Archive for May, 2008

The Next Big Botanical Thing?

Thursday, May 29th, 2008

Animal plant gardens have appeared at several zoos and botanical gardens. What seven year old can resist a planting of elephant ear, staghorn fern, lizard tail and the like? Glasshouse Works offers dozens of “zoomorphic plants,” including tapeworm grape and chicken gizzard plant. Eeewww! 

Invasive Truffle

Thursday, May 29th, 2008

A paper in the journal New Phytologist has truffle aficionados in a panic. Written by Claude Murat from the Dipartimento di Biologia Vegetale dell’Università di Torino and his colleagues, it documents the recent discovery of the aggressive Chinese black truffle, Tuber indicum, at an Italian truffle plantation. “We dread that T. indicum will spread all over Europe and crowd out T. melanosporum and perhaps other truffle species,” Murat told Science News. Lovers of the fungal lumps, underground reproductive structures that fetch astronomical prices in gourmet markets, turn up their noses at the Chinese species, considered much less flavorful and aromatic than European natives like the Périgord black truffle, T. melanosporum, and the even more precious Piedmont white truffle, T. magnatum. The record price of a single white truffle, $330,000, was set in December 2007, for a 3.3-pound specimen unearthed near Pisa by Luciano Savini and his dog Rocco. 

They’re not Just for Ewoks Anymore

Wednesday, May 21st, 2008

I thought my obsession with treehouses was bad — I’ve been fantasizing about treehouses since I first saw Swiss Family Robinson as a kid — but the design mavens at Inhabitat have really been bitten by the bug. This roundup of their favorite treehouse finds over the past few years ranges from a glowing Japanese lantern-like structure nestled among fir trees on Lake Muskoka, Ontario to two Buckminster Fuller-inspired geodesic domes linked by a canopy walk.

As I said the other day, every arboretum and botanical garden needs at least one of these awesome arboreal aeries. 

Agricultural Skyscrapers

Tuesday, May 20th, 2008

Fritz Haeg has been deemed a horticultural revolutionary of late for daring to propose scrapping front lawns for “edible estates.” But his proposal pales compared to Columbia professor Dickson Despommier’s vision of entire skyscrapers devoted to growing crops. Such “vertical farms” could reduce the carbon footprint of city dwellers by conserving energy used for long-distance transport of food to urban markets. Even better, they could free up expanses of farmland to return to forest, radically reducing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Among the other benefits of skycropping: a year-round supply of organically grown fruits, vegetables, grains, and fish; no weather-related crop failures; no polluting agricultural runoff; lots of green collar jobs in inner cities; and an intensive form of food production capable of feeding the 3 billion additional people predicted by the year 2050, most of whom will live in urban areas.

Several sky farm designs are featured on Despommier’s website. He says roughly 150 30-story towers could feed the entire population of New York City for a year. This article, published in New York magazine last year, explains in detail how they would work.

What Every Arboretum Needs

Saturday, May 17th, 2008

Some of the most spectacular treehouses you’ve ever seen, constructed around the world by a company called Baumraum.

Solar Kelp Beds

Friday, May 16th, 2008

Another fabulous technology that mimics the behavior of plants to produce electricity, the bioWAVE looks like a huge mechanical kelp bed implanted on the ocean floor. Each bioWave generator consists of three buoyant blades resembling giant kelp bladders that harness the energy of ocean currents as they sway back and forth like real sea plants. 

Plants Have Dignity too

Thursday, May 15th, 2008

You may have seen some of the snide commentary in the press about how the Swiss government has deemed that plants, as living beings, have an inherent worth and therefore we should not damage or destroy them for no rational reason. Seems pretty obvious to me. I’m continually shocked at how so many people treat plants so cavalierly, bulldozing them, ripping them out, or sawing them down as if they were inanimate landscape props.

The way they’ve been portrayed, you’d think the Swiss Federal Ethics Committee, which made the decision, was a bunch of New Age flakes. Actually, they are a distinguished group of ethicists who have issued a detailed, well-reasoned report, which is available here. But the idea that plants have dignity may be difficult to fathom for a society that can’t even manage to engage in a well-reasoned discussion about the dignity of human detainees. 

Green Roofs and Green Woofs

Wednesday, May 14th, 2008

Green Roofs for Healthy Cities, a trade group, has announced that seven projects have received its 2008 Award of Excellence. They include the California Academy of Sciences green roof in San Francisco, which is designed to provide habitat for the endangered Bay Checkerspot butterfly (one of the designs featured in my article on green roofs as wildlife habitat).

My award for cutest green roofs goes to Sustainable Pet, which creates doghouses, cat houses, and birdhouses topped by green roofs planted with vegetation native to your region. 

Solar Lily Pads

Tuesday, May 13th, 2008

Water-lilies do it, so why shouldn’t we? In a beautiful example of biomimicry, Scottish architects have designed a series of lily pad-like photovoltaic cells that can float in Glasgow’s River Clyde like a string of giant Victoria amazonica leaves, soaking up solar energy and sending electricity to the city’s grid.

Growing Greener: The Carbon Footprint of Food

Friday, May 2nd, 2008

The following was published as part of my regular “Growing Greener” column in Public Garden magazine, Vol. 23 No. 2 (2008). Public Garden is the flagship publication of the American Public Gardens Association. In “Growing Greener” I answer sustainability-related questions from public garden staff.

Q: How does the carbon footprint of homegrown fruits and vegetables compare with that of imported produce?

A: In the past few years the carbon footprint of food has become one of the hottest issues in the western world. A number of luminaries have weighed in on the subject in the U.S. alone, from best-selling novelist Barbara Kingsolver (in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle) to ethnobotanist Gary Nabhan (in Coming Home to Eat). All this discussion has generated its own jargon, including such terms as “food miles” (the distance any item of produce travels from farm to table) and “locavore” (a person who makes a point of eating food grown within 100 miles, give or take).

At first glance comparing, say, a tomato grown 30 feet from your back door with one cultivated half a continent away would seem to be a no-brainer. (more…)