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Posts Tagged ‘botany

“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness”*…

 

Forest

 

Consider a forest: One notices the trunks, of course, and the canopy. If a few roots project artfully above the soil and fallen leaves, one notices those too, but with little thought for a matrix that may spread as deep and wide as the branches above. Fungi don’t register at all except for a sprinkling of mushrooms; those are regarded in isolation, rather than as the fruiting tips of a vast underground lattice intertwined with those roots. The world beneath the earth is as rich as the one above.

For the past two decades, Suzanne Simard, a professor in the Department of Forest & Conservation at the University of British Columbia, has studied that unappreciated underworld. Her specialty is mycorrhizae: the symbiotic unions of fungi and root long known to help plants absorb nutrients from soil. Beginning with landmark experiments describing how carbon flowed between paper birch and Douglas fir trees, Simard found that mycorrhizae didn’t just connect trees to the earth, but to each other as well.

Simard went on to show how mycorrhizae-linked trees form networks, with individuals she dubbed Mother Trees at the center of communities that are in turn linked to one another, exchanging nutrients and water in a literally pulsing web that includes not only trees but all of a forest’s life. These insights had profound implications for our understanding of forest ecology—but that was just the start.

It’s not just nutrient flows that Simard describes. It’s communication. She—and other scientists studying roots, and also chemical signals and even the sounds plant make—have pushed the study of plants into the realm of intelligence. Rather than biological automata, they might be understood as creatures with capacities that in animals are readily regarded as learning, memory, decision-making, and even agency.

Plants communicate, nurture their seedlings– and feel stress.  An interview with Suzanne Simard: “Never Underestimate the Intelligence of Trees.”

Pair with: “Should this tree have the same rights as you?

* John Muir

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As we contemplate cultivation, we might recall that it was on this date in 1602 that The Bodleian Library at Oxford formally opened.  (Sir Thomas Bodley had donated over 2000 books in his personal library to replace the earlier Duke of Glouchester’s (Duke Humphrey’s) Library, which had been dispersed.  Bodley’s bequest was made in 1598; but the full collection wasn’t catalogued and made available until this date in 1602, when the Library reopened with its new name, in honor of its benefactor.  Eight years later, Bodley made a deal with the Stationer’s Company– which licensed [provided copyright] for all publications in England– that a copy of everything licensed should be sent to the Bodleian…  making it a Copyright Depository, the first and now one of six in the UK.)

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The Bodleian’s entrance, with the coats-of-arms of several Oxford colleges

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Written by LW

November 8, 2019 at 1:01 am

“In the end everything is connected”*…

 

Ectomycorrhizal mushroom Dermocybe-1280x720

A fungus known as a Dermocybe forms part of the underground wood wide web that stitches together California’s forests [source]

Research has shown that beneath every forest and wood there is a complex underground web of roots, fungi and bacteria helping to connect trees and plants to one another.

This subterranean social network, nearly 500 million years old, has become known as the “wood wide web.”

Now, an international study has produced the first global map of the “mycorrhizal fungi networks” dominating this secretive world…

Mycorrhizal ecologist Dr Merlin Sheldrake, said, “Plants’ relationships with mycorrhizal fungi underpin much of life on land. This study … provides key information about who lives where, and why. This dataset will help researchers scale up from the very small to the very large.”…

fungus map

The underground network of microbes that connects trees—charted for first time: “Wood Wide Web: trees’ social networks are mapped.”

Read the Nature release that reports the research here.

* José Eduardo Agualusa, The Book of Chameleons

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As we contemplate connection, we might spare a thought for Anders (Andreas) Dahl; he died on this date in 1789.  A botanist and student of Carl Linnaeus, he is the inspiration for, the namesake of, the dahlia flower.

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Dahlia, the flower named after Anders Dahl [source]

 

Written by LW

May 25, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth”*…

 

veg-seeds

For centuries, people in agrarian societies shared seeds to help each other subsist from year to year. Today, thanks to intellectual property rights and often well-intentioned laws, our ability to share seeds is restricted. Realizing this, food activists, garden enthusiasts, and community leaders are trying to make it easier by making seeds available through libraries. Surely there’s nothing controversial about that, right? Actually, there is…

The fascinating history and controversial– but critical– future of seed collection and sharing: “Despite Hurdles, the Seed Library Movement Is Growing.”

* Genesis 1:29 (King James Version)

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As we reap what we sow, we might send flowery birthday greetings to Dukinfield Henry Scott; he was born on this date in 1854.  A leading authority in his time on the structure of fossil plants, and the author of the classic Studies in Fossil Botany, which greatly popularized the subject, he laid the foundations of paleobotany.

200px-Dukinfield_Henry_Scott_1854-1934

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Written by LW

November 28, 2018 at 1:01 am

“The earth laughs in flowers”*…

 

The first flower?

With the incredible diversity of flowers that exist today—from pinprick-sized duckweed to the meters-high blooms of a corpse flower—it’s hard to imagine that they all descend from just a single species. Charles Darwin himself wrung his hands over how flowering plants exploded in diversity early in their evolution. Now, researchers have figured out what the ancestral flower might have looked like. The study may help them uncover how flowers took over the world.

Fossils are the surest way to learn about organisms that lived in the past, but these are hard to come by for early flowers: The earliest preserved blossoms date back some 130 million years—at least 10 million years after the time when researchers think the ancestor of all flowering plants was alive. But there is another way to learn about species that are long gone: by taking a careful look at the forms of their modern descendants, and tracing the history of those forms back to the trunk of their family tree.

To that end, dozens of researchers participating in the eFLOWER project amassed data from scientific papers to create the largest database of the structures of modern flowers, like their sexual organs and the layouts of their petals. The analysis included more than 13,000 data points spanning back to a 1783 description by famous evolutionary biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. Combining those data with a DNA-based family tree and information about fossils, the scientists tested millions of configurations of how flowers may have changed through time to determine the most likely structure and shape for the earliest flowers.

Though the team’s reconstructed ancestral flower [pictured above] doesn’t look radically different than many modern flowers, it does have a combination of traits not found today…

Pick (up) the tale in toto at: “The world’s first flower may have looked like this.”

* Ralph Waldo Emerson

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As we cultivate our gardens, we might send fecund birthday greetings to Sidney Walter Fox; he was born on this date in 1912.  A biochemist interested in the biological origin of life, he studied the synthesis of amino acids from inorganic molecules.  He gave the name proteinoid to the protein-like polymer that results from a mixture of amino acids subjected to such considerable heating as would be present during the volcanic primordial earth (in the “primordial soup” as it’s colloquially known).  Fox observed that when proteinoids or “thermal proteins,” are placed in water, they self-organize into microspheres or protocells, possible precursors of the contemporary living cell.  Fox argued that RNA or DNA need not date back to the origin of life; and he showed that proteinoid “microspheres,” as he called them, exhibit growth, metabolism, reproduction (by budding), and responsiveness to stimuli – all properties of life – though without a genetic system.

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Written by LW

March 24, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Without the potato, the balance of European power might never have tilted north”*…

 

In his economic masterwork The Wealth of Nations, the great Scottish economist Adam Smith reveals himself to be a deep admirer of Irish poor folk. Or, more specifically, their preferred food, potatoes.

“The chairmen, porters, and coal-heavers in London, and those unfortunate women who live by prostitution, the strongest men and the most beautiful women perhaps in the British dominions, are said to be, the greater part of them, from the lowest rank of people in Ireland, who are generally fed with this root,” Smith wrote. “No food can afford a more decisive proof of its nourishing quality, or of its being peculiarly suitable to the health of the human constitution.”

Smith had struck on a connection little recognized even today: that improved labor productivity, surging population, and outmigration were thanks to the potato.

This phenomenon wasn’t confined to Ireland. As The Wealth of Nations went to press, across Europe, the potato was upending the continent’s deep demographic and societal decline. Over the next couple centuries, that reversal turned into a revival. As the late historian William H. McNeill argues, the surge in European population made possible by the potato “permitted a handful of European nations to assert domination over most of the world between 1750 and 1950.”…

More on “the secret to Europe’s success” at “The Global Dominance of White People is Thanks to the Potato.”

* Michael Pollan

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As we speculate on spuds, we might send fertile birthday greetings to Henry Allan Gleason; he was born on this date in 1882.  An ecologist, botanist, and taxonomist who spent most of his career at (and in the field, doing research for) the New York Botanical Garden, he is best remembered for his endorsement of the individualistic or open community concept of ecological succession, and his opposition to Frederic Clements‘ concept of the climax state of an ecosystem.  While his ideas were largely dismissed during his working life (which led him to move into plant taxonomy), his concepts have found favor since late in the twentieth century.

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Written by LW

January 2, 2018 at 1:01 am

“We can learn a lot from trees: they’re always grounded but never stop reaching heavenward”*…

 

Cook pines at U.C. Irvine

… or reaching in some direction, anyway:

California’s Cook pines have a weird characteristic. The towering trees lean conspicuously to one side, always toward the south, as though buffeted by years of strong winds.

But no one really understands why.

So a few years ago, botanists from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo took up the mystery. They collected data from 100 or so trees in California. Every one leaned south.

Then came an “aha” moment.

The scientists reached out to a colleague in Australia and asked him to check the Cook pines there. What he told them was “crazy,” said Jason Johns, who was the lead author of a study drawn from the research.

“The pattern was there,” he said, “just in the opposite direction.” The trees appeared to be leaning toward the Equator, a trait never before documented in the plant kingdom.

Cook pines are native to New Caledonia, an archipelago in the South Pacific, but they’ve spread the globe, including thousands in California. The Cal Poly researchers found that the leaning pattern held with measurements from Cook pines taken on five Continents.

According to their calculations, the odds that it resulted from chance, said Mr. Johns, “were point zero, zero, with like 14 zeros in front of it. It was pretty clear.”

The why, however, remains an open question.

Mr. Johns was reluctant to venture a theory. Pressed, he talked about a cell process called “signaling cascade” and the interplay between growth, sunlight and gravity.

The Cook pine discovery, he offered, was an example of how far science has to go in understanding the way the world works.

“As you know with anything,” he said, “the more you uncover, the more you realize how little you know.”

The biological compass.

* Everett Mamor

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As we orient to due south, we might spare a thought for Herbert Faulkner Copeland; he died on this date in 1968.  An biologist, he delineated four biological kingdoms, instead of the (then-canonical) two for plants and animals.  A decade after Darwin’s Origin of Species, Ernst Haekel had proposed (1866) adding a kingdom, Protista, for microorganisms, but it was never adopted.  Copeland further discriminated among the microorganisms in a paper in 1938, splitting them into two kingdoms: Monera and Protista.  Copeland identified Monera as organisms without nuclei, and Protista as being largely unicellular, with nuclei.  By 1956, he published a book, The Classification of Lower Organisms, still trying “to persuade the community of biologists” to adopt these four kingdoms.  Change came slowly, but continues now beyond Copeland’s ideas to five or six.  He was the son of botanist Edwin B. Copeland, from whom he learned the principles of classification.

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Written by LW

October 15, 2017 at 1:01 am

“If man thinks about his physical or moral state he usually discovers that he is ill”*…

 

As we consider revising our New Year’s resolutions…

The term wellness was popularized in the late 1950s by Dr. Halbert L. Dunn, the so-called father of the movement. Writing in the Canadian Journal of Public Health in 1959, Dunn defined “high-level wellness,” the organizing principle behind his work, as “a condition of change in which the individual moves forward, climbing toward a higher potential of functioning.” Dunn drew a distinction between good health—the absence of illness, or the passive state of homeostasis—and wellness as an active, ongoing pursuit. While good health is objective, dictated by the cold, hard truths of modern medicine, Dunn’s wellness is subjective, based on perception and “the uniqueness of the individual.” Dunn’s ideas have gained a steady following, approaching near-ubiquity in the 21st century—in 2015, the global wellness industry was valued at $3.7 trillion.

But without the emergence of Europe’s middle classes, without the wealth and leisure afforded by the Industrial Revolution, today’s wellness culture wouldn’t exist…

The full– and fascinating– story at “The False Promises of Wellness Culture.”

* Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

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As we reconsider that cleanse, we might spare a thought for Swedish botanist Carl Linné, better known as Carolus Linnaeus, “the Father of Taxonomy,” born this date in 1707.  Historians suggest that the academically-challenged among us can take heart from his story: at the University of Lund, where he studied medicine, he was “less known for his knowledge of natural history than for his ignorance of everything else.” Still, he made is way from Lund to Uppsala, where he began his famous system of plant and animal classification– still in use today.

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Written by LW

January 10, 2017 at 1:01 am

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