Posts Tagged ‘plants’

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.

Sexy Cisterns

Thursday, March 5th, 2009

Collecting rainwater to use in your garden is a time-honored and easy way to do something good for yourself (lower water bills! a lusher, more productive landscape!) and the environment (less stress on public drinking water supplies! less storm water runoff!). Of late, designers have gotten us way beyond the typical 50-gallon plastic barrel covered with a film of mold, and Inhabitat has been doing a good job of acknowledging their efforts. A few of the more imaginative examples:

CISTA, a rainwater harvesting system designed for urban environments, consists of a tall, slender, 100-gallon tank surrounded by a planting frame. No-nonsense types can simply use it as a trellis for a flowering vine. More adventurous gardeners can turn it into a signature topiary.

The prototype Rainpod looks like a miniature municipal water tank topped with a Statue of Liberty-like crown that captures the precipitation. Propped up on three legs made of local timber, it stands a bit taller than a person so the water can be delivered gratis by gravity. The effect is funky cute, like a little UFO that’s landed in your yard.

If you’re looking for something a bit more traditional but still slick, take a look at the RainwaterHOG, a system of modular plastic tanks with a sleek profile.

When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Growing

Monday, March 2nd, 2009

Whaddaya do when the economy is sinking like a stone, and you can’t even fall back on peanut butter sandwiches as a cheap culinary staple without fearing for your family’s safety? According to a new National Gardening Association survey, you grow your own groceries. Among the findings:

• 43 million U.S. households plan to grow their own vegetables, herbs, and fruits in 2009, up 19 percent from last year.

• 21 percent of households said they plan to start a food garden this year.

Among the reasons cited were that home-grown food tastes better (58 percent of those surveyed), it saves money (54 percent), and it’s safer (48 percent).

The NGA announced the findings at the 5th annual Garden Writers Association teleconference last week. A white paper with the details will be available on its website soon.

If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Eat ‘Em

Friday, February 27th, 2009

As chickweed, pepper cress, dandelion, and other weeds begin to push up from the soil, the Farmer’s Daughter hails these harbingers of spring, and the arrival of the wild greens foraging season.

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. 

Michelle Obama, Locavore-in-Chief?

Wednesday, February 25th, 2009

On Friday, I bemoaned the fact that Michelle Obama missed an opportunity to promote healthy fresh foods when she appeared at the USDA, which had just announced a plan to create community gardens at its facilities worldwide, bearing a magnolia seedling instead of a tiny apple tree or other edible plant. But on Sunday, according to Marian Burros of the New York Times, the First Lady put in a plug for local and sustainable food and for healthy eating during a tour of the White House kitchen:

When food is grown locally, she said, “oftentimes it tastes really good, and when you’re dealing with kids, you want to get them to try that carrot.”

“If it tastes like a real carrot, and it’s really sweet, they’re going to think that it’s a piece of candy,” she continued. “So my kids are more inclined to try different vegetables if they are fresh and local and delicious.”

Now she should get that organic garden growing on the White House grounds…

Missing Bees — How You Can Help

Monday, February 23rd, 2009

About a decade ago, bee biologists began to observe that several wild bumble bee species were declining dramatically. Three of them were important crop pollinators: the western bumble bee, once one of the three most common bumble bees in the western U.S. and Canada, the rusty patched bumble bee, which was widespread in 26 eastern and midwestern U.S. states and two Canadian provinces, and the yellowbanded bumble bee, which was frequently found throughout the east and upper Midwest of the U.S. as well as most of southern Canada. A fourth, Franklin’s bumble bee, historically had a small range in southern Oregon and northern California and may now be extinct.

What caused the decline? Commercial rearing of bumble bees for crop pollination may be the culprit. Bumble bee expert Robbin Thorp believes that members of these closely related species probably caught a disease from a European bee in the same rearing facility. The North American bumble bees would have had no resistance to the pathogen, which then spread to wild populations.

The Xerces Society is asking citizen monitors as well as scientists to be on the lookout for these species and report back with any findings. You can find photos, identification tips, information on the life history and habits of the bees, and contact information in the Bumble Bees in Decline section of their website. 

Alice Waters to the Rescue

Friday, February 20th, 2009

Recommended reading: the op-ed piece in today’s New York Times by Alice Waters and colleague Katrina Heron. They describe how the USDA’s $9 billion-a-year school lunch program has become a way to distribute unhealthy high-fat commodity food—some of the same ingredients found in fast food—to our schools, and how the resulting meals routinely fail to meet basic nutritional standards. They recommend scrapping the program and starting from scratch, pointing out that advocacy groups like Better School Food have managed to work with local farmers to provide kids with healthy, fresh food.

Last night on the news, I watched Michelle Obama, continuing to make the rounds to various federal agencies, arrive at the USDA bearing a gift—a magnolia seedling propagated from a tree planted on the White House grounds by Andrew Jackson. She said she wanted it to grow in one of the new community gardens that will be created at every USDA facility worldwide. It was a nice gesture, but a missed opportunity. Imagine if MIchelle had brought a tomato or apple seedling instead and used the occasion to promote healthy, organically grown fruits and vegetables for the nation’s children—she is, after all, a former hospital administrator. Another good thing she could do is create a model organic garden at the White House to advance the movement for healthy food and healthy kids. 

Citizen Scientist Documents Plants on the Move

Thursday, February 19th, 2009

Three cheers for citizen scientists! Twenty years of data compiled by an avid hiker and naturalist and analyzed by researchers at the University of Arizona in Tucson show that plants in the state’s Santa Catalina Mountains are flowering at higher elevations as summer temperatures rise. 

Dave Bertelsen told Science Daily he’s been hiking the Finger Rock trail one to two times a week since 1983 and recording what plants are in flower. His 5-mile hike starts in desert scrub and climbs 4,158 feet, ending in pine forest. He’s completed 1,206 round-trip hikes and recorded data on nearly 600 plant species. The researchers found that during the 20-year study period, summer temperatures in the region increased about 1.8 degree Fahrenheit.

Bertelson hooked up with the scientists at a 2005 meeting about monitoring plant species held by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in which one of them, UA climatologist Michael Crimmins, discussed his need for data to study the effect of climate change on ecosystems over time. According to Theresa Crimmins, research specialist for the UA’s Arid Lands Information Center and lead author of the resulting paper, the role of citizen scientists is becoming ever more important—biological changes caused by climate change are coming fast, she says, and ”more eyes on the ground” are needed to monitor them.

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.