Archive for the ‘Flower Fix’ Category

Plants: Dumb Blondes of the Biosphere?

Tuesday, July 12th, 2011

If they think of them at all, most people see plants as domestic accessories, with all the awareness of a Marcel Breuer Wassily chair. Gardeners and other plant lovers tend to see plants as horticultural eye candy, flaunting their pretty flower heads solely for our pleasure. Until very recently, even most scientists assumed that plants are essentially passive—rooted in place, taking whatever moisture, nutrients, and sunlight chance brings their way. It’s not exactly surprising, then, that the word “vegetable” is used to describe people with brain damage so severe they have no discernable awareness.

A trove of new research, however, is demonstrating that plants are far from botanical automatons. To be sure, researchers have found no signs of Socratic logic or Shakespearean poetry in the plant kingdom. But there is so much new data on plant intelligence—including abilities like sensing and, yes, even learning, remembering, and recognizing kin—that the investigation of plant intelligence is suddenly a serious scientific endeavor.

The latest case in point: You know the perennial debate over the role of nature vs. nurture—heredity or the environment—in the development of a human being? Studies have shown that, depending on their distinct personal experiences, identical human twins can have a different chance of getting a disease. Well, it turns out that in this respect plants may not be so different from people.

In a new study, University of Toronto biologists found that genetically identical poplar trees—clones—responded to drought differently, depending on the nursery the plants were obtained from. They took cuttings of the poplar clones from nurseries in two different regions of Canada and regrew them under identical climate-controlled conditions. Half of the trees were then subjected to drought. Since the trees were regrown under identical conditions, the researchers predicted all the specimens would respond to drought in the same manner, regardless of where they had come from. But low and behold, the genetically identical specimens responded differently to the drought treatment, depending on their place of origin.

Malcolm Campbell, one of the study’s authors, called the finding “quite stunning.” “A tree’s previous personal experience influences how it responds to the environment,” he said. In other words, the trees “remember” where they came from.

Discoveries such as this have the potential to transform the public’s view of plants. In fact, they’re helping to transform our understanding of the nature of intelligence itself.

They also have practical implications for gardeners, landscape designers, and foresters: The “memory” of previous experience discovered in this study could help determine how plants from a particular nursery will respond to conditions in a particular landscape. It may also help predict how certain plants will respond to climate change or other environmental stresses.

Public Garden Trend Alert—Virtual Flower Fixes

Friday, March 13th, 2009

As spring sweeps across the country, some public gardens are capturing the spectacle of blooms online. Anyone in need of a bluebonnet fix can check out the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center’s Bluebonnet Cam, updated hourly. It’s too early to tell whether anyone will top Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s 2008 tour de force, a time-lapse video of 3,000 photos of its famous cherry tree collection—from the early buds to peak bloom—complete with original music.

Moth Brains

Saturday, March 7th, 2009

Just when you think you can’t bear wading through one more impenetrable paper in a research journal, you stumble across an experiment that makes you fall in love with science all over again. Who could possibly resist the image of researchers wiring up moth brains to study how they perceive flower odors wafting through the air?

The sacred datura, an impressive (and hallucinogenic and poisonous) U.S. native perennial that produces huge, white, trumpet-shaped, and irresistibly fragrant blooms, is the favorite nectar source of the tobacco hornworm moth. To find the food, the moths must recognize the faintest whiff of datura and then track the scent upwind to the flower. In return for the meal, the moths pollinate the plant. To learn how the moth pollinator reacts to the 60 different chemicals that comprise the plant’s irresistible perfume, biology geeks at The University of Arizona in Tucson engulfed 20 flowers with Reynolds® Oven Bags and sucked the air out of the bags into a charcoal filter to capture all the chemicals. Back in the lab, they created a solution of the chemicals and injected it into a gas chromatograph. The chromatograph separated the chemicals and spewed them out one by one into a branched tube—one branch led to a wired-up moth and the other to a machine that identified and recorded the individual chemicals as they breezed by. Speakers attached to this gizmo emitted a rapid pop-pop-pop-pop sound if the moth was turned on by a chemical. Turns out the moth brains “popped” to only nine chemicals from sacred datura’s complex bouquet.

The scientists proceeded to study how 420 moths behaved toward the chemicals by putting a moth at one end of a wind tunnel and an artificial flower made of white filter paper doused with datura odors at the other. The insects were not impressed by the chemicals if they were presented one at a time. But when all nine chemicals that had made the moth brains “pop” were put on a paper flower, they stuck out their tongues to imbibe nectar, just as they would when faced with a real sacred datura flower.

Lead researcher Jeffrey A. Riffell’s first-hand account of the experiment is in today’s Science Daily. The paper, “Characterizing and Coding of Behaviorally Significant Odor Mixtures,” is in the current issue of the journal Current Biology. The title alone makes a persuasive case for the value of science journalism.

Cheap Roses Can Be Costly

Friday, February 13th, 2009

Just in time for Valentine’s Day, a new study underlines the human and environmental costs of roses that come from developing countries. According to David Harper, a biologist at the University of Leicester  who has conducted research for more than 25 years at Lake Naivasha in Kenya, cut-price roses are “bleeding that country dry.” Look for roses and other cut flowers certified Fair Trade and grown organically. You can find a list of suppliers here.

Flower Power

Tuesday, October 21st, 2008

This photo of a lily of the valley petal magnified 1,300 times won the 2008 Small World photomicrography competition. The other winners are pretty spectacular, too.