Posts Tagged ‘plants’

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.

Regenerative Design: The Next Big Environmental Thing

Thursday, April 23rd, 2009

“Earth Week” is as good a time as any to reflect on the environmental movement and how it’s evolved since the first Earth Day in 1970. Back in those days, the toxic smog spewed from chemical factories that lined the New Jersey Turnpike was so thick you could barely get from New York to Delaware without a gas mask. Ohio’s Cuyahoga River caught on fire. Paul Ehrlich predicted that exploding human population growth would lead to mass famines and planetary disaster. In its report Limits to Growth, the Club of Rome said people were devouring natural resources, particularly oil, so fast that the days of economic growth were numbered. The old Sierra Club motto that people who enter natural areas should “take only pictures, leave only footprints” captured the prevailing environmental view that humans are “unnatural,” ecological outlaws, predators on a planetary scale.

Early environmentalism resulted in some landmark laws and considerable environmental clean-up. But twenty years later, ecosystems were still declining rapidly, and we still were faced with climate chaos, not to mention a mass extinction episode that could rival anything in the three and a half billion years of life on earth, including the demise of the dinosaurs. As a public relations strategy, gloom and doom got old real fast, and in the past decade or so, a more positive approach has become environmentalism’s mainstream face—the quest for sustainability. As a guiding philosophy, sustainable development certainly beats misanthropy and apocalypse. But LEED Platinum buildings and Priuses can get you only so far, and sustainable design, at least as currently conceived, won’t lead to true sustainability anytime soon. By settling for a higher recycling rate, more fuel-efficient cars, or less water consumption, we’re just making things less worse.

Five years ago, in an influential presentation, David Schaller, sustainable development coordinator in the EPA’s Denver office, called this a “cruel, zero-sum game that we are destined to lose in the end.”  No wonder there’s still talk about austerity and apocalypse, he said: “There is an austerity all right, but it is an austerity of imagination. All of it is fueled by the premise of scarcity in nature. I propose that there is an abundance to nature that, in our ignorance and even arrogance, we are only beginning to fathom.”

Any gardener who has contemplated the act of photosynthesis knows that life on earth is no zero-sum game. Plants are able to pluck sunlight out of thin air and transform its energy into the food that all animals, including us, need to survive. Through photosynthesis, plants are constantly renewing the planet. The business of nature is quite the opposite of scarcity and limits. It’s the creation of diversity and complexity, and also increasing consciousness. Although it’s been interrupted on a handful of occasions by episodes of mass extinction, the increase in the diversity and complexity—and consciousness—of species since life began is astonishing. Okay, so we humans have been misguided. But we are as capable of evolving and growing as the rest of nature. In fact, as the quintessential self-conscious species, we have a key role to play in the future of the earth.

The number of people in the world long ago overwhelmed what nature could accomplish via the plodding, incremental, and unconscious process of biological evolution encoded in our genes. Human thought and imagination, by means of cultural change, are now subsuming the far slower process of biological evolution. And in the past few years, a new way of thinking called regenerative design has been bubbling up into our collective consciousness. While the highest aim of sustainable development is creating things that do no harm, regenerative design recognizes that people can be a positive ecological force—that we have the potential to create more diversity and abundance on the planet than would be possible without us.

A lot of people scoff at the idea that we humans, who are almost singlehandedly responsible for climate change and the current extinction crisis, could ever become promoters of biodiversity and abundance. But as a gardener I know that from one single species of wild cabbage native to the Mediterranean we’ve created not only a multitude of cultivated cabbages but also a multitude of cauliflowers, and broccolis, and kohlrabis, and kales, and Brussels sprouts, and collards, and more. And in some ways we’re producing ever more diversity, ever faster. It took centuries for us to create the many vegetable varieties from that single species of wild cabbage. But in a matter of decades, we’ve developed enough new daffodil varieties to support an entire garden industry.

Of course, under our influence there’s also been a rapid evolution of invasive weeds. We need to learn how to distinguish between horticultural practices—and other practices—that enhance diversity and abundance and those that degrade and destroy them. We can do this by studying the natural patterns and processes that over the millennia have transformed the planet from a barren hunk of rock, to a green globe cloaked with lush ferns and giant conifers, to the world of multicolored floral ebullience we know today. That is what the native landscaping movement has been about. And permaculture. There are also glimmers of regenerative design in the Living Building Challenge, which is poised to surpass LEED as the gold standard for ecological building. In the words of the Cascadia Green Building Council, where the Challenge originated, a living building “is as elegant and efficient as a flower.” It doesn’t just use less energy, water, and other resources but rather generates more energy from renewable sources than it uses, captures more rainwater than it needs, and actually adds to the abundance and beauty of a place.

Heck, regenerative design already has its own Wikipedia stub. You’ll be hearing more about it.

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.  

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.

Pesticide Packin’ Mama

Thursday, April 9th, 2009

Now at websites and box stores near you—”Gardening Mama” for Nintendo DS, which bills itself as the first video game about gardening. Gardening Mama is a spinoff of the popular “Cooking Mama” series for young girls (a little old-fashioned sexual role playing, anyone?) that stars an adorable anime head with stubby arms and a cute Japanese accent. Now, just in time for spring, Mama is venturing out of the kitchen and into the garden. Instead of chopping vegetables she’s pruning branches. Instead of sprinkling salt and pepper, she’s pouring on the fertilizer—all with simple touch screen controls. Like Cooking Mama 2, Gardening Mama is also a competitive sport—you can play multiplayer challenges with friends to see who can blow clouds out of the sky the fastest, or douse the most insects with their pesticide sprayers. 

Not being a big video game person, I’m not the best person to judge Gardening Mama’s technical merits. But after playing around on the Gardening Mama website for a few minutes, I can say that the game could keep chemical gardening alive and well for the next generation.

Slow Gardening

Wednesday, April 8th, 2009

Okay, so I’ve been slow to add my two cents on “Slow, Easy, Cheap, and Green,” the piece on Felder Rushing’s adorable brand of “slow gardening,” which appeared in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago. But slow is the name of the game, right?

If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth a look. Felder is a hoot. The self-described “lounge lizard,” who hosts a weekly radio show on Mississippi Public Radio, is the bad boy in the otherwise boring world of “garden communicators.” Picture Jerry Garcia with a pitchfork, kicking back among his plastic pink flamingos and recycled tire planters when not driving his “container garden on wheels,” a beat-up brown-and-white Ford F150 pick-up truck with a garden planted in the back. The effect is circa 1966 commune, with the sweet scent of Cannabis wafting through the air.

Felder is the leading proponent of slow gardening, which of course was inspired by the slow food movement. The idea is to stop stressing out about the lawn. Pass up Echinacea ‘Mac ‘n’ Cheese’ ($21.95 a pop), or anything “NEW!” from the White Flower Farm catalog. (“I’m not into the latest and greatest,” Felder told the Times reporter, speaking of the dowdy ornamentals like gladiolas and dusty miller that fill his garden.) Channel your inner Dale Chihuly by creating bottle trees with Bud Lite bottles from your last barbecue. Grow lettuce in pots, instead of in the ground, for easy maintenance. (Best line in the article: Felder’s quip that “lettuce is embarrassingly easy to grow. I grew some in a hanging basket last year. All it took was a squirt of vinaigrette, and I didn’t even have to bend over to eat it.”)

I was just warming up to this vision of the good life when, in a most unfortunate bit of timing, Rick Griffin, a local landscape architect who, we learn, helps Felder with garden design, arrives on the scene. According to the Times, “The men stood in the garden, debating a design element to fill space around an art installation made of three large glass circles.”

Oops. Maybe Felder’s idea of gardening isn’t so laid back after all. I mean, forget about the gladioli and the container garden on wheels. If you really want to slow down, plant a native wildflower meadow if you have sun, or some native woodland shrubs, wildflowers, and ferns if you have shade trees on your property, then let nature take care of most of the maintenance. To keep yourself out of trouble, plant some fruits and veggies, preferably in containers or raised beds, by your kitchen door. And/or some potted flowers by the patio to attract butterflies and other pollinators for free entertainment all summer long.

Carbon Neutral Landscapes?

Saturday, March 21st, 2009

Listen to landscape architects and other members of the “green industry” these days and it’s apparent they think they’re addressing global climate change just by going to work in the morning. Gardeners think the same way. After all, growing plants is the essence of landscaping, and plants pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere during photosynthesis. That makes gardening the ultimate green activity in an age of global warming fueled primarily by this greenhouse gas, right?

Um, wrong. From the choice of paving materials to the use of fertilizers and the amount of embodied energy involved in pumping and distributing water used for irrigation, gardens are part of the problem, not the solution to our climate woes. Is it possible to create landscapes that are carbon neutral or, even better, that function as “carbon sinks”? I explore this question here.

Great Idea Department

Monday, March 16th, 2009

Coming to a skyscraper, box store, or barn near you: Wildlife artist Thierry Bisch, mural painter Daniel Boulogne, and the IUCN, which compiles and publishes the Red List of imperiled plants and animals, are teaming up to create enormous portraits of endangered species (read animals) on building facades around the world. Imagine the adorable mug of a mountain gorilla (Red List: Critically Endangered) peering out from the walls of your local Home Depot.

Great idea. But (okay, so I’m beginning to sound like a broken record) what about the plants? There are plenty of botanical artists who can do an awesome titan arum, vampire orchid, or venus flytrap.

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.