Archive for the ‘Plant News’ Category

Adopt a Botanical Painting

Thursday, February 12th, 2009

You can help Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew save the work of prolific Victorian botanical artist Marianne North by “adopting” one of her works. The paintings range from still life portraits—like the depiction of clove foliage and flowers draped over the side of a table, with halved and whole mangoes and the Hindu God of Wisdom in the background—to landscapes, gardens, animals, people, and buildings around the world. In the online gallery it’s possible to browse the collection by plant group, country or continent, category, or price. Funds raised from the adoptions will pay for the modernization of Kew’s 120-year-old Marianne North Gallery, which according to the Garden has a roof that is “no longer sound,” walls that “are not always weather tight,” and no environmental controls.

You don’t get to take the original home, but your donation of £1,000, £750 or £500 (depending on the painting), which can even be paid in monthly installments, entitles you to a print, an invitation to the opening of the refurbished gallery, and other perks.

Plant Exploration, 21st-Century Style

Tuesday, February 3rd, 2009

Back in the olden days, intrepid botanists set sail on uncharted waters to the far reaches of the Earth in search of undiscovered orchids and other bizarre and beautiful plants. Today, they log on to Google Earth.

Global Warming: A Doubling of Tree Deaths

Sunday, January 25th, 2009

More bad news: According to a new study published in the current issue of Science, tree deaths in old-growth forests throughout the American West have more than doubled in recent decades. During the past decade, for example, mountain pine bark beetles have killed roughly 3.5 million acres of lodgepole pine forests in northwestern Colorado, and spruce bark beetles have also killed large areas of spruce forest in northern and southwestern areas of the state.

The study’s authors ruled out a number of possible reasons for the increasing die-offs, including air pollution, long-term effects of fire suppression, and normal forest dynamics, while concluding that regional warming and related droughts were the likely causes. Scarier still is their speculation that these deaths could lead to a series of harmful “cascading effects” on wildlife, and even more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as there are fewer trees to absorb it and as the dead trees decaying on the forest floors become a significant source of the greenhouse gas.

Millennium Seed Bank — Another Bank in Trouble

Monday, December 15th, 2008

Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank is having financial troubles, according to the BBC. The MSB is on track to bank seeds of 10 percent of the world’s wild flowering plants by the end of this decade, but it’s facing a 100 million pound shortfall for its goal of banking 25 percent of the Earth’s plants over the next ten years. It was established in 2000 to collect and bank seeds of all the planet’s plants as an insurance policy — an important effort, given that an estimated 100,000 plant species are in peril.

You can support the MSB with an online donation.

I’ll Drink to That

Sunday, November 23rd, 2008

Immacolata, my Italian grandmother, swore by marsala. When she’d work up a sweat digging in the garden, she’d come inside and take a swig of the wine, a traditional aperitif in southern Italy. When we’d get coughs, she’d boil down some red table wine with a dollup of honey and let us sip the resulting concoction. Don, my (non-Italian) husband, called the stuff “hocus pocus” until we convinced him to try it one night when he was hacking away with bronchitis. He slept like a baby.

These days science is providing some vindication for the Italian cure-all. First, researchers cracked the “French paradox” — why people who live on fois gras, cheese, and butter don’t die en masse from heart attacks. They drink red vin with all that fatty food, of course. Then came the news that red wine may lower prostate and lung cancer risk, and improve liver health. Now we learn that the polyphenols in red wine may also ward off Alzheimers by blocking the formation of proteins that build the toxic plaques believed to destroy brain cells.

Salut’, as Immacolata would say.

Polyphenols are found in high concentrations in tea, cocoa, nuts, berries, and other plant foods as well as wine.

The Purchasing Power of Coffee Hounds

Saturday, October 4th, 2008

Java lovers take note: For better or worse, our passion for espresso, latte, or plain old cups of morning joe has had a dramatic effect on landscapes around the world — today, coffee is grown in at least 16 of the world’s 34 biodiversity hotspots — not to mention the people whose livelihoods depend on the stuff. In an effort to boost production, growers have increased their use of pesticides and are relying less on shade trees, which offer habitat for birds and other environmental benefits. Given increasing evidence of the health benefits of coffee consumption, this trend is likely to intensify, despite the fact that these practices make the crop more vulnerable to erratic weather.

No, this isn’t a plea for coffee hounds to switch to tea or hot chocolate (the same trends have been detected among producers of these crops). But it is a reminder that we can help protect the land and its people in coffee-growing regions by buying shade-grown products. According to the latest evidence, in an article published in the October issue of BioScience, sustainable farming that employs shade trees may improve coffee crops’ resistance to the temperature and precipitation extremes that climate change is expected to trigger. You can find a pdf to the full article here

The Carbon Footprint of Gourmet Dirt

Sunday, August 17th, 2008

An interesting story by Joel Achenbach in today’s Washington Post is, on its face, about how the price of potting soil has soared in the past year due to the high cost of the fossil fuels used to manufacture, package, and ship the stuff. But read between the lines and the story is really about how a once humble material has been transformed into an upmarket mixture of largely unnecessary components from across the continent and around the globe — and about how gardening (or at least the kind practiced by many Americans), an activity by definition assumed to be “green,” is anything but.

Bob LaGasse, who represents soil and mulch manufacturers as executive director of the Mulch and Soil Council, explains that consumers demand these high-priced designer mixtures, which a South Carolina-based producer calls “potting soil on steroids.” (Bob LaGasse also happens to be executive director of the Garden Writers Association, representing the people who recommend potting soils and other horticultural products to consumers.) 

It’s virtually impossible these days to find a bag of potting soil that isn’t loaded with synthetic fertilizer. Nitrogen fertilizer, as David Wolfe, professor of plant and soil ecology at Cornell University, has pointed out, is the typical gardener’s biggest contribution to global warming. The manufacture of synthetic fertilizer is extremely energy intensive. And the use of nitrogen fertilizers (whether synthetic or organic) releases nitrous oxide gas, which in Wolfe’s words “has 300 times more global warming potential per molecule than carbon dioxide.” Yet American gardeners have been hoodwinked into believing that applying fertilizer to their plants, whether in containers or in the ground, is as fundamental as brushing their teeth.

In addition to organic matter, from composted clam shells to pine bark, which could just as easily come from local sources but is often shipped from far away, the typical bag of potting soil is also likely to contain perlite transported from the Greek island of Milos and coconut coir from Vietnam, if not peat moss “vacuum-harvested” from Canadian bogs. Then the concoction is packaged in plastic bags, which are piled up and shrink-wrapped on wooden pallets for shipping to nurseries and superstores. In short, the amount of embodied energy and greenhouse gases associated with a bag of potting mix is mind boggling.

All for a few petunia plants likely to end up in a dump after the first frost.

California Plants and Climate Change — Even Worse Than we Thought?

Thursday, August 7th, 2008

KQED radio has produced an interesting follow-up to the recent Plos One paper predicting that climate change will have a dire impact on redwoods and other plants that are endemic to California, America’s biodiversity hotspot — plants found nowhere else in the world. (My blog on the paper is here.) A KQED reporter interviews the authors and finds they’re even more pessimistic than they were when they wrote the paper. One sobering prediction: Most of California’s endemic plants will die if global warming continues at its present pace. At the end of the century, redwoods could still be growing in California because adult trees are so long-lived. But since no seedlings will be able to survive, these adults will be the last redwoods on earth, a forest of the “living dead.”

On the KQED website you’ll also find an interesting slide show based on the radio interview.

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.” 


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.