Archive for the ‘Food for Thought’ 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.

Edge Plants

Wednesday, July 6th, 2011

You’d think that conservation efforts for the world’s most imperiled and genetically unique species would be well underway, right? Think again. Many are currently sliding silently towards extinction with little or no attention and action on their behalf.

In 2007, the Zoological Society of London launched an initiative to publicize and protect such Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered (EDGE) species. These weird and wonderful creatures are often extremely unusual looking, and their behavior can be pretty bizarre, too. Because they have few close relatives on the tree of life, if they are allowed to become extinct there will be nothing like them left on the planet.

Most imperiled species around the world are assigned a conservation status in the IUCN Red List. EDGE ranking goes a step further. It’s determined by multiplying a species’ “globally endangered” score (based on its Red List status) by its “evolutionary distinctiveness” score (based on its phylogeny or evolutionary history).

During the past four years, EDGE mammals, amphibians, and corals have been selected for protection—from the numbat, or banded anteater, to the six foot-long Chinese giant salamander and the mushroom coral. A new EDGE birds conservation program is in the works.

Finally, plants are beginning to enter the picture. The first group to be prioritized by EDGE score is the gymnosperms, including conifers, cycads, the ginkgo tree, and gnetophytes such as Welwitschia. Why gymnosperms? For one thing, they are some of the earliest seed-bearing plants. And Red List conservation assessments have already been done for the almost 1,000 gymnosperm species distributed around the world, the majority of which are threatened with extinction.

According to Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, the highest priority EDGE gymnosperm is the Wollemi pine (Wollemia nobilis), which was discovered in 1994 in the Wollemi National Park, Australia.

The Climate Conscious Gardener

Tuesday, June 28th, 2011

Sometimes when I’m depressed about The State of the World I cheer myself up by thinking about how radically things have changed in my own lifetime. More and more women are at the top of their professions. Cigarettes are taboo. Same-sex marriage is now legal in my state. The Sustainable Sites Initiative is poised to transform the way we design and maintain landscapes…

Less than two years ago, I was told by a client not to say too much about climate change in a publication we were developing because the issue is a political hot potato. But just last week at its annual meeting, the American Public Gardens Association unveiled a partnership with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to educate gardeners and plant enthusiasts about the possible effects of climate change on the country’s gardens, landscapes, and green spaces. Yay APGA!

And I’m happy to report that my latest book, The Climate Conscious Gardener, which was published by Brooklyn Botanic Garden last year, has won a 2011 Garden Writers Association award. Kudos to BBG for continuing to raise critical—and potentially controversial—issues in its acclaimed handbook series. And thanks, GWA, for the recognition!

Dickson Despommier Does it Again

Tuesday, August 25th, 2009

You gotta give it to Dickson Despommier—he’s certainly persistent. The professor of public health at Columbia University has been pushing the concept of vertical farming in cities for the past several years, and he made his pitch again in Sunday’s New York Times. He even tossed in a few stats on the economics of growing food in urban highrises to counter the arguments of skeptics. You can find my previous takes on vertical agriculture here,  here, and here.

Vertical Vegetecture

Monday, June 22nd, 2009

It remains to be seen whether vertical farming in cities is feasible economically, but it’s sure inspiring a growing number of architects. You’ll find a thumbnail history of the sky farm, as well as 16 different designs, at Dornob. Two of my favorites—complete with stunning renderings—are Eric Ellingsen’s and Dickson Despommier’s Pyramid Farm, and Vincent Callebaut’s Dragonfly Farm.

Meatless Monday

Saturday, June 20th, 2009

When I was a kid, we didn’t eat meat on Fridays. I came from a Catholic family, and like most Catholic families, meatless Fridays were a commemoration of the crucifixion and death of Christ, which according to scriptures occurred on a Friday. Not being all that impressed with the rituals of Catholicism, my brother and I held our noses and ate the standard end-of-the-week fare—fish cakes or fried flounder. But like millions of other kids we survived. In fact, we were probably healthier for having avoided still another evening meal of beef stew, hamburgers, or pot roast.

Now a new movement called Meatless Monday is gaining traction. The goal of the campaign, which is being promoted in association with Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health, is to reduce meat consumption by 15 percent to improve personal health, reduce our carbon footprint, and conserve resources like fresh water and fossil fuel. Last month Ghent, Belgium became the first city in the western world to go meatless once a week, although they’re doing it on Thursdays instead of Mondays.

On the Meatless Monday website, you can find information on seasonal fruits and vegetables, including recipes, check on who’s going meatless, and take the Meatless Monday pledge yourself.

Carbon Consciousness

Friday, May 22nd, 2009

These days, as part of my semi-nomadic life as a program planning and interpretation consultant for public gardens and nature centers, I’ve been offsetting a lot of travel-related carbon emissions. Like this week. I just got back from one of those places that seem to engender periodic bursts of human creativity. Call it karma or happy coincidence, these places suddenly  become magnets for artists, oddballs, and other rebellious types who, through a critical mass of their collective contrarian consciousness, change the course of history. Like Florence in the 15th century, or Baraboo in the 20th century. Baraboo??

Baraboo is a small city in south central Wisconsin with a population of less than 12,000. The surrounding Baraboo Ranges are all that remain of one of the most ancient rock outcrops in North America, composed of Baraboo Quartzite, a metamorphosed form of sandstone that originated about 1.85 billion years ago in what geologists call the Early Proterozoic Eon. The Baraboo area is also the terminal moraine of the Wisconsinan, the place where this final glacier of the last Ice Age dumped its debris, creating impressive sights like Devil’s Lake Gorge, where quartzite blocks crunched up by the ice sheet cling tenuously to steep slopes.

It was in Baraboo in 1884 that the Ringling Brothers began their circus, a band of oddballs if there ever was one. Over six seasons, the circus expanded from a wagon show to a railroad show with 225 employees, touring cities across the United States each summer. Baraboo remained the circus’s headquarters and wintering grounds until 1918.

A few years later, in 1924, Aldo Leopold arrived in nearby Madison, and in the early 1930s he purchased a dilapidated chicken coop and a few hundred acres of Dust Bowl-ravaged land near Baraboo as a weekend retreat for his family. At the shack, as it was called, Leopold was inspired to write conservation classics like A Sand County Almanac, launching the fields of restoration ecology and land ethics. 

The Baraboo Ranges continue to work their magic. A couple of years ago, about a mile down the road from the shack, the Aldo Leopold Foundation built the Aldo Leopold Legacy Center. The second highest-rated LEED Platinum facility to date, the Legacy Center also meets the 2030 Challenge, which aims to rapidly transform the U.S. and global building sectors from the biggest single contributor of greenhouse gas emissions to a central part of the solution to the climate crisis by changing the way buildings and developments are planned, designed, and constructed. 

The Legacy Center also happens to be the first carbon-neutral building certified by LEED. The initial carbon budget for the facility was based on projected emissions from combustion (including stationary sources such as wood-burning stoves and fireplaces, vehicles driven by employees to and from and at work, and estimated visitor vehicle use); on-site electricity generation from photovoltaic cells; wind-generated electricity purchased at night and on days when the solar array does not meet building demand; and carbon sequestered by the Foundation’s 500 acres of forested land. You can find out more about how the Center reduces and offsets its carbon emissions here.

The beautiful facility is located on the land where Leopold perished in 1948 while fighting a brush fire on what was then a neighbor’s property.

Feel Good Friday

Friday, April 17th, 2009

I love stories about intrepid species on the brink of oblivion due to human activities who manage, with or without our help, to make a comeback. (In fact, I named my company, Blue Crocus Consulting, after one of these creatures, the Chilean blue crocus.) That’s why I love the story in yesterday’s Science Daily about Caloplaca obamaea, a species of lichen recently discovered on Santa Rosa Island, California by Kerry Knudsen, a researcher at UC Riverside. The species barely survived intensive grazing by sheep, cattle, elk, and deer. However, the livestock have been removed, and according to Knudsen, when elk and deer, both of which were introduced to the island, are removed, Caloplaca obamae is expected to fully recover.

Note the species name: C. obamae is the first species of any kind to be named in honor of President Obama. Knudsen discovered the species in 2007 while doing a survey on the lichen diversity of Santa Rosa Island. “I made the final collections of C. obamae during the suspenseful final weeks of President Obama’s campaign for the United States presidency,” Knudsen said. He wrote his paper on the species during the “international jubilation” over Obama’s election. And, he pointed out, the final draft of his paper on C. obamae, which was published in the March issue of the journalOpuscula Philolichenum, ”was completed on the very day of President Obama’s inauguration.” 

Lichens, which grow slowly and live for many years, are composite organisms consisting of a fungus and an alga living together. There are approximately 17,000 known species of lichen worldwide, approximately 1,500 species in California, and more than 300 on Santa Rosa Island—almost as many as higher plants native to the island.

More feel good: Knudsen has no academic degrees, but one heck of an interest in lichens. A retired construction worker, he volunteers in the UCR herbarium and has published more than 70 research papers in peer-reviewed journals.  

Screw Earth Day?

Tuesday, April 14th, 2009

Every year, as the calendar approaches April 22, the Grist staff gets cranky. This year they’re crankier than ever. Cranky enough to launch the Screw Earth Day!!! campaign: “You think this is a worldwide love fest? You think this is a bit of kumbaya for your karma? You think you can make up for a lifetime of excess in one day?”

More crankiness here.

Banking on Life

Monday, April 13th, 2009

To celebrate meeting its target of collecting seed of 10 percent of the world’s plants—about 30,000 species—for storage in the Millennium Seed Bank as insurance against extinction, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew is celebrating with the exhibit Banking on Life. The exhibit includes Rob Kesseler’s amazing electron micrographs of seeds and pollen. A slide show of some of these bizarre and beautiful structures is here.

The Millennium Seed Bank is the largest wild plant seed bank, with over a billion seeds collected from around the globe. The second phase of the program will aim to conserve an additional 15 percent of the world’s plant species by 2020. The estimated £100 million needed to accomplish this still need to be raised. Here’s how you can help.