GREEN NEIGHBORS: Beware the Fruitless Mulberry

By Ron Sullivan
Wednesday March 03, 2010 - 05:52:00 PM
Cute fuzzy little death-dealing fruitless-mulberry blossoms. Last year was especially floriferous.
Ron Sullivan
Cute fuzzy little death-dealing fruitless-mulberry blossoms. Last year was especially floriferous.
Ron Sullivan

As Joe has been ribbing me: I’m learning phenology the hard way. 

Close to this time last year, I spent a few jolly hours in Alta Bates’ emergency department, sucking bronchodilators through a mask and getting steroids infused into a vein in one arm and blood samples extracted out of an artery in the other. Arterial punctures hurt like hell but I was too far gone at that point to be bothered much. I was conscious and talking and I’d walked in under my own power but anoxia concentrates the mind wonderfully. 

I blame the fruitless mulberries, and the clinicians I’ve consulted since then agree with me.  

They’re wind-pollinated; they’re an all-male clone (and isn’t that a grammatically interesting clause?); they’re planted for five or six blocks on both sides of my street (and over on Delaware Street, and doubtless a few others); and I, like many other folks, have become hideously allergic to them.  

As soon as I could breathe enough to talk on the phone, I called my longtime allergist, sometime employer, and friend of many years, Mary Alice Murphy M.D. She and her colleagues got me through the year in one oxygenated piece.  

Dr. Murphy died last week. I can’t tell you how I miss her already. I’m still in shock, in tears, and impressed at how artfully she elided my transition to another allergist. I like him a lot so far. I won’t name him or my excellent primary-care doc because at this point I feel like a jinx. and I’m still scared witless. 

I looked out the window the other day and the buds are already swelling on the mulberry in our curbstrip. 

Phenology is the science of the timing of recurring natural events: bird migration, freezing and thawing, monsoons, hibernation, flowering. It’s as old as the fourteenth-century Japanese records of flowering cherry, as recent as UC Davis professor Art Shapiro, who offers a pitcher of beer to the finder of his area’s first cabbage white butterfly every spring. (He usually wins it himself. I’d buy him a pitcher, on general principles.)  

This is the perfect venue for citizen science, and indeed we’re all being recruited into Project Budburst where we can contribute our modest datapoints. What people have been reporting to sites like this has become one more in a million pieces of evidence for anthropogenic climate change, despite whatever loud and misleading quibbles we hear. You don’t need to heed “The Media;” you can go to primary sources. First be sure you’re speaking the same language. A “theory” is not really an unsupported guess, and “absolute certainty” does not exist in the real world.  

Hunter-gatherers learned phenology fast and accurately, or starved. Farmers and gardeners have long had a gut-level interest, especially in colder climates. All Californians do, given the dependence of our water supply on snow and its conveniently slow melting. And everyone with allergies pays attention now too.  

Me? In a few more weeks, I’m getting out of town. I hope I can stay out until the damned mulberries peter out. 

Other interesting sites: the USA National Phenology Network  

And phenology web links for flowering plants, birds, and butterflies.