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

The Incredible Journey of Plants, Reviewed

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‘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:

The secret life of plants: how they memorise, communicate, problem solve and socialise

Stefano Mancuso studies what was once considered laughable – the intelligence and behaviour of plants. His work is contentious, he says, because it calls into question the superiority of humans

9781635429916I had hoped to interview the plant neurobiologist Stefano Mancuso at his laboratory at the University of Florence. I picture it as a botanical utopia: a place where flora is respected for its awareness and intelligence; where sensitive mimosa plants can demonstrate their long memories; and where humans are invited to learn how to be a better species by observing the behaviour of our verdant fellow organisms.

But because we are both on lockdown, we Skype from our homes. Instead of meeting his clever plants, I make do with admiring a pile of cannonball-like pods from an aquatic species, on the bookshelves behind him. “They’re used for propagation,” he says. “I am always collecting seeds.”

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Flower power … Mancuso’s team has shown that Mimosa pudica can retain learned information for weeks. Photograph: Alamy

Before Mancuso’s lab started work in 2005, plant neurobiology was largely seen as a laughable concept. “We were interested in problems that were, until that moment, just related to animals, like intelligence and even behaviour,” he says. At the time, it was “almost forbidden” to talk about behaviour in plants. But “we study how plants are able to solve problems, how they memorise, how they communicate, how they have their social life and things like that”. Continue reading

Roadside Wildflowers In The UK

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Traffic passing pyramidal orchids and other wildflowers along the A354, near Weymouth, Dorset. Photograph: http://www.pqpictures.co.uk/Alamy

A dose of this kind of news, taken daily, is surely good for mental hygiene:

Forest Alchemy

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Antony van der Ent

Thanks to Ian Morse for the most surprising twist on the mythological possibilities of the philosopher’s stone:

Down on the Farm That Harvests Metal From Plants

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

Field Expeditions, Panama, Ferns

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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:

Going where the diversity is

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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.

200126PanamaExp26The 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

Rose, Better Understood

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M. Bendahmane

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:

How a Rose Blooms: Its Genome Reveals the Traits for Scent and Color

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M. Bendahmane

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

Weeds Are Not Automatically Enemies

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Credit: NPR

We missed this when it was first posted, but on this topic never too late to share:

VIDEO: Dandelions Aren’t Just Weeds. You Can Fry Them, Too

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

The Trees That May Survive Humanity

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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:

The Past and the Future of the Earth’s Oldest Trees

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

Botanists Sleuthing, For Science & Conservation

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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:

Stalking the Endangered Wax Palm

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

Elderberries, Up & Coming From The Past

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Heiko Wolfraum/dpa/AP

Thanks to Marisa Endicott at Mother Jones for this:

This Ancient Fruit Holds Secrets for How to Farm in Climate Change

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

The Little Things We Can Do

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A hairstreak butterflies in a Florida backyard. Photo © Bill Spitzer / TNC Photo Contest 2019

If you are fortunate enough to have a yard of your own, consider this suggestion by Charles Fergus:

Create Wildlife Habitat Around Your House

By itself, a plain grass lawn is stark and visually unappealing—which is why most homeowners add shrubs, flower beds, and specimen trees. Today, there’s a new movement afoot known as natural landscaping: using native trees, shrubs, and low plants to add textural diversity to a yard while attracting and benefiting wildlife.

Research has shown that seeing wildlife around your home—hearing birds sing, glimpsing brightly colored butterflies and dragonflies, seeing a garter snake slither into a stone wall— makes life more enjoyable.

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Common milkweed growing in Illinois. Photo © Timothy T. Lindenbaum / TNC

Many of us have a visceral need to be in touch with wild creatures and to acknowledge that we ourselves are part of nature, even if we live in suburbs and other settings where housing is dense. Continue reading

Trees Breathe in Brooklyn

Using new technology, researchers can watch as trees grow, shrink, drink, and breathe. Illustration by Christelle Enault

When we start reading about using transducers to create precision dendrometers to see how a tree grows in Brooklyn, we know we are out of our league. But surprisingly readable, this story tells why it is important to be able to measure tree growth in real time:

A Day in the Life of a Tree

One morning earlier this summer, the sun rose over Brooklyn’s Prospect Park Lake. It was 5:28 a.m., and a black-crowned night heron hunched into its pale-gray wings. Three minutes later, the trunk of a nearby London plane tree expanded, growing in circumference by five-eighths of a millimetre. Not long afterward, a fish splashed in the lake, and the tree shrunk by a quarter of a millimetre. Two bullfrogs erupted in baritone harmony; the tree expanded. The Earth turned imperceptibly, the sky took on a violet hue, and a soft rain fell. Then the rain stopped, and the sun emerged to touch the uppermost canopy of the tree. Its trunk contracted by a millimetre. Then it rested, neither expanding or contracting, content, it seemed, to be an amphitheater for the birds.

“I wonder about the trees,” Robert Frost wrote. Monumental in size, alive but inert, they inhabit a different temporality than ours. Some species’ life spans can be measured in human generations. We wake to find that a tree’s leaves have turned, or register, come spring, its sturdier trunk. But such changes are always perceived after the fact. We’ll never see them unfold, with our own eyes, in human time.

To understand how trees transform, dendrochronologists, researchers who study change in trees, have developed a few techniques. They cut trees down to analyze their rings, which have been created by the seasonal formation of new cells, but this terminal strategy can provide only a static overview of the past. They “core” living trees, using bores to extract trunk tissue; this technique, however, can stress trees and sometimes, though rarely, wound them fatally. They measure tree girth with calipers and tape—a less invasive means of studying growth that is also frustratingly intermittent.

Once we had read to this point the following paragraph led to an image search. What does this thing look like? The story did not show it, only described it, so our image search led here:

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Figure M1 Collection of point dendrometers (natkon.ch). The carbon frames are either T-shaped (for large stems) or O-shaped (for small stems or branches) and are anchored in the stem with stainless steel rods. Up to three sensors are attached to the different type of frames in order to measure different expositions at the stem or to measure stem radius fluctuations over bark and on the xylem separately.

And those images helped the following make a bit more sense:

In the early two-thousands, a new technique emerged that changed the field. It relies on low-cost transducers: equipped with a tiny spring, a transducer—which converts, or “transduces,” physical motion into an electrical signal—can rest on the bark of a tree, sensing and logging tiny changes in pressure. Instruments that use this approach, known as precision dendrometers, allow scientists to do something entirely new: watch how trees change and respond to their environments on an instantaneous scale.

This spring, I walked along the eastern edge of Prospect Park Lake with Jeremy Hise, the founder of Hise Scientific Instrumentation, a company that sells affordable precision dendrometers to scientists, students, and members of what Hise called the “D.I.Y. makerspace.” Bearded and affable in jeans and a blue sweatshirt, Hise explained that his dendrometers could now deliver their measurements wirelessly to a cloud-based platform called the EcoSensor Network. Users of the network can monitor a tree’s growth, generate graphs, and correlate them with meteorological data. Together with Kevin Griffin, a professor of earth and environmental sciences at Columbia University, Hise is planning to build the largest network of dendrometers in the world, generating millions of data points each year. “We’re looking to be the Weather Underground of trees,” Hise said.

Continue reading

Penitentes, An Otherworldly Wonder

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Lara Vimercati and Jack Darcy, two graduate students, at the edge of a penitente field on a Chilean volcano where researchers unexpectedly found algae. Steven K. Schmidt

Thanks to JoAnna Klein for bringing this question, and another Chilean wonder, to our attention:

If Algae Clings to Snow on This Volcano, Can It Grow on Other Desolate Worlds?

Scientists were surprised to find something living on the sterile heights of this Chilean volcano.

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The penitentes are thought to result from an unusual mix of wind, temperature fluctuations and the sun’s ultraviolet rays. Steve Schmidt

In Chile’s Atacama Desert, Volcan Llullaillaco is Mars on Earth — or about as close to it as you can get. At 22,000 feet above sea level, it’s the second highest active volcano on Earth. Most of the mountain is a barren, red landscape of volcanic rock and dust, with thin, dry air, intense sunlight and winds that will blow your tent down the mountain.

While the ground can heat up to 90 degrees Fahrenheit, air temperatures rarely reach above freezing. When snow falls, it turns to gas just as it hits the earth. Occasionally, snow can collect in windblown banks, which then melt into icy spires up to 16 feet tall. The Spaniards called these “nieves penitentes,” penitent ones, because they look like hooded monks doing penance.

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Steve Schmidt

These conditions high up on the volcano made it seem about as lifeless as Mars. But a team of researchers led by Steven K. Schmidt, a microbiologist at the University of Colorado Boulder who studies extreme life, have discovered microbes living in and around the penitentes at 17,300 feet above sea level, about one thousand feet above the point at which vegetation stops on Volcan Llullaillaco. Continue reading

The Corn Of The Future Is Valuable Patrimony From Mexico

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A Mexican scientist inspects a field of olotón maize near Oaxaca, Mexico. ALLEN VAN DEYNZE/UC DAVIS

Thanks to Martha Pskowski and Yale e360 for this:

Indigenous Maize: Who Owns the Rights to Mexico’s ‘Wonder’ Plant?

A nitrogen-fixing maize grown in an indigenous region of Mexico has the ability to fertilize itself, recent research shows. Now, as a global company and U.S. scientists work to replicate this trait in other corn varieties, will the villages where the maize originated share fairly in the profits?

In a 1979 visit to Totontepec, a small town in Oaxaca, Mexico, naturalist Thomas Boone Hallberg marveled at the local maize. The plants grew nearly 20 feet high in nutrient-poor soil, even though local farmers did not apply any fertilizer.

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MARS, INCORPORATED & JEAN-MICHEL ANE/UC DAVIS

The maize had aerial roots that grew a mucous-like gel just before harvest season. It seemed impossible, but Hallberg wondered if the maize was fixing its own nitrogen: extracting it from the air and somehow making it usable for the plant. He had visited countless towns since moving to Oaxaca in the 1950s, but what he saw in Totontepec stuck with him.

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The maize variety olotón has aerial roots that produce a mucous-like gel that fixes nitrogen, meaning that it can effectively fertilize itself. MARS, INCORPORATED & JEAN-MICHEL ANE/UC DAVIS

In 1992, Hallberg returned with a group of Mexican scientists. The maize, known as olotón, was almost ready for harvest and its aerial roots glistened with gel. Ronald Ferrera-Cerrato, a microbiologist, took samples back to his lab outside Mexico City to test the bacteria in the gel. His preliminary results, published in a 1996 report, showed that the maize received nitrogen from the air, through its aerial roots, meaning that it effectively had the ability to fertilize itself.

At the time, scientists around the world were puzzling over similar questions. In a 1996 paper in Plant and Soil, microbiologist Eric Triplett, then at the University of Wisconsin, described the possibility of corn plants that fix nitrogen as “the ‘holy grail’ of nitrogen fixation research” because of the potential to reduce fertilizer demand. Continue reading

Why Is Vanilla So Expensive?

The Economist has not been one of our go-to sources for stories because it has an ideology that sometimes gets in the way of deeper investigation. Their stories and explanations are extremely thorough and very compelling, but we can usually guess the answer before the question is even asked.  Every now and then they surprise us, and here is a good example:

The bitter truth behind Madagascar’s roaring vanilla trade

How did hunger for the humble pod lead to greed, crime and riches? Wendell Steavenson travels to Madagascar to meet the new spice barons

In pods we trust
A quality-control chief in a co-operative in Belambo

I follow Felicité Raminisoa and her father, Romain Randiambololona, up a narrow track along the forested slopes of her family’s farm in southern Madagascar. It is lychee season and, as we walk, we break off branches of fruit and peel off the pink, spiky shells. Large yellow jackfruit grow like Chinese lanterns among loquat and clove trees, pepper vines and coffee plants. Sapphire dragonflies flash by as they chase each other over ponds of tilapia dammed into the valley. The air is muggy under the banana leaves but grows fresher as we climb. In all directions we can see vanilla vines winding around tree trunks. Each zigzag stem has been trained so that it grows no higher than Raminisoa can reach. Every so often she stops at a pale-yellow bloom and parts its waxy petals. With a spike snapped from an orange tree, she delicately scrapes away the membrane separating the anther from the stigma in order to pollinate the flower. This is a task that requires perfect timing. Each flower must be pollinated by hand on the morning it blooms or the beans won’t sprout.

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A vanilla flower is pollinated by hand

The family began to plant vanilla vines about 20 years ago mostly as “decoration”, says Randiambololona, his big grin punctuated by a missing tooth. At first the family sold fresh green vanilla pods to tourists, surprised that they would pay anything for them. But in 2014 the price of vanilla began to rise. Over the next three years it went from less than $40 per kilogram to more than $600 per kilogram. It felt like money was growing on their trees. In 2016 Raminisoa travelled to the northern region of Sava, where vanilla has been grown for generations, to learn how to cure the green pods into the commodity that was in such demand: pungent and wizened black beans. Continue reading