Article: The Wildest Idea on Earth

Imagine living in close proximity to numerous national parks and being “enveloped by connected [wildlife] corridors” that lead to these national parks – or as Edward O. Wilson envisions them, “national biodiversity parks, a new kind of park that won’t let species vanish.” Wilson – a renowned biologist, entomologist, conservationist and Pulitzer Prize winning author – has this vision and believes that it can be accomplished within the next 50 years. Not only can it be accomplished, but it must be in order to thwart the ongoing sixth mass extinction event. To be precise, half the planet must be set aside, restored to its natural state, and protected in perpetuity. A series of large parks connected by continuous corridors – or “Long Landscapes” – is the way Wilson and other conservationists insist this must be done. Tony Hiss explores the “Half Earth” concept in a feature article in the current issue of Smithsonian entitled, The Wildest Idea on Earth (the online version is entitled, Can the World Really Set Aside Half of the Planet for Wildlife?).

Hiss, accompanied by Wilson, visits three locations in North America where this vision is playing out. Their first stop is Nokuse Plantation in the Florida panhandle, where businessman, M.C. Davis, has purchased tens of thousands of acres with the intention of restoring them to native longleaf pine forests, a plant community that has been reduced by 97% due to human activity. Intact longleaf pine forests are incredibly diverse – as many as 60 different species of living things can be found in one square yard – so protecting and restoring them is an ecological imperative.

Longleaf Pine, Pinus palustris (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Longleaf Pine – Pinus palustris (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Later, Davis flies Hiss and Wilson to New England in his private jet. There Hiss discovers a seemingly accidental series of connected natural and restored landscapes nearly 200 miles in length. This corridor, and the land that surrounds it, highlights the need for private land owners to be on board with the Half Earth vision, setting aside their land for conservation in exchange for tax breaks and other incentives.

The importance of private land owners cooperating with this vision comes into play again when Hiss visits the Flying D Ranch near Bozeman, Montana. This 113,613 acre ranch (just a small fraction of the land owned by Ted Turner) is a private ranch that “promote[s] ecological integrity” – it is a wildlife refuge that also turns a profit. Fortunately, the “D” sits within larger wildlife corridor projects – Yellowstone to Yukon and Western Wildway Network highlighting Wilson’s vision of current sanctuaries being incorporated into larger networks of protected lands.

Hiss notes that as these three projects grow and connect to “the great, unbroken forests across all of northern Canada,” North America will become enclosed in “Long Landscapes” with “additional and more inland routes to be added later.” The sooner these corridors and parks are developed the better, because as global climate changes, species will need to move north, south, east, or west as their ecological and biological needs dictate.

It seems a lofty goal. Humans, after all, have spread themselves across the entire planet, modifying every environment as they go – oftentimes to an irreparable extreme. But knowing this, and recognizing that we are only just beginning to feel the effects of climate change, drastic measures to preserve what is left of this planet’s biological diversity become imperative. Hiss’s article is encouraging in this regard. Yes, the places he visited were confined to North America. A more accurate picture could be constructed by incorporating greater international diversity. However, most promising is that the people he talked to were not political figures. Most of them weren’t even professional scientists. They were businessmen, working people, land owners, citizen conservationists. Wealthy, yes. But people who, at some point in their life journeys, saw a need and wanted to help. The story of M.C. Davis illustrates this best of all. If the information is put out there in a manner that people can relate to, they will latch on to it and offer assistance. For all whose goal is to protect half of the earth (or even just some small portion of it) for the sake of non-human life, this article should give some hope.

Tree growing along a creek bed at The Nature Institute, a privately owned nature preserve in Godfrey, Illinois

Tree growing along a creek bed at The Nature Institute, a privately owned nature preserve in Godfrey, Illinois

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Succulent Blogs on Tumblr

About four months ago, Awkward Botany branched out into the world of Tumblr, a short-form blogging platform with a heavy social media bent. I haven’t put as much time into it as I would like (and I still have lots to learn about it), but so far the time I have spent there has been entertaining and informative.

One discovery I have made is that there are lots of tumblogs dedicated to botany and horticulture. This shouldn’t come as a surprise though; there are tumblogs concerning pretty much any topic you can think of. Plus, people love plants, so why shouldn’t there be tumblogs aplenty devoted to them?

One subsection of plant-related tumblogs that I have particularly enjoyed following are the cactus and succulent themed ones. In the botanical world, which is replete with diversity, there is no shortage in the variety of colors, textures, and forms to be found. Cacti and succulents are especially fascinating in this regard. Now thanks to Tumblr, hours can be spent admiring them while sitting comfortably in front of a computer screen. I say that with a hint of sarcasm, of course. Seeing these plants in person (either in their natural habitat or in cultivation) would obviously be better, but when that option is not available, the internet is the next best thing.

Over the past few months I have collected a list of cactus and succulent related tumblogs. Below are my favorites. Some of them consist exclusively of photos grabbed from other sites, while others are composed of personal photos along with a mix of other photos. A few of them also offer advice and take questions concerning cactus and succulent cultivation.

what a nice little succulent

What A Nice Little Succulent a blog about growing succulents in a Brooklyn apartment…from seed! What’s not to like? Great blog name, too.

jacculents

Jack + Succulents – Jack grows succulents in Malaysia and shares advice on how to cultivate and care for them. He also likes coming up with clever names, like Jacculents and Jacktus.

cactguy

Cactguy – Speaking of clever names, Cactguy is a blog produced by a self-proclaimed “cactus fiend.” His pictures are labeled so that you can not only admire the plants but learn the names of them as well.

cactiheart

Not Cact-I, Cact-Us – Yes, the clever names abound in the cactus and succulent loving community.

succulent lover

Succulent Lover – A love for succulents pure and simple.

These five blogs barely scratch the surface. There are lots more great ones out there, including Succulents Forever!, Sweet Succulents, and Succulent Love. An excellent one if you are looking for more information about succulents is Cactus Man Dan, which is written by an obsessed cactus and succulent collector in England. He can help you answer any questions you may have about growing and identification.

Do you know of any other cactus and succulent (or plants in general) tumblogs that you would like to recommend? If so, leave your recommendations in the comment section below. And if you feel so inclined, please follow Awkward Botany on Tumblr and/or Twitter. Lastly, with this post I am introducing the new Reviews and Recommendations tab. Go there to read my past review and recommendation posts, and stay tuned for many more to come. 

 

Ethnobotany: Cinchona, Quinine, and Malaria

Most folks these days who enjoy a gin and tonic on a warm summer day probably aren’t stricken or threatened with malaria, but the first partakers of this popular cocktail were. Their drinks, however, had a much larger helping of one particular ingredient, quinine. SAMSUNG In the early 1600’s while exploring Peru, Jesuit missionaries from Spain were introduced to a tree, the bark of which could treat malaria. That tree was the cinchona tree. At that time malaria was a major issue in Europe, and so the Jesuits brought some cinchona bark back to Spain in hopes of saving some lives. The cinnamon-colored bark was administered by grinding it into a powder and serving it in sweetened water. This treatment became a big success and eventually spread throughout the continent. Exports of cinchona bark increased, much of which were coming from forests in the border region of Ecuador and Peru. Over time the cinchona bark (also called Jesuit’s bark and Peruvian bark) became less available, either due to overharvesting or because the Peruvians began to highly regulate its exportation. In order to fill the demand and ensure a steady supply, Dutch and British explorers established cinchona plantations in Southeast Asia.

Bark of Cinchona officinalis (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Bark of Cinchona officinalis (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Malaria is caused by protozoan parasites in the genus Plasmodium. Humans become infected with the parasites when they are bitten by infected mosquitos (Anopheles spp.). The parasites enter the bloodstream and liver and begin to reproduce. People with malaria experience flu-like symptoms and, if not treated quickly and properly, risk death. While early Europeans did not know it at the time, the cinchona bark treatment worked because it contained quinine, an antimalarial compound, which suppresses and destroys malarial parasites.

Quinine is an alkaloid (a class of nitrogen-containing organic compounds) that cinchona trees produce as a defense against insect herbivory. Many plants produce alkaloids for this reason, and these alkaloids, when discovered and isolated by humans, have proven to be quite useful. Caffeine, nicotine, morphine, and strychnine are all examples of alkaloids. Quinine was isolated from cinchona bark in the 1820’s and eventually produced synthetically in the 1940’s. It is still used today to treat malaria, although other antimalarial drugs are now favored due to greater effectiveness and fewer side effects. Today, products containing quinine are available for the treatment of leg cramps; however, the United States Food and Drug Administration has stated that they have not approved quinine for this use and advise consumers to avoid such products.

Cinchona is a genus of evergreen trees and shrubs in the family Rubiaceae (the coffee family) that includes around 23 species. It is native to the Andes of South America and mountains in the southern portion of Central America and often occurs in cloud forests, forests that are characterized by regular, canopy-level cloud cover. Cinchona flowers are tubular, pollinated largely by butterflies and hummingbirds, and come in white, pink, and purple. The fruits of Cinchona are dry, woody capsules containing small, flat, papery seeds that are wind dispersed. C. pubescens, C. calisaya, and C. officinalis are the main species that have been cultivated for quinine production.

The flowers of Cinchona pubescens (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

The flowers of Cinchona pubescens (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

In the 19th century when Europeans were busy colonizing places like India and Africa, having a readily available source of cinchona bark was vital to their success. They may have had the guns and ammunition necessary for conquest, but even so, they would not have been able to withstand the plague of malaria parasites without regular doses of quinine. But quinine is bitter stuff. Served in sweetened soda water helped it go down. Add a ration of gin, even better. Imperialism was secured. Just something to think about the next time you’re mixing yourself a gin and tonic on a mid-September day.

Resources:

Encyclopedia of Life: Cinchona

University of Minnesota James Ford Bell Library: Cinchona Bark

McGraw-Hill Education: Using Bark to Cure the Bite

Wikipedia: Cinchona, Quinine, Jesuit’s Bark

Slate: The Imperial Cocktail

One Species at a Time Podcast: Quinine Tree

Kudzu Ate the South…Now Looks North

In 1876, an Asian vine was introduced to the people of the United States at a centennial celebration in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It was a fairly benign looking vine, with its leaves of three and its cluster of sweet pea like flowers, but its exotic appeal must have been quite enticing, because it took off…and not just in popularity.

The plant that caught the eye of these early Americans was called kudzu (or kuzu in Japanese). It is a plant in the genus Pueraria in the family Fabaceae (the pea family). The plants first introduced to the U.S. were likely to have consisted of more than a single species such as P. montana, P. lobata, P. edulis, and others, or were hybrids of these species. They were initially lauded for their ornamental value but soon after were recognized for their potential as animal feed. By the 1930’s, when soil erosion had become a major issue, kudzu was deployed by the U.S. government to combat it. At least 85 million government-funded kudzu seedlings later, and the southeastern portion of the United States had secured a future dominated by this relentless and unforgiving vine.

Innocent and harmless is how kudzu must have first appeared, especially to those looking for a fast growing, large-leaved, vining plant to provide quick shade for porches, offering relief from the sun during those sweltering southern summers. Little did they know, however, if left unchecked, that prized vine could engulf homes and outbuildings, cover and pull down trees and utility poles, and choke out crops and pastures in the matter of a single growing season.

(photo credit: eol.org)

(photo credit: eol.org)

Kudzu was added to the Federal Noxious Weed List in 1997, long after it had established itself throughout the southeastern U.S. It now covers more than 3 million hectares, spreading at a pace of about 50,000 hectares (120,000 acres) per year. It is said that a kudzu vine can grow up to a foot in a single day or about 60 feet in a growing season. It is a twining vine, wrapping itself around any upright structure it can access and relying on that support in order to advance upwards. This gives it the advantage of using more resources for growth and expansion of both roots and shoots rather than on the resource demanding task of producing woody stems. Like other members of the pea family, it gets much of its nitrogen from the atmosphere through a process called nitrogen fixation. Because of this, kudzu can thrive in nutrient poor soils. Kudzu is also drought-tolerant, has leaves that follow the sun throughout the day in order to maximize photosynthesis, reproduces clonally by layering (stems in contact with the ground grow roots and detach from the parent plant), and (in North America) is free from the pests and diseases commonly associated with it in its native habitat. For these reasons and others, kudzu has become one of the most notorious, pervasive, and ecologically harmful weeds in the U.S., costing hundreds of millions of dollars in damages every year.

A close-up of kudzu flowers (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

A close-up of kudzu flowers (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

kudzu foliage and flowers

Foliage and flowers of kudzu (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

One glance at what kudzu has done in the southeastern states, and it is obvious that it is some kind of superweed. I saw firsthand just how overwhelming it can be as I drove through Mississippi several years ago. I didn’t even have to stop the car to investigate. It was easily apparent that it was the dominant species, enveloping every tree for miles alongside the highway. Currently, kudzu can be found in every county in Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. But kudzu has a limitation; it doesn’t care much for freezing temperatures. Even though it has been present in parts of northern states – like Ohio, New Jersey, and Delaware – for a while now, it has generally been limited to milder locations, and it certainly doesn’t thrive in the same way that it does in the subtropical climates of the southern states. But that is changing, because the climate is changing.

Average global temperatures increased by about 1.53° F between 1880 and 2012, and this gradual increase is expected to continue for the foreseeable future. Biologists and ecologists are monitoring changes in climate closely in order to observe and predict changes in the biology and ecology of our planet. Invasive species are high on the list of concerns, as climate is often a major limitation to their spread. Now that kudzu has been found in Marblehead, Massachusetts and Ontario, Canada, the fear of kudzu climbing north is becoming a reality.

Kudzu is incredibly difficult to control. It does not respond to many herbicides, and the herbicides that do affect it must be applied repeatedly over a long time period. It is an excellent forage plant, so utilizing grazing animals to keep it in check can be effective. Those who have succumbed to kudzu, acknowledging that it is here to stay, have found uses for it, including making baskets, paper, biofuel, and various food items. A compound extracted from the kudzu root is also being studied as a possible treatment for alcoholism. Kudzu has long been valued for its culinary and medicinal uses in Asia, so it is no surprise that uses would be found for it in North America. However, North Americans who embrace kudzu are taking a defeatist approach. That is, “if we can’t get rid of it, we may as well find a use for it.” This, however, should not negate nor distract from the damage it has caused and continues to cause local ecosystems and the ecological threat that it poses to areas where it is just now being introduced or may soon be introduced due to our warming climate.

Millions of dollars are spent every year to address the effects kudzu has on utility poles (phot credi: eol.org)

Millions of dollars are spent every year to remove kudzu from utility poles and replace poles pulled down by kudzu (photo credit: eol.org)

References:

Encyclopedia of Life: Pueraria Montana

Wikipedia: Kudzu in the United States

Max Shores: The Amazing Story of Kudzu

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: Conservation in a Changing Climate

NASA Earth Observatory: How Much More Will the Earth Warm?

Bloomberg: Kudzu That Ate U.S. South Heads North as Climate Changes