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

Keep Peat In Place

Peat bogs on the Isle of Skye, Scotland. ALAN NOVELLI / ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

Peat made two appearances in our pages in 2014, both underscoring the importance of this type of landscape for storing carbon. More such stories in 2017 and again last year made it clear how the case has been building over the years:

Why Saving World’s Peatlands Can Help Stabilize the Climate

Peatlands make up 3 percent of the earth’s landscape, yet absorb large amounts of carbon and harbor surprising biodiversity. Although peat bogs and fens are under increasing environmental threat, efforts to protect and restore these ecosystems are gathering momentum.

Peatlands in northern Canada’s Mackenzie Valley, seen here in autumn. ED STRUZIK

The Aweme borer is a yellowish-brown moth with an inch-and-a half wingspan. In the often-colorful world of lepidopterology — the study of moths and butterflies — it’s not particularly flashy, but it is exceedingly rare. For decades, entomologists thought the moth lived in the sand dunes and oak savannahs in southern Manitoba and the Great Lakes region. Continue reading

Beauty Of The Wild

Library of American Landscape History has published this book, which came to our attention thanks to this excellent article (again) by Margaret Roach:

Three large islands at Storm King Art Center are planted with a mix of prairie grasses, including little bluestem, big bluestem, Indiangrass and switchgrass. Jerry L. Thompson

Your Garden May Be Pretty, but Is It Ecologically Sound?

Darrel Morrison, the elder statesman of the ecological landscaping movement, offers some advice for gardening in a changing world.

Mr. Morrison’s mesic prairie design for the University of Wisconsin Arboretum Native Plant Garden, with the larger Curtis Prairie restoration in the distance. Robert Jaeger

Some gardeners react to any mention of ecological landscaping — the merging of environmental science and art — as if it were a compromise or concession meant to limit their creativity. Darrel Morrison, a landscape architect who has been practicing and teaching this philosophy for some five decades, begs to differ.

“There is the implication that you are suggesting a vegan diet,” said Mr. Morrison, the creator of influential designs at Storm King Art Center, in Orange County, N.Y., the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, Texas. “A lot of people, when they hear a phrase like ‘ecologically sound landscaping,’ they think they are giving up something. But they are not — it only enhances the experience.” Continue reading

The Arbornaut

The author has been featured in these pages multiple times over the years. The publisher makes it easy to find an option that suits your shopping preferences (our preference is obvious). Her new book has received plenty of praise, according to an email she sent us:

Readers everywhere will be fascinated and inspired to learn more about nature, and especially about how we need to conserve the world’s forests.” ―Jane Goodall, PhD, DBE, founder of the Jane Goodall Institute, and United Nations Messenger of Peace Continue reading

A Way To Garden

20 years after planting, this palm has reached for the sun, and found it.

When we completed construction on our home late in the year 2000, we had a small palm tree in a planter on our terrace. It was perhaps two feet tall at the time. Sometime in 2001 we planted that palm to the side of the house, and ever since it has been reaching for the sun. The opening sentence in the article below, combined with the photo from the same article that I have inserted with it, struck a chord. We need to think about this tree’s future in a way we did not when choosing where to plant it 20 years ago. My thanks to Margaret Roach– who wrote the article and is the creator of the website and podcast A Way to Garden, and a book of the same name–for this:

Questions About Tree Care? You’re Not Alone.

Many people find trees a little enigmatic. But there is help for the asking. (And it’s free.)

Younger, container-grown trees will settle in and start growing faster than field-dug specimens that may take three to five years to reestablish root systems and resume growth. The Morton Arboretum

The biggest plants in our gardens often get the smallest share of our attention. And it’s not because trees don’t need or want attention — or because we intend to neglect them.

Maybe it’s because they look so strong, holding most of their foliage overhead and not making their needs known near ground level, where we are busy paying attention to everyone else. Or maybe we just don’t have much tree-care confidence.

At The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Ill., Julie Janoski and her Plant Clinic colleagues respond to gardeners’ and green-industry professionals’ questions — about 17,000 a year. And many of those questions are about trees. Continue reading

Amaranth All Over

Blanca Marsella González, a member of Qachuu Aloom, harvests amaranth plants. Photograph: JC Lemus/Juan Carlos Lemus

We have been paying attention to amaranth plenty over the years. It should have occurred to me back in the early days of this platform to investigate its origins. Amaranth was so central to our diet in India that I assumed it was a native plant. Not so, but it grows all over the world:

‘It could feed the world’: amaranth, a health trend 8,000 years old that survived colonization

Indigenous women in North and Central America are coming together to share ancestral knowledge of amaranth, a plant booming in popularity as a health food

An elderly woman cuts an amaranth crop, in Uttarakhand, India. The plant is indigenous to North and Central America but also grown in China, India, Southeast Asia, West Africa and the Caribbean. Photograph: Hitendra Sinkar/Alamy Stock Photo

Just over 10 years ago, a small group of Indigenous Guatemalan farmers visited Beata Tsosie-Peña’s stucco home in northern New Mexico. In the arid heat, the visitors, mostly Maya Achì women from the forested Guatemalan town of Rabinal, showed Tsosie-Peña how to plant the offering they had brought with them: amaranth seeds.

Back then, Tsosie-Peña had just recently come interested in environmental justice amid frustration at the ecological challenges facing her native Santa Clara Pueblo – an Indigenous North American community just outside the New Mexico town of Española, which is downwind from the nuclear facilities that built the atomic bomb. Continue reading

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