Actions Speak Louder With Words

4256bc

Sophie Leguil, founder of More Than Weeds, stands over chalk names of plants on the pavement.
Photograph: Jill Mead/The Guardian

Thanks to Alex Morss for this story in the Guardian about actions in the interest of botanical awareness:

‘Not just weeds’: how rebel botanists are using graffiti to name forgotten flora

Pavement chalking to draw attention to wild flowers and plants in urban areas has gone viral across Europe – but UK chalkers could face legal action

A rising international force of rebel botanists armed with chalk has taken up street graffiti to highlight the names and importance of the diverse but downtrodden flora growing in the cracks of paths and walls in towns and cities across Europe.

4592

Boris Presseq and fellow botanists write chalk plant names on the pavement in Toulouse, France. Photograph: Claire Van Beek/Handout

The idea of naming wild plants wherever they go – which began in France – has gone viral, with people chalking and sharing their images on social media. More than 127,000 people have liked a photo of chalked-up tree names in a London suburb, while a video of botanist Boris Presseq of Toulouse Museum of Natural History chalking up names to highlight street flowers in the French city has had 7m views.

4040

Chalkers say their work encourages connection with the natural world around us. Photograph: Jill Mead/The Guardian and Handout

Presseq told the Guardian: “I wanted to raise awareness of the presence, knowledge and respect of these wild plants on sidewalks. People who had never taken the time to observe these plants now tell me their view has changed. Schools have contacted me since to work with students on nature in the city.” Continue reading

The Incredible Journey of Plants, Reviewed

3543.

‘You need to imagine a plant as a huge brain’ … the plant neurobiologist Stefano Mancuso. Photograph: Alessandro Moggi

Thanks to Amy Fleming for this book review:

The secret life of plants: how they memorise, communicate, problem solve and socialise

Stefano Mancuso studies what was once considered laughable – the intelligence and behaviour of plants. His work is contentious, he says, because it calls into question the superiority of humans

9781635429916I had hoped to interview the plant neurobiologist Stefano Mancuso at his laboratory at the University of Florence. I picture it as a botanical utopia: a place where flora is respected for its awareness and intelligence; where sensitive mimosa plants can demonstrate their long memories; and where humans are invited to learn how to be a better species by observing the behaviour of our verdant fellow organisms.

But because we are both on lockdown, we Skype from our homes. Instead of meeting his clever plants, I make do with admiring a pile of cannonball-like pods from an aquatic species, on the bookshelves behind him. “They’re used for propagation,” he says. “I am always collecting seeds.”

4200.

Flower power … Mancuso’s team has shown that Mimosa pudica can retain learned information for weeks. Photograph: Alamy

Before Mancuso’s lab started work in 2005, plant neurobiology was largely seen as a laughable concept. “We were interested in problems that were, until that moment, just related to animals, like intelligence and even behaviour,” he says. At the time, it was “almost forbidden” to talk about behaviour in plants. But “we study how plants are able to solve problems, how they memorise, how they communicate, how they have their social life and things like that”. Continue reading

Roadside Wildflowers In The UK

5399

Traffic passing pyramidal orchids and other wildflowers along the A354, near Weymouth, Dorset. Photograph: http://www.pqpictures.co.uk/Alamy

A dose of this kind of news, taken daily, is surely good for mental hygiene:

Forest Alchemy

00SCI-METALFARM1-jumbo

Antony van der Ent

Thanks to Ian Morse for the most surprising twist on the mythological possibilities of the philosopher’s stone:

Down on the Farm That Harvests Metal From Plants

Hyper-accumulating plants thrive in metallic soil that kills other vegetation, and botanists are testing the potential of phytomining.

Some of Earth’s plants have fallen in love with metal. With roots that act practically like magnets, these organisms — about 700 are known — flourish in metal-rich soils that make hundreds of thousands of other plant species flee or die.

Slicing open one of these trees or running the leaves of its bush cousin through a peanut press produces a sap that oozes a neon blue-green. This “juice” is actually one-quarter nickel, far more concentrated than the ore feeding the world’s nickel smelters. Continue reading

Field Expeditions, Panama, Ferns

200126PanamaExp10-1

Student members of the Mamoní Valley Preserve Natural History Project, Jacob Suissa (left), Sylvia Kinosian, Brian Vergara, Jose Palacios, and Christian López examine the rhizome vasculature of a fern species during their first collection trip in the rainforest.

While most of our work between 1999 and 2019 was field work, once this platform started we distinguished field expeditions from our “regular work,” and Seth’s posts have dominated the expedition realm here. Today, with Seth in wintry New Haven in desk mode, my expeditionary imagination is instead fueled by the field expedition described below, on a topic not featured in these pages for seven years, so I am correcting the neglect:

Going where the diversity is

200126PanamaExp8

Student researchers Ben Goulet-Scott (left), Sylvia Kinosian, and Jacob Suissa, reach the crest of a hill overlooking the Mamoní Valley Preserve while carrying 90 species of ferns on their backs.
Photos by Ben Goulet-Scott/Harvard University Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology

Last month, two graduate students from the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University traveled to one of the most species-rich landscapes in the world: a remote strip of tropical rainforest at the narrowest point in the Central American country of Panama.

Ben Goulet-Scott, a Ph.D. candidate in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology (OEB) and a fellow in the Arboretum’s Hopkins Lab, and Jacob Suissa, OEB Ph.D. candidate in the Friedman Lab at the Arboretum, hope their research in the Mamoní Valley Preserve in Panama will increase our understanding of how biodiversity can persevere in the face of climate change, deforestation, and human disturbance.

200126PanamaExp26The 20-square-mile land conservancy on the isthmus separating Central and South America teems with life, making the condensed rainforest habitat a perfect location for their research project because of the vast number of known and potentially undiscovered species living there, Goulet-Scott said. Continue reading

Rose, Better Understood

merlin_137426268_765b8b80-ea6d-4001-beca-ef693bae7e41-jumbo

M. Bendahmane

Three months ago I added “find that gardener” to my to-do list. I have still not checked it off, but remain as intrigued as ever by how roses do what they do. Thanks to Karen Weintraub for this reminder, and the better understanding:

How a Rose Blooms: Its Genome Reveals the Traits for Scent and Color

merlin_137426271_f4933c06-ea24-46c2-8275-7b87766c07cb-superJumbo

M. Bendahmane

The scent of a rose fades over time, and has for hundreds of years.

For centuries, generations of breeding in the quest for longer blooms and petals in shades of nearly every hue have dulled the sweetest smells that once perfumed gardens around the world.

French researchers have now figured out precisely which genes make a rose smell so sweet, and where to tinker in the genome to enhance its distinctive scent.

Although the rose genome has been mapped before, a newly published version is far more complete, indicating which genes tend to travel together — scent and color, for instance — and which genes are responsible for continuous blooming, among other traits. Continue reading

Weeds Are Not Automatically Enemies

Dandelion

Credit: NPR

We missed this when it was first posted, but on this topic never too late to share:

VIDEO: Dandelions Aren’t Just Weeds. You Can Fry Them, Too

Some may think of dandelions as just unwanted weeds, but expert forager and nutritionist Debbie Naha says “a weed is just a plant growing where you don’t want it to.”

Naha loves to collect and eat dandelions when they bloom in the spring and again in early fall, when the days begin to shorten.

Some may also think of dandelions as those white puffballs whose seeds you can blow away like a candle on a birthday cake. The puffball is also considered a dandelion — it’s what the yellow flower matures into after a few days. But these aren’t especially good to eat. Continue reading

The Trees That May Survive Humanity

200120_r35370.jpg

Bristlecone pines have the look of survivors, not conquerors. Fittingly, they found fame during the Cold War, when atomic tests were taking place not far off, in the Nevada desert. Bristlecones are post-apocalyptic trees, sci-fi trees. Photograph by John Chiara for The New Yorker

Alex Ross mainly writes about music, but when he sets his sights on other important topics his musicality illuminates in a powerful way:

The Past and the Future of the Earth’s Oldest Trees

Bristlecone pines have survived various catastrophes over the millennia, and they may survive humanity.

About forty-five hundred years ago, not long after the completion of the Great Pyramid at Giza, a seed of Pinus longaeva, the Great Basin bristlecone pine, landed on a steep slope in what are now known as the White Mountains, in eastern California. The seed may have travelled there on a gust of wind, its flight aided by a winglike attachment to the nut. Or it could have been planted by a bird known as the Clark’s nutcracker, which likes to hide pine seeds in caches; nutcrackers have phenomenal spatial memory and can recall thousands of such caches. This seed, however, lay undisturbed. On a moist day in fall, or in the wake of melting snows in spring, a seedling appeared above ground—a stubby one-inch stem with a tuft of bright-green shoots.

Most seedlings die within a year; the mortality rate is more than ninety-nine per cent. The survivors are sometimes seen growing in the shadow of a fallen tree. Continue reading

Botanists Sleuthing, For Science & Conservation

00SCI-WAXPALMS1-jumbo.jpg

Quindío wax palms cover the hillsides of Colombia’s Tochecito River Basin. Before sequoias were discovered in California, the wax palm was considered the world’s tallest tree, with some growing 200 feet high.

The botanists who do this kind of work are heroes to us:

Stalking the Endangered Wax Palm

Colombia’s national tree, the wax palm, is endangered. Now, with decades of guerrilla war in retreat, scientists are rediscovering vast forests and racing to study and protect them.

By Photographs and Video by 

In 1991 Rodrigo Bernal, a botanist who specializes in palms, was driving into the Tochecito River Basin, a secluded mountain canyon in central Colombia, when he was seized by a sense of foreboding. Continue reading

Elderberries, Up & Coming From The Past

20191003_bite-elderberries_2000.jpg

Heiko Wolfraum/dpa/AP

Thanks to Marisa Endicott at Mother Jones for this:

This Ancient Fruit Holds Secrets for How to Farm in Climate Change

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

The Little Things We Can Do

tnc_87148027_preview_cropped-1260x708.jpg

A hairstreak butterflies in a Florida backyard. Photo © Bill Spitzer / TNC Photo Contest 2019

If you are fortunate enough to have a yard of your own, consider this suggestion by Charles Fergus:

Create Wildlife Habitat Around Your House

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.

tnc_56914004_preview_cropped-1260x708.jpg

Common milkweed growing in Illinois. Photo © Timothy T. Lindenbaum / TNC

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

Trees Breathe in Brooklyn

Using new technology, researchers can watch as trees grow, shrink, drink, and breathe. Illustration by Christelle Enault

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:

A Day in the Life of a Tree

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:

DendroCollection_2014-1024x237

Figure M1 Collection of point dendrometers (natkon.ch). The carbon frames are either T-shaped (for large stems) or O-shaped (for small stems or branches) and are anchored in the stem with stainless steel rods. Up to three sensors are attached to the different type of frames in order to measure different expositions at the stem or to measure stem radius fluctuations over bark and on the xylem separately.

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.

Continue reading

Penitentes, An Otherworldly Wonder

merlin_157990395_7798c95e-9813-4e2c-a2da-907cc85cdfdb-jumbo.jpg

Lara Vimercati and Jack Darcy, two graduate students, at the edge of a penitente field on a Chilean volcano where researchers unexpectedly found algae. Steven K. Schmidt

Thanks to JoAnna Klein for bringing this question, and another Chilean wonder, to our attention:

If Algae Clings to Snow on This Volcano, Can It Grow on Other Desolate Worlds?

Scientists were surprised to find something living on the sterile heights of this Chilean volcano.

merlin_157990404_3a7edcc0-b2c1-4e89-9646-aa58b16dc587-jumbo.jpg

The penitentes are thought to result from an unusual mix of wind, temperature fluctuations and the sun’s ultraviolet rays. Steve Schmidt

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.

merlin_157990380_910bc355-b7cd-4ed4-8a05-969c301f8e8e-jumbo.jpg

Steve Schmidt

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

The Corn Of The Future Is Valuable Patrimony From Mexico

corn-field-sierra-mixe-uc-davis_web

A Mexican scientist inspects a field of olotón maize near Oaxaca, Mexico. ALLEN VAN DEYNZE/UC DAVIS

Thanks to Martha Pskowski and Yale e360 for this:

Indigenous Maize: Who Owns the Rights to Mexico’s ‘Wonder’ Plant?

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.

Aerial_Roots_small_web.jpg

MARS, INCORPORATED & JEAN-MICHEL ANE/UC DAVIS

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.

aerial-roots-sierra-mixe-corn-uc-davis_0_web.jpg

The maize variety olotón has aerial roots that produce a mucous-like gel that fixes nitrogen, meaning that it can effectively fertilize itself. MARS, INCORPORATED & JEAN-MICHEL ANE/UC DAVIS

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

Why Is Vanilla So Expensive?

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:

The bitter truth behind Madagascar’s roaring vanilla trade

How did hunger for the humble pod lead to greed, crime and riches? Wendell Steavenson travels to Madagascar to meet the new spice barons

In pods we trust
A quality-control chief in a co-operative in Belambo

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.

Blooming marvellous
A vanilla flower is pollinated by hand

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 Offer Another Surprise

TupanaBrazil_MultipleTrees_AmauriAquiar_flickr_web

A wetland forest in Tupana, Brazil. AMAURI AGUIAR/FLICKR

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:

Scientists Zero in on Trees as a Surprisingly Large Source of Methane

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.

MangroveRoots_Bali_Alamy_web.jpg

Tropical wetlands, such as this mangrove forest in Bali, give off the most intense tree-based emissions of methane. ALAMY

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.

Sunitha_SamplingAmazon_web.jpg

Sunitha Pangala installs a device that measures a tree’s methane emissions, in the Amazon. COURTESY OF SUNITHA PANGALA

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

Native Prairie & Savanna In The USA

CherokeePrairie_Arkansas_WilliamDarkPhotography_web.jpg

Cherokee Prairie Natural Area near Fort Smith, Arkansas. WILLIAM DARK PHOTOGRAPHY

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:

Forgotten Landscapes: Bringing Back the Rich Grasslands of the Southeast

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.

american-chaffseed_USFWS_web

Southeastern grasslands have some of the highest plant richness in the world, home to rare species such as American chaffseed. COURTESY OF TIM MARTIN & USFWS

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.

Krals-Penstemon_CumberlandPlateau_TimMartin_web.jpg

Kral’s penstemon. COURTESY OF TIM MARTIN & USFWS

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

Better Fruit For Harsher Realities

Mr. Gates sells about 60 of his own open-pollinated varieties, many with especially bright colors and unusual shapes, and shares growing tips online. Credit Wild Boar Farms

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.

Reinventing the Tomato for Survival in a Changing World

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.

As Mr. Gates bred tomatoes, he noticed that many of his orange and yellow varieties were unusually heat-tolerant. Credit Wild Boar Farms

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

History As Told By Trees

merlin_153311571_b3fdf7b9-c200-4890-9b82-9f12f185d579-superJumbo.jpg

A sample from Siberia, with the core dating from 1637 and the outer ring from 2011, hangs on a wall at the research lab on the University of Arizona campus in Tucson. Adriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times

Thanks to Jim Robbins, as always:

Chronicles of the Rings: What Trees Tell Us

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.

merlin_153309360_fa758574-8314-483b-9ea2-4f56a77fbef9-jumbo

Wood samples for research at the Laboratory of Tree Ring Research at the University of Arizona. Adriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times

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

Bird Habitat One Yard At A Time

web_audubon_image4.jpg

Photo: Illustration: Marina Muun

Sometimes the planning is as fulfilling as the outcome. Thanks to Janet Marinelli and Audubon Magazine:

Plant Trees that Turn Your Yard Into a Bird Oasis—and Carbon Sponge

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 wavesContinue reading