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

Species Discoveries Of 2021

Eurythenes atacamensis, a giant new crustacean endemic to the Peru-Chile ocean trench, identified by scientists in 2021. Photograph: Weston et al 2021

The work of species discovery continues, even as extinction continues unabated:

‘Hell herons’, metallic beetles, tiny shrimp – scientists have been busy describing unusual creatures despite Covid restrictions

Two newly described species of spinosaur dinosaurs discovered on the Isle of Wight, named ‘hell heron’ and ‘riverbank hunter’. Photograph: Anthony Hutchings

Six new dinosaurs, an Indian beetle named after Larry the cat, and dozens of crustaceans critical to the planet’s carbon cycle were among 552 new species identified by scientists at the Natural History Museum this year.

In 2021, researchers described previously unknown species across the tree of life, from a pair of giant carnivorous dinosaurs known as spinosaurs – nicknamed the “riverbank hunter” and “hell heron” – to five new snakes that include the Joseph’s racer, which was identified with the help of a 185-year-old painting. Continue reading

Bottled Green Revolution?

Not  sure whether this changes anything we read about yesterday, but at least for some it could be interesting to read about how this 80-Year-Old Man Hasn’t Watered This Sealed Bottle Garden Since 1972 And It’s Still Alive:

In a beautiful example of a closed but functional ecosystem, David Latimer has grown a garden sealed inside a giant glass bottle that he has only opened once since he started it almost 60 years ago.
Latimer planted the terrarium garden on Easter Sunday in 1960. He placed some compost and a quarter pint of water into a 10-gallon glass carboy and inserted a spiderwort sprout, which is not typically an indoor plant, using wires. Continue reading

A Second Green Revolution?

It is often said that the world now needs a Second Green Revolution. Illustration by Derrick Schultz

Elizabeth Kolbert continues exploring the potential costs and benefits of mankind’s attempted mastery over nature:

Creating a Better Leaf

Could tinkering with photosynthesis prevent a global food crisis?

This story begins about two billion years ago, when the world, if not young, exactly, was a lot more impressionable. The planet spun faster, so the sun rose every twenty-one hours. The earliest continents were forming—Arctica, for instance, which persists as bits and pieces of Siberia. Most of the globe was given over to oceans, and the oceans teemed with microbes. Continue reading

David Attenborough’s Green Planet

Mike Gunton, creative director of the BBC Natural History Unit and a long-time collaborator with David Attenborough.PHOTOGRAPH: BENEDICT REDGROVE

David Attenborough has been a frequent feature in our pages over the years. Each conversation with him repeats something we already knew but shares something we had not previously known:

David Attenborough’s Unending Mission to Save Our Planet

“We tend to think we are the be all and end all—but we’re not. The sooner we can realize that the natural world goes its way, not our way, the better.”

David Attenborough’s Green Planet is his latest series in a career that began in the 1950s and is as notable for its variety of firsts—pioneering 16-mm film in TV; first to film a Komodo dragon; first to use drone cameras—as it is for his long-standing commitment to bringing wildlife and environmental issues into the homes of viewers around the world. PHOTOGRAPH: NADAV KANDER

WE MAKE LOTS of programs about natural history, but the basis of all life is plants.” Sir David Attenborough is at Kew Gardens on a cloudy, overcast August day waiting to deliver his final piece to camera for his latest natural history epic, The Green Planet. Planes roar overhead, constantly interrupting filming, and he keeps putting his jacket on during pauses. “We ignore them because they don’t seem to do much, but they can be very vicious things,” he says. “Plants throttle one another, you know—they can move very fast, have all sorts of strange techniques to make sure that they can disperse themselves over a whole continent, have many ways of meeting so they can fertilize one another and we never actually see it happening.” He smiles. “But now we can.” Continue reading

ICARDA, CGIAR & Future Food

Thanks to Helen Sullivan, as usual, for excellent reporting and clear implications:

A Syrian Seed Bank’s Fight to Survive

Scientists have raced to safeguard a newly precious resource: plants that can thrive in a changing climate.

The International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas, known as icarda, is housed in a cluster of small buildings on a dusty property in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, halfway between Beirut and Damascus. Its facilities, surrounded by fields of experimental grain, include a laboratory, nurseries, and a gene bank—a storage facility in which tens of thousands of seeds have been carefully saved and catalogued.

When I first visited, on an autumn afternoon in 2019, staff members in the main building were counting, weighing, and sliding seeds into small packets. Continue reading

An Illustrated Catalog of American Fruits & Nuts


At 384 pages, with over 300 color illustrations, this illustrated catalog looks like the coffee table book of the year for any agriwonk, especially those who have been planting fruit and nut trees in the last year or so:

The United States Department of Agriculture Pomological Watercolor Collection encompasses over 7.500 botanical watercolor paintings of evolving fruit and nut varieties, alongside specimens introduced by USDA plant explorers from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Assembled between 1886 and 1942, the collection’s remarkable, botanically accurate watercolors were executed by some 21 professional artists (including nine women). Authored largely before the widespread application of photography, the watercolors were intended to aid accurate identification and examination of fruit varietals, for the nation’s fruit growers. Continue reading

Perfume & Museum

General view of the International Perfume Museum’s gardens in Grasse. “The same rose or the same jasmine grown in Egypt or Morocco, it will be different from the rose grown in Grasse,” head gardener Christophe Meze says. “It’s like wine, you can have the same type of grape, but you won’t have the same wine because of the sun, because of the soil, because of the terroir.” Bénédicte Desrus for NPR

Perfume appeared early in our pages mostly due to their botanical intrigue–but has only been an occasional topic since then. This story of how the perfume trade developed (if the topic is of greater interest see Chandler Burr’s The Emperor of Scent) in Grasse is a fine fit with our interest in unusual museums and the intersection of farming and innovation:

In France’s Perfume Capital Of The World, There’s A World Of Beautiful Fragrance

Perfume flower grower Pierre Chiarla picks jasmine flowers in his field in Grasse, France. Bénédicte Desrus for NPR

GRASSE, France — The town of Grasse sits in the hills above the more famous French Riviera city of Cannes, and it doesn’t have the Mediterranean Sea at its doorstep. What it does have is fields of flowers — jasmine, May rose, tuberose, lavender. It is known as the perfume capital of the world.

It wasn’t always this way. Back in the 18th and 19th centuries, the industry took off in Grasse in part because this was an absolutely putrid-smelling town. Continue reading