Thursday, May 31, 2012

Teeny Tiny Cranberries

Species name: Vaccinium oxycoccus (=Vaccinium microcarpum)

Common name: Northern cranberry, common cranberry, small cranberry

Location: Alaska (3rd picture from Wikipedia)

The saying "everything's bigger in Alaska" only seems to work for vegetables and mosquitoes. When it comes to other plants, they're considerably smaller due to the harsh growing conditions that they experience during the winter. Spruce trees that would normally grow to be about 50 feet tall within 100 years in the southern part of Canada might take up to 300 years to reach the same size in Alaska. The same can be said about cranberries, which are usually shrubby perennials (meaning they can live for many years). In Alaska, it is predominantly Small Cranberry that grows there (you can probably guess how it gets its common name), but even that doesn't begin to describe its size. Each one of those leaves is only about 0.5-1 cm long, and the fruit are about the same size. Anyone who's ever made their own cranberry sauce before at Thanksgiving or Christmas knows that's a pretty small cranberry!

There are three different species of cranberry, all of which are native to arctic environments around the world. The most economically important species of cranberry in North America, Vaccinium macrocarpon, is native to eastern North America, while the species pictured above is native to North America, northern Europe and northern Asia. Many pieces of literature also consider a third, separate species of cranberry that's native to Europe but I have indicated here that they are the same species (DNA sequencing suggests V. oxycoccus and V. microcarpum are the same species despite having slight morphological differences).

There are many health benefits that cranberries claim to have, but in general it's best to eat them because they taste good, not because they might help fight cancer. There has been the suggestion for many years that cranberries have very high antioxidant levels (which they do; some of the highest of any fruit regularly consumed in a North American diet), and a high level of oxygen radical absorbance capacity or ORAC. Oxygen radicals are a necessity of life if you're an animal, plant or fungus; there is no way not to produce them since they're a byproduct of energy production in cells. Despite this, oxygen radicals have the ability to mutate DNA and a very high oxygen radical stress on the body can lead to tumor formation. Unfortunately, foods with a high ORAC score have so far failed in any scientific trial to translate that ability into something that's biologically relevant. In other words, just because a cranberry has the potential to buffer the effects of oxygen radicals on the body doesn't mean that it actually does. If you're spending all of your disposable income on antioxidant extracts from various plants it's probably best to find something else to spend your money on until there is some solid scientific evidence that any of these supplements (or foods!) have an effect on the body that's tangible.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Subarctic Broccoli

Species name: Brassica oleracea

Common name: Broccoli

Location: Alaska

Last summer when I was in Alaska I took a roadtrip up to the Arctic Circle from Fairbanks. Along the way, the highway crosses the Yukon River and the van stopped at the welcome centre for a break. Outside the welcome centre is a vegetable garden, if you can believe it! I was definitely misinformed about the weather in the interior of Alaska when I arrived. Sure, I knew it would be light out all the time but I was grossly unprepared for just how light it really is. In July, it feels like it's 2:00 pm all day every day. Neglecting to bring a sleeping mask with me was probably the biggest mistake of the trip! The other thing I hadn't accounted for with the huge number of daylight hours that they have during the summer, is the extended growing season. Most of the time when you think of Alaska you think "cold and inhospitable" (at least, I did), not "perfect for agriculture during the summer." The weather there is actually perfect for growing crops that thrive in cooler weather (broccoli is no exception there!), and due to 24 hours of daylight during the summer their growing season is the equivalent of almost five months of ideal crop growth. Mind-boggling! When I was taking the train from Anchorage to Fairbanks, we went through Wasilla (Sarah Palin's hometown) and learned that they have an annual "Large Vegetable Fair" every fall, where farmers from all over compete for prizes for the largest vegetable in many different categories. The world's largest cabbage was grown just outside of Wasilla and weighed in at a massive 150 kg. That's a lot of coleslaw!

Broccoli is one of six vegetables that are all part of the same species: broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, kohlrabi, and kale. Humans have selected for various characteristics in each of these six vegetables which is why they look so different from each other. DNA sequencing about a decade ago showed that genetically, there wasn't actually much differentiation between these vegetables, just the turning on and off of specific genes. Broccoli and its brothers and sisters are native to the Northern Mediterranean (Italy, Greece, France).

Broccoli as a vegetable is packed with Vitamin C, fibre, selenium, beta-carotene, lutein, diindolylmethane, glucoraphanin and indole-3-carbinol. These last four chemicals are associated with anti-cancer, anti-viral and anti-bacterial properties, and glucoraphanin especially has been shown in small amounts to be a potent chemical that aids in DNA repair and blocks the growth of cancer cells. For this reason, broccoli and its extracts are currently being studied as a potential treatment or cure for cancer (as well as many other species in the genus Brassica). Something to keep in mind if you choose to consume broccoli for its heath benefits alone: the potency of these chemicals decreases with boiling; up to 30% with five minutes of cooking, 50% with ten minutes of cooking, and up to 75% with thirty minutes of cooking. Broccoli is one of the many vegetables best consumed raw or steamed (steaming and microwaving don't seem to have the same detrimental effects as boiling does)!

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Superman of the flower world

Species name: Hemerocallis lilioasphodelus

Common name: Daylily

Location: Ontario

This species of daylily is native to China, Russia, Slovenia and Italy, and was one of the very first of the genus Hemerocallis that was used for hybridization and domestication into its thousands of current cultivars. Many species of this genus have the ability to become invasive (such as the Tiger Lily, which many people think is a native North American wildflower), but to my knowledge this is not one of them. One of the qualities of daylilies that makes them not only attractive to gardeners but also very successful in a non-cultivated setting is their ability to withstand many different growing conditions. They can tolerate extreme cold during dormancy periods, and can tolerate extreme heat and dryness during the growing season. Some species can also tolerate periods of flooding, high winds, and frost. For this reason, the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) recognizes this plant as "successful" in hardiness zones 1-11, meaning from Alaska to Puerto Rico and Hawaii! Like Easter lilies, daylilies have three petals and three sepals, but because they're impossible to distinguish when the flower is mature we say there are six tepals.

Daylilies of all species and varieties are incredible potential learning tools when it comes to education about basic genetics. Most cultivars of daylily have the ability to hybridize, and there are quite a few gardeners that attempt every year to "create" their own cultivar by cross-breeding the daylilies in their back yards. I can imagine this being a great activity for kids in a school yard: plant some daylilies and have them grow until they are established (2 seasons at most), then set the kids out with paint brushes, plastic bags and different coloured string when the flowers are mature. Take the paint brush and rub it against the stamens to pick up pollen, then against the stigma to deposit the pollen. Put a plastic bag over the flower and secure with coloured string so you know what flower has been pollinated by who. Allow the fruit to start developing, then remove the plastic bag to let air circulate. Once the fruit is mature, open the pod to release the seeds, plant them in the ground and see what happens! I've heard of some people generating some really unique colour patterns as a result of "borrowing" pollen from daylilies around their neighbourhood and pollinating their own flowers. And who's going to miss a little pollen?!

Surprisingly enough, daylilies are actually a food source in China in some dishes that have become very popular in North America (and some I eat quite often!). The flowers, in China called gum jum or golden needles, are dried and used in hot and sour soup, Buddha's delight, and moo shu pork. There are some cultivars that have edible rhizomes, but others would irritate your stomach lining so it's best not to attempt to consume any of them. Despite this, historically the plant was used in a tea-like preparation to relieve stomach ache!

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Life's a Beech

Species name: Fagus grandifolia

Common name: American Beech

Location: Ontario

The American beech is a species of tree that is native to North America, from Nova Scotia west to Southern Ontario, and the southern border of the native species range is from Louisiana into Georgia. This is one of my favourite tree species because of its large, glossy bright green leaves. I took this photo in one of my favourite Environmentally Significant Areas in London, Meadowlily Woods.

The most common habitat for this species of tree is on forest slopes in shaded areas. It can tolerate periodically very wet soil as long as it's not standing water on the soil surface, and is most commonly associated with another native species, Sugar Maple. Beech-Maple climax forests were common in Ontario and the northeastern United States prior to massive clear-cutting for agricultural purposes. There is a disease that's becoming more and more common to this species of tree called the Beech bark disease. A beetle burrows its way into the bark of the tree, laying eggs as it goes and leaving an open wound as a result. From there, a fungus called Nectria invades the open wound and causes a bark canker (the vertical lines in the bark close to the base of the tree are cankers), which will eventually kill the tree.

The American Beech is a common species used in the Canadian and American lumber industries. It is most often used in flooring and in handles for various tools, but historically it was impossible to cut down because of its density when mature. Until the chainsaw was invented, old, very large beech trees were largely ignored by loggers and so some mature beech trees are still present in old growth forests.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Caesar's mushroom

Species name: Amanita caesarea

Common name: Caesar's amanita, Caesar's mushroom

Location: Ontario

I figured it was about time for another mushroom! So here it is :)

Technically this species name is native to southern Europe and northern Africa, and the species name for this mushroom is likely Amanita jacksonii. To my knowledge, there's still some debate of whether these are actually the same or different species. Regardless of whether it's the North American species or the European species, it is still recognizable by the same characteristics: an orange stem, orange ring around the stem under the cap, orange cap with a darker brownish-orange middle, clear striations (stripes) on the top of the mushroom cap, light yellow/orange gills, and a white egg (volva) around the bottom of the stem.

Unlike all the rest of the species in this genus, this species is actually a highly prized edible mushroom. It can often be found in markets in Europe for sale at obscene prices since it is also incredibly rare to find (in Europe and in North America). It is actually one of the few fungi that is on a Red List or Endangered Species list around the world; the Ukraine has it listed as a nationally endangered species and it is against the law to pick it. Because of the real danger of accidentally killing yourself by eating the wrong Amanita, it is strongly suggested that you admire any mushroom with a ring and a volva from afar. Yes, they're pretty. Yes, a lot of them look like they'd be tasty. But a lot of them will give you chronic and/or deadly liver and kidney failure. Like with plants, you should only ever consume wild mushrooms if you are absolutely sure that you have identified it correctly (many species of fungi require the use of a microscope to ensure correct identification, even by experts!).

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

These flowers aren't for the dogs!

Species name: Cornus kousa

Common name: Chinese dogwood, Kousa dogwood, Korean dogwood, Japanese dogwood

Location: Ontario

Based on the common names of this species, it should be incredibly obvious where this plant is native: The Himalayan highlands of China, mountainous regions of Korea, and the mountains of Japan. The bright, showy flowers are produced in May and June, with the red fruits ripening into September. Despite having two of these trees in our yard, I have yet to see the fruit actually successfully grow into a new plant so I highly doubt it has any kind of invasive ability. That being said, there is a native species of this same genus that produces brilliant white flowers that could be planted instead. The downside of the native species (Cornus florida) is that it is very susceptible to a fungal disease called "anthracnose," and the Asian species is much more resistant to this disease. For this reason it is favoured amongst horticulturalists.

Despite appearances, those aren't actually flowers that appear in the photos above. The pink or yellow "petals" are actually bracts that surround the flower, not the flower itself. The flowers are rather inconspicuous and are located in the ball of plant tissue in the middle of the bracts. Each tiny flower in the inflorescence must be pollinated in order for that inflorescence to turn into a fruit. All of the maturing ovaries of the flower merge into one fruit, kind of like what happens in a pineapple. The fruits themselves are actually edible, and are sometimes used to produce the unique flavour of some fruit wines without adding too much sweetness.

There are quite a few references to dogwoods in popular culture, the most relevant (to this blog, at least) being that many farmers back in the "olden days" referred to cold snaps in the spring as "dogwood winters." The implication of this is that it's not safe to plant this year's crops until the dogwoods have started flowering, as flowering will be delayed in suboptimal conditions.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Queen Victoria's Waterlily

Species name: Victoria amazonica

Common name: Amazon waterlily, Royal waterlily

Location: Dave's Garden -- jeri11

The royal waterlily is native to the Amazon Basin in South America, is the largest waterlily in the world, and is named after Queen Victoria. Since today is Victoria Day in Canada, I figured there would be no better "plant of the day" than this one! Most species of plants can be bred by humans to have two different colours of flowers from the same species, but the two pictures above are actually of the same flower on two different days; the flower actually changes colour on its own. Unfortunately, I've never seen this plant in person so the best I can do are pictures from Dave's Garden from people that have actually seen it.

This plant has an incredible life cycle, being pollinated by only a single species of beetle. The beetle is attracted to the scent of the white flower that opens on the first night, which is often said to be chemically equivalent to the sex chemicals emitted by those beetles. Once the flower senses that there is at least one beetle that has landed on the flower, it closes relatively quickly to trap the beetle inside. The beetle fights to get out of the flower until the next night when the flower re-opens, getting pollen all over itself. On night two, the flower opens again to release the beetle and this time it is a stunning colour of pink. The colour change is also accompanied by a change in the sexual parts of the flower that are active: the flower stops producing pollen and is instead receptive to pollen on the stigmas. If a beetle visits one of these pink flowers after visiting a white flower, cross-pollination occurs.

The flowers aren't the only impressive part of this plant. The leaves are also some of the largest leaves in the plant kingdom, becoming almost 40 cm across and supporting the weight of a small child when mature. On the underside of the leaves are very large, dangerous spines which would seriously injure any animal (human or otherwise) to come in contact with the leaves. As you can imagine, this is a very effective deterrent of herbivores!

Happy Victoria Day!

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Way down yonder in the pawpaw patch

Species name: Asimina triloba

Common name: Pawpaw

Location: Ontario

This species of tree is at the most northern part of its range in Southwestern Ontario. It is native to the Carolinian Forest of North America, which extends from the Carolinas (d'uh) up to southern Ontario, east to Nebraska and Missouri and northwest up to Pennsylvania. It is part of the breadfruit family, along with other fruits of tropical origins like soursop, ylang-ylang, custard-apple, and cherimoya. I've heard that pawpaw fruit are delicious, but I've never had the opportunity to try one -- even through the tree on campus produces flowers, it has yet to produce fruit. Perhaps I'll go track a pawpaw down in South Carolina in September/October when the fruit is ripe. Because of climate change, the habitat in Southwestern Ontario should become more hospitable to these trees, where winters are less harsh and so less stress on the trees themselves. Unfortunately, due to habitat destruction, Southwestern Ontario is actually becoming less hospitable for this species even taking into account climate change (current warming and projected values).

The flowers of pawpaw trees are a very dark red or maroon, and, true to the "flower rules," smell like rotting meat. They are certainly not pleasant! One of the great benefits of planting pawpaw trees on suburban properties is that all of the plant tissues contain a potent chemical called acetogenin. This acts as a natural pesticide against all sorts of pests: insects, bacteria, fungi, deers and rabbits. The chances of this plant being destroyed by herbivorous predators is pretty slim! The fruits themselves would attract bears (if you happen to be in bear country), foxes, racoons, opossums, and squirrels. The leaves are the only food source for the zebra swallowtail butterfly. This confers a major benefit to the butterfly larvae and the future mature butterflies in that the acetogenins remain in trace amounts in the insect's tissues which make them unpalatable to predators.

Acetogenins from this plant are currently being produced en masse in organic fertilizer labs across North America for use in organic gardening. Pawpaw trees are relatively fast-growing and can grow new shoots off their root systems and so are great plants in their native range to control erosion.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Is Weigela the new catnip?

Species name: Weigela florida 'Alexandra'

Common name: Old Fashioned Weigela, Wine and Roses Weigela

Location: Ontario

This plant is native to Japan, and while not incredibly common it's not uncommon in its native habitat. During the winter this shrub is rather boring and...shrubby. The flowers usually appear first in April/May, with the leaves appearing relatively quickly after; green in the middle and maroon around the edges. The more the plant is pruned, the more it flowers the next year so the suggestion by gardening experts is to prune branches with flowers immediately after flowering ceases (so you know which branches had the flowers!).

No one has been able to explain to me why my cat is so very clearly attracted to these plants like a fish to water. I would even argue that if we had catnip planted in the back yard she would ignore it in favour of shoving her face into these flowers. She gets defiant when you try to pull her away from them, too, so there's obviously something pretty potent in the flowers that she smells that I don't. The flowers aren't overly scented, at least not by human standards. These shrubs are cultivated for their showy flowers and ornamental leaves, not flower smell.

Other than the obvious ornamental value this plant has, it has no other economic or medicinal value. To my knowledge, this plant isn't used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (many of the species in the genus Weigela are native to China) or by the ancient Japanese people as medicine or food.

Friday, May 18, 2012

When is a Geranium actually a Geranium?

Species name: Geranium maculatum

Common name: Wild geranium, Spotted geranium, Wood geranium

Location: Ontario

I must say, I'm pleased to find out that this is a native plant! The wild geranium is native to eastern North America and the northeastern United States. There's an shockingly similar plant that's native to Europe called the Wild Cranesbill (this plant is also sometimes called the Wild Cranesbill in Canada and Woodland Geranium in one said the common names of plants were any less confusing than the Latin names!), but it has slightly different shaped petals so I'm pretty sure this is the North American species. It's one of my favourite "weeds" in the garden that grows either by the pond (think's more like a big permanent puddle than it is a "paddle around in a canoe and find frogs" pond) or by the fence at the back of the yard, but seemingly never in both places in the same year. This year seems to be a "by the fence year"!

Confusingly (no part of this blog post seems to be straight-forward...), this is only somewhat distantly related to the "garden geranium" that many North Americans and Europeans plant in their gardens right around this time of year. Those geraniums are in a genus named Pelargonium, and all of those species are native to South Africa (this refers to the southern part of the continent, not the country; just making sure we're sticking to the "confusing blog post" theme!). Both of these genera are part of the same family, the Geraniaceae. To compare Latin names to common names, the story doesn't get any clearer: species of Pelargonium are referred to as Storksbills, while species of Geranium are referred to as Cranesbills. In North America, we call one species of bird a stork and another a crane, while the reverse is true in Europe. So you can't even use the shape of the mature fruit to determine if it's a crane or a stork bill, because it would depend on your geography which one is which. I'll give you some time to think that one through... :)

Like many spring wild flowers, the wild geranium relies on a rhizome to accumulate nutrients during the fall to use for spring growth. The rhizome is high in tannins (the same chemicals that give dry red wine the "mouth pucker feel") and has been used in the medicinal practices of many indigenous peoples to treat diarrhea, canker sores, gum disease, thrush in babies, venereal disease, and what is probably throat cancer. It might be effective against some mouth-related ailments, but I doubt it's going to turn out to be the next great cure or treatment for cancer. I have been wrong before, so we'll have to wait and see! It has also been used to prevent infection around the site of the umbilical cord cut in newborns, as a component of anti-bacterial face wash, as an anti-itch paste, and to counter-act a "love medicine." This plant sure gets around!

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

A non-bloody blood iris

Species name: Iris sanguinea

Common name: Blood iris

Location: Ontario

This species of Iris is native to eastern Asia (China, Mongolia, Russia and Japan) and, like it's Yellow Flag cousin, enjoys having it's "feet wet" in damp soil and grows well as an aquatic plant. Since the flowers are a vivid purple, one can guess (and would be correct in that guess) that the most popular pollinators of the blood iris are bumble bees. Unlike it's yellow cousin, it cannot fully tolerate the "true" conditions of a bog (it will grow happily for a while, but it's not a good competitor) where the water is about pH 4.0. It requires only slightly more alkaline water and/or soil at a pH of at least 5.0 (up to pH 6.5).

Gardeners would describe this plant as being "prolific," which should suggest its invasive nature when conditions are optimal. The blood iris reproduces equally well from seeds and from the uprooting and disturbance of its rhizomes, which can re-root themselves into the ground and produce new plants. Merely pulling the plant out of the ground (which is actually incredibly easy) and throwing it onto a trash pile will grow a new patch of blood iris.

One of the attractions of this plant as a flowering plant for the garden is its late flowering time, depending on your location. In my garden this plant usually flowers from the end of May to the beginning of July, which is actually quite late as far as "spring flowers" go. As with other irises, all parts of this plant should be treated as toxic and this plant should not be consumed in any capacity.

Monday, May 14, 2012

A Charlie Brown Christmas in May

Species name: Picea abies

Common name: Norway Spruce, Christmas Trees

Location: Ontario

As the common name of this plant suggests, this tree is native to northern Europe. It has been present in Canada for many, many years and is often considered a "naturalized" plant. It is incredibly important to the Canadian softwood lumber industry, amongst other uses.

I'm not sure why, but Spruce seedlings in general always remind me of Charlie Brown trees. Anyone who has seen A Charlie Brown Christmas knows exactly what I'm talking about with the topsy-turvy, rather pathetic looking tree supporting Christmas ornaments far bigger and heavier than it should. Perhaps some of the reasoning behind that is that Norway Spruce are actually the most popular Christmas trees in North America, and any time you see a "traditional" Christmas tree farm this will be the tree of choice (more "modern" farms are now resorting to planting more than one species of tree since different people like different qualities in their Christmas tree; some bushier than others, longer needles, shorter needles, softer or harder needles, ones that stay on the tree longer, etc.). Conifer seedlings in general are great examples of the benefits a plant gets from interactions of plant roots and fungal threads called mycorrhizae. Seedlings without these interactions are significantly smaller and have fewer needles (and generally do not survive into "old age") compared to their mycorrhizal competitors. In fact, there are some species of plants that cannot survive without these mycorrhizae. This seedling more than likely does have mycorrhizae since it is growing right beside a very large Norway Spruce (which also likely has mycorrhizae to have become as large as it is) and is still alive and kicking almost 4 years after this picture was taken. My neighbours keeps threatening to rip it out of their garden (which I guess they're more than welcome to do...but how could they?! Isn't it just the cutest thing you've ever seen?!) but I always manage to convince them to give it another year. My hope is that eventually it will be big enough it's not worth pulling out!

Other than use as Christmas trees, lumber, and pulp for paper, Norway Spruce trees have been symbols of thanks between Norway and the United States, Scotland and England since the end of World War II. Every Christmas, Norway sends one giant Norway Spruce tree to Washington D.C., New York City, Edinburg, and London which is meant to be displayed in the most central square of each city. While this is not the origin of the Rockefeller Christmas Tree in New York City, this is the tree on display as the Trafalgar Square Christmas Tree in London, England. The tree is a symbol of thanks for the assistance given to Norway during the Second World War, but also as a token of gratitude for the ongoing good will between these countries.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Rerun: Welcome to my Cornucopia

Since today is Mother's Day, I figured I should probably spend time with my mom instead of blogging, so that's what I did! Happy Mother's Day to all of the moms out there :) Here's a rerun of my first blog post with why I'm doing what I'm doing.

This blog idea started as an outreach idea. I'm constantly frustrated at the number of undergraduate students entering the University education streams in Science with only one end goal: to become a doctor. That's all wonderful and great; don't get me wrong, we always need more doctors. But the part that gets my goat is when these students are closed-minded to everything except their end goal. They say that having to learn about plant biology is "stupid" and "annoying" and "a waste of my time". Really? Since the plant kingdom is so diverse it should be of interest to everyone, let alone those interested in medicine. A significant number of medications we currently use in Western medicine, and between 75-95% of all medicines in traditional Eastern medicine are of plant or fungal origin. That's a pretty significant number when they're so "stupid" and such a huge "waste of time"!

So here's my idea: to blog about my favourite plants and see where it goes. Since I'm earning my PhD in mycology I can't possibly leave fungi out, so there will be a smattering of fungi of special interest (and those of no special interest but that are growing in my back yard) here and there. Indeed, fungi were considered plants until Roger Whittaker devised the five kingdoms of life in 1969. All blog images are my own, unless otherwise noted.

And now we begin!

Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Littleleaf of the Lilac World

Species name: Syringa microphylla

Common name: littleleaf lilac

Location: Ontario

Lilacs are deciduous shrubs that are native to Europe and eastern Asia. This specific species of lilac, the littleleaf lilac, is native to China. As many gardening websites suggest about this plant, it is a "spreading" plant in North America meaning it is invasive. In fact, walking through natural areas around this time of year the most predominant flowering shrubby growth are different species of lilac that have escaped from backyard landscaping. As the name suggests, the leaves are smaller than the traditional ornamental species of lilac ("micro" means small and "phylla" means leaf or leaves) and the scent of the flowers is also somewhat different. The smell reminds me of South Carolina for some reason; my family and I used to go to Myrtle Beach for camping vacations around the Victoria Day weekend when I was in elementary school. I can't explain why, but the smell of littleleaf lilac is exactly the same as what I remember the beach mixed with the pine trees of the campground smelled like.

Lilac flowers are incredibly popular with many different pollinators due to the shape of the flowers, the colour, and their scent. Bees are attracted by their colour and scent, butterflies are attracted because of the tube-like shape of the flower to get to the nectaries, and hummingbirds can sometimes be seen around the flowers in the early summer. Already this year we've had 5 or 6 different species of buzzing, stinging insects swarm our lilac bushes which would be a nightmare for someone allergic to bees!

Other than ornamental uses, lilac plants aren't used for much. There was some historical use of lilac wood in knife handles and in musical instruments, but for the most part other woods or artificially-created materials are used. There is no documented medicinal use of lilac plants, but the essential oil is often used in aromatherapy since a lot of people report it the smell of these plants has a calming quality. Lilacs are the state flower of New Hampshire.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Pink: a flower, a colour, AND a verb!

Species name: Dianthus plumarius

Common name: Garden pinks, Wild pink

Location: Ontario

The Dianthus genus is part of the Pink or Carnation family, and are a group of species native to Asia and Europe (with the exception of one species that is native to arctic North America). I haven't read any documentation about their invasive potential, so we'll give them the benefit of the doubt. This specific species of plant can only tolerate well-drained soil, but especially in the late fall and early spring as the roots near the surface of the soil freeze easily. It prefers mostly alkaline soil.

The carnation family is a great example of human-induced "artificial selection" that would actually cause the plant more harm than good in the wild. The specific variety of Garden Pink that we have growing in our garden is called a "double" variety, meaning that the breeders have selected for double the number of petals in each flower. Because the petals also have feather-like edges, it makes the flowers look much more full than they actually are. This flower really only has 10 petals! This in itself isn't necessarily a detriment; having more petals won't harm the plant unless it has to have a trade-off with another flower characteristic. In the case of this specific variety, the trade-off has also been exploited: the stamens (the pollen-producing structures) have been completely replaced with non-functioning petal-like ornamentations. Bees and butterflies are still attracted to them for their nectar, but they cannot transfer pollen from flower to flower so very little seed is produced. This plant would never survive on its own in the wild if it wasn't able to reproduce asexually.

Fun fact for Dr. Grumpy (who's blog I'm an avid reader of): there was a boat in WWI in the US Navy Patrol that was called the USS Dianthus. It was named by the owner, John P. Crozer, and retained the name by the Navy while they were using the vessel. I have no idea why the boat was named what it was, but I like to think Mr. Crozer chose Dianthus because the "SS Carnation" sounds a little...girly.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Master of the Woods

Species name: Galium odoratum

Common name: woodruff, sweet woodruff, wild baby's breath, master of the woods

Location: Ontario

This photo doesn't quite do this plant justice; if I find another one hidden in my plant photo folder somewhere I'll post another to show size and perspective. This plant is native to Europe, the Middle East and/or Asia (depending on who you ask or what literature you consult -- in any case it's non-native) and there's a reason why it's sometimes referred to as the "Master of the Woods" in North America! It's incredibly shade-tolerant, often setting more seed (which are in the form of burrs; my cat hates this plant, as do most deer) in the shade than the parts of the same plant in the sun! It can spread through the simple action of raking up the stolons (very similar vegetative organs to rhizomes, except they're usually above-ground and have very little nutrient storage) and leaving the plant pieces on the ground, or even just running the whipper snipper along the edge of the garden to "edge" the plant. It will re-root and regrow, making it a very effective spreader. It measures only about 10 cm off the ground at its tallest, so is an effective (and very popular) ground cover.

If you've ever seen this plant in person, you know what kind of smothering ability it has so it should be no surprise it can out-compete native ground cover plants for resources. I haven't read anything specifically stating this plant is a noxious weed, but it sure should be considered one! I would argue it's boring enough that if it was banned as an ornamental plant in North America no one would miss it. Well, that's if you could get rid of it in the first place -- I've been trying for a few years on a small patch in my back yard and it seems every time I pull a chunk out it's back in a couple days with more dense growth. I wish you luck if you planted this as an edging plant then decided later to re-landscape!

As for non-ornamental plant uses, this plant has many. It is a great source of coumarin (the contributing chemical to its intense odor; NOT to be confused with the drug "coumadin," they are not the same thing!), which has been used in perfumes since the late 1800s. It is also one of the leading chemicals in "organic" rat poisons, since rats metabolize this chemical into something that causes massive internal hemorrhage and death. Pleasant! Humans do not have this metabolic pathway, so you don't have to worry about it causing massive organ failure if your child (or pet...unless you have pet rats) accidentally ingests it. The effect on other animals is one that has been investigated by the weight-loss industry to no success: it acts as an appetite-suppressant in many herbivores, contributing to the low levels of herbivory it experiences in the wild. Humans don't seem to be as receptive to this effect, for reasons (to my knowledge) unknown. It has been reported to have anti-HIV, anti-tumor, anti-hypertension, anti-arrhythmia, anti-inflammatory, anti-osteoporosis and antiseptic properties and so is currently being researched actively for any major medicinal use. Due to its rather nasty effect on rats, coumarin has been banned in all commercial food products in the US, despite not being as dangerous to humans. It is used in the food industry in Germany, however: it is the major flavouring agent in the beverage "Maiwein" or May wine. It is used in many other countries to flavour alcoholic beverages and alcoholic jellies as well.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Allz you ever wanted to know about Azaleas

Species name: Rhododendron sp.

Common name: "Northern Hi-lights" azalea, Northern Hi-lights rhododendron

Location: Ontario

Surprisingly enough, many of the species of plants in this genus are actually native to North America. Usually when you think of (OK, maybe you don't but I do) bright, showy flowers you think of Asia and sometimes South America. I rarely think of native plants as being bright and showy. Azaleas can be the one exception: many of the deciduous species (there are species in the genus that are either deciduous or evergreen) are cold-tolerant, and many will also tolerate below-optimal nutrients. I'm going to give this plant the benefit of the doubt and say it's a native species. This particular cultivar (meaning, it was created through "artificial selection" or selection through plant breeding) was created at the University of Minnesota through plant hybridization in 1994. Because it's a hybrid it is not true to seed, meaning it either doesn't produce seed (which I've never seen this plant produce any, so this is probably true) or the seeds produced are sterile. There is another condition when plants are referred to as not being true to seed; this is when the plant that grows out of the seed is not even remotely the same as the plant from which the seeds came. This happens through genetic recombination (or "gene shuffling") during mating, and there are many fruit tree species that are great examples of this phenomenon. If you've ever tried planting an apple seed and taking care of the tree to fruiting you'll have experienced this first hand!

Many species of azalea are tolerant to partial shade, but this cultivar apparently isn't one of them. This is a shame, since it's currently planted in my back yard under the stairs leading up to the deck and only gets sun for maybe an hour a day during the summer. If the landscapers had of planted it in a sunnier location, it would be loaded with flowers every summer and bring in quite an interesting array of wildlife into the back yard; I've heard that the flowers of this plant have much the same effect on racoons as catnip does on cats! Potentially entertaining, to say the least.

A cautionary tale with azaleas of any species is to make sure you supervise young children and pets around this plant, since all parts of (almost) all species are toxic. The toxic effects will be unlikely to lead to death in humans (it might in animals), but a sick child makes a very unhappy parent! Even honey from rhododendron flowers is said to be mildly hallucinogenic and is a mild laxative. That being said, this plant does have some potential as a source of medicine: it has been found in the lab to have anti-inflammatory effects and hepatoprotective effects (protects your liver) and so extracts from this plant are currently being investigated as a potential treatment and/or cure for liver disease.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Is the fleur-de-lis really an iris?

Species name: Iris pseudacorus

Common name: Yellow Flag Iris, Yellow Flag, Yellow Iris

Location: Ontario

The yellow iris is an aquatic plant native to Europe, Asia (western) and Africa (north coast). It thrives in aquatic conditions, especially where the water is of low pH (it does very well in bog-like conditions where many other aquatic plants cannot survive), the plant is partially submerged, and the rhizome experiences constant anoxic (oxygen-deprived) conditions. In North America, these are the reasons why (coupled with the fact that it is a very popular pond and garden plant) it has the potential to become invasive. I would argue (and I think others would, too) it has become invasive already in certain areas like the Byron/Sifton Bog in London, where it can out-compete native aquatic plants for resources. Some regions in North America have banned the sale and planting of this plant due to its potential to become invasive, but most gardeners and landscape companies continue to plant it unaware of its potential for environmental destruction. Because Ontario does not recognize this species as invasive, I have not highlighted the invasive box.

Aside from being potentially invasive in non-native habitats, this plant is incredibly important throughout its native range for other species. It can form a very dense cluster of vegetation, so is prime breeding ground for fish, frogs, and birds. There is even one species of bird in Scotland that is endangered called the Corn Crake that uses yellow iris patches as breeding grounds. The bird is a ground-nester, where it lays its eggs directly in a nest made of grass leaves in a hollow in the dirt. This is especially easy in a patch of yellow iris since the leaves are so easily detached from the rhizomes underground.

Like all irises, the juices from a cut rhizome are irritating to the skin, so gardeners planting this species should wear gloves (especially those with sensitive skin). Historically, this plant was used medicinally as an emetic. More recently, it was discovered that this species is especially effective at taking up heavy metals through its root system and has this has led to experimentation with this plant as a water clarifier.

Many have argued that the fleur-de-lis (used on the Quebec flag and in Quebec and France as a decorative symbol) is a stylized version of an iris (despite the name "fleur-de-lis" meaning "lily flower"). I would say based on the name alone it's more likely designed from a yellow or white lily than an iris. The fleur-de-lis doesn't look much like either, does it?

Monday, May 7, 2012

Not all Phlox are created equal!

Species name: Phlox subulata

Common name: Moss Phlox, Mountain Phlox

Location: Ontario

The Moss Phlox is a ground cover plant native to North America, with its natural range extending from Quebec to British Columbia and south towards Colorado and Tennessee. I would argue that now in certain habitats (like my back yard) it has become invasive, perhaps because of a decrease of natural competitors in the areas which it now grows. Almost all species of Phlox are native to North America (a few species, or only one depending on your definition of species, are native to Siberia) in some capacity, with overlapping ranges extending from East coast to West coast and from Alaska south to Florida. The variation in this genus of plants is a great example of "niche theory", which states that plants and animals evolved to specialize to a specific niche, and so "microhabitat" can be a leading contributor to the evolution of new species. This theory has been all but abandoned in recent literature in favour of other theories since it could never explain all the variation seen in an area by itself, but it's still a good theory used in conjunction with others to explain species distribution. The genus Phlox contains more than 65 species, being distinguished by their size at maturity (ranging from only a few centimeters tall to over a meter) and their flower colour. Horticulturalists have hybridized various species to produce new and unusual flower colours that would not have been present in large numbers in natural populations.

Other than a popular ornamental plant, Phlox species in general are not used for a whole lot. There are no species with any medicinal value (either historical or current) with the exception of Garden Phlox which is a powerful laxative. This should also suggest that it's a poisonous plant, and shouldn't be consumed! The analysis of the essential oils in the plant done by a lab in Denmark didn't show the plant to have any promise as one containing chemicals previously documented to fight cancer, slow the progress of AIDS or diabetes, etc.

One humorous side-note to this plant is that it supposedly (I've never noticed this phenomenon, but maybe it is not uniform across all species) has a very similar smell to that of marijuana and has caused the "backyard bust" of a few homes in England and the United States after neighbours reported the smell. I doubt the plant itself would be mistaken for marijuana since they differ drastically in appearance!