Botany in Popular Culture: Black Orchid

Black Orchid coverBlack Orchid is a minor character in the DC Comics universe. She is a superhero with a troubled past, and although she first began appearing in comic books in 1973, her origin was a mystery until 1988 when Neil Gaiman wrote his 3 part mini-series entitled, Black Orchid, revealing that she was a plant-human hybrid created by Dr. Philip Sylvain after combining the DNA of Susan Linden-Thorne with the DNA of an epiphytic orchid.

Curiously, in order to reveal Black Orchid’s origins, Gaiman has the namesake of his series killed off within the first few pages. A master of disguise, Black Orchid is following her standard modus operandi of impersonating someone in order to infiltrate enemy headquarters. In this case she is pretending to be a secretary in Lex Luthor’s employ. While sitting in on a board meeting in which the activities of Luthor’s crime ring are being discussed, her secret identity is revealed, which leads to her being tied to a chair and shot through the head. The bullet doesn’t kill her though since invulnerability to bullets is one of her superpowers (along with flight, super strength, shape shifting, and others). However, the building is also set on fire, and ultimately all that is left of Black Orchid at the end of the night are some charred plant remains.

The story can’t end there though, so as Black Orchid goes up in flames, two of her clones emerge from flower buds in Dr. Sylvain’s greenhouse. They aren’t sure what they are at first. They have some of Susan’s memories but don’t know what to make of them. One of them is a child called Suzy, and the other is an adult who eventually gets the name Flora Black. They find their way to Dr. Sylvain who tells them the story of how they and the original Black Orchid came to be.

Dr. Philip Sylvain tells the Black Orchid clones about how he

Dr. Philip Sylvain tells the Black Orchid clones about his childhood with Susan Linden.

Susan was Dr. Sylvain’s childhood friend. They spent lots of time in the garden together learning about plants and growing things. But Susan was abused regularly by her father and eventually ran away as a teenager. Dr. Sylvain didn’t see her for many years, and in the meantime grew up and became a botanist. At university, Dr. Sylvain studied with Jason Woodrue, Pamela Isley, and Alex Holland, each of whom went on to become plant-human hybrids of some sort (Floronic Man, Poison Ivy, and Swamp Thing respectively). Dr. Sylvain had ambitions of making “people of plants” as part of a plan to save a dying earth. His ambitions remained a dream until Susan returned.

Dr. Sylvain's friends from university who later became plant-hybrid heroes and villians.

Dr. Sylvain’s friends from university who later became notorious plant-human hybrids.

Susan was running away again – this time from her abusive husband, Carl Thorne, who worked for Lex Luthor as an arms dealer. Thorne was in trouble with the law and was ultimately put on trial for his crimes. Susan came to Dr. Sylvain seeking refuge. She was set to testify against her husband, but before she could do that, Thorne killed her. Dr. Sylvain then used Susan’s DNA to create the crime fighting, superhero, Black Orchid.

Coincidentally, as the original Black Orchid is being killed and the two new Black Orchids are emerging, Thorne is finishing his prison sentence and being released. He first goes to Luthor to try and get his job back, but is turned away. Next he goes to Dr. Sylvain’s house where he discovers the newly emerged Black Orchids. He alerts Luthor, who sends a team to hunt down the “super-purple-flower women” and bring them back to the lab for “examination and dissection.” The rest of the series details the Black Orchids’ mission to make sense of who they are and what their purpose in life is while simultaneously contending with Luthor’s men (and Thorne) who are out to get them. Flora Black meets with Batman, Poison Ivy, and Swamp Thing along the way, filling in her origin story and gaining instruction and insight about her future as a superhero.

Gaiman is a popular, prolific, and well-respected author; however, this is the first of his books that I have read. I was impressed by his storytelling and appreciated the departure from the typical superhero vs. villain narrative. Dave McKean did the artwork for this series, which was an excellent decision as his work is also quite atypical for the genre. His illustrations gave the book a mystical feel as the panels altered from standard storytelling sequences to abstract, fantasy pieces.

This Black Orchid storyline continued for several issues after Gaiman’s three part mini-series without Gaiman as the author. Flora Black was eventually killed off. A new version of the Black Orchid character currently appears in the ongoing Justice League Dark series.

Alba Garcia (aka Black Orchid), a member of Justice League Dark

Alba Garcia (aka Black Orchid), a member of Justice League Dark

You can read more about Black Orchid on her Wikipedia and Comic Vine pages.

Botany and Everyday Chemistry

What’s not to love about plants? They provide us with oxygen, food, medicine, fuel, fibers, and countless other things. They help filter groundwater and sequester carbon. They beautify our landscapes and communities. They provide habitat for wildlife and help reduce soil erosion. And the list goes on.

But there is more to plants than meets the eye. There is something deeper within – at their cellular and molecular levels – that is just as worthy of our fascination and appreciation as the blooms that beautify our yards and the fruits that fill our tables, and that is the abundant and diverse world of chemical compounds present in the botanical kingdom.

But how does one gain an understanding and appreciation for such a subject. Luckily, there is a blog for that. It’s called Compound Interest. Authored by UK chemistry teacher, Andy Brunning, Compound Interest explores the “chemistry and chemical reactions we come across on a day-to-day basis.” Much of what Andy writes about doesn’t have anything to do with plants – fireworks, bacon, gunpowder, snowflakes, etc. – but a sizeable portion of his posts do (evidenced particularly by the Food Chemistry category). For example: Did you know nutmeg is hallucinogenic? Have you ever wondered why avocados turn brown so quickly? Why is it that some people have such a strong aversion to cilantro (aka coriander)? What makes coffee bitter, chili peppers spicy, and catnip so attractive to cats?

These and so many other questions are answered by Andy in a fun and approachable way. One thing that makes Compound Interest so approachable is the use of infographics to tell the stories and explain the science. Each post is accompanied by an infographic featuring photos of the subject, structural formulas of the chemicals, and short descriptions.  For example, this infographic explains why beets are red and why our urine turns red after eating them:


The infographics can also be downloaded as pdf files, like this one that explains the chemistry behind the smell of fresh-cut grass.

In this manner, the images and files can be easily shared with others. In fact, Andy encourages this practice, provided that the originals are not altered and that Compound Interest is given proper credit. He is particularly interested in seeing his infographics used in a classroom setting. Read more about the content usage guidelines here. Produced by someone who is obviously passionate about chemistry, these posts and graphics are meant to educate and excite people about everyday chemistry both in the botanical world and beyond.

Year of Pollination: Dung Moss

Last year I wrote about two groups of plants that emit foul odors when they bloom: corpse flowers and carrion flowers. Their scent is akin to the smell of rotting flesh, hence their common names. The purpose of this repugnant act is to attract a specific group of pollinators: flies, carrion beetles, and other insects that are attracted to gross things. Though this particular strategy is rare, these aren’t the only plants that have evolved to produce stinky smells in order to recruit such insects to aid in their reproductive processes. For one, there is a very unique group of mosses that do this, commonly known as dung mosses. Judging from the name, you can probably imagine what their smell must be like. However, their common name doesn’t just describe their scent, but also where they live.

At least three genera (SplachnumTetraplodon, and Tayloria) in the family Splachnaceae include species that go by the common name, dung moss. All Splachnum and Tetraplodon species and many species in the genus Tayloria are entomophilous. Entomophily is a “pollination syndrome”, a subject we will explore more thoroughly in future posts, in which pollen or spores are distributed by insects. Compare this to anemophily, or wind pollination, which is the more common way that moss spores are distributed. In fact, dung mosses are the only mosses known to exhibit entomophily.

Dung Moss (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Dung Moss (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Before we go too much further, it’s probably important to have a basic understanding of how mosses differ from other plants. Mosses are in a group of non-vascular and non-flowering plants called bryophytes. Vascular tissues are the means by which water and nutrients are transported to and from different plant parts. Lacking vascular tissues, water and nutrients are simply absorbed by the leaves of bryophytes (although some species have structures akin to vascular tissue), which is why they typically grow low to the ground and in moist environments. Bryophytes also lack true roots and instead have rhizoids, threadlike structures that anchor the plants to the ground or to some other substrate (such as dung).

Another major distinction between bryophytes and other plants is that bryophytes spend most of their life cycle as a haploid gametophyte rather than a diploid sporophyte (haploid meaning that it only has one set of chromosomes; diploid meaning that there are two sets of chromosomes, one from the father and one from the mother). In most plants, the haploid gametophyte is a sperm (pollen) or an egg. In bryophytes, the familiar green, leafy structure is actually the gametophyte. The gametophyte houses sperm and egg cells, and when the egg is fertilized by sperm it forms a zygote that develops into the sporophyte structure which extends above the leafy gametophyte. A capsule at the top of the sporophyte contains spores which are eventually released and, upon finding themselves on a suitable substrate in a hospitable environment, germinate to produce new plants. The spore then is comparable to a seed in vascular, seed-bearing plants.

photo credit: wikimedia commons

photo credit: wikimedia commons

As stated earlier, the spores of most mosses are distributed by wind. Dung mosses, on the other hand, employ flies in the distribution of their spores. They attract the flies by emitting scents that only flies can love from an area on the capsule of the sporophyte called the apophysis. This area is often enlarged and brightly colored in yellow, magenta, or red, giving it a flower-like appearance which acts as a visual attractant. The smells emitted vary depending on the type of substrate a particular species of dung moss has become adapted to living on. Some dung mosses grow on the dung of herbivores and others on the dung of carnivores. Some even prefer the dung of a particular group of animals; for example, a population of Tetraplodon fuegiensis was found to be restricted to the feces and remains of foxes. However, dung is not the only material that dung mosses call home.  Certain species grow on carrion, skeletal remains, or antlers. The smells these species produce attract flies that prefer dead flesh and bone in various states of decay.

Yellow Moosedung Moss (Splachnum luteum) has one of the largest and showiest sporophytes. (photo credit:

Yellow Moosedung Moss (Splachnum luteum) has one of the largest and showiest sporophytes. (photo credit:

The spores of dung mosses are small and sticky. When a fly visits these plants, the spores adhere to its body in clumps. The fly then moves on to its substrate of choice to lay its eggs, and the spores are deposited where they will then germinate and grow into new moss plants. Flies that visit dung mosses receive nothing in return for doing so, but instead are simply “tricked” into disseminating the propagules. The story is similar with corpse flowers and carrion flowers; flies are drawn in by the smells and recruited to transmit pollen but receive no nectar reward for their work.

There are 73 species in the Splachnaceae family, and nearly half of these species are dung mosses. These mosses are mostly found in temperate habitats in both the northern and southern hemispheres, with a few species occurring in the mountains of subtropical regions. They can be found in both wet and relatively dry habitats. Dung mosses are generally fast growing but short lived, with some lasting only about 2 years. It isn’t entirely clear how and why mosses in this family evolved to become entomophilous, but one major benefit of being this way is that their spores are reliably deposited on suitable habitat. Because of this directed dispersal, they can produce fewer and smaller spores, which is an economical use of resources.

Sporophytes of Splachnum vasculosum (photo credit:

Sporophytes of Splachnum vasculosum (photo credit:


Koponen, A. 2009. Entomophily in the Splachnaceae. Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society 104: 115-127.

Marino, P., R. Raguso, and B. Goffinet. 2009. The ecology and evolution of fly dispersed dung mosses (Family Splachnaceae): Manipulating insect behavior through odour and visual cues. Symbiosis 47: 61-76.

Why Awkward? Why Botany? Why Now?

Have you ever wondered why this blog is called Awkward Botany? I have. Naming things can be difficult, and there are days that I question whether Awkward Botany was the right choice and if instead another name would have been more appropriate. Most days I am happy with the name, but I also perceive that there might be questions about where it came from and what it means. Or maybe no one cares? Either way, I figured I would start the year off by putting this out there. It may or may not be of interest to anyone, but so be it. Rest assured that regular programming will resume shortly.

Why Awkward?

Awkward is a word that best describes my general state of being. I am uncomfortable in virtually all social situations. The degree to which discomfort manifests itself varies depending on the circumstances, but it is always there. Anxious is another fitting word to describe me. On the surface I may appear calm and collected, but my mind is constantly racing. It’s hard to relax.

I am a high level introvert, and there was a time when this really bothered me. I didn’t like feeling so shy, nervous, and bumbling. I didn’t like that my voice got shaky every time I talked in front of a group of two or more people (no matter how well I knew them). I wanted to be able to make a phone call or start up a conversation without first having to rehearse what I was going to say a dozen times in my head. I envied people who could socialize so freely and who could dance like no one was watching even when plenty of people were. I saw my shell as a curse and thought I was defective because of it.

These feelings haven’t gone away, but they have waned. In my adult years I have grown to accept, even embrace, my awkwardness and introversion. I’m not particularly thrilled about being this way, but I find ways to celebrate it. Claiming the awkward title is one way that I do that. It is nothing to be ashamed of, despite at times feeling shamed for it. Just acknowledging that fact makes tiptoeing out of my comfort zone that much easier.

Awkward can also mean amateurish or inexpert. I am a degree holding and professional horticulturist and I have taken a number of graduate level plant science courses, but I certainly don’t claim to be an expert botanist. I am passionate about botany, and I love to study and explore it, but I am not on the same level as professional botanists. I could be someday, but that isn’t really the point. I would rather illuminate the amateur aspect, the part an enthusiast can play, the role of the citizen scientist…or citizen botanist in this case. The point being that anyone can join in the conversation regardless of their credentials; all that is required is passion, enthusiasm, and a willingness to learn (and to admit when you’re wrong). That is why I have settled on the tagline, “citizen botany for the phytocurious.” Perhaps this approach will inspire other awkward entities to emerge, like awkward history, awkward herpetology, awkward astronomy, awkward linguistics… Just a thought.

Why Botany?

I am unapologetically obsessed with plants. It is not something I fully realized about myself until I was in my twenties; still it feels like it must be in my DNA. I spend significant portions of each day thinking about plants, reading about plants, writing about plants, and working with plants. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. If I am this taken by plants, then why not botany?

But why should people care about plants? Those who already find themselves fascinated by them don’t really need an answer to this question, and the space it would take to enumerate the myriad reasons why plants matter is more than I want to take up in a single post. Suffice it to say that if plants were not around, we would not be around. And if the vital functions of plants don’t convince you to care, just imagine a world without green things and ask yourself if that’s a world you’d want to live in. Dr. Chris Martine, a professor of botany at Bucknell University, defends botany famously in an article he wrote for the Huffington Post last summer.

Why Now?

This is a nebulous question, and I could take it in several directions. To simplify things I will address this line of inquiry: why am I blogging now, rather than expressing myself using some other medium (or none at all)?

When I was in the 7th grade, I discovered that I like to write. It feels wired into my DNA the same way my interest in plants does. I have been writing regularly ever since. At first it was just poetry, short stories, and song lyrics. Then when I was in my teenage years, I discovered punk rock and along with that fanzines, or zines for short. I had been envisioning something similar to zines before I knew about them, so once I came across them, I knew that I had to make one. Over the course of about 17 years, I produced at least 66 zines under 9 different titles. My two main titles were Elephant Mess and The Juniper. While I haven’t completely given up on zine writing, I have been on hiatus for about two years now.

juniper 16_edit 2

My hiatus is largely due to the expense of doing zines (photocopies, postage, office supplies, etc.) and the markedly reduced interest in them (a PO Box full of mail used to be a fairly common sight for me; now it never happens). So I blog instead. I hesitate to compare blogs to zines, though. For a seasoned zinester like me, that feels blasphemous. But there are clearly some similarities, and now that the internet has become nearly ubiquitous, for someone who likes to write and publish content regularly, blogs seem like the way to go.

But I don’t see this blog as the end goal either. I love to write, and I have long wanted to be a writer. Maintaining a blog doesn’t necessarily mean I’m on the road to a successful writing career, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. For now, Awkward Botany is where I hang my hat, and I am more than happy to call it home.

2014: Year in Review

It is time again to look back at a year gone by and look forward to another year to come. Usually when we get to this point on the calendar, regardless of how my year has gone, I am anxious to put another year behind me and jump headlong into a new one, reinvigorated by that fresh start feeling that a new year seems to bring.

I manage this blog like a manage most things in my life, by the seat of my pants, not always sure where I am going with it but confident I will figure it out along the way. I have really enjoyed doing the blog this year, and I have felt a sense of direction for it emerging (at least in my mind; not sure if it comes across in the posts), and so in the spirit of that trajectory, I am thrilled to be entering my third year. I have a head full of ideas and I am gaining steam, so if things go the way I envision, this will be an abundant year of diverse posts that will hopefully prove to be enlightening, entertaining, and engrossing.

Serial Posts, etc.

In 2014 I started a few series of posts, and I plan to start more in 2015. The first one I started was an Ethnobotany series, which so far includes Holy Basil, Marigolds, and Cinchona. I also began a series on Drought Tolerant Plants, which so far consists of An Introduction, Fernbush, and Blue Sage. Flower Anatomy and Fruits were part of another new series exploring Botanical Terms. Some ideas for other series include: Poisonous Plants, Famous Botanists in History, and Botany in Popular Culture. None of these series has a regular posting schedule and each will continue indefinitely. I also plan to write more book reviews, as I only managed one in 2014 (Seedswap by Josie Jeffery). And speaking of reviews, probably my most ambitious endeavor of 2014 was reviewing the 17 articles in the October 2014 Special Issue of American Journal of Botany. You can read a recap here.

Social Media

It’s no mystery that having a social media presence in this day and age is imperative to the success of virtually any venture, especially a blog since the internet is veritably flooded with them. I’ve decided that Twitter is my favorite form of social media for now, and so I have been spending most of my time there. You can find and follow me @awkwardbotany. I also started a sister microblog on Tumblr in 2014. I mostly post plant and garden photos, and occasionally I share links to plant related things that I find interesting. Find and follow me here.

If you like what you read here and want to support Awkward Botany, the most helpful thing you can do is share it with your friends, family, and acquaintances. The easiest way to do that is by linking to individual posts on your preferred social media sites (there are buttons at the end of each post that help you do that). Or you can just tell people about it in person by using your mouth to make words, the old fashioned way. If you do share Awkward Botany online, consider including #phytocurious. You can also use this hashtag for anything plant related, including (especially) pictures of plants, that way I can easily find the cool plant things you are posting and share in your plant nerd glee.

Guest Posts

I hinted last year that I was considering publishing guest posts, and I have decided that I really want to do that. I’m going to be kind of picky about what I post, but don’t let that stop you from submitting something. You can write about your favorite plant, interesting plant science research, plants in the news, book or other media reviews, or anything else plant related. If this interests you, let me know by using the contact form or by sending me a message on Twitter. We can discuss further details from there.

Year of Pollination

Because I have developed such a fascination with pollinators and pollination (and because it is such an important topic), I have decided to dub 2015 the Year of Pollination. So far what this means is that I will be posting about pollinators and pollination at least once if not twice a month during each month of the year. This idea is young, so it could mean other things, too. Time will tell, so stay tuned.


I have lots of other thoughts and ideas swirling around in my brain, but I will keep them to myself for now until they are more fully formed. What I have included here will suffice. Thank you so much for reading and sharing. I wish you and yours all the best in 2015.