Who Sees the Best Rainbow

Who Sees the Best Rainbow

By Steve Roark

Humans are apparently hard-wired to love seeing rainbows, as proven by all the Facebook photo postings that pop up whenever one appears in our area.  But have you ever wondered if, say your dog sitting beside you, sees the same rainbow you do? Or how about other animals? Let us delve into color vision by various residents of our planet.

Let’s start with us.  A rainbow to us has 6 colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet. Remember the ROYGBIV memorization trick? Some contend that on really clear days folks with really good vision can see 7 colors, with another shade of violet thrown in (ROYGBIVV). Now back to your dog sitting beside you. His rainbow would start out as blue, then green, a sliver of yellow, and… that’s it. A dog’s rainbow is only half as thick as yours. So he’s sitting there smiling and panting like he’s enjoying it, but in reality he’s thinking “what’s the big deal?”

The difference between us and dogs is that they only have two photo receptors in their eyes, which if you remember from biology, are called cones. They only have blue and green sensitive cones, while we have three including a red one. You wouldn’t think one kind of receptor would make much difference, but three is way, way better than two because it allows a bunch of other colors to become visible.  Mix red with blue and you get purple, red with yellow gives you orange, and so on.  The additional cone allows us to see about 100 different shades of color, 97 more than your dog can see. He should be envious, but his sitting there licking himself indicates that he could care less.


What about the sparrow flitting around in the tree behind you as you enjoy your rainbow? It varies among bird species, but sparrows can see into the ultraviolet color band and also have more sensitive red cones than we do. Their rainbow would start out extremely red, very red, red, orange, green, blue, violet, and ultraviolet. A much broader rainbow than ours, so perhaps we should be envious of sparrows.

But hold on, what about that swallowtail butterfly feeding on a thistle flower at your feet? Turns out they have 5 kinds of photo receptors, so there’s would be an amazing rainbow with multiple shades of all the colors we see and bunch we don’t.  So wow, hats off to butterflies.

This leads up to the question of what animal sees the best rainbow ever? The present champion is the mantis shrimp, which lives on coral reefs with shallow, clear water, and so could, were it so inclined, see a rainbow. These guys have 16 kinds of color receptors, and their rainbow would be unbelievable. They would start out like super-duper ultraviolet, 6 more shades of ultraviolet, then violet, violet-blue, blue, blue-green, green-green, green-blue, bluey-blue, blue, and on it goes until they hit red and blowing our rainbow out of the water.

Of course, our human advantage is that we have the cognitive ability to see and appreciate the beauty of rainbows, even if ours is more diminutive than what is seen by other animals. Still, wouldn’t seeing a 24-layer rainbow be awesome! Information for this article came from a radio program called “Rippin the Rainbow” produced by Radiolab.  Look up the podcast online and listen to it, as it’s very entertaining.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Spikenard: Connecting Our Mountains with the Bible

Spikenard: Connecting Our Mountains with the Bible

By Steve Roark

As a botany nut I’m always amazed at the diversity of plants we have in the mountains, as I’m constantly coming across plants I don’t know.  One I’ve observed for a number of years but only recently caught it in bloom to identify it is Spikenard, which is mentioned in the Bible several times. The most familiar one is its use to anoint the head and feet of Jesus just prior to His crucifixion.

The ointment spikenard mentioned in the King James version (and as “nard” in other Bible translations) was derived from a plant by the same name that grew in the Himalayan mountains and so had to be shipped long distances to the Holy Land. An essential oil that was distilled out of the roots was very aromatic and had numerous uses. The Romans used it as a medicinal to make perfumes. It was used as an incense offering by the Hebrews in the Jerusalem Temple.  In Old Testament times pungent perfumes and oils were used to prepare a body for burial, which was why the act of anointing Jesus’ head with spikenard prior to His crucifixion was highly symbolic. Because it was imported from distance lands and extracting the the oil was complex, it was very costly. Spikenard or nard is mentioned in Mark 14:3, John 12:3, and Song of Solomon 14:13.Spikenard.JPG

The plant used in biblical times is not even closely related to American Spikenard found in moist forests of our Appalachian Mountains. The Himalayan plant is small with flowers similar to red clover.  Our Spikenard looks more like a bush but is actually a herbaceous perennial. It is often wider than it is tall and can reach three feet in height and width.  It has compound leaves that are twice divided, and each leaflet is roughly heart shaped with a toothed edge. The stem is a purplish color. The flowers are a spike of small, white blooms that form in round clusters, and bloom in late summer.  I was curious as to why our local plant was given the same name as the biblical variety but couldn’t find a definitive connection, but I think I can offer a possibility. The roots of both species are very aromatic, with a smell described as “balsamic”, which I take to mean medicine-ey or perhaps resinous. To me our native Spikenard has a spicy smell. Another similarity is that both roots have a cluster of black tendrils near the root crown that look like a clump of hair. I’m assuming whoever first discovered the American Spikenard saw the resemblance and named it accordingly.

American Spikenard is in the same plant family as ginseng and has similar chemical properties.  It has traditionally been used as a medicinal plant to treat coughs, asthma, lung ailments, rheumatism, and kidney ailment. Native Americans used a root tea for menstrual irregularities, lung issues and cough, and to flavor other medicines. The root was also used as a poultice to treat infections, swelling, and wounds. As a flavoring it was used to make a flavorful tea, root beer, and a spice.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Wild Drinks

Wild Drinks

By Steve Roark

Our area’s high plant diversity makes getting outside an adventure, with every trail or country road having something interesting to see, feel or smell. If you’d like to add taste to some of your outings, there are several common plants that provide a variety of flavors to enjoy as a beverage.  Here is a rundown of some that I have tried and enjoy. Be sure of correct identification before consuming any wild food and try only a small amount in case of food allergies.

Mountain Mint: this plant is commonly found along roadsides and field edges.  It stands around 2-3 feet tall, has spear shaped leaves that look like they been dusted with white powder. The white flowers form in branching clusters and have small flowers a with distinct lip.  It gives off a strong mint smell when broken, and like all mints has a square stem. All parts of the plant can be collected to make a very refreshing (and yes) minty flavored tea that can be served hot or cold. The plant parts can be used fresh or dried and stored for later use. This is one of my favorites.

Spicebush: This is a shrub found growing in moist woodland bottoms and along streams. The leaves are thin, dark green, elliptical shaped with a smooth edge. In late summer it produces bright red fleshy berries.  The twigs will give off a spicy smell when scratched or broken, as will the berries. The twigs can be collected and steeped in very hot water for 15 minutes and sweetened to taste. The resulting tea can be served hot or cold.  My mom taught me about this one.

Sassafras Tea: A traditional mountain beverage that provides a tasty root beer flavored drink. The flavor is in the roots (actually the bark of the roots) and so it’s trickier to collect. Sassafras is an understory tree with leaves that come in 3 different shapes: one that’s a simple oblong shape, one with two lobes shaped like a mitten, and one with three lobes that looks like a trident. The bark is reddish-brown with furrows that are orangish colored. The end twigs are green and aromatic when crushed. The routine is to identify the tree and then dig beneath it to seek out the reddish roots.  Always wear gloves when handling roots in case there’s poison ivy in the mix.  You will know you have a sassafras root because it will be giving off a strong root beer fragrance. Thoroughly wash the roots and boil them until the water turns a rich red-brown and then sweeten to taste.  The roots can be dried and reused several times. There is a warning out that sassafras has a carcinogenic chemical in it, but the testing with lab animals was over a long period, so I don’t think an occasional cup of sassafras tea is harmful, just don’t have it every morning.  The tea is also proven to lower blood pressure.

Sumac: This is a tall, spindly, multi-stemmed shrub with feather shaped compound leaves and produces clusters of small, dry, hairy, red fruit at the end of branches. Collect a dozen seed heads and rub and squeeze them in a gallon of cold water to release their sumac fruit photo.jpgflavor and then let them soak for 15 minutes. Strain the liquid through a cloth and then sweeten to taste.  You will end up with a tart, lemonade flavored drink. I’ve never seen it in our area, but there is a poison sumac that causes dermatitis like poison ivy, but it’s berries are white and only found in swampy places.



A great book on eating wild stuff is  A Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants of Eastern North America by Lee Peterson.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Trees, Air, and Water

Trees, Air, and Water

By: Steve Roark

When I ask kids why trees are important their number one answer is that they produce oxygen. Plant Leaves are solar collectors that take sun energy to produce food through the miracle of photosynthesis, a complex chemical process where carbon dioxide and water are converted to a glucose sugar. This sugar is used for food energy or converted to a starch called cellulose for building the plant body (stem, limbs, etc.). In trees we call this wood, something we use a lot of.  It requires a lot of solar energy to sustain trees, and they must have huge canopies of branches to hold many thousands of leaves to the sun.   If the leaves of one mature sugar maple tree were laid out flat, they would cover a half acre of ground.

trees tall.JPG

A byproduct of photosynthesis is oxygen, crucial to all air breathers.  A healthy, rapidly growing tree can produce 6-8 pounds of oxygen annually.  As trees age they grow slower and contribute less oxygen.  Old, over-mature trees produce only about as much oxygen as they themselves need to convert food to energy.

Trees take carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and convert it to wood.  There’s a rule of thumb that to make a ton of wood, a tree takes in two tons of carbon dioxide and releases 1 ton of oxygen.  Trees are important “carbon storage units”, taking up and storing huge amounts of carbon dioxide that is presently being overproduced by automobiles, factories, and coal burning.  Excess carbon dioxide is helping fuel a warming climate, something with bad future consequences.

Trees also use a lot of water to run the photosynthesis process.  Certain species can raise water high into the canopy at speeds of up to 150 feet per hour.  A large leafy tree can take up 95 gallons of water each day, but only a small percentage of it is converted to glucose.  The rest is released through the leaves into the atmosphere as water vapor, where it forms clouds and eventually returns to earth as rain.

There are concerned people who feel trees are so important to our environment that they should not be cut for lumber, fuel, or paper.   The products derived from wood are many and a big part of our modern lifestyle.  What is important to remember is that through sustainable management trees can grow back and replace trees cut and assures that there will be enough wood for human use while still allowing the important ecological benefits of trees to remain intact. For more information on trees, their management and benefits, contact your local state forestry office.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Reminiscing the First Moon Landing

Reminiscing the First Moon Landing        

                             By Steve Roark

                  Moon walk apollo 11.jpg

Being old has its disadvantages, but something I’m glad it allowed me to witness (at age 15) was the first moon landing and walk that occurred 50 years ago this month. It was one of those moments you remember exactly. In my case it was at my boyhood home in Middlesboro, Kentucky at 10:30 on a Sunday night.  Me and my dad (mom was out of town) sat there watching a small black and white television totally mesmerized as these two guys walking around on another world. I remember lots of goosebumps and feeling so happy (I was a bona fide science geek by then).  The 1960s were kind of a bummer, with the news continually telling us how bad things were in America: the daily death count of the Vietnam War, the racial unrest and riots of big cites, three major assassinations…there was a lot of unhappiness and uneasiness.  But then came the moon landing and something to have some pride in. To me it felt hopeful because if we can do this great thing, that maybe we can solve our other problems as well. And like the Olympic games seem to do, for a little while the human race was united in something. Over 600 million people are estimated to have watched the moon walk, three times the population of the U.S. at that time.

There will be many hours of documentaries about the landing this month and if you weren’t around then I encourage you to check them out and maybe catch a little of the excitement they generated.  I thought I would cover some facts that you may not hear about.

After they landed on the moon (at 4:17 p.m.) Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had to do something hard.  They had to take a rest break before going outside. They were no doubt on an adrenalin rush after the landing, and they were instructed to rest and settle down before going outside. Aldrin had something planned during this down time. He was an elder at a Presbyterian church and had gotten permission to take bread and wine and give himself communion. He got on the radio and spoke to the ground crew back on Earth: “I would like to invite each person listening in…to contemplate for a moment the events of the past few hours and to give thanks in his own individual way.” Armstrong did not take part but respectfully observed the communion.

The moon walk lasted 2 ½ hours and by the time they crawled back in the lunar module they had been awake for 22 hours. When they got their suits off, they both noticed an odd odor that reminded them of burnt gunpowder, like after a firework has gone off.  Turns out it was the lunar dust that had clung to their suits and was floating around in the cabin. It was so bad that when the astronauts tried to get some sleep, they had to wear their space helmets to reduce irritation of their nasal passages.  They didn’t get much sleep because the ship was not well insulated, and they mostly just laid on the floor and shivered.

When they finally took off after being on the moon for 21 hours, the last thing Aldrin unfortunately saw was the American flag that they had planted get knocked over by the rocket blast. It wouldn’t have lasted long anyway, as the moon’s extreme heat and ultraviolet conditions probably faded the colors and  damaged the nylon fabric over time.



Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Tree Connection to the Declaration of Independence By

A Tree Connection to the Declaration of Independence

By Steve Roark

When holidays roll around, I like to poke around for a connection with the natural world, and I found some interesting stuff about The Declaration of Independence.  This most revered American document kicked off our nation’s quest to rule itself, which we celebrate on the 4th of July, Independence Day.

Were I to ask what tree derived material was used to create this famous document, a lot of folks would think it’s the paper, which is a good guess but wrong. Early drafts of the document were likely written on paper made of hemp or flax fiber mixed with recycled cotton cloth fibers, which was the standard paper of the day. For important documents like the Declaration they used the more expensive parchment paper, which is specially treated animal skin, sheep most likely. It’s very durable and had been in used for centuries.

Declaration 2.jpg

So the only thing left is the ink, and that’s it. The ink used to write the Declaration was called Oak Gall Ink, made with an acid obtained from oak galls. These are ball-like structures growing on oak leaves, and you may have seen them on oak leaves or other tree species. They are caused by an insect called the gall wasp. The female wasp lays an egg in leaf buds in the spring, which hatches a worm-like larvae. feeds It feeds on the leaf bud and injects a secretion that causes the bud to modify its growth and grow a ball of spongy material around the larvae. The resulting gall protects the larvae until it metamorphs into an adult.  The gall is very high is tannic acid, which was collected from the forest and processed into a liquid that was mixed with iron sulfate to create a dark purplish-black ink. A binder called gum arabic was added to the ink, which is also a tree derived product from the sap of acacia trees growing in northeast Africa.  This ink goes way back in time and was used during the early Roman Empire, and many drawings by Leonardo da Vinci were done using oak gall ink.

The combination of oak gall ink on parchment created a very durable document. The parchment was tough and holds up well over time. The ink was water resistant and would adhere to the parchment so well that it could not be erased except by scraping a thin layer off the writing surface. This durability turned out to be crucial or we wouldn’t have the original document on display in Washington DC, where it is now protected in a titanium case filled with argon gas to reduce deterioration.  But back in the day the original document was simply rolled up and carried around in a saddlebag by the Continental Congress and shown to whoever wanted to see it. Later it ended on the wall of the patent office and hung there for 30 years near a bright window. It faded but endured until somebody recognized it was an important document and started protecting it. The original Bill of Rights and Constitution were also written using parchment and gall ink.

One other piece of trivia I picked up is that there is something written on the back of the Declaration of Independence: “Original Declaration of Independence, dated 4th July 1776” written at the bottom of the document, upside down. Have a great 4th and remember your freedom’s not free.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Mountain Coffee: Chicory

Mountain Coffee: Chicory

By Steve Roark

Chicory was a popular wild plant back in the day when it was used to make a coffee-like beverage.  It is very common in our area and can be seen right now growing along roadsides and abandoned places.


Chicory is easy to identify by its blue, dandelion-like flowers that have fringed, flat tipped petals, which can sometimes be white or pink.  The flower will usually close up in the late afternoon or on overcast days.  The leaves at the base of the plant are dandelion-like (they are in the same family) as well and will bleed a milky sap when broken off.  Chicory stands around two feet tall.

Besides being used as a coffee substitute, chicory has been used for centuries as a medicinal. The root is recorded to have been used to treat stomach ailments, as a laxative, to treat a fever, and for jaundice.  In research, chicory has been found to have antibacterial qualities and to slow heart rate.  It may eventually be a source of medication to treat heart irregularities. 

The root of chicory has a fleshy white color.  It can be dug up in the fall, roasted in an oven until dark brown and brittle, then ground and prepared like coffee.  Caution:  Only try small amounts of a new food in case of food allergies. Use roughly 1 1/2 teaspoons of chicory to each cup of water.  Always start the brewing process with cold water.  Do not boil while brewing, as this may make the coffee bitter and drive off some of the oils that contribute to the flavor.  Brewing time will vary to your own taste but should be kept to a minimum to prevent making the coffee too strong.  The root of chicory will lose its flavor when exposed to air, so keep it in tight containers, especially after being ground. You can find chicory in health food stores as a beverage.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment