Winter solstice in the South

It’s 21 June, it’s Winter Solstice here in the Southern Hemisphere, and at just after 5pm in the afternoon in New Zealand, the shortest day of the year is already dwindling fast.

And what a winter solstice it has been for the country – some of the worst snow storms in recorded history covering much of the South Island in a thick white blanket, while other areas are bludgeoned by extreme tropical storms. Over the last two days, the capital Wellington has been one of the worst hit areas, with flooding and winds of up to 200km/h.

A chilly winter solstice down south. (© All Rights Reserved)
A chilly winter solstice down south.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Scary stuff, but then again, winter solstice does kind of give one that feeling that from here it can only get better – longer days, increasing temperatures, new growth, new life…

And if nothing else, crisp winter mornings are just the greatest for some amazing frosty photo opportunities all around us. That’s the joy of photography – no matter how cold, or how extreme the conditions, there’s always something amazing to photograph (often the more extreme, the better, in fact!).

To everyone in the southern hemisphere, enjoy the opportunities the cold bring. And for my northern friends, have a great summers day (hard to imagine down here, I have to admit)!

Finding beauty all around us on Nature Photography Day

Today, 15 June, is Nature Photography Day. Originally started by the North American Nature Photography Association (NANPA) to “promote the enjoyment of nature photography, and to explain how images have been used to advance the cause of conservation and protect plants, wildlife, and landscapes locally and worldwide”, I am sure it is a day that most photographers, amateur or professional, will have some affinity for.

Nature Photography Day was first celebrated in 2006, and it has been enthusiastically adopted around the world. As stated on their website, “NANPA encourages people everywhere to enjoy the weekend by using a camera to explore the natural world. A backyard, park, or other place close by can be just right. Walking, hiking, and riding a bike to take photos are activities that don’t lead to a carbon footprint. And fresh air can do wonders for the spirit!” And how true that is – nothing like spending some time in the fresh morning air, camera in hand, to capture the majesty of the natural world around us.

(© All Rights Reserved)
(© All Rights Reserved)
Whether it's a majestic vista or a tiny bit of natural magic in the corner of the garden, there's beautiful subject matter all around us for Nature Photography Day. (© All Rights Reserved)
Whether it’s a majestic vista or a tiny bit of natural magic in the corner of the garden, there’s beautiful subject matter all around us for Nature Photography Day.
(© All Rights Reserved)

And you don’t have to go far to discover something wonderful – an attentive eye is all that is required to find beauty all around us – plants covered in early morning dew, insects busily at work around the garden, animals small and large, birds of all shapes and sizes.

While Nature Photography Day is first and foremost a day for personal enjoyment, meant to bring each of us closer to nature, NANPA is also hosting a Nature Photography Day Facebook Page, where anyone is invited to upload their images – the only ‘rule’ being that all photos “must be taken on June 15, 2013, within walking (or biking) distance of wherever you are.”

By the time that this blog entry is published, I will be spending some time in New Zealand’s majestic Tongariro National Park, and I sincerely hope I will be able to capture some moments of natural beauty. Irrespective of the results of my photographic endeavours on the day, however, I am first and foremost hoping to have fun doing it – after all, that’s really what it’s all about, isn’t it?

Celebrating our giant green friends on Love a Tree Day

According to various sources, today, 16 May, is Love a Tree Day. Not an officially sanctioned day like Arbor Day, for example, but any day drawing attention to trees has to be a good thing, right? Also, the problem with Arbor Day is that it’s a localised event, celebrated on different dates around the world, so there’s no single date for us all to get together and sing the praises of the mighty tree.

Until Love a Tree Day, that is.

So, this is a good time to again remind ourselves why we should all really go out every day and hug the trees around us; why we should feed & nurture them; and why we should not let an opportunity go by to plant a tree.

While today is a reminder to love all trees, let's also use it to celebrate the diversity of trees out there. And to remind ourselves of those trees that need particular protection from potential extinction. Pictured here is the beautiful Aloe dichotoma, or quiver tree (kokerboom), indigenous to Southern Africa. Different subspecies of the tree have been rated as 'vulnerable' (A. dichotoma), 'endangered' (A. ramossisima) and 'critically endangered' (A. pillansii) respectively on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. (© All Rights Reserved)
While today is a reminder to love all trees, let’s also use it to celebrate the diversity of trees out there. And to remind ourselves of those trees that need particular protection from potential extinction. Pictured here is the beautiful Aloe dichotoma, or quiver tree (kokerboom), indigenous to Southern Africa. Different subspecies of the tree have been rated as ‘vulnerable’ (A. dichotoma), ‘endangered’ (A. ramossisima) and ‘critically endangered’ (A. pillansii) respectively on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
(© All Rights Reserved)

I’m sure you don’t need convincing of the value of trees. They support life by producing oxygen and absorbing carbon dioxide. They release groundwater into the air to help maintain a healthy ecosystem. They help reduce soil erosion and create a soil climate conducive to microorganism growth. Shade trees around buildings can greatly reduce air conditioning costs. Trees are a key provider of food products (fruit, nuts etc) supporting humans and animals. Thousands of products used in daily life are made from wood.

Trees also happen to include some of the oldest, and largest, living organisms on the planet. The giant sequoia tree (Sequoiadendron giganteum), for example, can weigh over 2000 tonnes and live to be older than 3000 years. That is pretty damn impressive, so say the least.

To go into detail about the value and importance of trees would go way beyond the scope of a humble little daily blog post. Suffice to say, they deserve your care, love and respect.

Support local tree planting initiatives. Support your local Arbor Day. Heck, make every day Love a Tree Day.

Celebrating beneficial weeds on Weed Appreciation Day

Today, 28 March, is Weed Appreciation Day. Not ‘weed’ as in cannabis, but rather in the Merriam-Webster sense of the word, “a plant that is not valued where it is growing and is usually of vigorous growth.”

Today is the day to show some appreciation to these often irritating plants that tend to overgrow everything else in our gardens. While they may be pushy, over-enthusiastic and sometimes just plain rude in the extent to which they take over with little or no regard for other plants, many weeds actually have some useful redeeming qualities.

I’ve already waxed lyrical about jam made from wild blackberries, and other great edible wild foods, but there are many more, perhaps less striking, examples of useful weeds around. Take the teeny little dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), for example. While frustrating many gardeners by popping up all over the lawn with their cheery yellow flowers, they are actually amazing plants.

The lovely, cheerful dandelion, just one of many weeds worth celebrating.(© All Rights Reserved)
The lovely, cheerful dandelion, just one of many weeds worth celebrating.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Edible in their entirety, dandelions are an abundant source of Vitamins A, C and D, and chock-full of thiamine, riboflavin, calcium, sodium, potassium and lithium. Its taproot system helps bring nutrients to the surface for shallower-rooting plants, and it’s good for nitrogen enrichment. It is also a good food source for various birds, and attracts pollinating insects. Dandelion flowers can be used to make wine; the roasted roots can be ground to make a caffeine free coffee substitute, and they’re traditionally an ingredient in root beer. The leaves and flowers can also be eaten in salads and sandwiches. Medicinally, dandelion extract have been used to treat infections and liver problems, and as a diuretic.

All that from the lowly little dandelion. Now just imagine all the other equally useful weeds in your garden, and you quickly realise weeds can really be a cause for celebration.

Of course, when harvesting weeds for culinary or medicinal purposes, it’s important that you correctly identify the plant – you don’t want to end up like the American adventurer Christopher McCandless, whose amazing life and sad death is chronicled in Jon Krakauer’s book “Into the Wild”. There’s no lack of information on the topic, from websites (just make sure it’s a credible source!) to many good books, like Andrew Crowe’s “A Field Guide to the Native Edible Plants of New Zealand”, Bradford Angier’s “Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants” and James Wong’s “Grow Your Own Drugs: Easy Recipes for Natural Remedies and Beauty Treats”, to name just a few.

There’s a world of wonder out there – happy foraging!

Celebrating water cooperation on World Water Day

It’s a big week for the environment, with yesterday’s International Day of Forests followed today by World Water Day.

World Water Day is celebrated on 22 March each year, to focus attention of challenges facing freshwater, and to advocate for the sustainable management of freshwater resources. The day was first celebrated in 1993, making this year the 21st anniversary of World Water Day.

In 2013 the day is dedicated to the theme of cooperation around water.

Water - a precious, yet increasingly scarce resource.(© All Rights Reserved)
Water – a precious, yet increasingly scarce resource.
(© All Rights Reserved)

The importance of sustainable freshwater management, and cooperation around water supply and availability quickly becomes apparent when we look at some of the current facts and medium term future predictions. Currently, worldwide, 783 million people do not have access to clean water and almost 2.5 billion do not have access to adequate sanitation. Given the anticipated growth in the world population, food demand is expected to grow by 50% by 2030, while the demand for renewable energy from sources such as hydropower may rise by up to 60%. All these growths, together with an anticipated decrease in water availability in many regions, will lead to ever-increasing competition for water between the different water-consuming sectors such as the energy sector and the agricultural sector. Changes in diet (for example a shift from a starch-based diet to more meat and dairy) places further pressures on water availability, as producing these foodstuffs typically require more water.

The only way to possibly address the above situation is through multinational water cooperation. Many of the largest freshwater basins around the world are shared by more than one country, making sound cooperation critical. Food production and consumption (which can be equated to ‘virtual water’) is also shared across borders, again requiring responsible management and cooperation practices.

Water cooperation includes the sharing and exchange of scientific knowledge, management strategies and best practices, which are all fundamental to achieve sustainable development and protect the environment.

This is not just an issue that needs to be addressed at national, governmental level. Sound water management and cooperation is required at all levels, and as stated on the World Water Day website, “A general engagement, both individual and collective, is required for disseminating knowledge and the awareness of the value of water cooperation at local, national and international scales.”

Forests, nature’s green factories

21 March has been proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly as International Day of Forests. On this day, attention falls on the importance of forests of various types, and in various locations around the world. Countries are encouraged to engage in local, national and international efforts to organise activities promoting forests and drawing attention to the role forests play in the environment.

Forests - ensuring a healthy environment for all.(© All Rights Reserved)
Forests – ensuring a healthy environment for all.
(© All Rights Reserved)

As explained on the International Day of Forests website, the importance of forests can hardly be overstated:

  • Rain forests are the world’s biggest producer of oxygen, generating more than 40% of all the oxygen in the world.
  • Beyond oxygen production, forests also regulate the balance of oxygen, carbon dioxide and humidity in the air.
  • A tree releases almost 10 times more moisture into the atmosphere than the equivalent area of ocean.
  • Forests protect and direct fresh water supply to rivers.
  • Forests house more than 80% of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity.
  • Thousands of forest plant species are used for medicinal and cultural purposes.
  • Forests provide resilience to natural disasters, helping with soil and water conservation, avalanche control, desertification control and coastal protection.
  • Mangrove forests provide a barrier against tsunamis, cyclones and hurricanes.

The loss of forests through deforestation can have a massive ecological impact:

  • Deforestation tends to result in soil erosion, which in turn leads to rivers becoming silted, reducing the availability of clean water.
  • It is estimated that deforestation could account for the loss of as many as 100 species of fauna and flora a day.

Perhaps most importantly, forests represent a critical component in addressing global climate change. Currently, the world’s forests are estimated to store almost 300 gigatonnes of carbon in their biomass. Deforestation and forest degradation not only erodes the carbon stores, but has already resulted in more than 17% of global greenhouse gas emissions. If deforestation can be halted, it can have a huge impact, not only ecological but also financial. According to the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change (2006), halving greenhouse gas emissions can save the world more than $3.5 trillion between 2010 and 2050.

While deforestation feels like one of those ‘big issues’ that are almost too big to do something about as an individual, this needn’t be the case. We can all do our bit, even if it’s something as small as talking about the issue, planting a tree, or joining/supporting a local forest rejuvenation group or initiative. Just as a massive forest grows from tiny, individual trees, huge impacts can flow from humble, individual actions.

Cycad specialist, Charles Chamberlain

Today we celebrate the birthday of Charles Joseph Chamberlain (23 Feb 1863 – 5 Feb 1943), an American botanist who did groundbreaking research into cycads.

A young cycad plant.(© All Rights Reserved)
A young cycad plant.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Before Chamberlain, little was known about these weird plants that look like something of a cross between tree ferns and plants. Chamberlain’s unique contribution was to apply techniques from zoology – microscopic studies of cells and plant tissue in particular – to the study of plants. He was not only a laboratory scientist, however – between 1904 and 1922 he undertook several studies into wilderness areas in Mexico, Fiji, New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa and Cuba  to study the cycad in its natural surroundings. He collected a wide variety of specimens, which allowed him to investigate the generic stages of a cycad’s development.

In 1919 he published ‘The Living Cycads’, a comprehensive summary of his research on the taxonomy, morphology and reproductive biology of cycads, which is still a key reference work today.

By the time of his death, Chamberlain was close to finishing a monograph on the complete morphology and phylogeny of the cycad family, which would have been a most impressive culmination of his seminal work in the area. Sadly, because of his death, this monograph was never published.

Everything is coming up roses

Today, 7 February, is Rose Day, apparently conceived to mark the start of Valentine week*.

Valentine week!? As if Valentine’s Day isn’t already more than enough! It seems some clever marketer has decided there’s yet more money to be squeezed out of the poor consumer, who is scarcely back on his feet after the Christmas marketing onslaught.

'First Love' hybrid tea rose. (© All Rights Reserved)
The ‘First Love’ hybrid tea rose from New Zealand – a rose of classic beauty.
(© All Rights Reserved)

While Rose Day may have seen the light as part of an extended Valentine’s sales pitch, that does not mean we shouldn’t use the occasion to celebrate roses for what they are – really interesting, and rather lovely, flowers.

Roses are nothing if not diverse. In total there’s more than 100 species of roses, including bush roses, climbers, erect schrubs and miniature roses. While most are used as ornamental plants or as a favourite among cut flowers, roses are also used in the making of perfume, as well as in cooking and medicine. Rose hip (the berry-like ‘fruit’ at the base of the flowers of certain rose species), which is a rich source of Vitamin C, can be made into jams and jellies, while rose syrup can be made from an extract of rose flowers. Rose water (obtained as a by-product from distilling rose petals) is used in cooking and natural medicines. The Rosa chinensis species is used in traditional Chinese medicine for stomach problems and, linking back to World Cancer Day, this species is also being investigated as a substance for the control of cancer growth.

Not bad for a flower often taken for little more than a rather cheesy ‘symbol of love’.

The 'Chinensis Mutabilis' Chinese heirloom rose (© All Rights Reserved)
The ‘Chinensis Mutabilis’ Chinese heirloom rose – a picture of elegance and simplicity.
(© All Rights Reserved)

On a rather unrelated note, I’ve discovered that ROSE also happens to be an acronym for the Relevance of Science Education project. According to the site, “ROSE, The Relevance of Science Education, is an international comparative project meant to shed light on affective factors of importance to the learning of science and technology. Key international research institutions and individuals work jointly on the development of theoretical perspectives, research instruments, data collection and analysis.”

Now surely science education is something worthy of celebration, so there’s another angle to ROSE Day allowing you to celebrate the day while steering clear of the Valentine’s Day connection.

So, whether you’re a lover, a cook, a poet, an artist or a scientist, surely there’s more than enough reason to join me in celebrating Rose Day.

* If you really need to know, Valentine Week’ consists of the following days:

  • 7th Rose Day
  • 8th Propose Day
  • 9th Chocolate Day
  • 10th Teddy Day
  • 11th Promise Day
  • 12th Kiss Day
  • 13th Hug Day
  • 14th Valentine’s Day

Finding that elusive variety on Seed Swap Day

Today, the last Saturday of January, is Seed Swap Day. Since the day originated in the US, it makes sense that it takes place this time of year – the ideal time for our Northern Hemisphere neighbours to get the range of seeds, bulbs etc you need for that vege patch you’re planning, or to ensure your spring garden is a feast of colour.

Here in the Southern Hemisphere the time is not quite ideal – its approaching winter, and heading away from the growing season for most veges, flowers etc. Still, the concept is so good that it’s worth mentioning, even if we end up doing a ‘Southern Seed Swap’ later in the year, around August perhaps. Or perhaps now is the time for a winter swap (brassicas, asian greens, celery and other winter crops).

Harvest quality seeds from your vege patch this year - it's all the currency you need to source great seeds from your next seed swap.(© All Rights Reserved)
Harvest quality seeds from your vege patch this year – it’s all the currency you need to source great seeds from your next seed swap.
(© All Rights Reserved)

The whole principle behind Seed Swap Day is that people get together regionally to swap seeds from their previous year’s crop. Why buy expensive seed from commercial seed companies every year if you can source fresh seeds & bulbs from neighbours in exchange for seeds from your prize veges? Not only do you effectively get seeds for free, but its often the only way to get your hands on some rare and unusual varieties not easily available commercially. And best of all – by swapping locally, you can find seeds and bulbs from plants that are well acclimated to your climate.

Can’t find a seed swap near you? Well, maybe that’s the universe telling you this is your time to take action – pick a date, arrange a venue (perhaps a local school or church hall, or even your garden for that matter), and start getting the message out to neighbours and the wider community. Most community papers also provide space to advertise local events.

If you want to seriously get into seed saving and swapping, it’d be worth your while to learn more about best ways to store and keep seeds and bulbs. There’s some good information sources available online – check out the online Vegetable Seed Saving Handbook, for example. It’s a good idea sharing this with other interested people in your area too, to increase the knowledge base in the region over time, and to ensure everyone can bring good products to your local swap.

OK, yes, it means a bit of effort from your side, but the rewards will be so worth it. And you will have that great feeling of knowing you did something really good, promoting environmental sustainability and local economic development.

So let this year’s Seed Swap Day be your call to action. And best wishes for an abundant vegetable patch and a luscious garden!

Celebrating the wonder of snow on World Snow Day

Today, 20 January, is World Snow Day. Given that there’s much more snow falling in winter in the Northern Hemisphere than the relative sprinkling we typically get here in our Southern winters, I suppose it only makes sense to align World Snow Day with the northern snow season. But it still feels kinda strange to celebrate snow in January when you live in the Southern Hemisphere. Having said that, I’m sure many parts of Australia, currently experiencing their hottest summer in history, would not mind a miraculous bit of snow today!

Having fun in the snow during a mountain hike. (© All Rights Reserved)
One of the only ways to celebrate natural snow in January in the Southern Hemisphere is hiking high up in the mountains, above the snow line.
(© All Rights Reserved)

World Snow Day was started by the International Ski Federation, FIS (Fédération Internationale de Ski), as the second phase in their “Bring Children to the Snow” campaign to promote snow and snow-sports around the world. The campaign started with “Snowkids” in 2009, which introduced children in FIS member countries to snow sports. With World Snow Day, the idea is to go beyond the FIS countries and to “celebrate all things snow around the world simultaneously”, with a specific focus placed on young people in the 4-14 age category.

2013 is the first time World Snow Day is celebrated, but the plan is to have it staged annually for years to come. The day is themed around three E’s – Explore (discover something new), Enjoy (have fun in and on the snow) and Experience (generate great memories and inspiration to continue enjoying the snow).

Having personally never lived in a region where snow is common, I have to admit the concept of snow sports completely passed me by as a kid. But that did not diminish my fascination with snow one bit – perhaps when you don’t grow up with snow around you, the fascination with curious icy flakes falling from the sky is even greater than when it is a commonplace occurrence.

Water vapour cooling down to form miniature ice crystals, that start to combine as they fall to form intricately shaped snowflakes – often amazingly complex hexagonal plates – that float down to the ground to create snow that can be up to meters deep. How magic is that? No wonder snow holds such fascination. And of course for any kid the best part of it is that the world becomes one giant playground… and if it snows enough, there’s even the possibility of missing school!

Only a light dusting of snow can turn any scene into a winter wonderland.(© All Rights Reserved)
Only a light dusting of snow can turn any scene into a winter wonderland.
(© All Rights Reserved)

I can just hear some grown-ups complaining about the ‘joys’ of cleaning driveways, commuting etc in heavy snow, and the mess made when snow turns to icy sludge. Very true, it’s not all fun and games, but then again World Snow Day is aimed primarily at the youngsters, so perhaps from a grown-up point of view this is a great day to not complain about the snow, and to just enjoy the pure wonder of it.