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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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

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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

Seeds Are Our Future

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Lotus flower seed heads and raw, un-puffed lotus seeds.

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:

Seeds

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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?

The New It Crop

0217Mag-Tip-1-jumbo.pngThe first time I heard of hemp was in the 1970s during my teen years. I do not remember what I learned about it then, except for something like this:

…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

Adaptation & South-South Cooperation

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Ethiopian farmers examine the results of a trial of wheat varieties. BIOVERSITY INTERNATIONAL

The bread we eat in the not so distant future may depend on the type of cooperation described below. Thanks to Yale e360 and Virginia Gewin for this story:

How Crowdsourcing Seeds Can Help Farmers Adapt to Climate Change

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.

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Durum wheat varieties grow in trial plots in Ethiopia’s Amhara region. Thousands of farmers participated in the project, testing how various wheat strands performed under changing climatic conditions. BIOVERSITY INTERNATIONAL

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

Megafauna’s Neglected Cousin, Microflora

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Botanist Steve Perlman rappels into the Kalalau Valley, a biodiversity hotspot on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. COURTESY OF BRYCE JOHNSON/FLUX HAWAII

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A botanist collects pollen from the flower of Brighamia insignis. NATIONAL TROPICAL BOTANICAL GARDEN

The work described in this article may explain why I first missed the story when it was published in October. The heroics get lost in the delicacy. My attention, like that of many people who are fortunate enough to have plenty of exposure to the natural world, gravitates to megafauna. And next in line for our attention is usually the rest of the fauna. But without flora, none of that fauna would be possible. And so our concern for biodiversity, and perhaps especially for the hotspots of biodiversity, should reflect an equal gravitational pull. So, my thanks to Yale e360 for this story:

Extreme Botany: The Precarious Science of Endangered Rare Plants

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.

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A scientist with the Plant Extinction Prevention Program climbs through remote Hawaiian ecosystems to study endangered plant species. PEPP

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.”

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The plant known as cabbage-on-a-stick (Brighamia insignis) has been grown at Limahuli Garden & Preserve on Kauai, which is within the historic range of the species. SEANA WALSH

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

Rutabaga’s Moment In The Light

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Rutabaga tagliatelle, from Olmstead, in Brooklyn.Photograph by Evan Sung

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. RutaB.jpg

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.

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The rutabaga is a culinary underdog. It struggles to shine among its fellow root vegetables.Photograph by Matthias Haupt / Picture Press / Redux

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

Hunting Wild Coffee

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Drying coffee beans in Ethiopia. More than half of all species are at risk of vanishing in the wild because of climate change and deforestation. Maheder Haileselassie/Reuters

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:

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Picking coffee berries on a farm in Ethiopia. Maheder Haileselassie/Reuters

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

Enigmatic Fungi

A nematode pierces the cell walls of a mushroom’s hyphae to feed on them.Credit By Markus Künzler

The mysteries of nature never cease to amaze, and fungi rank high in all aspects. Since the inception of this site we’ve highlighted this special branch of the animal kingdom.

When Fungi Fight Back

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

Floral Communication Better Understood

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A bee collects pollen from a flower. DARREN STAPLES / REUTERS

 Thanks to Ed Yong, 6+ years in our pages, whose work we always appreciate:

Plants Can Hear Animals Using Their Flowers

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

Herbaria, Preservation & Science

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Charles Davis, director of the Harvard University Herbaria, looks at specimens collected by Henry David Thoreau. Davis was a co-editor of a special issue of Philosophical Transactions B, which advocates for the continued preservation of biological collections. Jon Chase/Harvard file photo

Collecting plant specimens and pressing them for further inspection is a pastime many of us have tried at least once in our lives. It was fun while it lasted. And some beautiful mementos may have survived to tell the tale. The opportunity to look at and learn from plant specimens collected by Henry David Thoreau? Priceless. Thanks to Peter Reuell, a writer and publicist at Harvard University, for this:

Critical collections

Importance of biological samples and their preservation goes beyond the obvious

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The Harvard University Herbaria holds a specimen of trillium collected by Henry David Thoreau. Jon Chase/Havard file photo

More than a century ago, when botanists and naturalists were in the field collecting plant and animal specimens, they couldn’t have imagined that scientists would one day be able to extract DNA from samples to understand how plants and animals are related to one another.

They couldn’t have imagined that their collections could one day shed light on the effects of global climate change, or the emergence and spread of pathogens, the spread of fungal-driven amphibian extinction, or the effectiveness of policies aimed at reducing pollution in the U.S. Continue reading

Defending Megafauna

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Perhaps as few as eighty thousand African forest elephants remain, and a new documentary explores the megafauna’s threats and defenders.Photograph Courtesy Elephant Path / Njaia Njoku

When we moved to Kerala in 2010 one of our motivations was that among the properties we would take responsibility for one was within a vast protected forest area in southern India. It was/is one of the great remaining habitats of elephants and tigers among other mammals, not to mention birds and all kinds of other life. Which is to say the ecosystem is intact enough to support apex predators and their megafauna prey, and everything around them and below them in the food chain. Which makes their viability as species possible. We networked as much as possible with scientists whose initiatives seemed relevant to our own.  Todd McGrain somehow escaped our attention until now, even though his work at the Lab of Ornithology should have caught it the way other artists’ did. Thanks to Peter Canby for pointing us here, and we have taken the liberty of inserting some of Tom’s other photos within the text below, which you can click on to go to one of his websites to learn more:

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EP_0419.jpgIn Africa, there are two kinds of elephants: savanna and forest elephants. The species diverged somewhere between two and six million years ago, with the better-known savanna elephants spreading over the plains and open woodlands of Eastern, Southern, and Western Africa while forest elephants stayed behind in the dense forests at the center of the continent. Although the two occasionally hybridize, they are widely viewed as separate species. Forest elephants are smaller, with smaller and straighter tusks. The size of their tusks, however, has not protected them from rampant poaching, because the tusks have a distinctive hue, sometimes known as “pink ivory,” that has made them particularly valuable.

EP_0634.jpgSomething about the nobility of forest elephants regularly raises concern for their extinction. The tropical forests of the Congo Basin, once considered impenetrable, are now yielding to logging roads, mines, and even palm-oil plantations. In 2013, a widely respected study by Fiona Maisels, of the Wildlife Conservation Society, found that, between 2002 and 2011, the population of forest elephants had declined by sixty-two per cent. Perhaps as few as eighty thousand remain. The story of these declining numbers is also a story of habitat destruction. Where forest elephants exist in an undisturbed state, they build networks of trails through the deep forest. These trails connect mineral deposits, fruit groves, and other essentials of forest-elephant life. In Central Africa, there are dozens of fruit trees whose seeds are too large to pass through the guts of any other animal and for which forest elephants have evolved as the sole dispersers. These trees line the forest-elephant paths. Where elephant populations are disturbed, the paths disappear.

EP_0480.jpgMatt Davis, a researcher in ecoinformatics and biodiversity at Aarhus University, in Denmark, recently published a paper arguing that we are entering a period of extinction of large mammals akin to the scale of the extinction of the dinosaurs. “We are now living in a world without giants,” he told the Guardian, and went on to detail the many ecological consequences of the loss of megafauna. When I asked John Poulsen, an assistant professor of tropical ecology at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, if this observation could apply to the role of forest elephants, he said, “Absolutely.”

The sculptor Todd McGrain has made a name for himself, over a thirty-year career, as the creator of sculptural monuments to birds that have been the victims of “human-caused extinction.” It’s not, therefore, entirely surprising that he has directed a documentary about forest elephants, “Elephant Path / Njaia Njoku,” showing at New York’s DOC NYC film festival this Wednesday and Thursday. McGrain’s subjects have included, among others, the passenger pigeon, the great auk, the Labrador duck, the heath hen, and the Carolina parakeet. When McGrain was the artist in residence at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Katy Payne, founder of the Elephant Listening Project at the Bioacoustics Research Program, introduced him to something she had discovered: forest-elephant infrasound, which is how elephants communicate inside the forest, at a frequency too low for human ears to register. She pitched up the recordings of elephant calls so that McGrain could listen to them. “I couldn’t help but hear them as bird calls,” he told me. “It was the complexity of their language that grabbed me.” Continue reading

Get Your Biome On

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The Sill sells ceramic planters, watering cans, misters with arch sayings on them, fertilizer and soil mixes, totes and T-shirts. It also hosts movie nights, “sip and shop” cocktail parties and workshops (in store and online). Credit Nathan Bajar for The New York Times

Thanks to Penelope Green for brightening up our Sunday:

Meet the Plantfluencers

In a world of climate change, creating a biome of one’s own.

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Eliza Blank has conceived The Sill as a plant lifestyle company, or a global plant brand — a Glossier of plants. Credit Nathan Bajar for The New York Times

Horticulture and red wine were served up the other night at the Sill, a boutique on Hester Street, as Christopher Satch, a botanist wearing a T-shirt that read, “Plants Make People Happy,” the company motto, led a workshop on carnivorous plants.

It was plant stand-up — slightly blue patter with quick takes on Linnaeus and Darwin; binomial nomenclature (note the shape of the Venus fly trap for cues to how it got its name); detailed care instructions (carnivorous plants evolved in acidic bogs, which means they need distilled water, not tap, and lots of it); and a show-and-tell of Mr. Satch’s collection of butterworts and sundews.

Plant2Among the rapt attendees were Madison Steinberg and Lindsay Reisman, both 23 and working in public relations, and Brayan Poma, also 23, who works in construction; afterward they each took home an attractive tropical pitcher plant. “I like plants, but I kill so many of them,” said Mr. Poma, who wore a green hoodie and a goatee. “Maybe that’s why I find them so alluring.”

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The Sill began when Ms. Blank was trying to brighten up her sunless, sixth-floor walk-up with a plant or two, and was turned off by the wares at Home Depot, one of the few sources for plants and containers in the city. Credit Nathan Bajar for The New York Times

Mr. Poma is not the only millennial to feel that allure. Buoyed by Instagram, his generation’s obsession with houseplants is growing faster and more tenaciously than English ivy. Plant influencers, the horticultural stars of that medium, now have book deals, sponsors and hundreds of thousands of followers.Their apartment living rooms are the new urban jungles, spilling over with philodendrons, pilea (this year’s “It” plant) and bird’s nest ferns. Plant parents, as they call themselves, fuss over their plant babies with the attention once given to kimchi or coffee connoisseurship. (Such anthropomorphism — ironic though it may be — recalls the 1970s, when “The Secret Life of Plants” proposed plant sentience based on dubious science and convinced New Agers to chat up their spider ferns.)

Unlike George Orwell, these houseplant lovers see the lowly aspidistra as an aspirational totem, not a bourgeois cliché, and post money shots of their monsteras on #monsteramonday. That hashtag was propagated in 2016 by Morgan Doane, a director of analytics for an art company in Florida. Continue reading

Charisma & Conservation

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Botanist Steve Perlman rappels into the Kalalau Valley, a biodiversity hotspot on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. COURTESY OF BRYCE JOHNSON/FLUX HAWAII

Thanks to Janet Marinelli and the team at Yale e360 for a reminder that charisma is not all that matters in decisions about conservation:

Extreme Botany: The Precarious Science of Endangered Rare Plants

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.

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The plant known as cabbage-on-a-stick (Brighamia insignis) has been grown at Limahuli Garden & Preserve on Kauai, which is within the historic range of the species. SEANA WALSH

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.”

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A botanist collects pollen from the flower of Brighamia insignis. NATIONAL TROPICAL BOTANICAL GARDEN

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

Eye of the Beholder

The Berlin-based florist Ruby Barber of Mary Lennox created some of her signature cloud arrangements with once-neglected weeds. A composite of individual arrangements, from left, of weeping amaranth and fresh and dried wild grasses; an abundant gathering of the once-humble smoke bush, now a fashionable challenger to traditional hothouse flowers; and Queen Anne’s lace. Credit Photograph by Guido Castagnoli. Flowers styled by Mary Lennox

Ralph Waldo Emerson may have written that a weed is just “a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered,”  but another way of stating it is that a weed “is a plant growing in the wrong place”. The current revalorization of the “common weed”– aesthetically, culinarily and nutritionally — dovetails beautifully with much of what we highlight on this site.  Thanks to Ligaya Mishan of the NYTimes for the refocus.

How the Common Weed Has Grown on Florists (and Chefs)

From the flower arrangement to the plate, this is the era of the formerly unwanted plant.

A WEED IS UNWANTED: That is its definition. It is a plant that we have deemed to have no value because it contributes nothing to our life, neither nourishment nor beauty. Why should it help us when it doesn’t need us to survive, its seeds borne on the idlest gust, taking root and thriving in even the cruelest terrain? It stands wholly apart from human civilization, hardy and self-sustaining, mocking our hegemony, claiming the earth as its own. Worse, it is a predator, stealing resources — real estate, sunlight — from the plants we do value and rely on, crowding them out, threatening their existence and, by extension, ours.

A weed is never singular but an army. Its legions sweep across land like the Golden Horde, “always three steps ahead of the gardener, traveling underground, seeding by the million, smothering all in their path,” says the British writer and landscape designer Isabel Bannerman. Her husband and partner, Julian Bannerman, frames it slightly less savagely: The garden “is a bit like having a party. What we call weeds are the uninvited guests.” And in the Swedish writer and illustrator Elsa Beskow’s picture book “The Flowers’ Festival,” originally published in 1914 as “Blomsterfesten i Tappan,” they appear as exactly that, a rabble of thistles, chickweed, nettles and burdock, “scoundrels and beggars and ragamuffins” all, consigned to a ditch outside the garden to glower while the violets and orchids revel. “But we’re flowers, too,” the weeds roar.

But their time has come. Continue reading

Local Knowledge Aids Scientific Understanding

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WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

In a perfect dovetail with yesterday’s nod to one science writer, today we nod to the contributions of ancestral ways in helping scientists better understand the life cycles of forests. Thanks to Richard Schiffman for this interview:

Lessons Learned from Centuries of Indigenous Forest Management

CMPeters_web.jpgIn an interview with Yale Environment 360, botanist Charles M. Peters discusses how, in an era of runaway destruction of tropical forests, the centuries-old ecological understanding of indigenous woodland residents can help point the way to the restoration of damaged rainforests.

Over centuries, even millennia, indigenous communities have developed interdependent systems of agriculture and forestry that are uniquely suited to the ecological requirements of the land they inhabit. Yet even today, says Charles M. Peters, the Curator of Botany at the New York Botanical Gardens, that skill and knowledge often remain unacknowledged, with some government officials and conservationists arguing that indigenous communities should sometimes be excluded from protected lands that are part of their historical territory.

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Members of the Kenyah Dayak indigenous group conducting forest surveys in Western Borneo in the early 1990s. CHARLES PETERS

In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Peters — author of the recently published bookManaging the Wild: Stories of People and Plants and Tropical Forests — discusses what he has learned from 35 years of working with indigenous forest communities; explains how indigenous farming, even slash-and-burn agriculture, can actually improve forest health; and reflects on the need to enlist indigenous groups as allies in the struggle to preserve and restore tropical forests. Continue reading