Speaking of Food: A Special Issue of American Journal of Botany

“At the center of discussions about agriculture and the future of food in a changing climate are the plants that we grow for food, fiber, and fuels and the science that is required to understand, improve, and conserve them.”

That is a line from the opening paragraph of the introduction to the October 2014 issue of American Journal of Botany, Speaking of Food: Connecting Basic and Applied Plant Science. In this Special Issue, the American Journal of Botany – inspired by Elizabeth Kellogg’s 2012 presidential address to the Botanical Society of America – endeavors to demonstrate ways in which basic plant biology research can benefit the applied science of agriculture, and how this “use-inspired” research can help address the challenges of feeding a growing population in a changing climate.

speaking of food_ajb

In its 100 year history, the American Journal of Botany, has published hundreds of papers that serve to advance agricultural and horticultural sciences. However, this connection has not always been made explicit. With this special issue, they are hoping to change that by “illustrat[ing] that ‘basic’ and ‘applied’ are not two discrete categories, nor are they even extremes of a linear continuum.” “Basic” research can be used to answer questions and solve “human-centered problems,” and “applied” research can “illuminate general biological principles.” When both approaches to scientific inquiry come together, everyone benefits.

I originally chose to study horticulture because I was interested in growing food in a sustainable and responsible manner. During my studies, I gained a greater interest in the broader field of horticulture as well as an interest in botany. After receiving a degree in horticultural and crop sciences, I decided to pursue a Master’s Degree. I wanted to study green roof technology, an applied science that incorporated my interests in both horticulture and sustainability. The school that I ended up going to did not have a horticulture program, so I enrolled in a biological sciences program. It was there, while doing applied science research on green roofs and taking mostly botany related science courses, that I deepened my love for science and began to see how basic science had applications, not just in horticulture and agriculture, but in all aspects of life.

That explains my great interest in this recent issue of American Journal of Botany, and why I was so excited when I heard about it. Using science to understand and address the challenges that we face today (challenges that, many of which, are a result of human activity) is intriguing to me. Based on my interest in horticulture, food production, and sustainability, establishing and advancing science-based sustainable agriculture is incredibly important to me. And so I have decided that, over the next several posts, I will provide reviews of each of the 17 articles in AJB’s Special Issue. Each post will offer a brief overview of one or more articles, outlining the basic premises and findings of each study. If your interest is peaked, and I hope it will be, you can go on to read more about each of the studies. The Introduction to this issue gives an excellent overview of the articles, so I won’t include that here. I’ll just dive right in. If you feel inclined, read ahead, otherwise stay tuned and I will preview you it all for you over the next several weeks.

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Palm Oil Production and Its Threat to Biodiversity

Improvements in cultivated varieties of oil palms could have devastating ecological effects. This is according to an article published in a recent issue of Science. Doom doesn’t have to be the story though, if – as the authors suggest – governments and conservation organizations take proper action to safeguard vulnerable land.

Palm oil is a versatile vegetable oil derived from the fruits of oil palms. It has myriad culinary uses and is also used in the manufacturing of cosmetics and the production of biofuel. Oil palms have high yields, easily outyielding other major oil crops like soybean, rapeseed, and sunflower. Oil palms are grown in the tropics in developing countries where land and labor are inexpensive. As human population grows, demand for palm oil increases. To meet the demand, tropical forests are converted into agricultural land. The majority of palm oil production occurs in Southeast Asian countries like Indonesia and Malaysia. However, palm oil production is expected to increase in African and Latin American countries as new varieties better suited for these particular environments become available.

oil world graph

Genome sequencing of oil palm may allow plant breeders to develop varieties that are disease resistant, drought tolerant, and able to grow in salinized soils. Already making its debut, though, is a new variety of oil palm that is boasting yields from 4 tons to as much as 10 tons per hectare. Higher yielding varieties could be the solution to preventing more tropical forests from being converted into oil palm plantations. Or could they lead to more growth? Intrigued by the development of improved varieties of oil palms and other tropical crops, the authors of this study developed computer models in order to determine what this might mean for the future.

African Oil Palm (Elaeis guineensis) is the species of oil palm most commonly grown for palm oil production.

African Oil Palm (Elaeis guineensis) is the species of oil palm most commonly grown in palm oil production (photo credit: www.eol.org)

The results of simulations suggested two possible outcomes: one potentially positive and the other largely negative. On the positive side, “an assumed 56% increase in oil palm yield per tree in Malaysia and Indonesia” could result in ” around 400,000 hectares of agricultural land…taken out of production in Brazil, India, and Canada.” This is because less land will be needed to meet the demand, and the increased availability and resulting lower price of palm oil will outcompete other oil crops (like rapeseed, which is one of Canada’s main agricultural crops). However, the author’s seem to assume that agricultural land taken out of production will be restored back into natural lands. I find this argument hard to accept. Anecdotal evidence suggests that if farmers are no longer making a profit from a particular crop, they will choose to either grow something more profitable or sell their land to developers. A concerted effort would have to be made to capture this land and ensure that it remain uncultivated and undeveloped. Also, as the author’s point out, restoring land in Canada is very different from restoring or protecting tropical land. Loss of biodiversity is a much greater risk in areas where the level of biodiversity per hectare is high.

On the negative side, higher yields can encourage increased production. Tropical forest conversion may accelerate if farmers see an opportunity for growth. Additionally, improved varieties may increase palm oil production in African and Latin American countries, resulting again in more land conversion and deforestation. This effect may also become the story, not just for oil palms, but for cacao, eucalyptus, coffee, and other tropical crops as varietal improvements are achieved.

Oil Palm Friuits (photo credit: www.eol.org)

Oil Palm Friuits (photo credit: www.eol.org)

In light of this predicted consequence, the authors of this study recommend that governments, working together with conservation organizations and industry associations, regulate the conversion of agricultural lands and ensure that certain areas are specifically set aside for conservation. This means that “models of the drivers of environmental change” must be developed that “incorporate feedbacks at a range of scales” so that measures can be put into place to address “the unintended negative consequences of technical advances.”

More information on sustainable palm oil production can be found here.

Our Backyard Farm and Garden Show: Fall 2014

I had every intention of documenting this year’s garden more thoroughly, but as things tend to go, the days got busy and the year got away from me. Now here we are in mid-October, still waiting for the first frost but accepting its imminence, watching reluctantly as another growing season comes to a close. We took several pictures but few notes, so what follows is a series of photos and a few reflections on what transpired this past year in, what Flora likes to call, Our Backyard Farm and Garden Show.

Abundance

Abundance

I guess I should start at the beginning. Last year I was living in an apartment. I was growing things in two small flower beds and a few containers on my patio. That had been my story for about a decade – growing what I could on porches and patios and in flower beds of various apartments in a few different parts of the country. At one point I was living in an apartment with no space at all to grow anything, and so I attempted to start a garden in the backyard of an abandoned, neighboring house – geurilla gardening style – but that didn’t go so well. At another location I had a plot at a community garden. The three years I spent there were fun, but definitely not as nice as stepping outside my door and into my garden.

Earlier this year, I moved in with Flora. She was renting a house with a yard, so when I joined her, I also joined her yard. Flora is a gardener, too; she had spent her first year here growing things in the existing garden spaces but wanted to expand. So we did. We enlarged three beds considerably and built four raised beds and two compost bins. We also got permission to grow things in the neighbor’s raised beds. And that’s how our growing season started – coalescence and expansion.

Then summer happened. It came and went, actually. Most days were spent just trying to keep everything alive – moving sprinklers around, warding off slugs and other bugs, and staking things up. Abundance was apparent pretty much immediately. We started harvesting greens (lettuce, kale, collards, mustards) en masse. Shortly after that, cucumbers appeared in concert with beets, turnips, basil, ground cherries, eggplants, tomatoes, carrots, peppers, etc. Even now – anticipating that first frost – the harvest continues. We are uncertain whether or not we will remain here for another growing season; regardless, we are considering the ways in which we might expand in case we do. Despite the amount of work that has gone into our garden so far, we still want to do more. Apparently, our love of gardening knows no bounds.

A view of our side yard. It is pretty shady in this section of the yard but we were still able to grow kale and collards along with several different flowers and herbs.

A view of our side yard. It is pretty shady in this bed but we were still able to grow kale and collards along with several different flowers and herbs.

 

We grew several varieties of lettuce. This is one that I was most excited about. It's called 'Tennis Ball.' It is a miniature butterhead type that Thomas Jefferson loved and used to grow in his garden at Monticello.

We grew many varieties of lettuce. This is one that I was most excited about. It’s called ‘Tennis Ball.’ It is a miniature butterhead type that Thomas Jefferson loved and grew in his garden at Monticello.

 

'Shanghai Green' Pak Choy

‘Shanghai Green’ Pak Choy

 

'Purple Top White Globe' Turnips

‘Purple Top White Globe’ Turnips

 

A miniature purple carrot with legs.

A miniature purple carrot with legs.

 

Two cucumbers hanging on a makeshift  trellis. I can't remember what variety they are. This why I need to remember to take better notes.

Two cucumbers hanging on a makeshift trellis. I can’t remember what variety they are. This why I need to remember to take better notes.

 

'San Marzano' Roma Tomato. We grew three other varieties of tomatoes along with this one.

‘San Marzano’ Roma Tomatoes. We grew three other varieties of tomatoes along with this one.

 

The flower of a 'Hong Hong' sweet potato. We haven't harvested these yet, so we're not sure what we're going to get. Sweet potatoes are not commonly grown in southern Idaho, so we're anxious to see how they do.

The flower of a ‘Hong Hong’ sweet potato. We have not harvested these yet, so we are not sure what we are going to get. Sweet potatoes are not commonly grown in southern Idaho, so we are anxious to see how they do.

 

We grew lots of flowers, too. 'Black Knight' scabiosa (aka pincushion flower)was one of our favorites.

We grew lots of flowers, too. ‘Black Knight’ scabiosa (aka pincushion flower) was one of our favorites.

 

Some flower's we grew specifically for the bees, like this bee's friend (Phacelia hastate).

We grew some flowers specifically for the bees, like this bee’s friend (Phacelia tanacetifolia).

 

We grew other flowers for eating, like this nasturtium.

We grew other flowers for eating, like this nasturtium.

 

Even the cat loves being in the garden...

Even the cat loves being in the garden…

It has been an incredible year. “Abundant” is the best word that I can think of to describe it. We have learned a lot through successes and failures alike, and we are anxious to do it all again (and more) next year. Until then we are getting ready to settle in for the winter – to give ourselves and our garden a much needed rest. For more pictures and semi-regular updates on how our garden is growing, follow Awkward Botany on tumblr and twitter, and feel free to share your gardening adventures in the comments section below.

22 + Botanical Terms for Fruits

First off, let’s get one thing straight – tomatoes are fruits. Now that that is settled, guess what is also a fruit? This:

(photo credit: wikimedia commons)

(photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Yep. It’s a dandelion fluff. More accurately, it is a dandelion fruit with a pappus attached to it. Botanically speaking, a fruit is the seed-bearing, ripened ovary of a flowering plant. Other parts of the plant may be incorporated into the fruit, but the important distinction between fruits and other parts of a plant is that a seed or seeds are present. In fact, the purpose of fruits is to protect and distribute seeds. Which explains why tomatoes are fruits, right? (And, for that matter, the dandelion fluff as well.) So why the tired argument over whether or not a tomato is a fruit or a vegetable? This article may help explain that.

Before going into types of fruits, it may be important to understand some basic fruit anatomy. Pericarp is a term used to describe the tissues of a fruit surrounding the seed(s). It mainly refers to the wall of a ripened ovary, but it has also been used in reference to fruit tissues that are derived from other parts of the flower. Pericarps consist of three layers (although not all fruits have all layers): endocarp, mesocarp, and exocarp (also known as epicarp). The pericarps of true fruits consist of only ovarian tissue, while the pericarps of accessory fruits consist of other flower parts such as sepals, petals, receptacles, etc.

Fruits can be either fleshy or dry. Tomatoes are fleshy fruits, and dandelion fluffs are dry fruits. Dry fruits can be further broken down into dehiscent fruits and indehiscent fruits. Dehiscent fruits – like milkweeds and poppies – break open as they reach maturity, releasing the seeds. Indehiscent fruits – like sunflowers and maples – remain closed at maturity, and seeds remain contained until the outer tissues rot or are removed by some other agent.

Most fruits are simple fruits, fruits formed from a single ovary or fused ovaries. Compound fruits are formed in one of two ways. Separate carpels in a single flower can fuse to form a fruit, which is called an aggregate fruit; or all fruits in an inflorescence can fuse to form a single fruit, which is called a multiple fruit. A raspberry is an example of an aggregate fruit, and a pineapple is an example of a multiple fruit.

Additional terms used to describe fruit types:

Berry – A familiar term, berries are fleshy fruits with soft pericarp layers. Grapes, tomatoes, blueberries, and cranberries are examples of berries.

Pome – Pomes are similar to berries but have a leathery endocarp. Apples, pears, and quinces are examples of pomes. When you are eating an apple and you reach the “core,” you have reached the endocarp. Most – if not all – pomes are accessory fruits because they consist of parts of flowers in addition to the ovarian wall, such as – in the case of apples and pears – the receptacle.

Drupe – Drupes are also similar to berries but have hardened endocarps. Peaches, plums, cherries, and apricots are examples of drupes. A “pit” consists of a hardened endocarp and its enclosed seed.

Pepo – Pepos are also berry-like but have tough exocarps referred to as rinds. Pumpkins, melons, and cucumbers are examples of pepos.

Pumpkins are pepos.

Pumpkins are pepos.

Hesperidium – Another berry-like fruit but with a leathery exocarp. Oranges, lemons, and tangerines are examples of this type of fruit.

Caryopsis – An indehiscent fruit in which the seed coat fuses with the fruit wall and becomes nearly indistinguishable. Corn, oats, and wheat are examples of this type of fruit.

Achene – An indehiscent fruit in which the seed and the fruit wall do not fuse and remain distinguishable. Sunflowers and dandelions are examples of achenes.

Samara – An achene with wings attached. Maples, elms, and ashes all produce samaras. Remember as a kid finding maple fruits on the ground, throwing them into the air, and calling them “helicopters.” Those were samaras.

The fruits of red maple, Acer rubrum (photo credit: eol.org)

The fruits of red maple, Acer rubrum (photo credit: eol.org)

Nut – An indehiscent fruit in which the pericarp becomes hard at maturity. Hazelnuts, chestnuts, and acorns are examples of nuts.

Follicle – Dehiscent fruits that break apart on a single side. Milkweeds, peonies, and columbines are examples of follicles.

Legume – Dehiscent fruits that break apart on multiple sides. Beans and peas are examples of legumes.

Capsule – This term describes a number of dehiscent fruits. It differs from follicle and legume in that it is derived from multiple carpels. Capsules open in several ways, including along lines of fusion, between lines of fusion, into top and bottom halves, etc. The fruits of iris, poppy, and primrose are examples of capsules.

Poppy flower and fruit. Poppy fruits are called capsules.

Poppy flower and fruit. Poppy fruits are called capsules.

Flowers and fruits are key to identifying plants. Learning to recognize these structures will help you immensely when you want to know what you are looking at. And now that it is harvest season, you can impress your friends by calling fruits by their proper names. Pepo pie, anyone?