Archive for the ‘Plant News’ 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.

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.  

Linking Food & Native Plants: You Have a Friend at NRCS

Friday, April 3rd, 2009

Mark Ludwig of Sand Lily Farms writes:

You will be glad to know your local Conservation Districts and the Natural Resources Conservation Service are both promoting field borders for farms and natural landscaping at home. There are cost share programs for field borders of native plants with guidelines for native pollinator and predator promotion and protection. Many counties have native plant sales and promotional events.

On its website, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (or NRCS, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture) describes simple and inexpensive ways farmers and gardeners can increase the number of bees on their land. Some of these, such as “exercising care with pesticides,” are no-brainers. Others are less obvious, like minimizing tillage to protect pollinators that live underground for most of the year, and allowing leafy crops like lettuce to bolt (flower) if possible to provide additional food for hungry pollinators. The NRCS website also has links to local Conservation Districts around the country.

Mark wasn’t the only person who reached out to offer ideas on resources and networks that could be useful for forging links between native plant and local food advocates. A couple that were mentioned repeatedly were Fair Food Matters and the Xerces Society’s Pollinator Conservation program. And don’t forget all the great information on the best native plants for attracting beneficial insects based on research at Michigan State University.

Let Them Eat Cukes

Wednesday, March 18th, 2009

The word is out—there will be a vegetable garden at the White House, overseen by Michelle. Obama Foodorama has the details.

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.

Plants As Political Hot Potatoes

Thursday, February 26th, 2009

No, we’re not talking about marijuana, poppies, or hallucinogenic cacti. The world is waking up to the potential of plants—for biofuels, industrial feedstocks for plastics and other materials, “biofactories” for the production of chemicals and drugs, and carbon sinks to combat global warming, to mention just a few emerging technologies. In fact, there’s growing talk of plants replacing oil as the cornerstone of the global economy.

At first glance, this would seem to be a good thing, since plants are a renewable resource, not to mention the only creatures on the planet that have figured out how to convert sunlight into the food we all need to survive. But because the land and water required to grow plants are limited, a group of U.K.-based scientists write in the premier issue of the journal Food Security, there will inevitably be conflicts over competing priorities. The current debate over food vs. fuel is just the beginning.

The researchers call for Interdisciplinary research and collaboration among governments to ensure that we’ll be able to balance our social, environmental, and economic needs. 

The People’s Garden

Wednesday, February 18th, 2009

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack celebrated Lincoln’s birthday by establishing the inaugural USDA People’s Garden at the agency’s headquarters. In the words of the USDA, “The Secretary declared the stretch of pavement permanently closed and returned back to green.” 

At the ceremony, the Secretary announced the goal of creating a community garden at each USDA facility worldwide. These will include ”a wide variety of garden activities,” including embassy window boxes, tree planting, and field office plots. They will be designed to promote “going green concepts,” including landscaping and building design to retain water and reduce runoff; roof gardens for energy efficiency; native plantings; and sound conservation practices.

So, here’s what we know about the inaugural “People’s Garden” so far: It will add 612 square feet of planted space to an existing garden traditionally planted with ornamentals. It will also eliminate 1,250 square feet of unnecessary paved surface at the USDA headquarters and return the landscape to grass. Grass? You’d think the agency that represents farmers could do better than that.

Some interesting facts: Abraham Lincoln founded the Department of Agriculture in 1862 and referred to it as “The People’s Department” in his last annual message to Congress. In 1860, farmers comprised 58 percent of the American labor force, compared to less than 1 percent today. The USDA’s 2009 budget is about $95 billion and includes a mishmash of mandatory and discretionary programs. You can find out how the agency is spending the money here.

More Plant Exploration, 21st-Century Style

Tuesday, February 17th, 2009

Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s Susan Pell, who has been leading a field research team in the little-know Louisiade Archipelago in Papua New Guinea, has been sharing her observations in a web-based diary.

Update: Dave Allen at BBG pointed out that I should send you to the blog home page instead of just one of Susan’s diary entries.

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.