Archive for February, 2009

Time for almond blossom

Written by Lucy Brzoska

Gloria, a life-long resident of Sarrià (once a village, now an area of Barcelona), remembers playing in the groves of carob trees (Ceratonia siliqua) at the foot of Collserola. The pods were used as animal feed, mainly for horses, and she and her friends liked to eat them too. For older people it was a place of bad memories, as during the Spanish civil war prisoners were brought there and executed. The trees have long disappeared and the Barcelona Polytechnic was built on the land.

On the other side of Sant Pere Martir, in the southern end of Collserola, there are still a lot of carob as well as olive and almond trees. They’re a reminder that the “wild” space Barcelona enjoys today was once intensely cultivated and exploited.

In February the gnarled and decrepit almond trees are briefly transformed, and make us think winter’s time is up. Even the ones toppled by the recent gales blossom enthusiastically in their prone positions.

The winds also emptied the carob trees of their dangling black pods, which lie like heaps of rotting bananas on the ground, conveniently for the boars, badgers and other interested passers-by. The olive trees are busy with blackcaps (Sylvia atricapilla), polishing off the last of the fruit, which has kept them going all winter long.

Asparagus hunters dotted about the hills whistle and shout to each other. A blackcap solo comes fluting out from a quiet corner of the valley. Other small signs of change: a patch of violets among the ivy, and the song of a jay, unexpectedly soft, with a beseeching lilt.

A Moorish gecko

Written by Lucy Brzoska

The richly patterned sandstone wall of Montjuic castle is full of chinks where a gecko might lie, safely basking in the sun. It takes a lot of staring to find one: you suddenly realise the dark patch has toes, and what might be a glinting shard of glass is an eye.

It’s the end of winter, and we all feel like basking in the sun. The Moorish gecko (Tarentola mauritanica) varies in colour – this one appeared almost black, effective for soaking up heat. At night, when actively hunting their prey, they turn pale and interesting.

The gecko let me approach and have a close-up look, perhaps confident that refuge was only a flicker away. Its eyes are split in half by a vertical pupil, sharply contracted against the strong light. Intricate veins cover the dark golden iris. Cleaning is done by a sweep of the tongue, since the gecko has no eyelids.

Perhaps because it sounds more exotic, the pet trade likes to refer to this species as the “Crocodile gecko”. I noted the allusion in the gecko’s bumpy skin. But the tail had a completely different texture: you could clearly see the fault line where the gecko had broken in two to escape from a predator. Once dropped, the tail continues twitching – a useful distraction device. I wondered if the tail, now in process of regeneration, would ever match the original one.

Just as humans have wanted to emulate the flight of birds, they envy geckos for their grip. Sticky hairs on prominent toe pads allow these reptiles to cling to the smoothest surface. A researcher into the phenomenon, interviewed in New Scientist, was flabbergasted by how “vastly over-engineered” they are: “One gecko could resist the weight of 130 kilograms”. Yet they can also detach themselves at lightning speed.