Tag Archives: rotten botany

Mistletoe’s Back Side: Shitty News About Our Favorite Kissing Plant

748px-Mistletoe_Berries_UkAh, the holidays. Christmas boughs and holly, and mistletoe. It’s that time of year,  when co-workers and would-be-exes try to trick you into standing just perfectly under that semi-parasitic little rotanical, a sprig of mistletoe, wishing only for a kiss.  You may recall last holiday season I posted this awesome news about the cancer curing properties of the fair mistletoe. Click here to read more.

Well, this year I’m going a little more down-market, if you will. Yes, that’s right, I’m talking shit. Literally.

Recently some Argentine researchers made a surprising study. It was previously believed that mistletoe was spread in the Lake District of Argentine (and other places throughout the world) by birds. That birds feeding on the plants would get the seeds stuck to their legs and thus disperse them as they went from tree branch to tree branch.

It turns out a nocturnal marsupial, Dromiciops australis is the exclusive distributor of mistletoe seeds in their neck fo the woods. They chomp ‘em down and, you guessed it, distribute them via defecation. The seeds happy in a bed of pure compost, can sprout right there on the branch. This is actually a common (and very effective) means for plant distribution throughout the world, very similar to what happens with Strangler Figs.

Mistletoe, which has many varieties unique to different tree species, is a hemi-parasitic plant. It takes part of its nutrients and most of its water directly from its host.

 

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Mycelium Running or Underground Messengers of Distress

HyphaeIf you are a plant-brained type, or more accurately a fungaholic, you’ve no doubt heard of Paul Stamets’ book, Mycelium Running.  It’s about the amazing and awe-inspiring powers of the little ol’ mycelium, those underground thread like ‘shrooms. As his subtitle suggests, How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World mushrooms can be used for everything from building houses to fuel to cleaning toxic waste up from the soil, not to mention our bodies. 

Once thought to have a sycophantic relationship with other plants, fungi got a bad rap. But numerous studies have shown that they have a symbiotic (mutually beneficial, can’t we all just get along?) relationship that those fungi seek out. The fungus gets carbon from the plant, and the network they form through the soil helps the plants draw nutrients from a wider area. Plus they help compost. But that is not all, no, that is not all…

A recent study had revealed that they actually act as underground transmitters when  a plant is in distress. That’s right, they herald the cry of war in the deep, dark, dank underground.

Researchers at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland used five bean plants. Three were planted together, and the mycelium were allowed to grow between them in their usual fashion. The other two plants were planted together but inhibited from having mycelium in their soil. And then they botanist unleashed the hounds on them. Well, they unleashed aphids which is the rotany equivalent.

The plant that was attacked by aphids began emitting chemicals that help to attract wasps, something that many plants do when in distress. And while this is amazing enough, it’s hardly news. But this is: the plants that were connected via underground mycelium began also to produce the “distress” chemicals. But when aphids were released on the mycelium-free plant, it’s neighbor did not produce chemicals.

Previously, botanists believed that this chemical transmission was via the air from plant to plant. This astounding discovery means that the plants were using the mycelium to communicate. That’s right, folks, there is an entire underground network of mycelium and they are communicating from plant to plant, fungi to fungi.

The findings could turn the tides significantly on how to control pests without chemicals. Most food crops–such as wheat, maize, rice, beans including soy, and barley support a symbiotic fungi.

According to one of the study’s authors, Professor John Pickett of Rothamsted Research:

In a field of plants that have some inducible resistance to aphids, we could use a plant that’s susceptible to aphid  attack to ‘switch on’ the defence mechanism through the natural underground connection. Aphids affect all higher-latitude agricultural regions, including the UK, the EU, North America, and North East Asia and there’s the potential to deal with other pests and diseases, in other regions, in a similar way.

Fungus are unique and classified in their own kingdom (The Kingdom of Fungi!!) because of the cell walls which contain chitin. Animal cells also contain chitin, but plant cells cellulose. Coulld you say they are half-plant, half-human. Almost. In truth, they fit neither group and so are their own kingdom, though generally considered the domain of botanists. (Mycologists and botanists certainly have a symbiotic relationship!)

Roots of nearly all groups of plants have symbiotic fungi.

Never underestimate the power of a mushroom. Stamets doesn’t. And Smurfs don’t.

smurf on mushroom

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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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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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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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