We Are Watching You: Plant Sense, Neurobotany, Plantopomorphizing, and Other Rotten Thoughts on Plant Brains

Feed me, Seymour!!!

Feed me, Seymour!!!

What plantophile hasn’t, at one point or another, hummed to their plants, or perhaps imagined a small face in the center of a pansie? And poets, since time immemorial have waxed about the amazing beauty and cunning of the natural world. We plant lovers “plantopomorphize” our favorite green companions by naming them (I once had a Purple Velvet plant named Nico). And who doesn’t remember that 6th grade science fair project that proves plants thrive when listening to classical music? Alice’s garden of flowers is a prime example of an imagined “language” and personality of individual plants. And of course there is the Secret Life of Plants, the book that claimed that plants have brains. And feelings.

Scientists sometimes (still)chagrin this book, because its authors Christopher Bird and Peter Tompkins, made radical claims (radical at least in 1973) such as the idea that plants have emotions and that actually originate in a “supramaterial world of cosmic beings [such as] fairies, elves, gnomes, sylphs, and host of other creatures, were a matter of direct vision and experience to clairvoyants among the Celts and other sensitives.”

The popular books based in the Findhorn community of Scotland, including the seminal work by Paul Hawken (of Smith and Hawken fame) The Magic of Findhorn (1975), give cred to the idea that something else is in control when plants are involved. The book,  which features a skeptic (Hawken) joining the community for a year and witnessing incredible gardening feats, says this on its first edition jacket (thanks, Mom!):

There have been stories in the press and other media about a small community in the north of Scotland called Findhorn where people talk to plants with amazing results—stories of vegetable and flower gardens animated by angelic forms where Pan’s pipes are heard in the winds—stories of plants performing incredible feats of growth and endurance: 40-pound cabbages, 8-foot delphiniums, and roses blooming in the snow.

Modern botanists, in their own way, are extending the idea that plants have brains. According to an article in Natural History from May of 2012, the first international plant neurobiology meeting was held in 2005 in Florence, Italy (can I get on that invite list?) Their website defines plant neurobiology (what I like to call neurobotany) as ” a newly named, but also old and fascinating field in plant biology addressing the physiological basis of adaptive behavior in plants. Perhaps this field could be called ‘Sensory Biology in Plants.'”

The Natural History article outlined three reasons for plants having nervous systems:

  1. Plants have genes similar to those that specify components of animal nervous systems, specifically proteins that have been show to have distinct roles in neural function.
  2. While said proteins are likely to not have “neural” functions in plants, they are believed to behave in ways very similar to neural molecules.
  3. Some plants show synapse-like regions between the cells, where neurotransmitter molecules facilitate cell-to-cell communication.

Say what, you crazy rotanist??? Basically, plants have their own “version” of nervous system. And if you want some more scientific proof for what Bird, Tompkins, Hawkens (and before them even Darwin had a similar theory) are saying about plants having “feelings” a recent study with peas might give a little more validation. Peas, when stressed from drought, close their “pores” (known in botany as stomata.) The study showed that a non-stressed, well watered pea plant whose rooted near by a stressed plant will also close its stomata as a precaution. Yes, it gets the vibes of stress!

Of course this is all basically scientific evidence of what shamans and plant magic workers have been saying since we had teeth.

So maybe there is a real-life Audrey II out there, waiting to get its “jaws” on us. One that thinks, feels, longs, yearns…a rotanist can hope!

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Mistletoe: Kiss for the Cure for Cancer

European MistletoeMistletoe

The globular-leafed, green little bunches are synonymous with Christmas cheer of a very romantic variety. But mistletoe may well be more than just an excuse to steal a kiss:  this parasitic little plant could contain the cure for colon and other cancers.

Other common names: All Heal, Birdlime, Devil’s Fuge, Golden Bough, Witches Broom, Wood of the Cross

“Mistletoe” is the common name for a hemiparasitic (semi parasitic–a plant that gains nourishment from the host plant but also photosynthesizes) plant of several families (all within the order Santales.) Some of the most familiar plants we know as mistletoe are the common European variety, Viscum album and the North American species, Phoradendron serotinum, both of which are widely harvested as Christmas decoration.

A very recent study from the University of Adelaide in Australia has shown an extract from the European Viscum that grows specifically on Ash trees, Viscum fraxini, is ” highly effective against colon cancer cells in cell culture and was gentler on healthy intestinal cells compared with chemotherapy. Significantly, Fraxini extract was found to be more potent against cancer cells than the chemotherapy drug.

Yes, you read that right. More potent against cancer cells than the chemotherapy drug. It also has fewer side-effects and is gentler on the system.

Scientists, herbalists, and ethnobotanists have been studying mistletoe for years. It is known to be poisonous, causing stomach pains and other intestinal distress. For centuries the stems and leaves have been used to make an extract to treat sluggish circulatory systems and major respiratory problems.

Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Anthroposophy, pioneered the concept of mistletoe as an anti-cancer medicine. A spiritual botanist, Steiner believed that the parasitic nature of the plant could counteract the parasitic nature of a disease like cancer.

It turns out he was right. Scientists have been studying mistletoe’s many varieties for years. In this article published the National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, you can see photographs of a tumor virtually disappearing after six months of treatment with the fraxini extract.

Researches at University of Adelaide in Australia extracted three different varieties of mistletoe, all from the Viscum species. Each variety grows on a different kind of tree. The one that grows on the Ash tree so far has proven to be the most effective. However, there are hundreds upon hundreds of types of mistletoe. The potential is actually quite astounding.

In Europe, mistletoe is already being used in the treatment of colon cancer but not it is currently not legal in the United States or Australia, where research is underway to approve it.

Mistletoe is steeped in mythology. Viscum album is thought to be The Golden Bough–the branch that Aeneas must give to the Queen of the Underworld in the epic Greek myth. The Romans believed mistletoe contained divine male essence. The Ancient Druids believed the most sacred mistletoe to be the one that grows on oaks. The Norse believed mistletoe contained the power to resurrect the dead.

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The Ant Fern and Other Oddities: An Informative Rotanical Interview with Bill Barnett

Lecanopteris carnosa or The Ant Fern

Lecanopteris carnosa or The Ant Fern

Lecanopteris carnosa or The Ant Fern

I recently scored an interview with the most horticulturally minded person I know, Bill Barnett. Bill is the manager of Sloat Garden Center on 3rd Avenue (at Clement) in San Francisco. I first met Bill when I was his underling at the retail nursery.  Those in the know, know that this branch of Sloat Garden Center is a secret oasis of rare and thriving gems. There is no plant, odd or otherwise that Bill doesn’t know about. I’ve tried to stump him and only come close once: I found out about a new hybrid of a dianthus about a week before he did (score one for the Rotten Botanist!) Bill knows more about plants than any other human alive. Seriously. And he doesn’t hold a PhD or even a master’s in horticulture. Bill got his knowledge the old-fashioned way: immersion. He has discovered a species and trained me in the ways of the weirdest plants. He introduced me to Black Mondo Grass, for which I am forever grateful.  He is also a master diagnoser of plant diseases and a damn amazing cook.

Bill is pretty old school. I did this interview with him via mail. That’s right, MAIL. Not email. He hand wrote the answers, complete with a tiny botanical illustration of a pitcher plant he is fond of. Probably the only way he’ll read this interview is if I print it and bring it into him.

RB: What is your earliest garden or plant memory?

BB: As a toddler I can remember my mom’s houseplants. My aunts all had the same ones because they traded cuttings. They all had the Achimenes — a member of the African Violet family that goes dormant int he winter. My mom believed that you needed to water it with hot water in the spring to wake it up, but of course you don’t. Everyone just called it the hot water plant. My mom also bought houseplants that were reduced in price at the grocery store because they were fading. They rarely looked any better under her care.

RB: How long have you worked in the horticultural field?

BB: Too long. I have seen evolution occur. 34 years. And I really do believe that plants propagated from plants that “like” captivity have produced progeny that are much easier to grow, in just a few generations instead of eons. Or maybe I’m just a better grower–whatever.

RB: What is your favorite plant (indoor or otherwise)?

BB: I love the Staghorn ferns–all 18 species. There’s nothing else like them. They have the shield leaves that stack up as they grow. The inner shields become compost for the roots and they funnel falling leaves and rain to the roots for even more compost. Another type of leaf hangs into the air and look like the staghorn or antler.

RB: What plant do you despise the most? (and why?)

BB: The Fo-Ti that Pixie planted against the North wall. [Rot Bot note, Pixie is a former colleague and amazing gardener who currently works at Annie’s Annuals. Tell him we said ‘Hi!’] We’ve pulled all of it on this side but it still comes in from the neighbor’s yard. It comes through the drainage holes in the flower box. One tendril found the drainage hole of a pot sitting on a shelf and rooted into the hole. We all now hate it. It taunts us through the fence.

RB: Is there a particularly bizarre plant that you think Rotten Botanists should know about?

BB: I bought the weirdest plant from a grower from the Philippines at the orchid expo this year. It’s a fern called Lecanopteris carnosa or the Ant Fern. It is an epiphyte. The base looks like a green potato and seems to have hardly any roots. The leaves are pretty fern like. It likes to grow in the sun and get bone dry between soakings. The base grows in one direction and as it does the rear portion dies and becomes dry and black and hollow. Stinging ants move into the backroom. They’re not squatters–they work for their lodging. At any vibration from something munching on the leaves they rush out en mass and run the invader off. They groom the leaves of any aphids or scale and they fertilize the roots by dumping all of their food scraps and poop in the yard. My plant is growing well, without ants.

RB: Rumor has it you discovered a species of Sanseveria (snake plant). Can you tell us about that?

BB: It’s a cultivar actually of the normal green ‘snake plant’. Someone was buying it where I was working and I noticed a yellow colored sprout. When they left to get their car I un-potted the plant and replaced it with another green plant because I knew they hadn’t even noticed. It’s called ‘Sunrise’ because the leaves come up plain green and slowly the yellow creeps up the stem and intensifies like the sunlight coming over the horizon. it can take years for full color development. [Rot Bot note: The one Bill gave me about 9 years ago is half yellow now!]

RB: If your house was on fire and you had time to save just ONE plant, what would it be? Why?

I’ve got plants that it would be harder to find or more expensive to replace (if possible). But I love my little Australian pitcher plant, Cephalotus follicularis, so much. It’s a nice clump of the miniature pitchers. They all face away from the center of the group. It looks kinda like a nest of baby birds all with their mouths open for feeding. I feed them frozen baby crickets.

Bill's illustration of Cephalotus follicalaris

Bill’s illustration of Cephalotus follicalaris

The Strangler Fig

A random photo from the interwebs. I will upload photos of the stranglers I saw in So America once I get around to scanning them. The trip was prior to the digital age.

The Strangler Fig

Family: Moraceae (Mulberry)

Ficus spp.

Sound like something from a horror movie? Well, its behavior certainly is.  The rotten habits of the Strangler Fig have earned this type of Ficus its dastardly nick-name.

Strangler Fig is a common term for several species of Ficus that grow in tropical and subtropical forests throughout the world,  and the term can even be used to refer to any vine that exhibits the behavior similar (sucking the life out of its host plant while it thrives). As there are more than 150 species of Strangler figs in the New World forests alone, I’m going to focus mainly on the ones in Central and South America. Several years ago, on an ethonobotanical sojourn to a Peruvian rainforest, the tale of the Stranglers was relayed to me by one of our local guides and has haunted me ever since.

In a very general sense, the Strangler Figs are considered Banyans, as Banyans are defined as a fig that starts out as an epiphyte. This is very common because most species (if not all) of Ficus produce small fruits (figs!) which birds, bats, monkeys and other small animals dine on, thus distributing the seeds via their waste, to all manner of cracks and crevices of a host tree. (This is not to be confused with the Ficus benghalensis, or Indian banyan which is the national tree of India.)

In the competitive world of the tropical forest, sunlight and compost are hot commodities. The Strangler fig has figured out exactly how to get what it needs.Once the animal has left behind the seed, which is now nestled in a crook of a tree covered in fertilizer (aka animal feces) it is only a matter of hours before it starts to thrive. Slowly it grows roots, which begin to reach down toward the soil below. The roots can grow hundreds of feet long, and eventually form a lattice-like network around the tree’s trunk and into its root system. It also grows up toward the sunlight, eventually shading the host tree from sunlight. In this way the Strangler fig is slowly but surely strangling the life out of its host tree. It is robbing the nutrients from the ground, gobbling up the sunlight above, and using the structure to wrap ever tighter and grow ever larger. More often than not the Strangler Fig kills its host, though some have shown enough mercy to let the host tree live–though it is only a shadow of the life they once had.

You wouldn’t necessarily notice if you strolled by one. You might just think you see a big, beautiful, healthy Ficus tree. But upon closer inspection you’ll see the “trunk” is a network of roots, its support being the carcass inside.

Strangler figs do play an important role in the ecology of forests, including providing rotanical homes for bats and other small animals as well as food for a wide variety of species.

A very wonderful and menacing plant in the kingdom of Rotten Botany.

 

 

 

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The Stinkvine! Paederia foetida

These pretty little flowers almost fool you into thinking this vine can’t stink!

Paederia foetida

Stinkvine, Skunkvine, Chinese Fever Vine,  Maile Pilau

Family: Rubiaceae

Native to temperate and tropical Asia

Naturalized in Melanesia, Polynesia and even Hawaii, though it is not native.  Considered an invasive weed in Florida and other parts of the Southern United States. It was introduced to the USA as a potential fiber plant in 1897. Oops!

Height: To 30 ft. though usually 20 or so.

USDA Zone 6a: to – 11. (Yep, really! That’s why it still thrives in Florida!)

From the looks of this baby you would not believe it stinks to holy hell (though its name would probably have tipped you off) because its delicate bi-colored flowers (white to pale yellow fading to pink/lilac and/or red) look like sweet little tubes of pretty. And that’s part of what makes this perennial, evergreen rotanical even more interesting. It’s flowers, actually, are not the fetid part. When you crush the leaves of this fantastic plant you get a horrid sulphuric smell, earning its name Stink Vine. The actual oils of the plant contain a sulphur compounds, including dimethyl disulphide.

Dimethyl disulphide is the same compound found in the Dead-Horse Arum and other rotten species that let off the smell of rotten meat in order to attract flies for pollination. (more on the Dead-Horse Arum next week!)

In Hawaii this is the main larval food plant for the Maile Pilau Hornworm, a hummingbird moth.

Interestingly, one of its common names Chinese Fever Flower, alludes to its other amazing properties. Ethnobotanically speaking, the Stink Vine and its sulphurous compounds contain a great deal of antioxidants and is used medicinally as an anti-inflammatory, an immune booster, and has even shown potential as an anti-cancer agent. In Indonesia the leaves are traditionally served boiled with rice and sambal, often by street vendors. The leaves are also high in calcium and Vitamin C and very rich in potassium.

If you want to read a very nerdy but wonderful study of the Indonesian variety of Paederia foetida, click this link.

If you want to try and grow it in your own garden you’ll have the best luck in coastal climates that are mild or hot and muggy climates like Florida and Louisiana. In the right zone it can apparently can survive the occasionally cold snap. You can find seeds here:  Georgia Vines

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Global Flower Trade Turns Rotten

This is a very interesting article and a topic of discussion for many years now among floral designers and gardenesses and even herbalists who advocate against wildcrafting.

Give it a read and let me know your thoughts.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-17343037?utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=twitter&utm_campaign=greenmeme

Baby’s in Black: Nemophila menziesii ‘Penny Black’

Family: Hydrophyllaceae

Nemophila menziesii ‘penny black’

Black nemophila, ‘Penny Black’ or ‘Baby Black Eyes’

A sweet and rampantly blooming annual that frequently reseeds itself, this delightful hybrid of the California Native Baby Blue Eyes (of the same botanical name, Nemophilia menziesii)  is a must-grow for the pirate’s garden. Little cup-like, black and white flowers.  This little lovely looks amazing in containers, hanging baskets, or as a gothically-minded border plant. It grows about 8” wide by up to 12” across and thrives in all USDA zones as a spring and summer bloomer. Sunset zones 1-24. Likes sun to part sun. A word of caution for those of you in coastal climates where the summer means fog: this plant is prone to powdery mildew and should go in the sunniest possible place in your garden. Hotter inland gardeners can place it in the more dappled light of their sunnier shade beds.

Bay Area gardeners: Look for the plants at Annie’s Annuals in the early Spring through Summer or check out Sloat Garden Center.

I believe the seeds are available through Botanical Interests, but you need to start them in March or so to get a summer bloomer.

If you’ve had luck with these beauties or know where readers can pick them up feel free to comment and let us know!

Yarrrr!

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The Purple Tomato: Our New Dark Lord

or Purple Tomatoes: Not Just for Heirlooms Anymore!

Purple tomatoes you say? What’s the big deal? The heirloom varieties such as ‘Black Prince’ and ‘Purple Cherokee’ have been tumbling across market stands and making their way to our tables for a number of years, delighting foodies and gardeners alike.  So what on earth is all this horticultural hullabaloo about?

Meet the Indigo Rose.

This tomato doesn’t tumble or stumble. This baby waltzes.

The Indigo Rose, unlike the aforementioned varieties, is not an heirloom variety but more of a freak of nature–a carefully crafted freak, that is! It’s a fun new hybrid, and it has a very distinct difference from the other varieties. According to an article published by Oregon State University, whose horticulture department is responsible for the mad-creation of the ‘Indigo Rose’ variety, tomato fruits like ‘Black Prince’ and ‘Purple Cherokee’ get their color from various reactions within the tomato’s chemical makeup that results in a the green-skin gene producing a darker color.

In botanical-speak, OSU explains:

      What causes the purple pigment?

            A class of compounds generally called anthocyanin. The specific anthocyanins present in  the tomatoes are mainly petunidin, but malvidin and delphinidin are also present. The anthocyanins are modified by the presence of acyl (sugar) groups. Anthocyanins are a   member of a larger class of compounds called flavonoids. Other members of this class  include quercetin, kaempferol, naringenin, catechin, and isoflavones. Phenols or Phenolics are related compounds that differ in basic chemical structure, but have similar          function. In our tomato lines many different kinds of phenolics and flavonoids are up regulated along with the anthocyanins.

Say what?

Well, in a nutshell, the Indigo Rose has a purple-skinned gene rather than the typical green gene. This is the result of a high level of compounds known as anthocyanins, most commonly known as the compounds that give blueberries their nice, dark blue color.

Let’s face it, this is a true rotanical of the most Frankensteinian proportions. I’ve heard it doesn’t taste as good, falling short in flavor (but where it lacks in flavor, it makes up for in flavonoids)but as soon as I can sink my teeth into one, I’ll be the judge!

One other note that is important: this tomato has gotten a bad wrap already as being a GMO (genetically modified organism). It is not. It is a HYBRID. To quote again from the OSU article:

            Were genetic engineering techniques used to develop these lines?

            No, conventional crossing and selection techniques are being used. This is perhaps the most misunderstood aspect of this project, and we will say it again: These tomatoes are  NOT GMO.

That means that they isolated naturally occurring genes from other plants and isolated them, combined them, and intensified them. Genetically modified organisms use new genes and sometimes new made-in-a-lab genes. This kind of isolating and breeding technique has been used for centuries, and in fact, many “heirloom” varieties are the result of hybridization. Just wanted to add a line in there in defense of this lil’ freak!

Check out the Territorial Seed Company’s online catalog description and see for yourself if you’d like to order some!

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Wicked Cool: An Interview with Amy Stewart

For all you fans of the rotten, stinky, beautiful, wicked plants in the world, if you haven’t somehow yet heard of Amy Stewart take heed! She is the author of Wicked Bugs, Wicked Plants, Flower Confidential, The Earth Moved, From the Ground Up, and a forthcoming book called  The Drunken Botanist. She writes blogs called Dirt and Garden Rant.
She is fun, punchy, and incredibly knowledgeable. Her book Wicked Plants has been touring the country in the form of exhibits at botanical gardens and conservatories since it first hit the stands.  Once I read Wicked Plants I was hooked and went back to read nearly everything she’d written. Amy was gracious enough to recently grant me an interview for Rotten Botany.  Read on for a few words from Amy about the most beautiful and low-down rotanicals she fancies.
What is your favorite plant (wicked or otherwise)?
I am a big fan of salvias of all kinds–there are many species native to California that do really well with no effort at all.  I love the colors, and the fact that they are so tough and drought-tolerant, and the fact that they attract a lot of hummingbirds and bees.  I probably have 30 or 35 species in my garden.
And there is a wicked salvia–Salvia divinorum, an intoxicating little annual salvia native to Mexico.  It apparently causes quite nasty hallucinations.  It’s not illegal, but the DEA does consider it a “plant of concern.”
What is your favorite poisonous plant?
I really love castor bean–it’s gorgeous, very dramatic, quite frightful-looking–and the seeds contain ricin, one of the most deadly poisons the plant kingdom makes.  Just a few seeds, chewed well, could kill a person.
What do you think is the most dangerous plant?
In terms of the number of people it has killed?  That’s easy–tobacco.  Over 90 million people have died because of that plant.
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The Bat Plant

 Tacca chantrieri

The Bat Plant

Family: Taccaceae

Among the lush greens and vibrant reds of the tropical forest lurks one of the most unusual plants of the world: Tacca chantrieri, or The Bat Plant. Named for its black bat-like flower that grow up to 12 inches across, The Bat Plant could also be nicknamed The Black Cat Plant for its distinctive long “whiskers” that can grow over 2 ft. long. Other common names include The Devil Flower, Bat-Head Lily, and Black Tacca.

The most common Bat Plant is the beautiful blackish variety, although there are actually several colors including a very ghostly white flowering variety. This amazing rotanical is more than just a fun freak of nature–recent evidence shows that it may actually have cancer-fighting properties. According to an article on this website:

The Therapeutics Program at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, has been working to isolate substances in the plant in hopes of finding a new  plant-derived cancer drug with the potential of Taxol. Taxol, the first microtubule  stabilizer derived from the Yew family, has been an effective chemotherapy drug, but patients eventually develop problems with resistance over time and toxicity at higher doses. Researchers have long been seeking alternatives. “We’ve been working with these for years with some good results, but never with the potency of Taxol,” said Mooberry, lead author of the study. “Now we have that potency,  and we also show for the first time the taccalonolides’ cellular binding site.”

In other words they have isolated something as effective and powerful as Taxol in the beautiful bewitching bat plant. Go rotanical, go!

Want to grow your own super-freak? If you live in a steamy, humid climate you should have no problem. You can just let it go wild. But for the rest of us, even in my mild SF garden, you’ll need to do it in a pot in a greenhouse most of the year. If it gets below 40 degrees they get very, very cranky. Shade or bright indirect light. Why would a bat like the sun?

Height: About 18-20” with flowers of several inches. Remember the whiskers, though, which can dangle down to the ground!

Hardy to 40 degrees.

Note: this amazing photo came from my cousin Anne Mackin who snapped it at the SF Conservatory of Flowers. They have a regularly blooming Bat Plant!!

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