Hopefully this triviashipman will come to a better end. I've tried to be courteous to the locals, at least.Courtesy Artmechanic
The Puddleduck has crossed the Pacific! They said it couldn’t be done. But they also said that double-stuff Oreos would fail, and they said that Wham! would never play in China, and they said that Dances With Wolves could never win an Academy Award.

So here we are, on the northern tip of Polynesia, getting ready to answer some random questions.

How did I get random questions? Pff. Duh. I took them with me, of course. I never go anywhere without a few extra randoms, even if it means leaving my anti-psychotics out of my backpack for the extra space.

Man the guns, Buzzketeers! Random questions to port! Let us rake them to Swiss cheese, and send them to Davey Jones. (As answers.)

Elise asks: Are polar bears really bears?

Heck yeahs, Elise, polar bears is bears alright. The polar bear belongs to the family ursidae, just like all other bears. It is a pretty unique bear, though, so I can see how the confusion might arise. Polar bears, along with Kodiak bears (they’re big brown bears), are the largest meat-eating land animals. They’re also sometimes considered to be “marine mammals.” When you think about other marine mammals, like whales, seals, and dolphins, that might sound pretty weird, because bears seem pretty different from all of them. Polar bears, however, are excellent swimmers, and they spend months every year living on sea-ice, far away from land.

But, yeah. Polar bears are indeed bears.

Anonymous asks: Do they still say, “Ontology recapitulates phylogeny”?

Swab! Load! Ram! Spark the touchhole!
Um, no, they don’t. Sometimes they say, “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny,” but for the most part nobody says stuff like that. I mean… are you serious? You could have asked about naked mole rats, and this is what you came up with? Shhh… I think I hear your old professor calling. She says that class has been really quiet since you left. Better go fix that.

Anonymous 2 asks: Why does poop smell?

Blam! Direct hit! I think we decapitated someone with that!
See? This is what I’m talking about! Sure, this is a joke question… but so was the last one, and at least this is an answer we can take to the bank. Why, when we eat delicious smelling foods, does poop smell so… bad?

It’s because after we eat food, as we digest it, bacteria inside our bodies help break that food down into other materials we can use for energy, or to build our bodies. But when bacteria do this, they also produce chemicals that don’t smell great. Some of them smell really bad! A lot of the worst smelling chemicals—the ones that make farts so gross too—contain the element sulfur, like the gas hydrogen sulfide, or the chemicals indole and skatole. Skatole smells so bad that its name comes from the Greek word for poop: “skato.” The food we eat can also change the smell of out poop. Undigested spices can show up in the odor, and sometimes eating lots of meat can make it smell worse too.

Lots of animals don’t really mind the smell of poop, but people probably think its bad because having too much contact with poop can make us sick (it can have some pretty bad germs). When we smell that smell, we know it’s something we should probably avoid for our own health.

Annika (with the help of a parent) asks: Why do blue leaves not grow?

Good question, Annika. We have blue flowers sometimes, but leaves are usually green. Why? We have to go a couple steps back to get a good answer, I think.

Plants grow with the help of sunlight. They absorb air (or carbon dioxide from the air) and use the energy in sunlight to turn that air into more plant material. “Photosynthesis” is the fancy word for this. Plants use a green chemical called Chlorophyll, and that gives plants their green color. When white sunlight (remember, white light is made up of all colors of light) hits those leaves, the leaves reflect green light back to our eyes, but they absorb all the other colors of light, especially red and blue light. The energy in that light can then be used to help the plant grow.

Oh, man, those questions have been mutilated! I’ve got a thirst for blood now. Let’s sail on, and see which questions are foolish enough to fall into the range of our science cannons. So, until next time…

PS—It’s still Easter in Hawaii right now, by the way, so Happy Easter. (If that’s your thing.) I’m afraid JGordon is alone this Easter, but don’t get too concerned. I’ve got plans. I’m going to spin around until I almost throw up, and then I’m going to take a basket of eggs and scatter them wherever I happen to stagger. When I get my equilibrium back, I’ll go try to find the eggs. It shouldn’t be so hard—the eggs will certainly be uncooked, and the whole thing will take place in an empty parking lot.


My neighbor's tree dies a slow, agonizing, horrible death: Well, the leaves do, anyway.  Photo by Gene
My neighbor's tree dies a slow, agonizing, horrible death: Well, the leaves do, anyway. Photo by Gene

Oh, sure. Autumn looks pretty, with its big flashy colors and brilliant blue skies. But that’s just a mask it wears to disguise its true, evil intentions. Everything good in the world is dying, all around us, and there’s nothing we can do about it. In fall the nights grow longer, the days colder. Beaches close. Bicycles get packed away for the season. The two most perfect inventions of the mind of man – daylight saving time and baseball – both come to a close. It is the end of life as we have known it. And all we have to look forward to are endless months of icicle winds, lowering skies, and – worst of all – football.

The fiery colors of Autumn are the flames of a funeral pyre, a sign of death and decay. According to Susan Carpenter, native plant gardener at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum, leaves depend on the chemical auxin to keep open the tubes that supply water, sugar and nutrients. But the cooler temperatures and shorter days of Autumn shut off auxin production. The tubes are cut off, and the leaf strangles and dies. Chlorophyll, the green chemical that gives leaves their summer color, disintegrates, leaving behind two other chemicals: yellow carotene and red anthocyanin. Different tree species contain these chemicals in different amounts, resulting in the various colors we see.

Trees are at their most colorful when a cool, wet summer is followed by a sunny, dry fall. Rainfall promotes tree growth, and moderate temperatures prevent scorching in the summer sun. Extra sunlight in the fall allows trees to continue producing their chemicals right up to the end.

Here in Michigan, we had pretty much the opposite – a summer of drought and searing temperatures, followed by a fairly wet fall. The trees have been pretty brown since mid-September, though a few of them are making a late run at color. Don’t bother, boys. We’re depressed enough as it is.


You're invited to attend the annual Fall Color Blast on Sunday, October 1, from 1-5pm, at the Warner Nature Center. The event is free and features a professional storyteller, live fiddle music, bird banding demonstrations, canoeing, rides on a solar-powered pontoon, hikes, kids' crafts, free apple pie and ice cream, cider and coffee, and more. (Want more information about programs at the Center?)

The US Forest Service has a neat page with up-to-date information about fall foliage hotspots and peak dates, plus information about why leaves change color in the fall. Check it out, and maybe plan an outing to take advantage of the colors before they're gone.