Saturday, December 21, 2013

So apparently I'm taking a hiatus!

You know those times when you just...forget to write blogs? And then wonder how 3 weeks has passed and no one reminded you? Yeah, this is one of those times :)

So what I've decided is to continue my blog-writing hiatus to the beginning of January. This gives me a whole month to enjoy family get-togethers, the "HOLY-JEEZ-I-AM-IN-NO-WAY-READY-FOR-CHRISTMAS" mad scramble at the grocery store (done and done, at least we thought we were. Still need to go buy baking ingredients! Wish me luck...), watching a bunch of Christmas-themed movies on TV, and writing a solid chunk of my thesis.

But don't worry! I will definitely be back in January with a whole bunch of new and exciting blogs. Thank you to everyone who continues to read my blog about why plants are awesome, and hopefully I can get some new "converts" in my students next term. Feel free to share my blog link around to your friends and family; even though no new blogs will be posted until January, there should be more than enough to keep them busy until then!

Enjoy your families over the next few days. You only get one, whether you like them or not :) Merry Christmas, Happy Kwanzaa, Happy Hanukkah, and Happy "whatever other Holiday you're celebrating in December"!

Friday, November 29, 2013

The maple of Black Friday

Species name: Acer nigrum

Common name: black maple

Location: Western University campus

What better way to celebrate the phenomenon that is Black Friday with maple! You bet I've been holding off on this blog for weeks! For those of you not from the United States or Canada and who are unfamiliar with this "Black Friday thing," here's a brief run-down. Traditionally in Canada the day after Christmas is called Boxing Day. Truly, I have no idea what the history of Boxing Day is, but now it has morphed into the National Day of Shopping. Crazy people (like me) get up at 6 am in order to make it to the mall as soon as it opens, and every store has some kind of crazy sale. Boxing Day is one of my favourite days of the year since I love shopping, but I absolutely refuse to pay full-price for an item. Not to be outdone, the United States has Black Friday. Since Christmas isn't actually that big of a deal in the US (trust me, I'm surprised, too), Thanksgiving is their biggest national holiday (aside from possibly Independence Day in some areas), and it weirdly occurs on a Thursday. In order to "bridge the gap" between Thanksgiving and the weekend, the phenomenon known as Black Friday has evolved. That is the day that Americans get up ridiculously early and go shopping. And let me tell you: Black Friday deals in some stores are ridiculous. While I've never been to the States on a Black Friday (and never intend to go; the day is notorious for people getting trampled to death in order to get to the good deals first), I've heard some great stories of people scoring big-screen TVs for $32, or a brand new iPhone 5C for $49 with no contract. That's crazy! I have no idea whether Boxing Day or Black Friday came first, but I like to think Boxing Day did. Because I'm Canadian, and all good things are Canadian before Americans steal our ideas. Like basketball. And hockey.

Back to plants! The black maple is actually a "species" under furious debate amongst botanists, and the crowd is currently split about its species status. There are some botanists (that I like to think are in the majority, but I'm honestly not sure) that say the black maple is a good species and deserves its own Latin name. There's another group, however, that is absolutely convinced that it's merely a subspecies of the sugar maple, and should actually be called Acer saccharum subsp. nigrum. Unfortunately, should this prove to be the case, the black maple would lose all designation as a species and no longer be protected by any kind of Species At Risk legislation across all of North America, where it has its native range. To me, this would be tragic since I happen to really like black maples. But I do see where "the other side" is coming from: black maples and sugar maples readily hybridize with each other, their wood can be used for the exact same purposes in the lumber trade because they have the same grain qualities and the same chemical makeup (the same amount of lignin and cellulose, with the same type of ring structure), they can both be used to produce maple syrup (although, black maples much less so than sugar maples), and they have very similar maple key characteristics. The most notable difference is the shape of the leaves; the black maple leaf is much more rounded at the bottom than the sugar maple (which is nearly flat), the black maple leaf has only three main lobes with no minor lobes (the sugar maple leaf has three main lobes and two much smaller lobes at the base near the petiole), and the leaves of the black maple "droop" like they're always slightly dehydrated (while sugar maple leaves are flat and not droopy at all). In fact, the slightly floppy quality to the leaves is the reason why most black maples are accidentally massacred on residential properties. Because they always look like they're drought-stressed and need water, people who don't know that's what black maples look like normally drown them to death. The poor trees! And I will admit, until a few months ago I would have been in the "drowning the tree" boat. I always thought this poor tree needed some water (and since it is in the middle of an island in a huge parking lot, not getting much water is a very real possibility) and so likely would have drowned it, too, had I not been told differently. Now we all know. :)

So what are black maples good for, aside from maple syrup? Well, a lot if you ask the Ojibwa people. Not only did they boil the sap of the black maple to concentrate the sugars to use as a sweetener in cooking, but they also boiled the bark and drank the resulting liquid to treat diarrhea and to act as a diuretic. Neither of these uses have been evaluated in clinical trials. The branches of this tree can also be very straight, and so made good wood for arrows and were the preferred source for "arrow wood". The wood of the black maple is also easily carved, especially when young, and so was sometimes carved into elaborate shapes for ornamental pieces and for kitchen items like spoons and bowls.

If you went out to brave the crowds today, hopefully you managed to pick up something you liked and got a great deal!

Friday, November 22, 2013

Remembering JFK with cornflowers

Species name: Centaurea cyanus

Common name: bachelor's button, cornflower

Location: picture 1 from HERE, picture 2 from HERE, picture 3 from HERE and picture 4 from HERE

Today is a rather special day in history, whether you're American or not, and this special day deserves its own special blog post. In case you aren't aware of the significance of today, it is the 50th anniversary of the assassination of the former President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, in Texas. He was one of the most well-liked Presidents in US history, and will always be remembered as one of the great young minds that died far too young. With that said, let's see how well I can weave this into a blog about plants.

The cornflower, also called the bachelor's button or the common cornflower, is native to Europe where it historically grew like a weed. It prefers highly disturbed areas like prairies (historically, the sustaining life source of a prairie was fire which wipes out much of the herbaceous growth, allowing new species to colonize the area), which is why it can sometimes be seen growing alongside the Flander's poppy, as seen in the fourth image above (I thought that was rather fitting, since both flowers are now considered the flowers of remembrance depending on which continent and/or country you're from). Unfortunately for the cornflower, it also thrives as an agricultural weed since agricultural fields are, by default, highly disturbed areas. They are plowed every year which encourages weedy plants (or plants that can grow very quickly) to move in and colonize the area. Because of the intense amount of herbicides that are applied to agricultural fields, many of the once-ideal habitats for cornflowers are now being lost. This has led to the placement of the cornflower onto many endangered species lists across much of its native range (the population in the UK has gone from 264 sites to just 3 sites in 50 years; also a rather fitting time of measurement). Fortunately for the cornflower, it's not about to go extinct any time soon. It has been introduced as an ornamental species in North America, and parts of Africa and Asia where it is considered a naturalized species (locally invasive in some areas). In Australia it is a pest species. In fact, because of the planting of this species ornamentally it was recently featured near the top of the list of the top 100 species that have the potential to be brought back from the brink of extinction. With proper rehabilitation efforts and the protection of prairie habitats across Europe, this species could once again thrive.

There are also some locations where cornflowers are planted for agricultural purposes aside from seed generation for the ornamental flower trade. Cornflower "petals" (I'll get into this in a minute) are dried and often used as an additive in loose leaf teas to impart flavour and colour into some blends. The flavour is very subtle; so subtle I doubt you would even be able to pick up the taste. More often than not, cornflowers are added to loose teas just to make them look pretty in their package. And who isn't about to buy tea because it looks pretty?! I'll admit, I've been guilty of that on more than one occasion. Sometimes with successful results, but often with "BLAAARRRRGGGGHHHHHH!!!!" results. That's also how I buy my wine. You'd think I would learn from these experiences...

The petals seen in the cornflower aren't really petals at all. The "flower" of a cornflower is a compound flower, or a flower head. Each one of the "petals" is called a ray floret, and each one of the dark purple wispy bits on the inside of the flower head is called a disc flower. This is the typical flower head (or inflorescence) structure of flowers in the aster or sunflower family.

Aside from being the flower of remembrance in the United Kingdom and much of the rest of Europe, cornflowers hold special meaning to JFK. Not only was blue his favourite colour, but on those days when he wore flowers on his lapel (which was quite often) they were always cornflowers. In fact, on the day his son, John F. Kennedy Jr., was married he had cornflowers pinned to his lapel and cornflowers were featured in the bridal bouquet and in every centrepiece as a symbol of remembrance for his father.

I often wonder what the world would be like today if people like JFK and Martin Luther King Jr. were still alive. Would gay marriage be an issue? Would it be a bigger issue than it is today? What about poverty and homelessness? Drug use? I guess it doesn't do much to hypothesize about how the world would be different, but instead try to make it different. Push the envelope to do better, to be better.

May you Rest In Peace, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. May 29, 1917 - November 22, 1963

JFK Jr. giving his father a final salute

Thursday, November 21, 2013

BLOG RERUN: Mom's Secret Recipe

UPDATE TO THE UPDATE: Guess what?! Today is American Thanksgiving! Or, as we in Canada like to call it, Thursday. Happy Thanksgiving to my American readers. Enjoy the day off, and I'm VERY excited for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. For me, it's one of the highlights of November. I'll be really disappointed this year if the gigantic balloons don't make an appearance because of the high winds (but understandable; safety over balloons!). But more up! We've got some shopping to do tomorrow.

UPDATE: It has come to my attention that in my desire to be awesome and pseudo-celebrate American Thanksgiving, I have managed to jump the gun and do so a week early. SO! Stop reading this blog. Stop it! GO AWAY! Just kidding. Please don't go away. But skip this entry! And come back in a week.

(a version of this blog was originally posted on November 22, 2012)

Today I decided to do something completely different on my blog, because...well, because I can!

I was having a hard time coming up with another plant that screamed "Thanksgiving," since today is American Thanksgiving. I've already done two different species of pumpkins, and the only other suitable plant to blog about would be sweet potatoes...and those are a kettle of fish I was planning on getting into next year (still hasn't been done, despite my best intentions. One day!). So what other plant could I possibly blog about? There's no other typical vegetable of Thanksgiving that is universal to all celebrations, no matter where in the country you are. But then a colleague in the Biology Department, gave me a fabulous idea: why not blog about a recipe instead? Brilliant! So that's exactly what I'm going to do.

I'm going to feature my absolute favourite part of Thanksgiving, and Christmas (and sometimes even Easter) dinner: stuffing! I'm about to give away my mom's secret recipe (sorry mom!), so get your pens ready. Ready? Here it is:

My Mom's Famous Stuffing Recipe:
- bread (enough to stuff a turkey of your choice)
- water (enough to dampen the bread, but not make it soggy)
- onion (you like onion? Add a lot! Don't like onion? Add a little!)
- ground sage (see comments for onion, above)
- ground poultry seasoning (see comments for onion, above)
- love (don't have love on hand? Steal some from someone else!)

1. Tear up the bread by hand. Do it the way of the pilgrims. Food processors are the easy way out. Leave it chunky, don't make bread crumbs.
2. Chop up the onion. Dice it relatively finely, but not so fine it turns to mush when it starts cooking.
3. Put bread and onion in a giant bowl. Dump in your herbs.
4. Add in a little bit of water, and here's where your love comes in handy. Make sure your hands are clean, and mix that by hand. Mix, mix, mix. Still feels dry? Add a bit more water. Mix, mix mix. Still feels dry? Keep adding water and mixing until it's the desired consistency. Not soggy, but the bread sticks together with the mixture when you squish it into a ball. Feel free to make shapes here. I suggest snowmen. Use baby carrots as the nose. Take pictures!
5. Once you've got your desired consistency of stuffing, stuff it into your bird and enjoy the smell while it cooks.

Now you must be sworn to secrecy never to tell anyone how to do it! The bright side of giving away my mom's "secret" recipe is that NO ONE has been able to reproduce how it tastes. Trust me. That love? That's the secret ingredient. Each person's love tastes just a little bit different. And perhaps hand lotion...

So how on earth can I turn this into a blog? Well, there are three obvious species here that can be featured in this blog, each of which I'll do in a mini-blog: wheat, onion, and sage. Here we go!

A field of genetically modified wheat to resist fungal infections (Science Centric)

Wheat fruits, called a caryopsis (Flashcard Machine)

Species name: Triticum aestivum

Common name: bread wheat

Location: See above for internet sources; a common, non-native species

Wheat is native to the Middle East, in a region known as the Fertile Crescent and was first thought to be domesticated almost 11,000 years ago. This is a region of the Middle East from which we get many of our most important crops in North America. There are actually  more than 20 species of wheat, each of which are used for different purposes. The most common way that species of wheat have been "created" over the last few millenia is through spontaneous tetraploidy. This means that the plants have undergone some sort of cell division problem that has caused all of the DNA of the plant to go into one pollen grain and none in the other, instead of half of the DNA going into each pollen grain. One of these pollen grains comes into contact with an egg that has done this same thing, and now an embryo exists with the complete genome of its mother plant and father plant (and sometimes this is actually the same individual; this is called "selfing"). If this happened in humans or almost any other animal, the embryo would not be viable. In plants, however, this is incredibly common and probably the most common method of creating new species of plants. This is a pretty remarkable adaptation, too; think about how much genetic variation could be available to an organism containing four copies of each gene instead of only two! The expression rare recessive diseases would essentially be eliminated from the population. Some common wheat species that we use are the diploid T. aestivum which is mainly used for flour that goes into breads and cakes; T. durum (tetraploid), used for making pasta and couscous, is low in gluten; T. dicoccum (diploid), also known as emmer, is used for breadmaking in Egypt and some parts of Europe; and T. spelta (hexaploid), an ancient form of wheat (popular during the Middle Ages) still used now as a low-gluten equivalent to bread wheat.

Onions with their green leaves still attached (Illinois Vegetable Garden Guide)

Some different varieties of onions (Garden of Eaden)

Species name: Allium cepa

Common name: onion

Location: See above for internet sources; a common, non-native species

Onions are probably native to Central Asia, but there is much uncertainty about where they originated. Onions as a species are only known from cultivation, which is incredibly unusual as far as crop plants go. It is possible that it has gone through so many rounds of human selection that it is now genetically distinct from its ancestral species (the most likely explanation), or the ancestral species has now gone extinct (the unlikely explanation). There is one species, A. asarensefrom Iran, that is genetically very closely related to the common onion. All species of the genus Allium produce sulphur compounds, which give them their pungent smell. When these sulphur compounds come into contact with water they produce sulphuric acid, one of the most potent acids known. This is the chemical basis for the "IT BURNS MY EYES!!!!" reaction most people get when cutting onions. The easiest way to get rid of this effect is by refrigerating your onions before use, or putting them briefly in the freezer before chopping (just enough to make them cold, not frozen). This prevents the cut onion from being able to "bleed" as much as a non-refrigerated onion, contributing to less eye-burn. Also, make sure you wash your hands with soap before rubbing your eyes. Some people say plugging your nose also helps; I think it's more the silliness factor than anything else. The sulphur compounds are still becoming airborne and the mucous membranes of your eyes still contain a lot of water, so the chemical reaction cannot be modified by plugging your nose. I would contribute that to the placebo effect more than anything else. These sulphur compounds in onions (and garlic) have been exploited medicinally by humans for centuries. Yes, onions do have medicinal properties! They are very potent against bacteria and fungi, and so are popular for treating colds, the flu, and, of all things, Athlete's Foot. If you suffer from this (quite disgusting) fungal infection on your toenails, put some freshly chopped warm onions in a pot of warm water. Submerge your feet for a while, rinse, and pat dry. Fungi are incredibly intolerant to sulphur, so this should take care of them in a jiffy. In fact, many creams for Athlete's Foot exploit the natural sulphur-containing chemicals of onions!

The sage plant (

Sage flowers (Soulistic Wellness)

Species name: Salvia officinalis

Common name: garden sage

Location: See above for internet sources; a common, non-native species

Sage is one of the most popular seasonings in the world, let alone in North America. The sage plant is native to the Mediterranean Region of Europe and Africa, where it still grows commonly in the wild. In North America it has the potential to become an invasive species in warmer climates, so just be careful if you plant it outside. It doesn't seem to tolerate Canadian winters well, or if it does it rarely spreads beyond where it was originally planted. The flower is incredibly characteristic of the mint family; it is purple, has a darker eyespot than the rest of the flower, the male and female parts of the flower overhang the bottom petal of the flower, and features a large bottom petal that can act as a "landing pad" for bees for pollination. This flower is very specialized for pollination by insects that can see ultraviolet light, and the reproductive parts have been modified to ensure that pollen gets onto that "secret spot" on the back of the bee's neck where it cannot access the pollen to groom it off of itself mid-flight. Bees actually love being covered in pollen by flowers not because they enjoy pollinating flowers, but because they pack this onto specialized areas on their legs to take back to the hive to feed the young larvae. Without the ability to put pollen onto the back of a bee's neck, the flower will be incredibly inefficient at cross-pollination, and will essentially be giving away its sperm to be used as bee food. Some biologists argue that bees are the most inefficient pollinators in the world! Sage also has some demonstrated health benefits and medicinal uses, although it is reported as being able to treat much more than it has actually been shown to do. One of the most promising uses of sage leaf extract (containing a combination of a huge number of essential oils; the exact combination of different chemicals has never successfully been created in a lab) is as a treatment for hyperlipidemia, or an increased level of lipids in the blood. This isn't just equivalent to obesity; in fact, obese people are incredibly efficient at filtering fats out of their blood and storing them in fat tissues (hence the obesity). This is more a result of a vast variety of genetic diseases that cause, sometimes for unknown reasons, lipids to build up in the blood. Other times it can be acquired due to various other medical conditions, the two most common being diabetes and renal failure. Chronic high levels of lipids in the blood can be incredibly dangerous to the circulatory system because it changes the viscosity of the blood, causing the heart to work harder. This can lead to different kinds of heart disease, heart attack, and stroke.

Happy Thanksgiving to all my American readers!

Gobble Gobble (not a plant)

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Buckeye Battle Cry revisited

Species name: Aesculus glabra

Common name: Ohio buckeye

Location: Western University campus

I know I've written a blog about the Ohio buckeye before (you can read my previous blog post HERE), but I wanted to blog about it again but with better pictures. And you know what? I'm allowed, because it's my blog :) So there!

The Ohio buckeye is a native species (well, marginally native. Definitely native to the northeastern United States; debatable whether or not it's native to southwestern Ontario) that does very well in full sun to partial shade. It's a medium-to-small tree in this part of Ontario because it's growing in a suboptimal part of its range, but further south into Ohio and Kentucky it can be a medium sized tree (up to 25 meters tall). The roots of these trees can tolerate intense rain and can tolerate temporary flooding, but do best in well-drained soil. There are some clear disadvantages to growing the Ohio buckeye as an ornamental species, and the first should be obvious: the fruit produced. If you're trying to increase the squirrel population, growing buckeyes in your yard is one of the best things you could possibly do. You don't want to come between a hungry squirrel and a buckeye tree! If, however, you have a lawnmower that you appreciate using and not replacing the blade every time you cut the lawn, you might want to reconsider this species. The fruits produced are enormous (in ideal conditions, some are almost the size of baseballs!), and when they split open they release one to three seeds. The seeds are large, hard, and really hurt when they hit you in the head. They do make fantastic ornaments, and are really stunning in flower arrangements. You can also collect the seeds and dry them to make beads, as is popular to do at Ohio State University. I can imagine they would be good for building neck muscles because they're so heavy, although I'm not sure why you would want to build your neck muscles.

Something that is often believed about the buckeye is that it produces inhibitory chemicals from the roots to prevent the growth of other species (called allelopathy) like in Norway maples and, to some extent, black walnuts. Fortunately, this isn't the case. To date there's no evidence that buckeyes produce allelopathic chemicals from their roots. Unfortunately, that doesn't mean that anything will grow under them! The canopy cover of buckeyes is just so dense that even shade-tolerant grass has a really hard time growing under buckeye trees. The best thing to plant under them would be highly shade tolerant ground cover, but even that might not do it in the long run. But the trade-off? Look at the trees! They're spectacular in their own right. They also turn bright orange early in the fall (late summer, really), long before other species start to change colour. And who doesn't love a bright orange tree in a sea of green?!

So how did the buckeye get to be so closely associated with Ohio? Well, there's the obvious reason that Ohio is the middle of the range for the buckeye, but that in its own right rarely causes a plant to be so ingrained in a state's culture. The story goes that Colonel Ebenezer Sproat arrived in what is now the United States in 1788 to command the Northwest Territory. Once he landed, the Indigenous peoples called Colonel Sproat "Hetuck" because they were so greatly impressed by him; he showed the native people immense respect and communicated with them instead of at them (as so many others did, and, to some extent, continue to do). To Indigenous North Americans, hetuck means the "eye of the buck" which shows power, respect and knowledge. I guess being called the eye of the buck is a great honour! He eventually became known as the "Big Buckeye" and all of the citizens under his control were his buckeyes. Eventually it became a term associated with all of those from and living in Ohio. The common name of the buckeye also stems from the fact that the seeds (or the "nuts") of the tree also resemble the eyes of deer. I bet you'll never look at a buckeye seed the same way again!

Should you decide to try to grow your own buckeye, make sure you find some nice plump seeds before they fall out of the fruit. They are very, very sensitive to drying and won't germinate if the seeds dry out too much. The best way to get around this is to find a fruit that has split open but has not yet dropped the seeds and take them home and put right in the ground. They won't germinate until the next spring, but there's usually a pretty good success rate. Plant a few, then pull all but a couple out of the ground in the summer. At the end of the next summer, choose your favourite and pull all of them but that one out (or leave a bunch! Nothing wrong with wanting a few buckeyes). Just keep in mind that you can't grow these indoors before transplanting (at least, not easily); they do require a period of exposure to extreme cold during the winter in order to germinate properly in the spring. Oh, and invest in a good rake ;)

Friday, November 15, 2013

The dogwood with sandpaper leaves

Species name: Cornus drummondii

Common name: roughleaved dogwood

Location: Western University campus

The roughleaved dogwood is a relatively rare species native to the midwestern plains in the United States. It's nearly native to Ontario, but stops just short at the border in Michigan (some would argue it's native to the southernmost areas near Windsor and Point Pelee in Ontario but no evidence suggests it exists there as a wild species). It is an understory species in the forest, but because it prefers full sun it is most likely to be found on forest edges. Because of the ever decreasing amounts of forest cover, this species is more and more difficult to find.

Unfortunately, I managed to catch this small tree (or large shrub) in what is probably the least exciting portion of its yearly cycle. In the spring and into the early summer it produces dainty white flowers on the bright red inflorescence branches. These flowers are pollinated, then mature into green fruits in the late summer (as illustrated above) and turn white in the fall. These white fruits are important food sources for many native species, including about 20 species of bird, and other small mammals like chipmunks, voles and mice (squirrels rarely eat the berries since they prefer hard-shelled nuts like acorns, but if they're hungry they'll eat just about anything). There are also many insect species that lay their eggs on the branches and leaves of this plant and the larvae ("caterpillars") eat the leaves before moulting into their mature forms. Because of the dense leaf cover and the dense branching growth, this species makes an ideal tree or shrub species for birds to seek shelter. It is relatively fast-growing and then growth is nearly halted when it reaches 4-6 feet in diameter, so makes an ideal candidate for a shrub hedge or other type of visual or noise screen.

Unlike its close relative the red osier dogwood (which you can read all about HERE), this small tree doesn't have much winter interest. The bright red inflorescence stalks that hold onto the white berries turn brown and fall off the tree when the leaves are shed in the fall, and they are produced anew in the spring. The rest of the branches on the tree are a typical brown, unlike the red osier dogwood's bright red bark. This doesn't mean you shouldn't plant one! Think about how happy you'd make some birds if you had one in your back yard :) Aside from the ecological benefit to birds and insects, this tree is incredibly resistant to just about every type of disease out there. It resists nearly all types of fungal infections, there are no known insect pests, and rabbits aren't big fans of eating the bark of this species during the winter (unlike hemlocks. The poor trees in our back yard get stripped of their bark during bad winters!).

The roughleaved dogwood is named that because of the very coarse hairs produced on the undersides of the leaves (the terminal branchlets are also covered in this coarse hair, as are the petioles of each leaf). Because the trichomes are short and fat, they give a very rough texture to the underside of the leaf (almost like sandpaper), unlike the long thin trichomes of many leaves that make them soft and pleasant to touch.

Monday, November 11, 2013

BLOG RERUN: Today We Remember

(this blog post was originally published on November 11, 2012)

Species name: Papaver rhoeas

Common name: corn poppy, Flanders poppy

Location: picture 1 from 416-florist (click HERE), picture 2 from Wikipedia (click HERE), picture 3 from The Canadian War Museum (click HERE), picture 4 from the City of Toronto website (click HERE)

Today across much of the world is Remembrance Day, or Armistice Day, where we pause to remember the men and women who have sacrificed their lives for their country. The day was officially dedicated in 1919, and it was actually on November 7th, not November 11th. The date of remembrance was changed to reflect the signing of the Armistice by Germany at the end of World War I, which was somewhere between 5:12 and 5:20 am on November 11th 1918 (often referred to the "eleventh hour"). The war officially ended with the Treaty of Versailles on June 28th 1919.

The symbol of the poppy as the official flower of remembrance actually occurred as an "accident," as in it was not specifically chosen by anyone to represent war or remember lost soldiers. The corn poppy thrives in highly disturbed regions in Europe (where it grows like a weed), so it was one of the first plants to colonize battlegrounds. Poppies often bloom all at the same time, so entire fields will be bathed in brilliant red all at the same time. This image was made especially poignant by a Canadian physician for the army during World War I, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae. He was present for a burial ceremony for one of his friends that died in the Second Battle of Ypres on May 2nd 1915. He wrote the poem "In Flanders Fields" from the back of an ambulance while thinking about how remarkable it was that the corn poppy was one of the first plants to grow over the graves of the dead. He thought they symbolically represented the blood shed by those soldiers fighting for freedom, and so penned one of the most famous pieces of poetry ever written. While the poppies in Flanders Field are long gone (they are not a persistent species by nature, but also that area is a pristinely maintained area commemorating the dead of World War I), they symbolically remain the flower of remembrance. John McCrae died of meningitis in Boulogne, France, on January 28th 1918. He would never return to Canada.

Today we pause to remember the men and women that have lost their lives fighting to protect their country, and to help others protect theirs. We thank them for making the ultimate sacrifice, as we know that without their actions the world would be very different form how it is today.

Lest we forget.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands, we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

The North American planetree

Species name: Platanus x acerifolia

Common name: London planetree

Location: Western University campus

As promised, this blog is about our version ("our" referring to the North American meaning of the term) of the planetree. Ironically enough, it's called the London planetree not after London, Ontario, but after London, England. A half-British, half-American name for a European species. Just when you thought common names couldn't get any more perplexing... :)

The planetree is a hybrid, which makes its native range essentially a moot point. But for the purpose of a species status diagram, it's a non-native species since the hybrid is rumoured to have been first discovered in Spain in the 1700s, but was first officially described by a Scot in 1789 as a variety of the Oriental sycamore, or Platanus orientalis. It was elevated to the status of species in 1805 by Willdenow (Platanus acerifolia), but it is now widely believed to be a hybrid of the American sycamore and the Oriental sycamore (sometimes called the Chinese sycamore or even the Oriental plane). It looks like an exact intermediary of the two species: has leaves with lobes not nearly as shallow as the American sycamore but more shallow than the Chinese sycamore, fruits in pairs instead of singly like the American sycamore (the Chinese sycamore usually has 3-6 fruits in a group), and light green inner bark unlike the white bark of the American sycamore and the much darker green bark of the Chinese sycamore. I love it when hybrids are a 50/50 blend of the parent species! It makes life so easy.

So why would you want to plant a hybrid species, when the American sycamore is a native species and looks pretty darn similar? Well, for one, the planetree is much more tolerant of urban conditions like pollution and root compaction, as well as being much more drought-tolerant and so doesn't require the riparian habitat that the American sycamore does. It also doesn't get nearly as large, which is often beneficial in cities (you don't exactly want a 5 meter in circumference tree growing between a sidewalk and a road). It is also much, much less susceptible to a fungal disease called anthracnose, which is quite common in American sycamores. So far it sounds like a pretty good compromise! Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. The planetree actually has a really nasty side to it in the spring: it is highly allergenic. The new growth of the tree produces tiny hairs on the surface of the leaves, the leaf buds, the branches, and the fruits. As the tree sheds these hairs while it matures, they blow off in the air and (usually) end up up your nose. Here, they attach to just about anything they can get ahold of, and trigger a severe immune response (this isn't just your typical pollen-allergy runny nose). Some people have even reported a skin response that looks like a second-degree burn as a result of coming into contact with many of these hairs (say, for example, grabbing onto a young branch in the spring) and the resulting rash is a hyper-immune response. This effect tends to decrease as the tree ages, but if you plant a young tree, be warned. Now that I know this, you won't catch me coming anywhere near one of these trees in the spring. I have really sensitive skin, and with my luck I'd be the one that ends up with giant pustules all over my hands and arms! The leaves are also difficult to deal with in urban settings as the leaves produced on mature branches are very thick and leathery. If left to rest where they fall, they can take years to start to decompose (unlike a few months like most leaves, which is why they make great compost starters and mulch). This means they are problematic to deal with in the fall clean-up to prepare streets for winter.

Planetrees are sometimes planted for lumber and logging purposes because of the very attractive wood (it's a light yellow wood with red flecks). In the lumber industry it's often referred to as Lacewood, and is used in wood trim or decorative panels in fine furniture.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Sycamores: nature's ghosts in the woods

Species name: Platanus occidentalis

Common name: American sycamore, American planetree

Location: Western University campus

The American sycamore (just "sycamore" from here on out since I live in North America) is native to eastern North America and has quite an extensive range throughout the Carolinian forest (from Ontario south to Texas and Georgia and everywhere in between). Depending on the environment, it can be an absolutely enormous tree, reaching heights of 40 or 50 meters (sycamores are some of the easiest trees to spot from the edge of a forest, especially during the winter, because they reach above the rest of the forest canopy) and diameters as large as 4 meters. The largest sycamore ever recorded was in 1770 recorded by the one and only George Washington near the junction of the Kanawha and Ohio rivers; he recorded in his journal the tree was approximately 14 meters in circumference! Go measure out a piece of string 14 meters in length and go wrap it around the biggest tree you can find. I bet your "incredibly large tree" will be tiny in comparison to your string! This tree, for obvious reasons since trees don't live forever, is no longer standing but it's not uncommon for a sycamore to be 6 or 7 meters in circumference if rooted in deep soil.

Sycamores are spectacular trees to see, but especially during the winter. Some people call them the "ghosts of the forest", but not just because of the colour of their bark. The new growth of the tree is almost pure white, and that scaly brown bark develops near the base of the tree as the tree ages. The white bark is actually iridescent; when the moonlight shines on the forest and sycamores sway in the breeze, it almost looks like they're glowing and sparkling in the moonlight. It's pretty cool to see, but also a bit creepy. If you've ever had nightmares about sycamores coming to life and grabbing you off a trail while you're running from ghosts through the forest, this could be why! The brain does some mysterious things... :) The sycamore is an interesting study in the use of common names assigned to species, and how they differ with geography. If you're from North America, this tree, being in the genus Platanus, is a sycamore. If, however, you're in Europe (especially in Britain) trees in the genus Platanus are called planetrees. Seems simple enough. But the plot thickens. If you are calling a tree a "sycamore" in Europe, you're actually referring to a species of maple called Acer pseudoplatanus. And if you're referring to a planetree in North America, you're referring to the hybrid Platanus x acerifolia (to be profiled in the next blog). Ugh! Oh how I wish things were simpler...

So what's so special about sycamores? Well, they're relatively unique trees in that they're riparian or riverbank species, and at the same time they have incredibly weak root systems. How do I know that, without ever having seen a root system of a sycamore? Well...look at the trees. Next time you're walking along a stream or a river with sycamores growing, look at the shape of the trees. Chances are, none of them are straight up and down. This is because when the trees were young and growing along the bank of the river, the freeze-thaw (or extreme floods of the rainy season) cycles caused the damming of ice up against the trunk of the tree. The roots weren't strong enough to support the tree upright, so it started to lean the same direction that the ice was pushing. If you look at a mature sycamore, it still has the lean of the direction of the river or stream. Extreme flooding would do the same thing; it would wash away the soil near the base of the tree causing the trunk to shift, and lean the direction of water flow. If you see a sycamore growing out all by itself in a big farm field and it leans, chances are the farmer has reclaimed the land where the river or stream used to be and put pipes to drain away the water instead. That lone sycamore is the only remnant of the forest that used to be present.

There are two main uses of sycamore trees today. The first is as an ornamental wood for a very specific purpose: in butcher blocks. Many wooden cutting boards are also made out of sycamore wood. It is strong and very durable, with very coarse grain that shows a nice pattern when stained and sealed. The coarse grain makes it very difficult to work with, but is still sometimes used in constructing furniture. The other main use of the tree is as a biofuel crop, since initially it grows very quickly and accumulates a lot of carbon. The wood of the tree can be burned in an oxygen-poor environment to make charcoal, and then burned again for fuel. Not necessarily the cleanest method of energy generation, but certainly better than burning coal (and charcoal could be burned in many of the pre-existing coal plants, providing there was enough charcoal to make it worthwhile!).

Saturday, November 2, 2013

BLOG RERUN: Happy Diwali!

(a version of this blog post was originally published on November 13, 2012)

Diwali is officially tomorrow, but I might not be in a position to post a new blog tomorrow. Instead of posting a Diwali celebration blog a day late, I figured it's better to post it a day early! Happy Diwali! :)

Species name: Tagetes sp. (probably T. patula)

Common name: marigold

Location: picture 1 is from Teaching College English (click HERE), picture 2 is from eHow (click HERE), and picture 3 is from the WikiJunior Flower Alphabet (click HERE)

Tomorrow is the first day of a five-day celebration by Hindus, Sikhs, and Jains in India and around the world. It is known as the "festival of lights" or Diwali (or Deepavali, depending on what part of India you're from). I tried following how the exact date of Diwali is determined for any given year, but got lost after the mention of lunar days. For us non-Indians, it's sometime between mid-October and mid-November. This year it happens to be on November 3rd. So how does this relate to a blog about plants, when it's a celebration of lights? Well, read on...

With over a billion people of the world celebrating Diwali, and with it being the single most important holiday to Indians around the world, there is an enormous demand for decorations. Just like North Americans decorate for Christmas or Hanukkah (or whatever else you celebrate), Indians decorate for Diwali. And like any true Indian celebration, A LOT of flowers are involved. In fact, there are so many flowers involved in any Diwali household celebration that the demand for flowers in India skyrockets; a flower arrangement selling for 30-50 rupees on any non-Diwali day would sell for between 700-900 rupees tomorrow. I encourage you to name any other commodity in the world whose value increases that much over such a short time, just to fall right back down to what it was all within a week. There are people in India who make their entire year's salary in one week. It's an incredible phenomenon! So how does this relate to marigolds? Well, quite unusually, it turns out.

Normally, the celebration of Diwali involves decorating the ground in a specific pattern with rose petals. Because of the unfavourable weather earlier this year, roses are in short supply compared to what they usually are, and on a day like Diwali when there's a surge in demand, flower suppliers just can't keep up. They knew well in advance that there would be no way they could meet demands, and so substitutes needed to be made. Marigolds were always popular flowers around Diwali because of their colours, but this year they became extra valuable. The value of marigolds increased almost one hundred-fold for this year's celebration alone! Could there be a day that climate change causes a huge shift in how festivals like Diwali are celebrated? Perhaps. The flower supply market in Kenya, one of the leading producers of carnations, roses, gerbera daisies and baby's breath worldwide, has already started to suffer as a result of increased incidence of drought. While the temperature is not expected to change much (only 2-3 degrees Celcius by the year 2100; compare that to a projected 7-8 degree change for the Arctic), the incidence of severe weather patterns is expected to increase. Drought will be more widespread and worse than it is now, and when there is drought relief it is expected to be in the form of violent storms. Not exactly weather conducive for flower growing, in a greenhouse or not.

Marigolds themselves are some of the most highly praised garden plants worldwide. They are native to North and South America depending on species, but were spread worldwide for ornamental plant use by early world explorers. Marigold petals are added to a wide variety of food items for the golden colour they give off, especially when fed to chickens. It brightens the colour of the egg yolk and makes the egg appear (to humans; chickens don't care about the colour of their yolks) to be more nutritious even though the nutrition hasn't been changed at all. Marigold petals are also popular in herbal teas to balance out the bright pink colour of so many other herbal tea ingredients (like rosehips or hibiscus petals). The roots of marigold plants are full of antifungal and antibacterial chemicals called thiophenes, which are starting to be investigated as chemicals of possible medicinal value. The roots have been used for centuries by Native South Americans as treatment for fungal infections of their agricultural crops with moderate success. Unfortunately, North Americans and Europeans found out this antimicrobial effect the hard way; when planted near legumes, which rely very heavily on microbial activity in the soil, the yield of the crop decreases dramatically. The scent of marigold flowers is so pungent that it repels a wide variety of crop predators, and so can be useful when planted beside non-legume crops like tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant and peppers. The flowers of the marigold plant also attract pollinators, some of which will also eat insect parasites of crop plants like aphids. A great story of insect-plant mutualisms!

Happy Diwali to all of my blog readers in India, and Indians living around the world! Diwali ki Subhkamnayein! That's the best I can keyboard doesn't speak Hindi :)