The botanists who do this kind of work are heroes to us:
Thanks to Marisa Endicott at Mother Jones for this:
Respect your elder-berries.
Cloverleaf Farm, a small produce operation in Davis, California, managed to do okay during the extreme drought that lasted from 2012 to 2016. But in the first wet year after the long dry period, the farm lost its entire apricot crop to disease—$40,000 to $50,000 down the drain.
Researchers predict that as climate change worsens, there will be more frequent shifts between extreme dry spells and floods. As Cloverleaf learned the hard way, the phenomenon is already taking a toll on growers in the country’s largest food producing state. During the drought, California’s agricultural and related industries lost $2.7 billion in one year alone. Big cash crops like almonds and grapes are at particular risk in the future, unnerving farmers and vintners already taking hits from erratic and extreme weather. Continue reading
If you are fortunate enough to have a yard of your own, consider this suggestion by Charles Fergus:
By itself, a plain grass lawn is stark and visually unappealing—which is why most homeowners add shrubs, flower beds, and specimen trees. Today, there’s a new movement afoot known as natural landscaping: using native trees, shrubs, and low plants to add textural diversity to a yard while attracting and benefiting wildlife.
Research has shown that seeing wildlife around your home—hearing birds sing, glimpsing brightly colored butterflies and dragonflies, seeing a garter snake slither into a stone wall— makes life more enjoyable.
Many of us have a visceral need to be in touch with wild creatures and to acknowledge that we ourselves are part of nature, even if we live in suburbs and other settings where housing is dense. Continue reading
When we start reading about using transducers to create precision dendrometers to see how a tree grows in Brooklyn, we know we are out of our league. But surprisingly readable, this story tells why it is important to be able to measure tree growth in real time:
One morning earlier this summer, the sun rose over Brooklyn’s Prospect Park Lake. It was 5:28 a.m., and a black-crowned night heron hunched into its pale-gray wings. Three minutes later, the trunk of a nearby London plane tree expanded, growing in circumference by five-eighths of a millimetre. Not long afterward, a fish splashed in the lake, and the tree shrunk by a quarter of a millimetre. Two bullfrogs erupted in baritone harmony; the tree expanded. The Earth turned imperceptibly, the sky took on a violet hue, and a soft rain fell. Then the rain stopped, and the sun emerged to touch the uppermost canopy of the tree. Its trunk contracted by a millimetre. Then it rested, neither expanding or contracting, content, it seemed, to be an amphitheater for the birds.
“I wonder about the trees,” Robert Frost wrote. Monumental in size, alive but inert, they inhabit a different temporality than ours. Some species’ life spans can be measured in human generations. We wake to find that a tree’s leaves have turned, or register, come spring, its sturdier trunk. But such changes are always perceived after the fact. We’ll never see them unfold, with our own eyes, in human time.
To understand how trees transform, dendrochronologists, researchers who study change in trees, have developed a few techniques. They cut trees down to analyze their rings, which have been created by the seasonal formation of new cells, but this terminal strategy can provide only a static overview of the past. They “core” living trees, using bores to extract trunk tissue; this technique, however, can stress trees and sometimes, though rarely, wound them fatally. They measure tree girth with calipers and tape—a less invasive means of studying growth that is also frustratingly intermittent.
Once we had read to this point the following paragraph led to an image search. What does this thing look like? The story did not show it, only described it, so our image search led here:
And those images helped the following make a bit more sense:
In the early two-thousands, a new technique emerged that changed the field. It relies on low-cost transducers: equipped with a tiny spring, a transducer—which converts, or “transduces,” physical motion into an electrical signal—can rest on the bark of a tree, sensing and logging tiny changes in pressure. Instruments that use this approach, known as precision dendrometers, allow scientists to do something entirely new: watch how trees change and respond to their environments on an instantaneous scale.
This spring, I walked along the eastern edge of Prospect Park Lake with Jeremy Hise, the founder of Hise Scientific Instrumentation, a company that sells affordable precision dendrometers to scientists, students, and members of what Hise called the “D.I.Y. makerspace.” Bearded and affable in jeans and a blue sweatshirt, Hise explained that his dendrometers could now deliver their measurements wirelessly to a cloud-based platform called the EcoSensor Network. Users of the network can monitor a tree’s growth, generate graphs, and correlate them with meteorological data. Together with Kevin Griffin, a professor of earth and environmental sciences at Columbia University, Hise is planning to build the largest network of dendrometers in the world, generating millions of data points each year. “We’re looking to be the Weather Underground of trees,” Hise said.
Scientists were surprised to find something living on the sterile heights of this Chilean volcano.
In Chile’s Atacama Desert, Volcan Llullaillaco is Mars on Earth — or about as close to it as you can get. At 22,000 feet above sea level, it’s the second highest active volcano on Earth. Most of the mountain is a barren, red landscape of volcanic rock and dust, with thin, dry air, intense sunlight and winds that will blow your tent down the mountain.
While the ground can heat up to 90 degrees Fahrenheit, air temperatures rarely reach above freezing. When snow falls, it turns to gas just as it hits the earth. Occasionally, snow can collect in windblown banks, which then melt into icy spires up to 16 feet tall. The Spaniards called these “nieves penitentes,” penitent ones, because they look like hooded monks doing penance.
These conditions high up on the volcano made it seem about as lifeless as Mars. But a team of researchers led by Steven K. Schmidt, a microbiologist at the University of Colorado Boulder who studies extreme life, have discovered microbes living in and around the penitentes at 17,300 feet above sea level, about one thousand feet above the point at which vegetation stops on Volcan Llullaillaco. Continue reading
Thanks to Martha Pskowski and Yale e360 for this:
A nitrogen-fixing maize grown in an indigenous region of Mexico has the ability to fertilize itself, recent research shows. Now, as a global company and U.S. scientists work to replicate this trait in other corn varieties, will the villages where the maize originated share fairly in the profits?
In a 1979 visit to Totontepec, a small town in Oaxaca, Mexico, naturalist Thomas Boone Hallberg marveled at the local maize. The plants grew nearly 20 feet high in nutrient-poor soil, even though local farmers did not apply any fertilizer.
The maize had aerial roots that grew a mucous-like gel just before harvest season. It seemed impossible, but Hallberg wondered if the maize was fixing its own nitrogen: extracting it from the air and somehow making it usable for the plant. He had visited countless towns since moving to Oaxaca in the 1950s, but what he saw in Totontepec stuck with him.
In 1992, Hallberg returned with a group of Mexican scientists. The maize, known as olotón, was almost ready for harvest and its aerial roots glistened with gel. Ronald Ferrera-Cerrato, a microbiologist, took samples back to his lab outside Mexico City to test the bacteria in the gel. His preliminary results, published in a 1996 report, showed that the maize received nitrogen from the air, through its aerial roots, meaning that it effectively had the ability to fertilize itself.
At the time, scientists around the world were puzzling over similar questions. In a 1996 paper in Plant and Soil, microbiologist Eric Triplett, then at the University of Wisconsin, described the possibility of corn plants that fix nitrogen as “the ‘holy grail’ of nitrogen fixation research” because of the potential to reduce fertilizer demand. Continue reading
The Economist has not been one of our go-to sources for stories because it has an ideology that sometimes gets in the way of deeper investigation. Their stories and explanations are extremely thorough and very compelling, but we can usually guess the answer before the question is even asked. Every now and then they surprise us, and here is a good example:
How did hunger for the humble pod lead to greed, crime and riches? Wendell Steavenson travels to Madagascar to meet the new spice barons
I follow Felicité Raminisoa and her father, Romain Randiambololona, up a narrow track along the forested slopes of her family’s farm in southern Madagascar. It is lychee season and, as we walk, we break off branches of fruit and peel off the pink, spiky shells. Large yellow jackfruit grow like Chinese lanterns among loquat and clove trees, pepper vines and coffee plants. Sapphire dragonflies flash by as they chase each other over ponds of tilapia dammed into the valley. The air is muggy under the banana leaves but grows fresher as we climb. In all directions we can see vanilla vines winding around tree trunks. Each zigzag stem has been trained so that it grows no higher than Raminisoa can reach. Every so often she stops at a pale-yellow bloom and parts its waxy petals. With a spike snapped from an orange tree, she delicately scrapes away the membrane separating the anther from the stigma in order to pollinate the flower. This is a task that requires perfect timing. Each flower must be pollinated by hand on the morning it blooms or the beans won’t sprout.
The family began to plant vanilla vines about 20 years ago mostly as “decoration”, says Randiambololona, his big grin punctuated by a missing tooth. At first the family sold fresh green vanilla pods to tourists, surprised that they would pay anything for them. But in 2014 the price of vanilla began to rise. Over the next three years it went from less than $40 per kilogram to more than $600 per kilogram. It felt like money was growing on their trees. In 2016 Raminisoa travelled to the northern region of Sava, where vanilla has been grown for generations, to learn how to cure the green pods into the commodity that was in such demand: pungent and wizened black beans. Continue reading
Tropical wetlands have been a source of wonder, due to their biodiversity, since we started paying attention along time ago. Fred Pearce offers another of his surprises here:
Recent research is showing that trees, especially in tropical wetlands, are a major source of the second most important greenhouse gas in the atmosphere, methane. The knowledge that certain woodlands are high methane emitters should help guide reforestation projects in many parts of the world.
There are many mysteries in the Amazon. Until recently, one of the most troubling was the vast methane emissions emerging from the rainforest that were observed by satellites but that nobody could find on the ground. Around 20 million tons was simply unaccounted for.
Then Sunitha Pangala, a British post-doc researcher, spent two months traveling the Amazon’s waterways strapping gas-measuring equipment to thousands of trees. She found that trees, especially in the extensive flooded forests, were stimulating methane production in the waterlogged soils and mainlining it into the atmosphere.
Her 2014 expedition plugged a gaping hole in the planet’s methane budget. And she had discovered a hitherto ignored major source of the second most important greenhouse gas in the atmosphere. It now seems that most of the world’s estimated 3 trillion trees emit methane at least some of the time. Continue reading
Janet Marinelli, according to her author’s bio, is an award-winning independent journalist who was director of scientific and popular publications at Brooklyn Botanic Garden for 16 years; according to our read of her work over the last two years she is also a perfect fit with our mission to find at least one story every day that explains the natural world, illuminates the possibilities of entrepreneurial conservation or challenges us to be more careful with natural resources. She brightens our day:
Native prairie and savanna once covered vast areas of the U.S. Southeast from Maryland to Texas, but agriculture and sprawl have left only small patches remaining. Now, a new initiative, driven by scientists and local communities, is pushing to restore these imperiled grassland habitats.
Dwayne Estes pulls over to the side of a rural road in Franklin County, Tennessee, about 20 miles from the Alabama border. He hops out of his truck and points out a small plant with dainty, trumpet-shaped white flowers with purple-streaked throats. “This is Penstemon kralii,” says Estes, a 40-year-old, 6-foot-3-inch-tall professor sporting a baseball cap and beard, the twin badges of honor for many field botanists. The plant is found almost exclusively at the base of the Cumberland Plateau escarpment, where it survives precariously in narrow, grassy roadside fringes with other rare and threatened species, including a sunflower and a blue-eyed grass yet to be named and described by scientists.
We continue to the top of the steep, densely forested escarpment. Below, a checkerboard of croplands and pastures stretches as far as the eye can see. “Before 1840, those agricultural fields were prairies covering half a million, maybe 750,000 acres,” Estes says. “They were maintained by frequent fires and bison.” The wildfires probably swept up the base of the adjacent escarpment, he adds, keeping it open and sunny oak savanna where the penstemon and its companions could thrive. Like so many southern grassland denizens, they are vestiges of a lost botanical world that once covered as many as 120 million acres from Maryland to East Texas, caught in a vise between habitat loss to agriculture and urban sprawl on the one hand, and encroaching fire-suppressed forest on the other. Continue reading
From our perspective, many agricultural “developments” deserve quotations. The Agricultural Industrial Complex of Monsanto and their ilk more frequently serve to further their own economic gain rather than preserve species or better the health and livelihoods of the farmer or consumer.
Preserving the genetics of fruit and vegetable species down to their paleo-botanical ancestry is an entirely different story, and may be our best chance to overcome the obstacles of harsher and harsher weather conditions.
Like other small farmers and researchers, Brad Gates is trying to ensure a future for the tomato by breeding hardier varieties and persuading more Americans to grow their own.
NAPA, Calif. — In a borrowed van, Brad Gates of Wild Boar Farms sped south on Interstate 680 with hundreds of fuzzy tomato seedlings bumping around in the back, their trembling leaves, warmed by the sun, filling the cab with the smell of summer. It was one of a half-dozen deliveries on his to-do list.
Born and raised in Northern California, Mr. Gates has been organically farming tomatoes in the region for 25 years, working on small leased plots and introducing new varieties with cult followings, like the dark, meaty Black Beauty and the striped, rosy-pink Dragon’s Eye.
For most of that time, he sold his tomatoes to top restaurants, including Chez Panisse in Berkeley. But a few years ago he completely rethought his work. Galvanized by climate change, he joined a growing number of farmers who are trying to find a future for their threatened crops — in his case, the queen of the farmers’ market.
Mr. Gates now grows thousands of tomato plants each year, selling the young ones to local shops and the seeds all over the country through his website and catalogs, encouraging people to grow their own at home. He believes that the tomato’s survival and continued deliciousness depend on the plant’s diversity, and he considers breeding hardy, cold-tolerant and heat-tolerant varieties an essential part of his work — not just to provide food, but also to expand the number of places where the plant can flourish. Continue reading
Thanks to Jim Robbins, as always:
Studying the historical data stored in centuries-old trees is a burgeoning field, with labs around the world learning more about historical patterns of weather and climate and the effects on humans.
TUCSON — From the early 1700s until the 1960s, the fast moving river of wind known as the North Atlantic Jet Stream, which drives weather extremes over Europe, was pretty steady on its course.
Then it became less predictable. But instrument data alone can’t tell the jet stream’s movements for comparison over the centuries, given that scientists began keeping records of weather events via instruments only in the late 19th century. Continue reading
Trees create habitat and store CO2 for decades to come. Just be sure to pick carefully.
One of the best ways to combat climate change is to fill your garden with as many trees, shrubs, and other plants as possible. Whether a tiny orchid or towering oak, all plants have the amazing ability to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere during photosynthesis and store it in their wood, shoots, and roots.
Because they’re the giants of the plant kingdom, trees are also powerhouses of carbon storage. In one year, a mature tree can absorb 48 pounds of CO2—about the amount emitted by driving 150 miles in a hybrid plug-in car. Collectively, according to the U.S. Forest Service, trees offset 10 to 20 percent of U.S. emissions from burning fossil fuels each year. The carbon benefits really begin to add up when you consider that trees fight global warming in other ways. For example, carefully placed trees can reduce the energy required to heat and cool a home by 25 percent (see tips here on how to place trees). Because they cool the air by casting shade and releasing water vapor when they breathe, trees also alleviate one of the most underestimated health threats of climate change—heat waves. Continue reading
Lotus flower first appeared in these pages years ago, but its seeds were never mentioned. Time to correct that. We missed the opportunity to mention this book when it was first published–we missed the enthusiastic review–but better late than never. Thanks to the folks at Gastropod for the shoutout in a recent episode that gives Thor Hanson and his book their due:
When seeds first evolved, hundreds of millions of years ago, they not only revolutionized the plant world, but they also eventually sowed the path for human civilization. Today, it’s nearly impossible to eat a meal without consuming a plant embryo—or many. But how did seeds come to play such a critical role in human history? Why might one seed in particular, the lotus seed, hold the secret to immortality? And, perhaps just as importantly, how does this magical seed taste?
…For centuries, American farmers grew hemp for fiber, oil and many other uses. George Washington cultivated it at Mount Vernon to mend fishing nets…
Thanks to Malia Wollan, in her Tip quite straightforwardly titled How to Grow Hemp, I know more today than I did then:
…Practice your explainer, which should go something like this: Marijuana and hemp are varieties of the same species of cannabis plant, but hemp contains less than 0.3 percent of the mind-altering tetrahydrocannabinols, or THC, and will not get you high…
There is more, but not a lot more. Continue reading
In Ethiopia and other developing nations, scientists are working with small-scale farmers on trials to see which seed varieties perform best in changing conditions. These initiatives are enabling farmers to make smarter crop choices in the face of rising temperatures, drought, and more extreme weather.
In Ethiopia’s undulating, high-elevation grasslands, farmers — most of them working parcels of only two to three acres — produce more wheat than anywhere else in sub-Saharan Africa. They accomplish this feat in the face of chronically short supplies of high-quality seed. Still, Ethiopia’s record harvest of 4.6 million metric tons in 2017 didn’t satisfy the country’s needs, forcing it to import an additional 1.5 million tons of wheat. Continue reading
They don’t make the headlines the way charismatic animals such as rhinos and elephants do. But there are thousands of critically endangered plants in the world, and a determined group of botanists are ready to go to great lengths to save them.
To save plants that can no longer survive on their own, Steve Perlman has bushwhacked through remote valleys, dangled from helicopters, and teetered on the edge of towering sea cliffs. Watching a video of the self-described “extreme botanist” in action is not for the faint-hearted. “Each time I make this journey I’m aware that nature can turn on me,” Perlman says in the video as he battles ocean swells in a kayak to reach the few remaining members of a critically endangered species on a rugged, isolated stretch of Hawaiian coastline. “The ocean could suddenly rise up and dash me against the rocks like a piece of driftwood.”
When he arrives at his destination, Perlman starts hauling himself up an impossibly steep, razor-sharp cliff 3,000 feet above the sea without a rope, his fingers sending chunks of rock tumbling down to the waters below. Finally, he reaches the plants and painstakingly transfers pollen from the flowers of one to those of another to ensure that the species can perpetuate itself. At the end of the season, he will return to collect any seeds they were able to produce. Continue reading
In the interest of cutting back meat consumption, my eye is easily caught these days by pretty shiny things, like the image above, but even more so by rich description, especially when the history of a food is illuminated. This brief history of one root vegetable, accompanied by a couple of beautiful photos, led me to the book below right. Click the book image to go to the source.
The original is in a collection akin to the one where Seth did his History honors thesis, and akin to the one where some of my doctoral dissertation‘s historic data was sourced (if you are a Cornell geek or library geek scroll upward from the cover page to see the details). Thanks to Helen Rosner once again brilliantly for getting me exploring:
The Swiss botanist Gaspard Bauhin was born in Basel in 1560, and he dedicated his life to obsessively cataloguing the vegetable world. To present-day historians, he’s notable primarily for his botanical thesaurus “Pinax Theatri Botanici” (“An Illustrated Exposition of Plants”), published in 1623. But, among cooks, he’s sometimes recalled for his lesser work, published in 1620: “Prodromos Theatri Botanici” (“Prologue to the Exposition of Plants”), a compendium of flora in which he describes a plant with vivid yellow flowers, a spray of leaves, and massive, hairy roots “more or less similar to those of turnip or carrots.” It was a specimen that had never before appeared in any scientific list of plants: the rutabaga.
The annals of botany abound with claims that Bauhin was not only rutabaga’s biographer but also its inventor: that he found it growing wild and domesticated it; that he was a civic-minded scientist seeking a cold-resistant turnip to feed his chilly countrymen and not (more likely) a monomaniacal scholar who spent his life ensconced in an herbarium, scrivening endless latinate lists of plant names. “The turnip is older than history,” the caption on a color plate in a 1949 issue of National Geographic declares. “The rutabaga almost modern.” In fact, the vegetable has been around at least since ancient-Roman times, when the naturalist Pliny the Elder, writing in the first century, described an edible root “between a radish and a rape”—meaning the plant from which rapeseed oil derives, which is a cultivar of the same species. Bauhin writes that in his time the vegetable was widely grown in “the cold Noric fields of Bohemia,” where it was eaten pickled or mashed and was called simply “root” by its cultivators. Continue reading
As much as I thought I learned in the last year about coffee, I got a hint just now, reading the article below, how steep my learning curve remains. 124 species of coffee? So much to hunt, so little time! Thanks to Somini Sengupta for this story:
Aaron Davis, a British botanist, has spent 30 years trekking across forests and farms to chronicle the fate of one plant: coffee.
He has recorded how a warming planet is making it harder to grow coffee in traditional coffee-producing regions, including Ethiopia, the birthplace of the world’s most popular bean, arabica. He has mapped where farmers can grow coffee next: basically upcountry, where it’s cooler. He has gone searching for rare varieties in the wild. Continue reading
A nematode pierces the cell walls of a mushroom’s hyphae to feed on them.Credit By Markus Künzler
A mushroom species was found to sense predators and sent warning signals to other parts of its body, but how it does that remains a mystery.
It’s known as fight or flight — the message the brain sends your body when it detects something frightening. Something like it happens to plants when they are under attack, too. And then there are fungi — perhaps the most mysterious kingdom of multicellular life.
Fungi too can sense attackers and manufacture powerful weapons to combat them, including the toxins and poisons that can send you to the emergency room if you eat the wrong mushroom.
But little is known about the built-in threat detectors of these limbless, brainless beings. Humans send messages through their nervous systems. A plant’s vascular system is its relay apparatus. But fungi have neither. Continue reading
And they react to the buzzing of pollinators by sweetening their nectar.
When people pose the old question about whether a tree falling in an empty forest makes a sound, they presuppose that none of the other plants in the forest are listening in. Plants, supposedly, are silent and unhearing. They don’t make noises, unless rustled or bitten. When Rachel Carson described a spring bereft of birds, she called it silent.
But these stereotypes may not be true. According to a blossoming batch of studies, it’s not that plants have no acoustic lives. It’s more that, until now, we’ve been blissfully unaware of them. Continue reading