Aeon & The Rise Of Maize In Asia

On the outskirts of Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province in southwestern China, 6 November 2006. Photo by stringer/Reuters

Aeon was a regular source of excellent ideas and information during our first few years, and we are happy to see it again:

Maize is arguably the single most important crop in the world and is rivalled only by soybeans in terms of versatility. That said, it is, along with sugar cane and palm oil, among the most controversial crops, proving particularly so to critics of industrial agriculture. Although maize is usually associated with the Western world, it has played a prominent role in Asia for a long time, and, in recent decades, its importance in Asia has soared. For better or worse, or more likely for better and worse, its role in Asia seems to be following the Western script. Continue reading

What To Do With A Tenner

‘In the woods, there will be much more fungi and even more colour: scarlet elf cup (above), orange witches’ butter, yellow stagshorn, green elf cup, blue roundheads.’ Photograph: fotoco-istock/Getty Images/iStockphoto

This recommendation from Lucy Jones is as good as any we might otherwise recommend:

‘Wet weather makes for particularly juicy moss.’ Water droplets on moss on a wall. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA

The winter world may seem gloomy – but look closely, and you’ll see nature casting a spell

For less than a tenner, do as I do: buy a hand lens, head outside and discover fungi and moulds lighting up the darkness

‘You won’t believe how exquisite slime moulds are.’ Photograph: Alastair Hotchkiss/Woodland Trust/PA

The profound therapeutic benefits of connecting with nature and spending time outside are well known. But in winter? When it’s cold, gloomy and everything looks dead? In fact, especially in the winter, when we are susceptible to fatigue, illness and seasonal low mood. And actually there is plenty of life, beauty and wonder right outside our doors, if we look closely.

Come and take a short walk with me in my nearest wild patch – an urban cemetery, a common environment across the British Isles. Continue reading

Fungi Lost & Found

The sculptured toadstool (Amanita sculpta) had not been seen in Singapore for more than 80 years. Photograph: Adrian Loo/National Parks Board of Singapore

Over our nearly dozen years linking to stories we have shared plenty of what we have called lost and found stories (including this and this and this, and this), as well as fungi stories too numerous to link back to, this is the first lost and found fungi story:

Lost and found: how a Facebook post led to the ‘chocolate chip’ toadstool

The sighting of a ‘magnificent’ specimen of the Amanita sculpta, not seen in Singapore for 80 years, shows how the public can aid in conservation efforts

The cap is like a chocolate chip cookie,” says Serena Lee, senior manager at Singapore Botanic Gardens’ herbarium, describing the top of the sculptured toadstool (Amanita sculpta). Continue reading

Peanuts, Soil Regeneration & Coffee

I will not blame Ruby Tandoh for the link to the predatory bookseller in her essay; the magazine she writes for is responsible. Instead, I will just put a better link from the book image on the left to where you might purchase it. Bringing our attention to the book is enough of a good deed to overlook that link. Especially as I work on finding new ways to fix nitrogen in the soil we are prepping for coffee planting:

The Possibilities of the Peanut

I’ve made salads of peanut with watermelon and sumac, fries dunked in garlic-scented satay sauce, and more variations on my aunt’s Ghanaian groundnut stew than I can remember.

Illustration by Sophia Pappas

It would be hard to find a more devoted champion of the peanut than the agricultural scientist George Washington Carver. Born into slavery in Missouri around 1864, Carver studied at Iowa State University and then taught at the Tuskegee Institute, where he would spend much of the rest of his life learning to repair the environmental damage wrought by intensive cotton farming. Continue reading

Banana Genome Science

Imagine if you had all of these bananas to pick from every day. Beatrice Sirinuntananon/Shutterstock

We did not search for banana ancestors while living in India. We just found as many varietals as we could to support the genetic stock. I have remained interested in doing the same ever since. They are more versatile than most people are aware, so the outcome of this scientific search matters:

Red or blue, squat or bulbous, seeded or seedless: Bananas have a lot of diversity and scientists have identified genetic signals of varieties that have not yet been found in the wild. guentermanaus/Shutterstock

The Search Is on for Mysterious Banana Ancestors

A new study shows that domesticated bananas have genetic markers tying them to three types of wild bananas that have not yet been found.

Bananas, it turns out, are not what we thought they were.

Sure, most, when ripe, are yellow and sweet and delicious slathered in peanut butter. Continue reading

Infinity Trees

The trees, according to the ecologist Constance Millar, give you a “sense of infinity.” Photo by Adam Perez

We know that getting to a trillion trees is a stretch, but we might be able to sense infinity from a certain species of tree, according to Soumya Karlamangla in the New York Times article we link to here. Photos by Adam Perez help alot.

Bristlecone pines can live and reproduce even with only one branch of needles. Photo by Adam Perez

Historically I have worked to find my personal sense of infinity deep within tropical forests, but reading this and seeing the photos of these trees in a totally different type of ecysystem I can be convinced that it is elsewhere also:

In California, Where Trees Are King, One Hardy Pine Has Survived for 4,800 Years

In a harsh alpine desert, the Great Basin bristlecone pines abide amid climate change. Among them is the oldest tree on Earth (if you can find it).

Great Basin bristlecone pine trees endure in harsh conditions that other vegetation cannot withstand. Photo by Adam Perez

BISHOP, Calif. — Before the Egyptians built the Pyramids, before Jesus Christ was born, before the Roman Empire formed or collapsed, the trees were here.

Ten thousand feet up in the White Mountains of central California, in a harsh alpine desert where little else survives, groves of gnarled, majestic Great Basin bristlecone pines endure, some for nearly 5,000 years. Their multicolor trunks bend at gravity-defying angles, and their bare branches jut toward the sky, as if plucked from the imaginations of Tim Burton or J.K. Rowling.

These ancient organisms, generally considered the oldest trees on Earth, seem to have escaped the stringent laws of nature. Continue reading

I Will Not Panic Over Leafminers

Charley Eiseman, a naturalist who conducts biodiversity surveys for conservation groups, became interested in leaf mines because of patterns like this one. It’s the handiwork of the moth Phyllocnistis populiella in a quaking aspen leaf (Populus tremuloides).

As soon as the sun is up, most days, I am outside. Even after 22 years working on this property I find surprises constantly. When Margaret Roach writes, I read; when she offers visual cues to complement her clear writing, all the better:

Leaf mines on columbine (Aquilegia) can be serpentine squiggles or blotches. Larvae of flies in the genus Phytomyza make these familiar markings when they feed between a leaf’s epidermal layers. Margaret Roach

Don’t jump to the conclusion that those mysterious marks are evidence of disease. They may be leaf mines or galls — and that’s a good thing.

During the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, some of us mastered bread-baking (if we could get our hands on flour) or devoted ourselves to nurturing some new mail-order houseplant. Continue reading

Alerce, Fungi & Futures

Roots rise from shallow soil. Tomás Munita

The Valdivian Coastal Reserve was mentioned once in our pages, only in passing.

Tomás Munita

Strange, because if I was asked to name my favorite protected area on the planet it would be at or near the top of my list. The abundant but threatened alerce trees were part of the reason. A family story would explain more of why, and that is part of a larger work story that needs more attention another time.

A mushroom rises from the forest floor. Tomás Munita

The story below, featuring an adjacent protected area, stirs an intense place memory, and at the same time reveals much about a topic that was not on our radar at the time. And it says much about potential futures for that place. So, thanks to the New York Times climate correspondent Somini Sengupta (again and again) as well as photographer Tomás Munita:

Unearthing the Secret Superpowers of Fungus

Tomás Munita

In the fight against warming, a formidable ally hides just beneath our feet.

 — Toby Kiers took long strides across the spongy forest floor, felt the adrenaline rush in her veins and stopped at the spot she had traveled so far to reach. Into the ground went a hollow metal cylinder. Out came a scoop of soil.

Tomás Munita

Dr. Kiers stuck her nose into the dirt, inhaled its scent, imagined what secrets it contained to help us live on a hotter planet. “What’s under here?” she asked. “What mysteries are we going to unveil?”

The soil was deposited into a clear plastic bag, then labeled with the coordinates of this exact location on Earth. Continue reading

Orchid Hunters Teaching Their Craft

Orchid enthusiasts on the hunt at Noar Hill. Photograph: Peter Flude/The Guardian

We feature stories involving orchids whenever there is something new to learn:

Bersweden stops to smell a musk orchid at Noar Hill. Photograph: Peter Flude/The Guardian

‘Like stroppy teenagers’: the joy of hunting devious and demanding orchids

For British botanist Leif Bersweden, finding an orchid is ‘pure joy’ and one that he is happy to share with fellow enthusiasts as they scour a nature reserve in Hampshire

It’s a Friday, and half a dozen retirees are scouring the ground for flowers. Continue reading

Trees & Careful Planting

Fast-to-establish sassafras (Sassafras albidum), an Eastern native tree, has distinctively shaped leaves that fire up brilliantly in autumn. Michael Stewart/Courtesy Brooklyn Botanic Garden

One of the minor downsides to life in the tropics is decades of missed autumn leaves. But that downside is counterbalanced by so many upsides that the loss is trivial. And we have photos like the one to the right, as well as the possibility of travel (including to the botanical gardens featured in the story below), plus plenty of writing on the science of those colors, to dissipate the trivia.

Mr. Roddick is often asked to open up a tree’s canopy to let in more light. His answer is based on the tree’s species, its health and its age. “Better to train a young tree to fit into a garden as opposed to trying to change an old tree,” he said. Michael Stewart/Courtesy Brooklyn Botanic Garden

Besides, our trees are awesome for reasons other than color. They grow fast. Some of them fix nitrogen. And most of those we have been planting have a shading responsibility specific to the coffee we are planting. So this article resonates even if some of the particulars are not relevant to our land, trees, and related growing conditions. Margaret Roach has been a constant companion reminding me of all this, through her writings mainly on gardens in the north.

The base of an old London plane tree at Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Tree roots on most landscape trees are shallow and prone to injury, yet we often fail to consider how our gardening and home-improvement projects will affect them. Michael Stewart/Courtesy Brooklyn Botanic Garden

Trees can take a lot of punishment, but they have their limits. Here’s how to work around them safely.

If trees could talk, they’d probably start by saying, “Enough with the insults already.”

In more than 30 years of working with trees, Christopher Roddick has made it a practice to listen to their unspoken language — and to show respect for some of the largest and oldest organisms among us. Continue reading

Orchidelirium Anew

Burnt tip orchids. At least 10 vanished from a national nature reserve at Mount Caburn, East Sussex. Photograph: Katewarn Images/Alamy

Susan Orlean brought orchidelirium to our attention in 1999, shining a light on how and why these flowers inspire lots of good, and plenty of bad behavior. Orchids have been abundant in our pages over the years for various reasons, most recently due to a show; today due to criminal enterprise:

Spate of orchid thefts in England puts rare species at risk

Experts believe plants in Sussex and Kent were ‘stolen to order’

Hardy Orchid Society Replying to @HardyOrchidSoc This is what you should have seen. If you have any information that can help in the investigation please contact @kentpolice @BBCNews

A spate of thefts of rare orchids from sites in southern England has concerned scientists, who say endangered species may be at risk.

Orchid experts believe that the plants, from locations including in Sussex and Kent, may have been “stolen to order”.

Conservationists at the Sussex Wildlife Trust were dismayed last week to hear of at least 10 burnt-tip orchids missing from a national nature reserve at Mount Caburn, while in Kent the Hardy Orchid Society reported that 30 late spider orchids had been taken from a site in Folkestone.

Neil Evans, of the Hardy Orchid Society, said: “The theft represents a major loss to the population. They are only found in this country in a few sites in Kent.” Continue reading

Biggest Plant On Earth

The Posidonia australis seagrass meadow in Shark Bay, Western Australia. Photograph: Rachel Austin/UWA

We have posted several times about the world’s largest living thing. Since fungi are a different category of life, that leaves room for something to be classified as the largest living plant. Thanks to Graham Readfearn for this Guardian article pointing out to us what that thing is, and where:

The plant’s spread can be seen in this aerial view of Shark Bay. Photograph: Angela Rossen

Scientists discover ‘biggest plant on Earth’ off Western Australian coast

Genetic testing has determined a single 4,500-year-old seagrass may have spread over 200 sq km of underwater seafloor – about 20,000 football fields

About 4,500 years ago, a single seed – spawned from two different seagrass species – found itself nestled in a favourable spot somewhere in what is now known as Shark Bay, just off Australia’s west coast. Continue reading

Microfauna, Microbiota & Other Wonders Of Soil

When a plant root pushes into soil, it triggers an explosion of activity in billions of bacteria. Photograph: Liz McBurney/The Guardian

I used the word microflora in the title of a post I wrote 3+ years ago, and today I learned something that serves as a correction. I used that word to distinguish from the better known charisma of megafauna. But there is a better word I should have used in that title, so I am using it in the title of today’s post. The word microbiota has made a few fleeting appearances in our pages, buried in the text of scientific explanations. This editorial by George Monbiot got me to look up the word microflora and from now on I will avoid the misnomer:

The secret world beneath our feet is mind-blowing – and the key to our planet’s future

Don’t dismiss soil: its unknowable wonders could ensure the survival of our species

Beneath our feet is an ecosystem so astonishing that it tests the limits of our imagination. It’s as diverse as a rainforest or a coral reef. We depend on it for 99% of our food, yet we scarcely know it. Soil. Continue reading

More On Seed Banks

We have featured these banks before, but they are worthy of a more detailed inside look.

So, thanks to by Salomé Gómez-Upegui, Rita Liu and the Guardian. Their article, Seed banks: the last line of defense against a threatening global food crisis is full of images and written descriptions that put these banks in better perspective:

As climate breakdown and worldwide conflict continue to place the food system at risk, seed banks from the Arctic to Lebanon try to safeguard

As the risks from the climate crisis and global conflict increase, seed banks are increasingly considered a priceless resource that could one day prevent a worldwide food crisis. Continue reading

If You Happen To Be In New York City

If you have are in New York City with some time on your hands, immerse yourself in The Orchid Show: Jeff Leatham’s Kaleidoscope .

We who live in Costa Rica, or other places where orchids are abundant, are fortunate but can only dream of this sort of abundance on display in one location:

February 26 – May 1, 2022

10 a.m. – 6 p.m. | At the Garden

Experience Famed Designer Jeff Leatham’s Bold and Colorful Vision

The dazzling floral creations of Jeff Leatham, famed artistic director of the Four Seasons Hotel George V in Paris and floral designer to the stars, return for The Orchid Show’s 19th year. Continue reading

Writing About The Banda Islands & Nutmeg & Us

Around the time we shared a book review of Amitav Ghosh’s most recent work he gave a lecture about the Banda Islands, explaining the relationship between nutmeg and our current challenges related to climate change. It includes conversation with his host, a professor of creative writing, who draws out of Ghosh on his writing process.

The best part of the lecture is about half way through, when Ghosh talks about the agency of botanicals, a topic that many of us first encountered in the writings of Michael Pollan. Thanks to Rhoda Feng for giving Ghosh’s book another review, which led me to find the video above:

A SMALL BUT INCREDIBLY VALUABLE NUT

At the end of Amitav Ghosh’s SEA OF POPPIES (2008), a character reflects on how her life has been governed not by the sign of Saturn but by the poppy seed. Offering a seed to her lover, she says: ‘Here, taste it. It is the star that took us from our homes and put us on this ship. It is the planet that rules our destiny.’ SEA OF POPPIES is part of the Ibis trilogy by Ghosh – followed by RIVER OF SMOKE (2011) and FLOOD OF FIRE (2015) – about the nineteenth-century Anglo-Chinese Opium Wars. Continue reading

Maori Tree-Saving

Tourists visiting Tāne Mahuta, the largest known kauri tree, in Waipoua Forest in New Zealand. The tree is named for a god in Māori mythology. Ruth Mcdowall for The New York Times

A former kauri ambassador blowing a conch shell near Tāne Mahuta. There’s hope among advocates that Māori-led interventions have created enough time for scientists to save the kauri. Ruth Mcdowall for The New York Times

Thanks to Pete McKenzie for this story, How Maori Stepped In to Save a Towering Tree Crucial to Their Identity, in the New York Times:

Tāne Mahuta, an ancient tree named after the god of forests in Māori mythology, is threatened by the slow creep of an incurable disease.

WELLINGTON, New Zealand — In an ancient grove in northern New Zealand, the mighty conifer known as Tāne Mahuta, lord of the forest, is threatened by the encroachment of a deadly enemy. Continue reading

Stenophylla, A Coffee With Real Potential & Poster Child For Food Diversity

Our thanks to Dan Saladino, a food journalist and author of Eating to Extinction: The World’s Rarest Foods and Why We Need to Save Them as well as recipient of a James Beard Award for food journalism.

He offers an inside look at a relatively unknown coffee varietal with potential, and at the same time, an argument in favor of diversity, in his article Edible Extinction: Why We Need to Revive Global Food Diversity:

A Khasi farmer growing millet in Meghalaya, India.

A Khasi farmer growing millet in Meghalaya, India. NORTH EAST SLOW FOOD & AGROBIODIVERSITY SOCIETY

The Green Revolution helped feed a surging global population, but at the cost of impoverishing crop diversity. Now, with climate change increasingly threatening food supplies, the need for greater agricultural resilience means restoring endangered crop and food varieties.

Stenophylla beans up close. RBG KEW; KLAUS STEINKAMP / ALAMY

In August 2020, inside the cupping room of a London roastery, a team of botanists and baristas gathered to taste a coffee species that most believed had been lost forever. It was an important moment. Coffee experts had spent years searching in West Africa for the few remaining trees of this species, even issuing “wanted posters” to farmers asking if they had seen it. Continue reading

Trees’ Wondrous Capabilities

Diana Beresford-Kroeger at her home in Ontario. “If you build back the forests, you oxygenate the atmosphere more, and it buys us time,” she said. Nasuna Stuart-Ulin for The New York Times

Another round of thanks to Cara Buckley for a vividly written snapshot. Using Science and Celtic Wisdom to Save Trees (and Souls) is about one person’s multi-talented capacity to inspire us in new ways related to trees, and the patience it has required:

Diana Beresford-Kroeger, a botanist and author, has created a forest with tree species handpicked for their ability to withstand a warming planet.

MERRICKVILLE, Ontario — There aren’t many scientists raised in the ways of druids by Celtic medicine women, but there is at least one. She lives in the woods of Canada, in a forest she helped grow. From there, wielding just a pencil, she has been working to save some of the oldest life-forms on Earth by bewitching its humans. Continue reading