Monday, April 30, 2012

May's official flower: Lily of the Valley

Species name: Convallaria majalis

Common name: Lily of the Valley, May bells, Our Lady's Tears

Location: Nova Scotia

The Lily of the Valley is an incredibly common spring wildflower through most of North America, Europe and Asia. Where it originated is still up for debate; some call it common to North America while others say it has been "naturalized", meaning it didn't evolve here but it's been here for so long it might as well have. Either way, it has adapted to survive and thrive in a wide variety of environments, and is incredibly cold-tolerant (surviving temperatures up to -35C). There is also an ongoing argument of whether Lily of the Valley plants are invasive or not (since they seem to spread so readily); I have given the plant the benefit of the doubt and said it is not.

The Lily of the Valley has some historic medicinal use, but is rarely ever used now as anything other than an ornamental plant. Historically, it was used by native tribes as as "piscicide", meaning a chemical that kills fish. The roots and/or leaves would be macerated in a bit of water to make a sort of sludge, releasing saponins from the plant (saponins are chemicals that produce a soap-like reaction when shaken in a liquid). This sludge would then be dumped into a stream that contained a lot of fish, incapacitating or killing the fish very quickly. They would then be collected from the surface of the stream and processed. This form of fishing has been banned around the world but it still practiced in a very restricted way by indigenous people in some countries (like Guyana). Saponins in general are not overly toxic to most humans (some people have a sensitivity to it, but you would have to ingest an obscene amount of plant material to be poisoned by saponins), but they do have a bitter taste and so are not ideal in food products. What makes Lily of the Valley a toxic plant is the high concentration (and chemical diversity) of cardiac glycosides that are stored in all parts of the plant throughout its development. These chemicals are concentrated in the rhizome underground in the fall (to protect it from herbivores over the winter), and in the berries in the summer (to protect the seeds from being eaten by animals). The berries are often interpreted as an ideal snack-food source by small children since they look so appealing, and so every year there are a few cases of death as a result of poisoning from Lily of the Valley berries. To adults, most of the results of berry ingestion would be abdominal pain, diarrhea, vomiting, and a reduced heart rate. If a large enough amount of these berries were consumed, death would be the result.

There are many tales associated with these flowers, most revolving around the time of flowering of this plant being in May (the Latin name of the plant, Convallaria majalis, means "of/belonging to May"). The French use it as a symbol of spring, selling it tax-free in shops on Labor Day (which there is on May 1st). One of the common names of the plant, Our Lady's Tears (sometimes also Mary's tears), originates from the idea the plant sprouted under where the Virgin Mary was crying after Jesus was Crucified.

A lot of countries and organizations use this flower as their national symbol: the Finnish use it as their national flower, it is the flower of Yugoslavia, Job's Daughters International has this flower as its official emblem, and there are countless fraternities and sororities around North America that use this flower as part of their coat of arms or as their official flowers.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

The original Stinking Benjamin

My appologies! For the last 4 days I've been at two different conferences, and so have been a wee busy. More regular blog postings are starting again tomorrow!

Species name: Trillium erectum

Common name: red trillium, wake-robin, stinking Benjamin

Location: Nova Scotia

I took this photo while out with Tanya on a guided excursion of an area in Nova Scotia called Cape Split. Felt like a walk up a mountain carrying the pack mule with all of its stuff, to be rewarded with a beautiful view of the Bay of Fundy. Once we were done absorbing the view we started our (incredibly short) trek back down the "mountain", only to find out that the walk wasn't all that long at all! The red trillium is native to Eastern North America, especially the Maritime provinces.

Most of the 40-50 species in the Trillium genus are at risk of population decline across their entire range. Despite this, there is only one species that is protected by law in Ontario against picking since it is officially a threatened species and has a greatly reduced population size. The common white trillium, the provincial flower of Ontario, is only prohibited from being picked in Provincial and National Parks, and on land owned and controlled by a Conservation Authority. In the United States, it is illegal to pick trillium flowers in Michigan, Minnesota and New York. This isn't because it's a threatened species, it's because picking the flower prevents the bracts and leaves from making sugars to be stored for the next year's growth. This impedes the growth and reproductive abilities pretty severely of the trillium. The white trillium is also the state flower of Ohio, and the official government emblem of the Ontario Government. Like the Jack in the Pulpit plant, the trillium is characterized by having flower parts and leaves in multiples of three: three petals, three sepals, and three leaves. This makes the plant trifolate, and a monocot.

Red trillium flowers are definitely not suitable for picking for the dinner table. A dark red-purple colour in flowers often indicates that they will smell terrible, like rotting meat. This implies the flowers are pollinated by animals attracted to rotting meat, usually flies. Like another native Ontario wildflower, bloodroot, the seeds of the red trillium are dispersed via ants (called myrmecochory). The ants are attracted to the fruit of the flower because of the fleshy elaiosome that surrounds the seed. This elaiosome contains lots of lipids (fats) and proteins, which the ants use as a rich source of nutrition. Once the ants have consumed the elaiosome, they transport the seeds into their disposal chambers underground where they can germinate the next spring and grow into a new trillium plant. Despite this complex association between trilliums and ants, these plants rarely actually reproduce sexually via their seeds. Like many of the spring wildflowers that I've blogged about so far, trilliums have rhizomes that store nutrients for the plants to use to grow the next spring.

To my knowledge, there is no medicinal or nutritive benefits (either perceived or actual) of consuming specifically the red trillium (although, there are stories about other species of trillium having medicinal value in preventing and treating bloody diarrhea). It contains calcium oxalate crystals in a special form called a raphide, which would make the plant toxic to consume by humans. The crystals can perforate the intestines and cause ulcers. Plus, I don't imagine they taste very good!

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Wood horsetails are an ancient plant

Species name: Equisetum sylvaticum

Common name: wood horsetail

Location: Nova Scotia

Wood horsetails are part of a group of plants called the Pterophyta, which include the ferns. These are vascular, spore-bearing plants (they do not produce fruit or seeds), and have been in existence since the Middle Jurassic (approximately 150 million years ago). Horsetail fossils look incredibly similar to horsetails in existence today. Horsetails in general reproduce through the use of rhizomes, which is a form of underground asexual reproduction (very similar in growth and reproduction to bloodroot). Reproduction in this plant can also occur through spore production in the specialized terminal structure called the sporangium. This species of horsetail is native to the Northern Hemisphere, and has the potential to become invasive in the Southern Hemisphere where there aren't similarly reproducing species on the forest floor.

The wood horsetail is indicative of cooler boreal forests with wet or swampy and nutrient-poor soils. This is pretty typical of maritime forests, and so to see wet areas of the forest understory dominated by horsetails is not unusual.

There are many traditional uses of horsetails in general, and a few specific to this species. The wood horsetail was used medicinally as a tea infusion that was consumed to treat kidney problems and bloating. It was also dried and ground and applied to open wounds to stop bleeding, promote healing and prevent infection. I wouldn't recommend using horsetails for either of these purposes since a few species are toxic and some species are difficult to distinguish. In general, some species of horsetails have been used by native North American people to scour pots after cooking, used in Japan as sandpaper, used to make reeds for musical instruments in the United States, as a vegetable in early spring in Japan and Korea, in experimental trials as a diuretic, and in experimental agriculture as a source of silicon which can prevent fungal infections.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

New Pictures! Species abundance diagrams

Over the last couple of days I've been trying to come up with a flashier way to depict if a plant species is native or non-native, it's general abundance around the world, and if it's invasive or not. Many of these are my own opinion since the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN; the ones that make the international Red List of endangered species) uses a different classification system, but they are based on known actual numbers in the wild.

There might be some discrepancy in what appears to be on the species abundance diagram and what is printed in the text; some context would be required here. One example that comes to mind is Madagascar periwinkle. In Canada because it's so extensively used you would think it would be an incredibly abundant plant. It needs to be mentioned, therefore, that this abundance diagram is related to it's NATIVE range, not necessarily where it exists currently. Madagascar periwinkle is, remarkably, critically endangered in the wild despite it being an invasive species in temperate Canadian gardens and natural areas that back onto residential properties.

I hope you enjoy the new feature; I'm hoping to be able to make these blog posts searchable by species status or abundance, but have yet to find a way to do it easily. Perhaps a feature to come in the near future...that near future it here! I have added a second label cloud and so the clouds now have non-overlapping labels. If you click on a label in the "search by species status" box, it should bring up all of the blog posts that feature that label.

Let me know what you think by dropping me a comment.

King of the Kelp

Species name: "Laminaria" sp. (probably Saccharina latissima)

Common name: kelp, giant kelp, Devil's apron

Location: Nova Scotia

While not truly a plant, kelp is not only of great economic importance but also a great nuisance, especially if you like swimming or boating on the Atlantic coastline in cooler water. Kelp is actually brown algae (that broad term refers not just to members of the genera Laminaria and Saccharina, but also many other species in the group), in the kingdom Chromalveolata (formerly part of the Chromista).  Until recently, the species Saccharina latissima was considered a member of the Laminaria, but modern DNA sequencing paints a different picture.

Unlike a true plant it doesn't have roots to absorb nutrients from the seabed, but rather it absorbs its nutrients from the water through it's "leaf" or blade (not a true leaf, either). The "roots" that anchor the kelp to the sea floor are collectively termed the holdfast, and the "stem" (could be short or long, prominent or not depending on the species) leading up to the blade is called the stipe. The genus Laminaria occurs widely around the world in cold salty water, with their geographic range extending from Greenland all the way south to Cape Cod in North America, and in Europe from the north shores of Russia all the way south to the north of France. There are similar species to the one pictured above that occupy the same niche in the Southern hemisphere, with species ranging from the south tip of Argentina north towards Brazil, and also from South Africa up towards the Democratic Republic of Congo. The full length of this alga can reach up to 4 meters!

Commercially, this species is incredibly important worldwide for various reasons. In fact, you probably use an extract of this alga every day and don't realize it! Historically, this was our major source of iodine to make iodized salt, but that has been replaced with much cheaper methods of iodine isolation from living "green things". Historically it was also burned to make potash, which was used extensively in the glass-making industry. To some extent currently, but also largely historically, it was dried and ground and used as a fertilizer on agricultural fields. Today, we extract a compound from it we term an "alginate" (you can probably guess where that word comes from!) which is added to toothpastes and cosmetics as a binding and thickening agent. Rarely it's used in food (that's not to say it's not edible, it's just not the thickener of choice), but it is starting to make appearances in the vegan food industry. In China and Japan, this is the main ingredient in the soup stock used to make dashi.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Pitcher plants as ecosystems and not just carnivores?!

Species name: Sarracenia purpurea

Common name: pitcher plant

Location: Nova Scotia

Despite there being numerous species of carnivorous pitcher plants around the world, there is only one species in Canada. This species of pitcher plant occupies boggy habitats from Newfoundland all the way across Canada to British Columbia, and to the north through Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut.

The morphology of different pitcher plants is different, but all of them have one thing in common: they all use a trapping mechanism called the pitfall trap. The leaves of the pitcher plant are modified into receptacles that contain a liquid with enzymes that digest insects unlucky enough to fall into the trap. The top of the trap is coated with a wax-like substance that is very slippery, ensuring a higher success of trapping insects. Why would a plant want to capture insects in the first place? Typically carnivorous plants  live in very nutrient poor environments, and require the vast majority of their nutrients to come from sources that don't include the soil that they sit in. An excellent source of nitrogen and phosphorus, two elements required in relatively large numbers by plants, is the insect body since it's composed of mostly proteins (great sources of nitrogen). Various carnivorous plants employ a huge diversity of trapping mechanisms, but all of them converge on the same purpose which is as a method of nitrogen acquisition.

The idea that pitcher plants only have pitchers to capture insects is actually one of the many misnomers of plant biology. The pitchers of a pitcher plant are actually micro-ecosystems full of complex interactions between plants and insects. In Canadian bog systems, pitcher plants are the main breeding grounds for mosquitos and other small flying insects. Here, the interaction between pitcher plants and insects is much more complex than just digesting insects for nutrients. The adult insects lay their eggs in the pitcher plants, and the larvae of these insects swim in the liquid and feed on other insects that fall into the sweet substance. Their excretions are the main source of nutrients for the plant, who absorb the insect larva poop that sink to the bottom of the pitcher. There are also mutualistic bacteria, protists (what I affectionately refer to as the "garbage can of Biology": if it doesn't fit in any other group, it's a protist), and rotifers ("wheel animals") that live in the liquid of the pitcher. They are often the first line of attack for a pitcher plant, and the plants allow these groups of species to start to break down or decay the insects that fall into the trap, releasing the nutrients from the insect for the plant to absorb.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Spindly Black Spruce

Species name: Picea mariana (formerly Picea nigra)

Common name: Black spruce

Location: Nova Scotia

I took this photo in Kejimkujik National Park on the bog boardwalk leading out to the beach. It was a pretty typical maritime spring day: cool in the morning, warming up quickly and becoming incredibly foggy then the fog burning off by the mid-afternoon. This was one of those rare moments where you could see more than 10 feet in front of your face as a fog cloud was blown out of the way.

Black spruce is a typical plant of the boreal forest in Canada and Alaska. It's a native evergreen tree with a very typical shape: somewhat bushy at the bottom, becoming much narrower and more spindly towards the top. One of the most impressive characteristics of this plant towards the northern part of its range is that its a great indicator of predominant wind direction. Black spruce grows very slowly, and slower still when the wind is pushing against the tips of branches. The "wind side" of the tree has much shorter branches compared to the "sheltered side".

Black spruce is one of the many boreal species that require fire in order for their seeds to germinate in great numbers, and so for that reason this species is especially successful at recolonizing the boreal forest after a fire. Since forest fires are relatively common in this forest zone, stands of boreal forest that are dominated by black spruce are often trees of the same age (as opposed to typical successional forests where there are old and young trees of the same species in the same location). Within the boreal zone, it's an incredibly common tree and is at no risk of becoming a threatened or endangered speices.

Black spruce trees grow slowly and never attain a very large circumference despite the tree's age. For this reason they are not valuable lumber trees in the construction business. They are, however, a major source of pulp for the paper industry in Canada. As cultural importance, the black spruce is the provincial tree of Newfoundland and Labrador in Canada.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Lupine: the state flower of Texas

Species name: Lupinus sp.

Common name: Lupin, lupine

Location: Nova Scotia (second photo from Wikipedia showing the flowers of various ornamental species)

The lupine (or lupin, as this plant is referred to outside of North America) is native to a wide variety of locations from all continents. Now, various species can be found worldwide and only a few can be distinguished by leaf shape and leaf characteristics alone (this isn't one of them--hence "Lupinus sp."). Lupines are part of the bean family, and have characteristic bean flowers and also share the most sought-after characteristics of beans as agricultural crops: they have high concentrations of protein and oil in their seeds, and have symbiotic bacteria in their roots that fix nitrogen. This biologically-available nitrogen is then released to the plant in return for sugars and oxygen, where it can be used by the plant in photosynthesis to make more sugar (and in respiration to make energy). For this reason, lupines are very popular in some agricultural systems to be planted alongside crops that require large amounts of nitrogen fertilizers like corn and wheat. These types of plants are referred to as "green manure". There are about 280 species in the genus Lupinus, and the Texas Bluebonnet (Lupinus texensis) is the state flower of Texas.

Certain species of lupine can be eaten, but others are quite toxic. If you don't know what species is growing in your back yard, it is best not to try to consume it. Mediterranean dishes are ones that are most likely to contain lupine seeds: in Portugal and Spain they are consumed dry-roasted like peanuts with beer, in Lebanon they are served as a pre-dinner snack and called "Termos", in the Andes (OK, so not part of the Mediterranean) they are called "tarwi" and eaten like any other bean, in Germany they are often ground and used as a meat substitute. The "bitter" varieties of lupine have high concentrations of toxic alkaloids in their seeds which can cause a temporary paralysis in the lower limbs, muscle decay or atrophy of the buttocks (which can be permanent), and cell death in motor neurons (which would lead to permanent paralysis).

Like most plants that have very broad geographical ranges, there are ornamental species of lupine that have been introduced to North America over the years (accidental or on purpose) that have escaped and have become invasive. There are certain areas in the southern USA that are completely covered by lupines in roadside ditches and sometimes even growing up in the front lawn. While the flowers are incredibly attractive, if they're growing where you don't want them it's definitely not ideal. 

One last special characteristic to note about these plants is that they are an important food crop for the larvae (i.e. caterpillars) of some butterfly species, and the flowers can serve as important nectar sources for many pollinating insects (including some butterflies). If you are going to create a butterfly garden, adding lupines would be a great idea; just make sure you're planting native species that are food sources for the native butterflies that will be visiting your garden or you might be disappointed in the results!

Thursday, April 19, 2012


Species name: Tulipa sp. (probably Tulipa gesneriana)

Common name: tulip

Location: Nova Scotia

I took these photos when my friend Tanya and I were in Nova Scotia for a conference in May one year. The tulips there were in full bloom (they were a little past their prime in Ontario, but it's cooler in NS so it was a nice colourful surprise), along with the rest of the late spring wildflowers and cultivated flowers.

Tulips have a long-standing tradition of being one of the most popular ornamental flowers to humans worldwide. The Dutch were the ones that got the ball rolling during the Ottoman Empire (weren't you disappointed, too, to learn that this wasn't named after the invention of the footstool?) in the mid-1500s. Officially, the first documented case of planting tulip bulbs in Europe was in 1559 in Germany, with the bulbs arriving in the Netherlands in 1593 (the bulbs being planted at Leiden University). On the books, 1594 is the first tulip flower year for Holland, and these first flowers were the ones that led into Tulipmania and the commerical tulip flower trade.

Tulips do grow from bulbs and take many years of growth to build up the storage tissue in the bulb before they are prepared to flower. If you were to grow a tulip plant from seed, depending on the variety it would take between five and eight years to wait for a flower to appear. That's a lot of waiting, and an amount of time most people are not prepared to invest into an ornamental garden. So how is it that we put bulbs in the ground and they flower in the spring? Well, someone else has done the waiting for us. In fact, Holland is still the biggest grower and exporter of tulip bulbs worldwide (they've had a lot of practice!), and they dig up the bulbs that have formed every year and sort those by size. The bulbs big enough to flower the next spring are sent for export and sale, while the ones too small to produce a flower are set aside to be planted again. By the time you buy a bulb in the store, it has been deemed by the experts to be ready for flowering. If you do plant bulbs and not all of them flower, don't despair! Give them another year and I'm sure you'll be happy with your efforts. If you've been paying attention, you should be able to point out based on the third picture that tulips are monocots (click here for a refresher course in monocots vs. dicots, look at the third paragraph), since they have flower parts in multiples of three: three petals, three sepals (since they look so similar, we call them tepals like in Easter lilies), six stamens and three lobes on the stigma.

Tulipmania is often regarded as the first economic bubble in human history: tulip prices in 1637 skyrocketed to almost 10 times the annual salary of a skilled tradesman (that would be like you walking into a garden store with the keys to a ferrari, leaving the ferrari and taking a marigold plant home with you), then suddenly crashed. For those people that "cashed in" on the tulip market and sold everything, they also lost everything. To get fancy patterns on tulip tepals, the bulb must be infected with a virus called the Tulip Breaking Virus, or TBV. This is what causes the streaks of colour running vertically along each tepal. Since the virus must be in the bulb to cause the colour pattern, this pattern can only be seen in the mother plant and not in the seeds that plant produces. For this reason, "broken" tulips are relatively rare, and at the time of Tulipmania they were incredibly valuable. The most rare variety, called Semper Augustus, was not only a broken tulip but also a black tulip. To see a black flower is incredibly rare in nature, and for it to also have white streaks running through the tepals made them especially sought-after; so much so that there's a documented case of someone offering 34 acres of land for one Semper Augustus bulb.

The bubonic plague is also tightly tied to the story of Tulipmania: in 1637 the tulip trade came to a grinding halt since no buyers of tulip bulbs showed up to February tulip auction. The speculation for why this is the case is that the plague was rampant during this time, and there was widespread fear over catching it in populated places. Since tulip auctions always drew large crowds, the crowd just decided this time to stay home. By May of that year, the price of tulips was back down to baseline levels, and have remained relatively stable even today.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

A cancer-fighting plant

Species name: Catharanthus roseus

Common name: Madagascar periwinkle, cape periwinkle, "Old Maid"

Location: Ontario

This species of ornamental plant is one of the most impressive plants we have in Canada, not just for its showy flower display that lasts all spring and summer (and, depending on weather, sometimes well into the fall). Native to Madagascar (this is one of the few instances where common names really do reflect origins!), this Madagascar periwinkle had been brought to North America as an ornamental plant by early European settlers (who likely stole it from Madagascar on one of their many "expeditions"). Fortunately for the plant and unfortunately for native wildflowers, it has really taken off and is now one of the most invasive plants in Southern Ontario. Granted, it is strikingly beautiful...but we've got our own native wildflowers that would be just as nice growing in your garden! Ironically, in its native habitat it is a threatened plant due to habitat destruction from land conversion (from forested areas to agriculture).

Madagascar periwinkle is a perennial plant, meaning it lives for many years and sets seed many times over its lifetime. It is also an evergreen, meaning it doesn't lose its leaves. Even in Canadian winters, if you dig under the snow the bright green leaves will still be firmly attached to the plant. It is incredibly efficient at growing a vast root network to seek out water, so when the rest of your plants start to wilt from drought this one will be unaffected.

There are many hundred cultivars of Madagascar periwinkle growing in gardens around the world. In my garden at home, we have the "Grape Cooler" variety which has been selected for cold tolerance (why it can survive even under a thick layer of snow) and a purple flower colour. Native varieties of this plant often have much lighter flowers, from pink to white, with a very dark centre to attract insects to the nectar tube. Another great example of how plants have evolved mechanisms to coerce animals to help them reproduce.

This plant is vitally important in Traditional Chinese Medicine, and is becoming more and more important in local Western medicine, too. The Chinese have been using this plant for centuries as a cure for diabetes, malaria, and Hodgkin's disease. I'm not sure if it's actually effective against either diabetes or malaria, but extracts from the leaves are currently used as one of the most popular Western drugs to treat and cure leukemia (and to some extent, to treat Hodgkin's disease). This can be contrasted against a featured plant in a previous blog, bloodroot (one of the most notorious plant-based fake cancer cures).

Vinblastine and vincristine, the two biologically active pharmaceutical chemicals in Madagascar periwinkle were discovered here at the University of Western Ontario (sorry, but I will never call it Western University!) in the 1950s. At the time, it was noted by Dr. Noble and Dr. Beer that when Madagascar periwinkle was made into a tea and consumed, it lowered the number of white blood cells in the body. Normally this would not be a good thing (which is why you shouldn't ever eat this plant, raw or cooked!), but if you have a disease that specifically attacks white blood cells it might be a good treatment or cure. It went into clinical trials, was demonstrated to be incredibly effective against lymphoma, leukemia and Hodgkin's, and the extracts were made into a commercially available drug (trade name was formerly Oncovin, I'm not sure what it's called now that it's out of patent). The two chemicals are no longer extracted from the plant, but rather synthesized in the lab since it's so much cheaper and more practical.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Peekaboo! I see you!

Species name: Arisaema triphyllum

Common name: Jack-in-the-pulpit, bog onion, brown dragon, Indian turnip

Location: Ontario

Jack in the pulpit flowers are great examples of exceptions in the plant world, which is one of the reasons why I like them so much. It is another example of a native eastern North American plant. We have these growing in our back yard, which confused me at first (like they do many people) since I mistook them for poison ivy and ripped out all of the leaves one year (with gloves on!). The leaves of poison ivy and jack in the pulpit are both what are called "trifolate", which means there are three leaflets coming out of each "leaf point" on the stem. Once this plant starts to flower, however, is very obvious that it's not poison ivy! Silly me. Like the last plant in this blog, hyacinth, jack in the pulpit also grows from a corm.

One of the amazing things about this plant is just how variable it can be depending on environmental conditions, and what type of genetic variation it contains. The flowers themselves can range in size from 12-36 cm tall, and can be anywhere from pure green (like in the photo) to green with dark brown (almost purple) stripes. The "jack" on the inside can also be bright green or dark purple-brown, or anywhere in between. The plants themselves can be from 30-65 cm tall, depending on nutrient levels of the soil.

In general, a good rule to use to figure out if a plant is a monocot (in other words, most closely related to grasses) or a dicot (in other words, most closely related to an oak tree) is by the shape of their leaves and the number of flower parts. In general, monocots have long and thin leaves with parallel veins and flowers with flower parts (petals, sepals, stamens and stigmas) in multiples of three. Dicots have broad leaves with net-like veins and flower parts in multiples of either fours or fives. Jack in the pulpit, then, seems to be a dicot. Its leaves are broad and have net-like veins, and unless you have a very powerful hand lens it's impossible to tell if flower parts are in multiples of 3s or 4-5s. Unfortunately...that would be incorrect. This is a monocot! One unusual group of monocots is the family Araceae, which includes the peace lily (a common ornamental plant, often used as an aquatic plant in wedding centrepieces). They have broad leaves with (mostly) parallel veins (but some are cross-wise) and a specific type of flower called the spathe and spadix. Here, "Jack" would be the spadix and his pulpit would be the spathe. If you zoom in on the spadix, you would see that it's actually a multi-flowered flower head (called an inflorescence), with each little facet on the spadix being one flower. Neat!

But, of course, the uniqueness of this plant doesn't stop there. This is also a great plant to demonstrate all of the unique evolutionary mechanisms plants have derived to avoid self-pollination or inbreeding. There are separate male and female flowers on the spadix, but never both at the same time. Usually the plant starts with predominantly male flowers (if there are female flowers, they are not mature yet) that are producing pollen. Flies are attracted to the spadix because they are much warmer than the ambient air (thanks to the spathe), and they have a rather...unpleasant smell. The fly is covered in pollen, then travels to another flower. If the plant plays its cards right, the next flower will be predominantly female flowers (if there are male flowers, they are no longer mature) which are receptive to receiving pollen. The fly deposits the pollen onto the stigmas, and pollination occurs. Even neater!

This plant is absolutely toxic if consumed raw (it contains calcium oxalate crystals which can perforate the digestive tract), but is actually often cooked as a root crop like you would cook potatoes (but boiled a bit longer because they're much tougher) and eaten. I have never tried it so I can't vouch for what it would taste like, but I can't imagine it would be too flavourful. Native North American people often used this plant as a medicine to treat sore eyes, rheumatism, bronchitis, snake bites, and to induce sterility. Whether or not it's an effective treatment against any of these I have no idea. I wouldn't recommend experimenting.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Hyacinth: a plant of the gods

Species name: Hyacinthus orientalis

Common name: Hyacinth

Location: Ontario

Hyacinths are native to Turkey, Israel, Iran and Turkmenistan (the epithet of the species name, "orientalis," is a bit misleading in this case). It has been a popular plant for gardening for a very long time, and has been in North America for 200-300 years. As with most "bulb" plants (I'll explain the quotation marks further down), the Dutch were famous for breeding hyacinths, and had up to 2,000 cultivars by the 18th century.

Contrary to popular belief, hyacinths actually aren't bulbs. They are underground storage organs very similar to bulbs, called corms, but where the plant stores their starch is very different. If you picture an onion, that is a bulb. The leaves have been modified to be very fleshy and to store starch. In a corm, like a hyacinth or the edible plant taro, it's instead a swollen underground stem that has been modified to store starch (which is why when you cut a hyacinth "bulb" in half, it doesn't have layers like an onion). I have heard of an old wives tale where if you cut a storage organ in half and it has layers you can eat it, and if it doesn't you can't. This is 100% false, and "rules" such as these should never be followed when deciding what wild or cultivated plants can or cannot be eaten. Tulips come from bulbs, and you would be very disappointed if you ever tried eating a tulip bulb. While taro is edible (and quite delicious, actually), hyacinth bulbs most definitely are not. They are toxic and contain high levels of oxalic acid, an acid that will cause blistering for sensitive skin. Wearing gloves when gardening is always a safe precaution, but especially if you are planting large amounts of these corms and you have sensitive skin.

The hyacinth flower is heavily rooted in Greek mythology. The story goes that Apollo and Zephyr were jealous of the youthful beauty of Hyakinthos, and competed for his attention. Zephyr was angered by the fact that Hyakinthos seemed to like Apollo more, and blew Apollo's discuss stone off-course and it hit Hyacinth and killed him. Instead of allowing Hades to claim Hyakinthos' body, Apollo poured his blood on the Earth and turned it into a flower. An interesting story of how plants are tightly intertwined with mythology (from all countries; the Persian New Year also uses hyacinths in their table settings). The hyacinth is also associated with rebirth in many cultures, and so is often planted at grave sites.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Bloodroot: a native North American wildflower

UPDATE: Mi compadre (aka my friend) Aaron alerted me to a very interesting experimental application of this plant in controlling another plant I blogged about, garlic mustard (see, even I'm learning things while writing this blog!). When bloodroot rhizomes are over-planted very densely where garlic mustard is prevalent (especially in shady areas) it can out-compete it for resources, and gradually it starts to die off. A fantastic idea of using native plant species in environments where they naturally thrive to eradicate invasive weeds. Brilliant!

Species name: Sanguinaria canadensis

Common name: Bloodroot, bloodwort, red puccoon root, pauson

Location: Ontario

Bloodroot is a species of native North American wildflower that grows from Nova Scotia to Ontario, and further south in the United States down to Florida and Mississippi. It flowers usually from March to May when the ground is still quite cold, and can grow in a wide variety of soil types (but preferring sandy soils, as in the first photo).

This plant was originally used in Native American medicine as a treatment for breathing problems and as an emetic. The roots were cut into small pieces, and then steeped in hot water like to make tea. The tea would then be consumed. I wouldn't recommend that today, since we now know that bloodroot is a poisonous plant, and topical application can lead to intense pain and scarring. The dark side of this plant's "medicinal" use today is as on of the USA's "187 cancer 'cures' consumers should avoid". It seems like if a plant produces any kind of effect on the body, someone will try to pass it off as a cure for cancer. For bloodroot's case, the roots have been made into a paste and sold as a cure for skin cancer and breast cancer, leading to massive deformation and pain in both circumstances. The lesson to be learned here is that just because it's "natural" doesn't mean it's good for you!

Today, this plant is still used for its roots, but not in a medicinal sense. The roots really are red, and really do "bleed" like you would expect from its name. This is of great use as a natural red dye for fabrics and plastics or as a paint (but again should not be added to food products because of the danger it poses).

The reproduction of this plant and the way that it relies on animals is one of the most fascinating in the plant kingdom. The fleshy surrounding of the fruit attracts ants, which carry away the seeds into their underground colonies. The ants will feed on the fruit, leaving the seed intact because it has a very tough and thick seed coat. The ants probably feel it's not worth the effort to try to break through the seed coat. Once ants are done with the fruit, they carry the seeds into their "waste rooms" in their colonies to discard of them. This puts the seeds in a nutrient-rich environment, where they will stay until the next spring. They grow out of the soil, and start their life anew. This type of symbiosis with ants for seed dispersal is called myrmecochory.

Despite this incredibly complex association with ants, most of the bloodroot plants you see in one area are not grown from seed. These plants also produce an underground storage tissue called a rhizome (think of ginger; that's a rhizome) from which a new sprout can form and emerge above-ground. Every year the sugars the plant produces in the leaves are shuttled down to the rhizome where they are converted into starch and stored for the next year's growth. Every "patch" of bloodroot in an area are produced from this underground rhizome network, not from seeds. Since the plant is then no longer relying on external inputs for growth (instead breaking that starch back down into sugar and using that to grow), they can grow much earlier in the season than other plants around it.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

It must be spring when the grass turns golden

Species name: Taraxacum officinale

Common name: dandelion

Location: Ontario

This probably isn't the average person's idea of a "beautiful plant", especially if you own your own home, but they play a pretty significant role in the biology of North American urban ecosystems.

The origins of dandelions aren't entirely clear, but they're believed to have originated in Europe, coming to North America many hundred years ago. The number of groups that the common name "dandelion" refers to varies depending on the authority (70 microspecies according to Rothmaler, 3 subspecies according to Barnes and friends). The biology of these plants is similar to the last weed of the blog, garlic mustard, except that it is not a biennial but an annual plant. Anyone who has ever had to pull dandelions knows all about them having a taproot, or a very fleshy root that extends down into the soil. If you don't remove the taproot when removing the plant, it can use these energy stores to regrow anew, and your problem with lawn weeds never goes away. Annual plants are ones that complete their life cycle in one growing season or less (and in this case, less). Dandelions can often have multiple growing seasons in a year (one plant's seed will germinate and produce a new flower and new seed before the end of the growing season), which contributes to their success as a weed. Another major contribution to their success is human activity. What most people don't know about dandelions is that they actually thrive in highly disturbed areas. When you mow your lawn once a week, you are creating a highly disturbed environment. By keeping grass shorter than it likes being (aesthetics say that grass should be 3-4 cm in length, biology says that grass should be 5-7 cm in length), you are also creating the ideal growth and reproduction conditions for dandelions. They can very quickly grow to be taller than the grass, monopolizing the light resources and growing faster than what grass can control. People who have well-manicured lawns with large inputs of artificial fertilizers will always have more dandelion growth than those that don't. Just one example of plants exploiting humans to further their reproductive goals.

One other major way that dandelions contribute to changing urban ecosystems is through spraying. Recently in Ontario the government just passed a law saying that you cannot spray using chemical pesticides for aesthetic purposes on urban lawns (except where revenue is acquired through their maintenance, like with the case of golf courses) due to the health hazards that pesticides have. Whether or not pesticides in the concentrations children are exposed to from a lawn are harmful or not is somewhat beside the point (not that I'm against children, but the major effect that pesticides were having was not on the youngest human members of the Earth in the formula that we used them in North America). The major reason why this was so pivotal for ecosystems in general is because now we can no longer force the input of these toxins into the groundwater, which impacts species further down the line. The type of pesticides used were called broadleaf defoliants, and were chemically based on Agent Orange (a chemical used in warfare in the Vietnam War). These would selectively kill any plant with broad leaves, while leaving the grass (which has narrow leaves) alone. Great for a lawn, but not so great for natural ecosystems affected by the groundwater runoff from our lawns.

Has the banning of commercial "non-organic" pesticides for aesthetic use in urban systems had any effect? So far I think it's hard to tell. There have definitely been changes in plant communities previously affected by large amounts of urban runoff, but have those changes been because of concerted conservation and rehabilitation efforts, or because of our changing pesticide use? Only time will tell.

Friday, April 13, 2012

A mustard for all seasons

Species name: Alliaria petiolata

Common name: garlic mustard, Jack-by-the-hedge, garlic root, hedge garlic

Location: Ontario

Garlic mustard is an invasive plant in Ontario, originally from Europe, and central and western Asia (it was brought to Canada with European settlers in the 1860s for culinary purposes). It is a biennial plant, meaning it takes two years to complete its life cycle. The first year it spends growing large, round leaves (like in the photo above) as well as storing resources underground in its storage taproot (like a carrot). The next year a new stem grows, elongating as flowers mature. The fruit it produces are long seed pods, which are somewhat elastic and release seeds through an explosive mechanism when they are mature.

In its native habitat, garlic mustard almost exclusively grows near hedgerows and in ditches (and is not invasive), hence it's British common name of "Jack-by-the-hedge". When young, the leaves smell quite intensely of garlic when crushed and so that's the origin of it's common name (and it's in the mustard family). A traditional use of garlic mustard when young is as an "exotic" salad green, but make sure you use it sparingly--it does have quite a strong taste. In the second year of growth the leaves are much smaller and so not as easily picked to eat. The taste also changes quite a bit from year one to year two, and I haven't heard of any instances of people picking leaves from the second year of growth for culinary uses. It was once used medicinally in Europe to disinfect wounds (which probably worked to some degree; any plant that has a very strong odor likely has at least some antimicrobial capacity) and as a diuretic (if this is also true, another good reason not to eat a lot of it in one sitting!).

An invasive species in Biology is a species (usually a "foreign" species, but not always) that can out-compete native species for resources and completely takes over a habitat. Garlic mustard is an excellent example of that: very rarely do you see a plant growing by itself, and where you have dense garlic mustard growth you have very little of any other kind of ground cover. The unfortunate part of this scenario is that it has almost completely eliminated suitable native habitat for the White Trillium, the provincial flower of Ontario. This flower is becoming more and more rare as time goes on, only existing in great numbers in small pockets in Ontario and elsewhere. To confound this, deer also preferentially eat trillium when given a choice between that and garlic mustard, so they're not only assisting in the removal of trilliums in Ontario forests, but also helping the garlic mustard "live long and prosper," as Trekies would say.

So how to control garlic mustard? Well, the short answer is you can't. Because it's a biennial plant (and the growth forms between the first and second year look so different), if you don't pull it out in the first year it WILL come back the second year. Once it flowers, the seeds are so successful in the environment that the population explodes on a localized scale, meaning the population can grow exponentially every year. There are no chemical methods that can be used on these plants, as anything that kills garlic mustard will also likely kill all of the native wildflower species and new shrub or tree growth. The only real solution until we come up with something better is to pull them out by hand. If you choose to take part (or start) in a garlic mustard eradication program (which you should!), make sure you're pulling as much of the root system out of the ground as you can, and if the plant has fruit make sure you do not disturb them and disperse seeds. I have seen people walk around with kitchen shears and three garbage bags inside each other to cut the flower heads or seed heads off the plant first, then pull it out of the ground. Perhaps a bit of an over-kill, but better to be safe then sorry!

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Sticks, sticks, sticks

Species name: Acer saccharum

Common name: Sugar maple

Location: Ontario

So this isn't your typical thoughts when it comes to a maple tree. And this probably isn't the kind of image you want to see when promised that spring is "right around the corner" (aren't we promised that every year at the end of March?!). But it's a fact of life that trees lose their leaves in the fall, overwinter as a bunch of upright sticks, then grow new leaves in the spring. But do all trees do that?

Unfortunately, nothing in Biology ever has a rule for which there are no exceptions. We can say that all trees lose their leaves then regrow them at some point in their life cycle, but that would be just plain false. An important concept to introduce is the difference between evergreen and deciduous trees. Evergreen trees are exactly what they sound like: always green. They never lose their green parts, and they're always biologically "active", even when it seems like all that they're doing is sitting there. In elementary school you learn that conifers are evergreens, and everything else loses their leaves. In reality, this is false. MOST conifers in Canada are evergreens, but there are some clear exceptions like Dawn Redwoods and Larch (and a few others, but those are extremely uncommon in Canada). Deciduous trees are those that lose their leaves in the fall to regrow them in the spring, and are often thought of as being the leafy plants. This is also not entirely true, since there are many tropical leafy trees that are considered evergreens since they never lose their leaves.

Another misconception is that the way the seasons work in Canada is the way they work everywhere. In reality, almost every country in the world has "seasons". Even tropical countries right on the equator that have no clear distinction between spring, summer, fall and winter still have a wet and dry season. In fact, we have the same thing in Canada: winter would be considered our "dry" season since the only form of precipitation (snow) is biologically unavailable to plants. The soil is also too cold to allow for water absorption, so the trees go dormant. Same thing in the tropics: during the dry season, many deciduous trees will lose their leaves and enter dormancy to regrow them during the wet season. There are some plants in the tropics that take this to an extreme, and any time there's a period of drought (anywhere from 7 to 14 days without rain, and it doesn't matter what time of year it is) the tree will shed its leaves and regrow them all after the next rain. A neat example of nutrient cycling in the tropics; nutrient recycling in temperate countries could never happen this quickly, and so if a tree shed its leaves any time it didn't get water for a prolonged period it would never be able to grow them back fast enough and would die.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Look at all those hands!

Species name: Musa acuminata x balbisiana

Common name: Banana

Location: Panama

The genetic origin of bananas has only recently been discovered through DNA sequencing. Traditional views of the banana parentage say that there are about four distinct species of banana that we use in cultivation today, each species having been genetically modified through traditional breeding methods to arrive at roughly the same banana shape, colour, taste, and growth pattern. Each species would have referred to a different size banana, either a "traditional" banana, a finger banana, plantain, etc. Now we know that the banana we can buy in grocery stores in Canada is all one species, and its a hybrid of two wild ancestors. I should also mention that technically a "bunch" of bananas isn't really a bunch. If you want to sound all technical and fancy when you refer to your bundle of bananas, call them a "hand" as those "in the know" do.

To say that the banana we eat today is all one species isn't quite going far enough. Banana plants everywhere are actually all CLONES of each other, meaning that they are all genetically identical. The specific strain or variety of banana that we grow today is called the Cavendish banana. For those of you not in Biology or with a Biology background you might be thinking "so what? We got what we wanted out of the plant, and now we want it to stay how we like it. No big deal". Well, this is actually a huge deal. The banana plants that we grow today have no resistance to a recently discovered fungal strain called Fusarium TR4 (Tropical Race 4) which attacks the roots of banana plants. This has the potential to completely destroy the entire population of banana plants and so a lot of people recently have been saying that the common banana is at risk of going extinct. Then what? Well, then we have no more bananas. In the 1820s something similar happened to a variety of banana called Gros Michel, which was the most widely consumed variety of the time. This concept of complete devastation of an agricultural crop due to disease isn't new; we've been suffering with this problem as humans since we made the switch to an agricultural life almost 14,000 years ago.

What's special about bananas? Well, for one they don't have sex. This is incredibly unusual in the plant kingdom for a plant to not only reproduce parthenocarpally (in other words, each banana is produced from one female flower without the input of pollen from a male flower), but also to produce a large, fleshy fruit from this as a result. A second unusual trait about bananas is that they're not actually trees, despite how big they get. In order for a plant to have the potential to be a tree, it must produce a structure in its stem called a vascular cambium, which bananas cannot do. They might be tree-like, but they're not trees. Now you can correct everyone when you're visiting a banana plantation in a tropical country!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Look into the darkness...

Species name: Mycena inclanata

Common name: clustered bonnet

Location: Ontario

I took this photo in my back yard as the sun was setting (and hence the black halo around where there flash could reach) without much thought about composition or depth of field. It’s a pretty “artsy” photo as far as photography of fungi goes, as a technical image would also show the gill arrangement under the cap and gill colour.

One of the reasons why I find this particular species so fascinating is because of its predictability. Where you have decaying underground roots or stumps of oak trees, you find this species of mushroom fruiting all spring/summer/fall (but usually in cooler and wetter months). For the amateur mycologist, it’s one of the most easily identified “backyard mushroom” species. It’s unfortunate that it’s not recommended eating this species since it is so common and so easily identified. I doubt it would kill you (or your beloved pet), but it certainly wouldn’t be tasty like a morel or a chanterelle.

As with a lot of Mycena mushrooms (and fungi in general, actually), this species displays a phenomenon known as autolysis. This is the self-digestion of tissues due to enzyme activity. In fungi, it was thought to believe that this was one of the mechanisms of spore dispersal: a mushroom would autolyse its tissues into a drippy, goopy mess and the spores would be transported away from the mushroom (likely after mixing with rain water and flowing over or through the soil). This long-standing assumption was only recently found to be untrue, as about 95% of spores are released into air currents before autolysis occurs.

The more you know!

Monday, April 9, 2012


Species name: Plumeria rubra

Common names: Red frangipani, common frangipani, plumeria, temple tree

Location: Florida

Plumerias are some of my favourite flowers. They’re not usually found in flower shops because the flowers come from trees as opposed to bushy-like growth of plants like roses or gladiolas, which makes them harder to harvest. This particular species of Plumeria has pinkish flowers with yellow along the inner edge of each petal, while other species have yellow petals with white along the inner edge, or even pure white flowers. They are native to Mexico, Central and South America, but now most widely grown in Southeast Asia (Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, etc.). These trees are also very popular in Hawaii where they serve as some of the main flowers used in the construction of a lei. Other than purely ornamental use, Plumeria has also become a popular scent in perfumes where essential oils are used.

Plumerias have a much stronger smell at night than they do during the day, in order to attract their main pollinator. The pollinator, a giant moth (literally -- Sphinx moths are huge), is attracted to the flower by its smell and searches for nectar. This search is all for nothing since these flowers don't actually produce any nectar! Poor moth. Inadvertently, the moth transfers pollen from one flower to another in its search for food. One of many examples of coercion of insect pollination by the plant kingdom, and equally one of many examples of a unilateral symbiosis: the plant gains the ability to cross-pollinate, while the moth gains nothing at all (except a few grey hairs out of frustration, if that were possible).

There is no known medicinal use of any species of plumeria, and the sap produced in wounds of young branches is often irritating to the skin (although it seems as though some people are relatively resistant to this sort of irritation).

Sunday, April 8, 2012

It's not Easter without lilies

Species name: Lilium longiflorum

Common name: Easter lily

Location: Dave's Garden -- DaylilySLP

Despite having purchased this plant umpteen times for my grandparents over the years for Easter, I've never actually taken a picture of the plant I purchased. I should fix that sometime soon! Until then, I found this lovely photograph on the website Dave's Garden of Easter lilies growing in a garden outside.

The story of how this plant became associated with Easter is a bit of a muddled tale, but an interesting one. This species of lily is native to Japan and Taiwan. The original flower associated with Easter in the United States (and presumably Canada as well) was a lily native to Bermuda. Since this plant has such an unusual growth cycle, gardeners and horticulturalists exploited this phenomenon to force it to bloom around Easter. Unfortunately, somewhere along the Bermuda-New York trade route a virus was picked up that completely devastated the lily crop in the 1920s, and that source of flowers was eliminated. The Americans had a solution to this problem, however, and started importing the flowers from the Ryukyu Islands in Japan. This practice continued for about 20 years until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which halted all trade between the USA and Japan. This meant that Easter lily became a hot commodity, trading often for more than a new car at the time. Now they're clearly much more common (you don't see anyone going to a grocery store with $50,000 to buy an Easter lily), but still heavily associated with Easter due to their flowering time.

Biologically, the Easter lily is an interesting example of plant manipulation. There is a difference between petals and sepals in nature: the petals of a flower are the bright, showy parts that encourage pollinators to visit them, while the sepals are often green, much smaller, and much more drab and only function in protection for the unopened flower bud. All species of lilies have increased their pollination abilities by turning their sepals into "petals" once the flower has opened. The sepals change from green to the same colour as the petals (in the case of the Easter lily, white), and then the sepals and petals collectively are termed the "tepals". A pretty neat adaptation.

The Easter lily is not of great medicinal importance in Canada, but it traditionally has great importance in Traditional Chinese Medicine due to its high concentration of steroidal glycosides. A word of caution: these same steroidal glycosides will cause death in cats, so if you have a beloved cat pet and enjoy Easter lilies, make sure you keep the cat and the plant separated.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

To love and to cherish

Species name: Lamprocapnos spectabilis

Common name: Bleeding hearts

Location: Ontario

Bleeding hearts are some of my favourite flowers because they’re a great example of flower shape variation in the plant kingdom. I took this picture in my back yard, where they were growing along a steep slope that most rainwater entering the back yard runs down. They can tolerate soil that’s occasionally very wet as long as the soil drains well. Like all really odd-looking, showy plants in Southern Canada, bleeding hearts are native to Asia and were brought over to North America to be used as ornamental plants. While their flowers are extremely convoluted and most insects find it difficult to reach the nectaries of the flowers, these plants are remarkably successful at reproducing. This implies that they have found at least one insect partner that helps them cross-pollinate. Growing this plant where you are likely to come into contact with it is not recommended if you have sensitive skin; it contains a chemical that can cause rash, itchiness and general discomfort. This plant also has a white variety, but it's significantly less spectacular when flowering than the pink version.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

The real tulip tree

Species name: Liriodendron tulipfera

Common name: Tulip tree

Location: Ontario

Since the weather has been so sunny and bright lately, I've been thinking a lot about spring. And what would possibly make you think more of spring than flowers?!

The tulip tree is one of the native species of trees of Southwestern Ontario. Due to habitat loss, it is becoming more and more rare in the environment. It is rather slow-growing, making it not an idea ornamental tree if you require a lot of shade quickly, but it will grow to be a very large tree that has ideal characteristics to withstand the climate of this area. It produces very showy flowers in the late spring (late May, early June) that are a brilliant orange and yellow. Unlike Magnolia trees, they do not turn into a mess on your front lawn after flowering is done, and their flowers are much longer-lived than the non-native Magnolia trees. Tulip trees do not produce what you would traditionally think of as a "seed", so there's also very little risk of a bunch of baby tulip trees popping up out of the lawn in the early spring. Technically, tulip trees do not get their name from the shape of their flowers, but rather the shape of their leaves. Some early botanist thought they looked like tulip flowers he saw in Holland, and so the name stuck. I guess I don't have the imagination required to see that!

Do native species a favour and plant one today!