Archive for July, 2008

Urban Pick Your Own

Thursday, July 24th, 2008

No, we’re not talking about picking dandelion leaves from a tree pit that Fido probably peed on, but rather plucking peaches, apples, and other fruit from city trees — fruit that otherwise would be scraped off the sidewalk and shipped to a landfill or at best composted. As reported in Gristmill, a handful of cities are getting organized about harvesting urban fruit and nuts, using interactive mapping tools posted online so anyone can find the nearest pomegranate or avocado ripe for the taking. 

On Saturday mornings beginning August 2, the Portland Fruit Tree Project will be holding Harvest Parties, where city dwellers get together to collect orphan fruits and donate a percentage to local food banks. Last year, the group gathered 3400 pounds of fruit that otherwise would have gone to waste. 

Canopy Walk and Rhizotron

Saturday, July 12th, 2008

Canopy walks at botanical gardens and arboretums are the hottest thing since children’s discovery gardens started appearing everywhere in the 90s. Kew’s new Rhizotron and Xstrata Treetop Walkway, named after the mining company that helped fund it and designed by the firm that did the London Eye, climbs 59 feet high into a canopy of chestnuts, oaks, and limes, and also takes a dip below ground to explore the subterranean world of tree roots. Another trend alert, at least in England: The design of the canopy walk is based on the Fibonacci Series.

Green Megalopolis

Friday, July 11th, 2008

The July issue of Popular Science has a story on the megalopolis of the future. Hint: It looks nothing like smog-choked Mexico City or sprawling LA. Instead, picture things like pod cars, sidewalks that turn footsteps into electricity, an algae park with a super breed of algae engineered at UC Berkeley to generate energy, and 30-story hydroponic farms tended by robots. The interactive web feature is fun, but here’s hoping the ecotropolis of 2050 has better music. 

Climate Roulette

Thursday, July 10th, 2008

How will America’s biodiversity hotspot — the state of California — fare as the climate changes? Not great, according to a new paper in the peer-reviewed online journal PLoS One. Its findings have implications for plant conservation that are guaranteed to raise a few eyebrows. 

The paper was the buzz among botanists at the annual conference of the American Public Garden Association in Pasadena a couple of weeks ago. California’s diverse and distinctive flora faces a potential “collapse,” David Ackerly, an ecologist at UC Berkeley and the senior author of the paper, told the LA Times. “As the climate changes, many of these plants will have no place to go.” 

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Buildings That Behave Like Plants

Wednesday, July 9th, 2008

Check out Habitat 2020, a nature-inspired building that makes today’s LEED Platinum structures look about as cutting edge as Stonehenge. “The exterior has been designed as a living skin, rather than a system of inert materials” used only for protection, reports Inhabitat. In fact, the building’s walls look a lot like the surface of a leaf seen under a microscope, with countless stomata, the openings that regulate plant transpiration and exchange of gases with the atmosphere. Like a leaf, the architectural skin automatically positions itself to let in sunlight — no artificial lighting would be needed during the day — funnel air into the building for natural cooling, and harvest rain water. It can even absorb moisture from the air. The concept is being developed for housing in China. 

Urban Grow Bags

Monday, July 7th, 2008

Can half-ton bags of soil lined up in abandoned lots help make cities more self-sufficient in food production? Architects Ulrike Steven and Gareth Morris of What if: Projects Ltd. think so. Working with an inner city neighborhood in London, they arranged 70 of them on concrete in a vacant lot where local residents are now growing an astonishing array of vegetables, fruits, and flowers. For the past two years these unusual containers have been transformed into a vibrant community garden.

One of the local residents describes how his initial investment of about $12 for seeds has yielded “200 lettuces, cucumbers, beetroots galore, spring onions”   so many that he and his neighbors are able to swap a portion of their harvests.

Currently, according to a report in The Times, 80 percent of London’s food comes from abroad and the rest is shipped in from other parts of the U.K. Only a minuscule amount is produced locally. However, a London Assembly member estimates that the city could produce as much as 25 percent of its food using Urban Grow Bags and other means. 

Plants: Dumb or Brainy?

Tuesday, July 1st, 2008

It’s time to ditch, once and for all, the notion that plants are the dumb blondes of the biosphere. The typical suburban or city dweller sees plants as domestic accessories, with all the awareness of an Eames molded plywood chair. Even plant lovers tend to see them as horticultural eye candy, flaunting their pretty flower heads solely for our pleasure.

Set aside for a moment the fact that plants are capable of converting sunlight into food, or that some canny orchids can produce blooms that look so much like female bees that they’re magnets for the lovesick males who unintentionally pollinate the plants while attempting to copulate with their flowers. To me, this has always been evidence that plants are really smart.

Now scientists have demonstrated that some species can recognize members of their own family. In the British journal Biology Letters, plant ecologist Susan A. Dudley and colleague Amanda File set off a bit of a ruckus in the rarefied world of plant biology by describing an experiment in which they planted the Great Lakes sea rocket, Cakile edentula var. lacustris, in pots. Turns out there was a lot less competition when siblings shared the same container than when groups of strangers grew in a common pot — a feat of altruism members of our own species are not always capable of pulling off.

In fact, there’s so much new data on plant intelligence, including abilities like sensing and, yes, even learning and remembering, that scientists are now arguing about whether plants can be said to have nervous systems, if not brains. A scientific group called the Society for Plant Neurobiology was recently established to provide a venue for biologists interested in exploring, in their words, “complex plant behavior.” This prompted a backlash by three dozen exasperated scientists who published an article, “Plant Neurobioloogy: No Brain, No Gain?”, that took members of the new society to task for discussing the possibility that plants have neurons, synapses, and some vegetable equivalent of a brain, long considered the province of animals exclusively. Eric D. Brenner of The New York Botanical Garden, along with four other scientists, countered, “No one proposes that we literally look for a walnut-shaped little brain in the root or shoot tip.” But, they insisted, we should be open to the possibility that plants have their own sort of nervous system.

To keep abreast of the latest on plants as intelligent life forms, see the Society for Plant Neurobiology’s peer-reviewed journal, Plant Signaling & Behavior.