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:
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
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):
Trees appear to communicate and cooperate through subterranean networks of fungi. What are they sharing with one another?
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
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
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:
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
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:
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.
“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.
In the past century, the United States has heated up as much as 1.9 degrees Fahrenheit. Continue reading
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:
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
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:
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
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…
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 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
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:
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
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.
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
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:
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.
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.
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
‘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:
A dose of this kind of news, taken daily, is surely good for mental hygiene:
Projects to reduce grass cutting and increase the diversity of plants and wildlife along Britain’s roads are having dramatic results
In Sandford, Wareham, wildflowers are part of an initiative to provide an attractive habitat for butterflies and insects, while helping to cut the costs of roadside mowing. Photograph: Eva Worobiec/Alamy
In 2014, Giles Nicholson was battling the growing year from hell. A mild winter followed by a warm, wet spring had turbocharged a ferocious mass of cow parsley, nettles and dense grass along the hundreds of miles of road his team maintains for Dorset council. Austerity meant there was barely enough money to pay for repeated cuttings to hold back the matted swards. Complaints poured in about messy roadsides.
“[The machinery] wouldn’t go through it,” says Nicholson, recalling the overspilling verges. Continue reading
Antony van der Ent
Thanks to Ian Morse for the most surprising twist on the mythological possibilities of the philosopher’s stone:
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
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:
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.
The 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
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:
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
We missed this when it was first posted, but on this topic never too late to share:
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
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:
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
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:
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
Thanks to Marisa Endicott at Mother Jones for this:
Respect your elder-berries.
Cloverleaf Farm, a small produce operation in Davis, California, managed to do okay during the extreme drought that lasted from 2012 to 2016. But in the first wet year after the long dry period, the farm lost its entire apricot crop to disease—$40,000 to $50,000 down the drain.
Researchers predict that as climate change worsens, there will be more frequent shifts between extreme dry spells and floods. As Cloverleaf learned the hard way, the phenomenon is already taking a toll on growers in the country’s largest food producing state. During the drought, California’s agricultural and related industries lost $2.7 billion in one year alone. Big cash crops like almonds and grapes are at particular risk in the future, unnerving farmers and vintners already taking hits from erratic and extreme weather. Continue reading