Genetic Modification, In Moderation, Appeals

Levon Biss for The New York Times

Our work with coffee farmers in Costa Rica in recent years has convinced me that without hybridization there will not be much of a specialty coffee supply in the near future without it. Climate change and various pests essentially require it. On the other hand, I understand why genetic engineering causes fear. I have suffered mildly from that fear, but still read widely on the subject looking to allay those fears. The main appeal of the technology is obvious, and the reasons to be concerned are plenty, but here are some overlooked observations thanks very much to Jennifer Kahn:

Learning to Love G.M.O.s

Overblown fears have turned the public against genetically modified food. But the potential benefits have never been greater.

Bobby Doherty for The New York Times

On a cold December day in Norwich, England, Cathie Martin met me at a laboratory inside the John Innes Centre, where she works. A plant biologist, Martin has spent almost two decades studying tomatoes, and I had traveled to see her because of a particular one she created: a lustrous, dark purple variety that is unusually high in antioxidants, with twice the amount found in blueberries.

At 66, Martin has silver-white hair, a strong chin and sharp eyes that give her a slightly elfin look. Continue reading

Botanical Migration

Ponderosa pine, now widely distributed in North America, were exceedingly rare during the last ice age. WOLFGANG KAEHLER / GETTY IMAGES

Thanks to Zach St. George for this:

As Climate Warms, a Rearrangement of World’s Plant Life Looms

Previous periods of rapid warming millions of years ago drastically altered plants and forests on Earth. Now, scientists see the beginnings of a more sudden, disruptive rearrangement of the world’s flora — a trend that will intensify if greenhouse gas emissions are not reined in. Continue reading

Gustatory Floral Pleasure

Nelson, picking burdock.

Most of us, top of mind, would mention visual and olfactory pleasures as the primary sensation that flowers wow us with. Thanks to Helen Rosner for reminding us, and to Alexis Nikole Nelson for demonstrating to us, the other sensory pleasures of (some) flowers:

The social-media star Alexis Nikole Nelson, a.k.a. BlackForager, is building an army of florivores.

Nothing takes me back to the Midwestern pastoral of my youth quite like the smells of springtime: freshly cut grass with an edge of lawnmower fuel, the sweet ozone of an imminent thunderstorm. Most of all, it’s lilac bushes, which grow stately and ragged in the hard soil of Chicago’s front yards, or peek over back fences to wave down the alleyways. In May, the tiny purple flowers would open; by June, their thick perfume hung in a haze around each bush, the barest breeze sending out intoxicating eddies of rich scent. When I left home and moved to the East Coast, I sometimes bought cheap lilac colognes—there are plenty of lilacs out here, too, but sometimes a person is a little homesick and needs a whiff on demand. Scent, so neurologically intertwined with memory, is an emotional catapult, and I found that even the clumsiest molecular facsimile of lilac would get the job done. Continue reading

Trees Are Social Creatures

When I first read about trees as social creatures five years ago it was thanks to a man in Germany. I am happy now to learn that a woman in Canada is at least as responsible for this concept as anyone else. She is promoting her book currently and there are at least three good ways to get a glimpse into it, and her, including this book review, this audio interview and IndieBound’s description:

Description

From the world’s leading forest ecologist who forever changed how people view trees and their connections to one another and to other living things in the forest–a moving, deeply personal journey of discovery

Suzanne Simard is a pioneer on the frontier of plant communication and intelligence; she’s been compared to Rachel Carson, hailed as a scientist who conveys complex, technical ideas in a way that is dazzling and profound. Her work has influenced filmmakers (the Tree of Souls of James Cameron’s Avatar) and her TED talks have been viewed by more than 10 million people worldwide. Continue reading

Stenophylla May Be One Of Coffee’s Answers

Climate change is only one of the challenges facing coffee. Thanks to the Economist for keeping us up to date on prospective solutions:

How to save coffee from global warming

Look at research done two centuries ago

Coffee is a multi-billion dollar industry that supports the economies of several tropical countries. Roughly 100m farmers depend on it for their livelihoods. Continue reading

Seed-Saving & Science

The experiment is a multicentury attempt to figure out how long seeds can lie dormant in the soil without losing their ability to germinate. Derrick L. Turner/Michigan State University

Cara Giaimo has a talent linking science and history, and this article demonstrates it as well as any we have linked to from her. Saving seeds is favorite topic in our pages, so this is in good company:

One of the World’s Oldest Science Experiments Comes Up From the Dirt

Every 20 years under the cover of darkness, scientists dig up seeds that were stashed 142 years ago beneath a college campus. Continue reading

Cherry Blossoms & Public Policy

UNITED STATES – March 30: Visitors gather to watch the sunrise under blooming Japanese cherry blossom trees along the Tidal Basin in Washington on Tuesday, March 30, 2021. The 2021 National Cherry Blossom Festival commemorates the original gift of 3,000 cherry trees from the city of Tokyo to the people of Washington in 1912. (Photo by Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

In Washington, D.C. the cherry blossoms came early this year. Plenty was said, including on Texas Public Radio, about the implications related to climate change. Elizabeth Kolbert has this to say, pivoting from cherry blossoms to both environmental and economic policies in the USA:

Biden’s Jobs Plan Is Also a Climate Plan. Will It Make a Difference?

The Administration has an ambitious vision for combatting global warming, but it’s only a start.

Illustration by João Fazenda

The first known reference to Japan’s cherry blossoms comes from the country’s oldest surviving text, the Kojiki, completed in 712. Japan was trying to shrug off the influence of its more powerful neighbor, China, and cherry blossoms became a symbol of Japanese identity, in contrast to the plum blossoms of the Chinese. By the early ninth century, the practice of cherry-blossom viewing had become so well established that the date of the peak bloom appeared in Japanese poems and other literary works. Continue reading

Noble Planta, Partnership In Plants

Listening to your plants may be easier than listening to your loved ones, “Noble Planta,” a short documentary about a long partnership, suggests.

I saw the name Markovic, and was intrigued. It has the ring of being from somewhere in the former Yugoslavia. I started the video, and was as certain as could be without further investigation–the accent sounds like those from my years working in Croatia and Montenegro. But then I got pulled in to the story of this short video, and can tell you it is a short amount of time abundantly well spent. If you know any people, especially couples, who practice/share a passion for plants–their growing needs, the desire to promote them to others–you might want to take a look at the video above, and maybe share it with them. Or if you know any couples in business together, also, maybe share it. Read on to understand:

Caring for Plants, and a Marriage, in “Noble Planta”

By

Film by 

The inside of Noble Planta, Ched and Maria Markovic’s shop on Twenty-eighth Street, in Manhattan, is a green world, full of leafy, spiky vegetation. The pandemic seems to be good for business. Matthew Beck, who directed the short documentary “Noble Planta,” about the Markovics’ relationship with each other and their photosynthetic merchandise, recently visited. “Ched mentioned that people are spending so much time inside right now that going to get a plant seems a little more important at the moment, in an emotional or a spiritual way,” he said. In Beck’s film, Ched often talks about the care and feeding of plants as an almost mystical pursuit. But the documentary is about something more complex than the soulful rewards of gardening. While Ched extols succulents and waxes poetic about soil, his wife, Maria, can be seen glowering from behind a layer of fronds, a scathing look on her face. When Ched delivers an especially enthusiastic speech about plants’ sending messages to their keepers, she finally pipes up with a simple “B.S.!” Continue reading

Ancient Trees & Magnetic Field

Radiocarbon from a 42,000-year-old kauri tree in New Zealand helped unravel Earth’s last magnetic upheaval. JONATHAN PALMER

Science magazine is accessible for most lay readers, even if their articles occasionally include a word we have never heard of, such as paleomagnetist:

Ancient kauri trees capture last collapse of Earth’s magnetic field

Several years ago, workers breaking ground for a power plant in New Zealand unearthed a record of a lost time: a 60-ton trunk from a kauri tree, the largest tree species in New Zealand. The tree, which grew 42,000 years ago, was preserved in a bog and its rings spanned 1700 years, capturing a tumultuous time when the world was turned upside down—at least magnetically speaking. Continue reading

Ancestral Plants Worth Saving

These sunflowers in San Diego National Wildlife Refuge are wild relatives of sunflowers that farmers around the world grow to produce oil. Lisa Cox/USFWS

Thanks to National Public Radio (USA) for this summary of a recent scientific study:

Distant Cousins Of Food Crops Deserve Respect And Protection

Hundreds of native North American plants, often dismissed as weeds, deserve a lot more respect, according to a new study. These plants, distant cousins of foods like cranberries and pumpkins, actually represent a botanical treasure now facing increased threat from climate change, habitat loss and invasive species.

The crops that the human race now depends on, including grains like wheat and tree fruit like peaches, originally were selected or bred from plants that grew wild hundreds or thousands of years ago. And those ancestral plants, like the small wild sunflowers that can be found across the United States, still exist. “If you see them growing along roadsides, those are the ancestors,” says Colin Khoury, a research scientist at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture. Continue reading

More On The Social Networking Of Trees

On a topic we have posted about at least a few times before, here is the latest science on the ways in which trees communicate among themselves, and with others, accompanied by some phenomenally beautiful supporting photographs (especially the fungi):

The Social Life of Forests

Trees appear to communicate and cooperate through subterranean networks of fungi. What are they sharing with one another?

By Ferris Jabr
Photographs by Brendan George Ko

As a child, Suzanne Simard often roamed Canada’s old-growth forests with her siblings, building forts from fallen branches, foraging mushrooms and huckleberries and occasionally eating handfuls of dirt (she liked the taste). Her grandfather and uncles, meanwhile, worked nearby as horse loggers, using low-impact methods to selectively harvest cedar, Douglas fir and white pine. They took so few trees that Simard never noticed much of a difference. The forest seemed ageless and infinite, pillared with conifers, jeweled with raindrops and brimming with ferns and fairy bells. She experienced it as “nature in the raw” — a mythic realm, perfect as it was. When she began attending the University of British Columbia, she was elated to discover forestry: an entire field of science devoted to her beloved domain. It seemed like the natural choice.

Mushrooms and conks are the fruiting bodies of fungi. Their underground filaments form networks among the root systems.

By the time she was in grad school at Oregon State University, however, Simard understood that commercial clearcutting had largely superseded the sustainable logging practices of the past. Loggers were replacing diverse forests with homogeneous plantations, evenly spaced in upturned soil stripped of most underbrush. Without any competitors, the thinking went, the newly planted trees would thrive. Instead, they were frequently more vulnerable to disease and climatic stress than trees in old-growth forests. In particular, Simard noticed that up to 10 percent of newly planted Douglas fir were likely to get sick and die whenever nearby aspen, paper birch and cottonwood were removed. The reasons were unclear. The planted saplings had plenty of space, and they received more light and water than trees in old, dense forests. So why were they so frail? Continue reading

The Language We Use To Know About Plants

Like Magnolia, Begonia, Iris and a few others, the genus name Camellia has been assimilated into English, rather than having a common name assigned to it. “A handful of iconic garden plants have names that are easy to pronounce and spell, and are so widely used that they’re devoid of dread,” said Ross Bayton, the author of “The Gardener’s Botanical: An Encyclopedia of Latin Plant Names.” Drawing from “The Gardener’s Botanical.”

Thanks to Margaret Roach for this review, whose subtitle–Latin might seem like an obscure, inscrutable language for naming plants. But it can open up the botanical world in ways you can’t imagine–is its central recommendation. Things I can’t imagine, maybe especially when I need to make a Plan B for planting, are a welcome resource these days. As always, if you decide to acquire this book and can do so from an independent bookseller you will be doing the world a favor:

Simply knowing a plant’s genus, such as Hydrangea, doesn’t tell you the whole story. The second word in the botanical Latin binomial — the species name or specific epithet modifying the genus — offers further clues, perhaps describing the plant’s place of origin or its appearance. In the case of Hydrangea macrophylla, it means big leaf. Drawing from “The Gardener’s Botanical.”

The plants are trying to tell us something — if only we’d learn their official language, botanical Latin.

“I am the Allium with just one leaf,” says Allium unifolium. (Get it?)

“I am the juniper that carpets the ground,” says Juniperus horizontalis (whose alternate name, Juniperus prostrata, nails its appearance, too).

And Aster alpinus chimes in: “My ancestors hailed from above the timber line — you know, like, the Alps. I won’t appreciate some sodden, clayey spot in your garden.”

Not all plant names offer such easy clues about traits like appearance, preferred conditions or place of origin. Continue reading

Intimate Ecological Ethos

A view of the Cherry Esplanade from the top of the Robert W. Wilson Overlook at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. George Etheredge for The New York Times

Beyond books and other published material, New Yorkers have plenty of places to see natural spectacles, places where nature can be better understood in an otherwise concrete jungle. Ecological ethos describes the new feel of the intimate 52 acres in one of those places:

Brooklyn Botanic Garden Turns Over a New Leaf

A wild meadow and woodland ‘ruin’ are now on exuberant display. The new, ecologically minded garden boasts shaggy clouds of vegetation.

Lavender asters burst through ground-hugging meadow species at the overlook. George Etheredge for The New York Times

Only a skeleton staff at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden witnessed the blizzard of cherry blossoms scattered by spring breezes during the pandemic shutdown. Delicate blooms of wisteria tumbled over pergolas and plump roses unfurled with no appreciative fans to say “Oooh.”

The garden reopened in August for a limited daily number of socially distanced visitors. Now, as fall’s vibrant, showy display begins, meadow and woodland gardens completed at last winter’s onset are finally coming into their own. They are the culmination of a yearslong evolution, as the garden turns over a new leaf with the selection in September of Adrian Benepe, a former commissioner of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, as the new president and chief executive. Continue reading

Arborists & Urban Futures

Xuebing Du

An article by Clive Thompson we linked to in 2016 makes me wonder why today is the first time we are sharing his work since then. I remember reading a review of his book last year but did not see a fit with the themes we tend to focus on here. Urban trees,  for one example, feature in our pages frequently. And trees more broadly speaking have probably been featured more than any other topic due to our mission. So our appreciation to the Atlantic for publishing this, and an added thanks for the excellent photographic accompaniments:

Trees Are Time Machines

Arborists are planting trees today that must survive decades of global warming. The health, comfort, and happiness of city dwellers hang in the balance.

City trees lead difficult lives. A lot of things are trying to kill them, particularly the trees planted on sidewalks: Tightly compacted soil with high alkaline content makes it harder for them to absorb nutrients. Tiny plots of land admit very little rainwater. They’ve got dogs peeing on them, people dropping cigarette butts nearby, and cars belching pollution.

Xuebing Du

“We’re talking about trees that are very vulnerable,” says Navé Strauss, the head of street-tree planting for New York City. His team manages the planting of new trees on streets and public rights of way; there are more than 666,000 street trees in the city, and the team plants about 16,000 new ones annually. For decades, New York arborists have tended to prefer “tough,” hardy species that thrive well against adversity—such as the London planetree, which sports grayish bark and big, maple-like leaves that offer sidewalks tons of shade.

But lately, Strauss has been looking for trees that can handle an even tougher challenge: climate change.

Xuebing Du

In the past century, the United States has heated up as much as 1.9 degrees Fahrenheit. Continue reading

Omniscience In The Garden

Sunflowers are the embodiment of familiarity and cheerfulness. But there is something slightly oppressive about that huge omniscient eye. Illustration by Dan Salmieri

Thanks to Charlotte Mendelson for perspective on the biggest flower we know, the flower that seems to know all:

On Sunflowers, with Love and Hate

I remember vividly the first time I saw a sunflower. It was during a family holiday in my childhood, in the middle of a hangry evening walk to a crêperie in the dullest part of rural France. We rounded a corner, and there it was, blazing against a bright blue sky, with uncountable numbers of siblings: big, comforting golden petals, head like a dinner plate, all modestly looking down: the Princess Diana of oil-producing agronomy. Who could not be charmed by such a look of shy self-protection? I, too, hated the sun, had too many sisters (one). The sunflower seemed almost human, just like me. Continue reading

Some Of Nature’s Miniature Pharmaceutical Factories Are Also Culinary Powerhouses

Photograph by Mari Maeda and Yuji Oboshi. Styled by Suzy Kim

I have not done a count, but I would guess the New York Times has been the source of as many stories we link to as any other publication. Mostly that would be due to the excellence, and relevance to our goals, of the Science section. The New York Times Style Magazine is not normally a source for us. I cannot find a single link to that publication on this platform in 9+ years and among 4,000+ posts. We feature plenty of shiny pretty things but only those that offer insight relevant to this platform. On occasion the trendy and/or the fashionable intersect well with the stories we favor, and we have no problem pointing those out.

A selection of herbal and mushroom powders from Apothékary. Sarah Gurrity

So it goes with fungi. There are many fungi-focused posts on this platform, few of which would be seen as glamorizing. Surely we are trying to validate the topic by shining an attractive light on it. But we favor knowledge over visual stimulation. Aesthetics are not lost on us, nor is the intent to get more people interested in a topic we care about, so:

Are Mushrooms the Future of Wellness?

Long thought to have medicinal benefits, fungi including reishi, lion’s mane and chaga are gaining popularity in the wellness world.

Even before the onset of the pandemic, which has increased the demand for all manner of so-called organic immunity elixirs, wellness-minded Americans were warming to mushrooms. To be clear, mushrooms don’t cure Covid-19, but they are thought to provide a host of other benefits, from serving as an aphrodisiac to bolstering one’s defenses to toxins…

Not one, but two articles in the same issue, both with fabulous photography. The first, by Arden Fanning Andrews, deals with the health benefits of fungi; the second, by Ligaya Mishan, focuses on the culinary:

A duo of royal trumpet mushrooms alongside ladybugs, lichen and wild ferns.Credit…Mari Maeda and Yuji Oboshi

Mushrooms, the Last Survivors

Neither plant nor animal, mushrooms have confounded humans since ancient times. Now, they’re a reminder of our tenuous place in an uncertain world.

The mushrooms sit on high, behind glass, above bottles of Armagnac and mezcal in a bar at the Standard hotel in Manhattan’s East Village. They are barely recognizable at first, just eerie silhouettes resembling coral growths in an aquarium, blooming in laboratory-teal light: tightly branched clusters of oyster mushrooms in hot pink, yolk yellow and bruise blue, alongside lion’s mane mushrooms, shaggy white globes with spines like trailing hair…

Reviving A Garden Can Revive More Than A Garden

Among the reasons we have stayed  committed once we embarked on restoration of a parcel of a coffee farm buried two decades ago, it is a welcome distraction. Also, it is good exercise. Those side benefits add motivation to continue uncovering and then reviving a buried agricultural treasure. If you are not in a place where you can do such a thing, but are in need of a breath-slowing, jaw-unclenching respite, other options exist. Do gardens and/or stories of agricultural revival get you there? The video above, or the classic to the right might be options to consider. Thanks to Helen Rosner for bringing them to our attention in this essay:

The Soothing Pleasures of “The Victorian Kitchen Garden,” a Vintage BBC Docuseries

“The Victorian Kitchen Garden,” a thirteen-part series on the particularities of Victorian horticulture, is a serene display of domestic competence.Photograph by Anne Gilbert / Alamy

Some time this past spring, I had my annual realization that if I wanted to plant a garden this year I should have got started weeks, maybe months, earlier. Then I set about my annual task of Googling how to make a garden happen. A few days later, clearing out my hundreds of open browser tabs of horticultural-advice forums, I paused over an open Web page that I hadn’t noticed: a grainy upload on the mysterious and vaguely European video-hosting Web site Dailymotion. “The Victorian Kitchen Garden – S01 – E01 – The Beginning,” it said. Curious, I pressed play, and a gentle wave of clarinet arpeggios sounded from my laptop speakers, and a mist-veiled greenhouse appeared on the screen. My breathing slowed, my jaw unclenched. Continue reading

From Gardens Long Gone, Now Revived

These dates sprouted from 2,000-year-old seeds retrieved from archaeological sites in the Judean wilderness. Dan Balilty for The New York Times

While we are on the topic of gardens, let’s continue on a roll:

Aided by Modern Ingenuity, a Taste of Ancient Judean Dates

The harvest of the much-extolled but long-lost Judean dates was something of a scientific miracle. The fruit sprouted from seeds 2,000 years old.

The proud father Methuselah, grown from ancient seeds, at Kibbutz Ketura in the Arava desert, Israel. Dan Balilty for The New York Times

KETURA, Israel — The plump, golden-brown dates hanging in a bunch just above the sandy soil were finally ready to pick.

They had been slowly ripening in the desert heat for months. But the young tree on which they grew had a much more ancient history — sprouting from a 2,000-year-old seed retrieved from an archaeological site in the Judean wilderness. Continue reading

A Day in the Life of a Birder at Macaw Lodge

Macaw Lodge’s gardens fill the landscape with color and provide shelter and food for hundreds of species of animals. All photos by Hugo Santa Cruz

It is regularly the first to wake, its song encouraging us all to do the same. It is still dark but the Great Tinamou is already singing, while a couple of hundred more species begin to flap their wings, to soon sing different songs––some very complicated and sophisticated, to make them stand out from the rest.

As I get ready for the day, I mentally identify and count the different sounds I hear––trying to imitate some of them with little success. While brushing my teeth I go through the 13 identified species, leaving 2 or 3 that I don’t recognize.

Scarlet-rumped Tanager by Hugo Santa Cruz - Organikos

Male Scarlet-rumped Tanager

The recognition of birds by songs and calls is essential to count effectively; some of these songs will delight the most demanding ears, as much as good jazz; and others not so much. Some people living in wilderness areas like this may even come to hate some of the calls, such as the tireless, insistent and unending calls of the Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl. You will feel that it follows your steps day by day, night by night; wherever you move or where you try to sleep…  Unfortunately you’re unlikely to  actually see it, because it has excellent camouflage, and at scarcely 15 cm tall but living 20m high in the trees, it will remain invisible, but you will know it is there, because you’ll hear it even in your dreams…
If you’re “lucky” to encounter the little owl when he’s looking for a girlfriend, you’ll understand what I mean … and that’s that all people in this area have their history with the “Maja-Fierro” – local name of the owl, due to his shrill and constant monotonous whistle. Continue reading

Actions Speak Louder With Words

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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.

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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.

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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