Growing Potatoes on Mars

“My best bet for making calories is potatoes. They grow prolifically and have a reasonable calorie count. … I can’t just live off the land forever. But I can extend my life. The potatoes will last me 76 days.” – The Martian by Andy Weir

The Atacama Desert is a strip of land in northern Chile that reaches into portions of Bolivia, Peru, and Argentina. Within it lies a region 10,000 feet in elevation that, thanks to a double rain shadow, is so intensely dry that nothing, not even microbial life, can survive. Rain falls in this region perhaps once every 10 years, and even then precipitation is paltry. This area is so desolate and devoid of life that NASA scientists consider it Mars-like and have used the area to test equipment that is bound for Mars. Studies have found that the soil in this region is similar to Martian soil – so similar, in fact, that it is now being used to test the feasibility of growing potatoes on Mars.

The study is being carried out by NASA in collaboration with Centro Internacional de la Papa (CIP), an agriculture research institution based in Lima, Peru. The efforts consist of an initial series of three experiments. Apart from investigating methods for growing potatoes in a Martian environment, researchers hope to develop ways to improve potato production on marginal land here on Earth in order to increase yields and provide a sustainable source of food in parts of the world that so desperately need it.

The wild crop relative of the cultivated potato (Solanum tuberosum) is native to the Andes. It was originally domesticated by the indigenous people of Peru at least 8,000 years ago. Spanish explorers brought potatoes back to Europe around 1570, and over the next several hundred years cultivation of potatoes spread throughout the world. It is now one of the world’s top 5 food crops and is a staple food source in many regions. So why not Mars?


The first phase of experiments is currently under way. A selection of potato cultivars that have attributes such as quick maturity, virus resistance, tolerance to high temperatures, and resistance to drought are being grown in soil taken from the Mars-like region of the Atacama Desert. The second phase will consider the transportation of the potatoes from Earth to Mars, a nine month journey. The harvest from the first experiment will be frozen, thawed, and then planted to determine if the propagules remain viable after making the journey through space. The final phase of the experiments will entail growing the potatoes inside of CubeSat modules in which a Mars-like environment can be simulated. The specifics of these studies vary across multiple reports, so this may be a slight misrepresentation of the actual research program. As official reports emerge, the exact methods will be more clear.

According to this post on the CIP website, this collaboration is “a major step towards building a controlled dome on Mars capable of farming the invaluable crop in order to demonstrate that potatoes can be grown in the most inhospitable environments.” The post goes on to laud the nutrient benefits of the potato and its potential to address issues of food security, poverty, and malnutrition. As NASA seeks for ways to sustain an eventual human mission to Mars, CIP looks to address global hunger. Together they see potential in the potato.

red potatoes

Space programs, even those that seem overly ambitious, offer benefits that can extend into all aspects of our lives. That is why I remain intrigued by experiments such as these that involve growing plants in space or on other planets. We may never find ourselves mass producing food for human populations outside of Earth (or maybe we will), but what we can learn in the process of simply seeing what is possible has great potential to increase our botanical knowledge and improve agricultural efforts here on our home planet.

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Drought Tolerant Plants: The Junipers

When I first developed a real interest in plants, I was in the heyday of my zine writing career. As my interest in gardening grew, writing a zine about it became inevitable. Initially I envisioned the zine as a journal of sorts – the journal of a budding horticulturist (pun intentional). Since I was new to gardening – and plants in general – the zine was meant to follow my journey as I explored this new world.

A zine needs a name though, so what would I call it? It didn’t take long for me to land on, The Juniper. I was familiar with a common disdain for the unsightly, overgrown, neglected, evergreen shrub full of spiders and cobwebs that for whatever reason was at one point planted right outside just about every house in America (a fire hazard, by the way). I was aware that many people were resorting to tearing them out, cursing as they battled the pokey, dirty, half dead things.

That was basically all I knew about junipers – they were common landscape plants that were just as commonly despised. My affection for freaks, geeks, outsiders, and rejects led me to name my zine after a shrub that everyone hated. I guess I just felt like we had something in common, and that despite being the bane of people’s existence, it deserved some recognition.

the juniper zine

And it does. Junipers are an important species in their natural habitats. In some areas they are dominant features to the point where entire plant communities are named after them. Consider the piñon-juniper woodlands of western North America – prominent steppe habitats that occur throughout high desert regions and support diverse forms of wildlife unique to this part of the world. Dan Johnson writes in the book, Steppes, “the piñon-juniper zone dominates huge expanses of the West in varying stages of  health, providing a wealth of habitats and resources to the wildlife and the people who call it home.”

Johnson goes on to describe some of these habitats:

In the Colorado Plateau this zone is dominated by Pinus edulis and Juniperus osteosperma, with J. scopulorum occupying drainages with more moisture. In the Great Basin, P. edulis is replaced by P. monophylla as the dominant piñon pine, still mixing with J. osteosperma, yet as one moves west, this juniper is increasingly replaced by J. occidentalis. Move farther north, and J. occidentalis dominates completely, with neither piñon pine making an appearance.

The genus Juniperus is in the cypress family (Cupressaceae) and includes up to 67 species, at least 13 of which are native to North America. They are long-lived plants that range from prostrate, sprawling groundcovers to expansive, bushy shrubs to tall, narrow trees. Their foliage is evergreen and can be either needle-like or scale-like. Most juniper species have needle-like foliage in their seedling and juvenile stages and then scale-like foliage at maturity. Some species, like J. communis, never develop scale-like foliage. Junipers are gymnosperms, so their reproductive structures are housed in cones. However, their cones are fleshy and so are commonly (and mistakenly) referred to as berries or fruits. Juniper cones are most often blue or gray-blue, but in some species they have a red, brown, or orange hue.

In general, junipers are quite drought tolerant, particularly those species that are adapted to hot, dry climates. Again referring to piñon-juniper steppes, Johnson writes, “in prolonged periods of drought, the piñon pines seem to suffer long before the junipers; whole hillsides of pine may go brown, leaving islands of olive-green juniper relatively unscathed.” In the book, Shrubs of the Great Basin, Hugh Mozingo attributes this drought toughness to the scale-like leaves: “Because they are smaller and so closely appressed to the twigs, these scale-like leaves are a superior adaptation to the frequently very dry conditions in piñon-juniper communities.” This herculean ability to survive on little water makes them a great addition to a dry garden.

But we may first have to get over our disdain for them. As this post on Chicago Botanic Garden’s website puts it: “Junipers have suffered from overuse and underimagination.” (This article also examines our hatred of juniper bushes). Probably a bigger problem is that, like so many other plants used in a landscape, mature height and width often isn’t taken into consideration, and rather than removing a plant when it gets too big for the site, sheers or a hedge trimmer are regularly deployed. I’m not a huge fan of the sheered look. I much prefer a more natural form to the boxes and globes that are so common in commercial and residential plantings. I’m even less of a fan of the misguided inclination to force a plant to fit in a space that it isn’t meant to be (unless you’re a bonsai artist, I guess). This treatment is what leads to exposing the ugly, brown insides of a juniper shrub – an unsightly look that only makes people hate them more.

Brown insides of juniper shrub exposed after years of forcing the plant to fit in a site that is too small for its britches.

Brown insides of juniper shrub exposed after years of forcing the plant to fit in an improper site.

There are numerous commercially available cultivars of juniper species, offering a plethora of sizes, shapes, and forms as well as various colors of foliage. For small or narrow areas, select dwarf varieties or columnar forms that won’t need to be kept in check, and in all cases let the plant express its authentic self, controlling the urge to sheer and shape it against its will.

As if their natural beauty and low water requirement wasn’t enough, junipers are also great for supporting wildlife. Birds and other animals use them for cover and for nesting sites. The fleshy cones are edible, the shredding bark is used for nesting material, and the evergreen foliage provides much needed protection during winter months. Oh and, among many other benefits that junipers offer humans, their aromatic, fleshy cones have culinary value and are used to flavor gin.

I don’t want to leave the impression that I am opposed to pruning and shaping shrubs. For aesthetic reasons, I think it should be done. However, my opinion is that unnatural shapes should be avoided. Sure, boxed hedge rows have their place in certain types of gardens, but my preference is towards more natural shapes. The following video by University of Illinois Extension provides a brief tutorial on how to achieve that.   

Famous Botanists in History: Zhan Wang

Researching last week’s post reminded me of a series of posts that I have been wanting to start for quite a while: Famous Botanists in History. With Metasequoia on my mind, who better to inaugurate this new series than Zhan Wang – the botanist who made the first scientific collection of the living fossil.

From what I can tell, most of what is known about Zhan Wang (at least outside of China) comes from his contribution to the discovery and description of Metasequoia glyptostroboides, and even that information seems to be available largely due to the efforts of some of his colleagues and former students who endeavored to see that Wang be acknowledged for his role in the event. After Wang’s death, a group of his former students wrote a short biography which appeared in the August 2000 issue of the journal Taxon. The biography is written from the perspective of a group of people who greatly admired and respected their teacher and mentor. Unable to find much else written about Wang and his life, the details in this post are mostly taken from that biography. If there are other resources, I would be grateful to have them brought to my attention.

Zhan Wang was born in a remote village in Liaotung Province (now Liaoning Province) in northeast China on May 4, 1911. His birth name was Yishi, but he changed it to Zhan (or Chan) after running away from home in 1932. He developed plant identification skills early in his youth and used those skills to learn about Chinese medicine. He studied forestry in high school. When he graduated in 1931, the Japanese army was in the process of invading northeast China, so he fled to Beijing. There he continued his forestry studies at Beijing University (known today as Peking University). He graduated in 1936, and around that time, Beijing University along with other educational institutions and government agencies in Beijing and Nanjing were evacuating to escape aerial attacks. As Kyna Rubin puts it in The Metasequoia Mystery, “much of Wang’s early career was spent dodging war.”

Zhan Wang went to middle school and high school in Dandong City, Liaoning Province (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Zhan Wang went to middle school and high school in Dandong City, Liaoning Province, China (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Zhan moved with Beijing University’s Agricultural College to the Shaanxi province where he took a position as professor of dendrology and forestry. Wang’s students say that he preferred to teach his classes outside where the students could have “hands-on experiences” directly observing the morphology and ecology of plants. He “told stories about the species,” encouraged “looking, touching, tasting, and chewing,” and found many other ways to integrate botany and ecology in his courses. One way he helped students understand plant ecology was by grouping plants into categories with clever nicknames such as “mountain climbers” (plants found in cool climates), “greedy boys” (plants with high nutrient demands), “thirsty guys” (plants with high water demands), and “desert fighters” (drought tolerant plants).

In 1943, Wang became a Forest Administrator for the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, a position which included doing forest surveys in remote areas. On an expedition to Shennongjia in the Hubei province, Wang was stricken with malaria and had to stop in Wanxian County. There he met an old classmate of his, Longxing Yang, who told him of an unusual tree, which was later described as Metasequoia glyptostroboides by Wanjun Zheng and Xiansu Hu thanks to the initial collections that Wang made in July 1943. Despite being left out of some of the accounts of the discovery, Wang’s students claim that he didn’t complain and was more concerned about the tree’s continued survival, believing that “discussing the past discovery of a new species is not as important as investigating how a living fossil species will survive in the future.” His students were admonished to “focus on the species’ protection and its habitat.”

Wang’s position as Forest Administrator was short-lived; however, over the next several decades he continued to teach dendrology and forestry at several Chinese universities. Much of his research efforts were focused on sorting out the taxonomy of the willow family (Salicaceae), a highly complex plant family. He collected willow species throughout China and, with the help of his colleagues, described more than 90 new species. He also became very concerned about deforestation and “focused his attention on devising scientifically sound harvesting methods and successful regeneration processes.” Despite his work being largely restricted to China and (as his students claim) “receiving little credit elsewhere,” similar approaches to the sustainable forestry methods that Wang preached are “widely recommended and accepted today in western forestry practices for ecosystem management.”

Zhan Wang described many new species of Salix. Salix wangiana var. tibetica is a species that was described by and also named after Wang (photo credit: Flora Republicae Popuaris Sinacea)

Zhan Wang helped describe dozens of species of Salix that were new to science. Salix wangiana var. tibetica is a species that was described by and also appears to be named after Wang (photo credit: Flora Republicae Popularis Sinacea)

In the 1950’s, Wang began carrying out research at Changbai Mountain Nature Reserve high on the Changbai Mountain located in northeastern China on the border with North Korea. His efforts were interupted by the Cultural Revolution, a period that lasted from 1966-1976. As soon as that had passed, Wang and colleagues began working to establish the Changbai Mountain Forest Ecosystem Research Station. Wang became the first director of the station when it was approved and funded in 1979. Wang and his research team worked to establish “baseline information on the area’s flora, fauna, vegetation, and soils,” and in three years time had amassed enough research to warrant over 100 published papers. Due to the efforts of Wang and his team, the Changbai Mountain Nature Reserve gained inclusion in UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere Program.

Wang’s students write that Wang viewed “Changbai Mountain as his home” and “believed that his life belonged to this mountain region.” His wish was to one day have his ashes “spread throughout the wilderness” of this mountain. After his death on January 30, 2000, his wish was carried out. “He will forever be with his beloved plants and forests in this important site of plant diversity, and now, place of rest.” Wang was survived by his three daughters; his son committed suicide during the Cultural Revolution, and his wife died in 1992.

In the adoring words of his students, Wang had a “kind, gentle character and contagious enthusiasm for science and nature” and “his contribution to botany went far beyond what is available in print. His footprints from exploring plants in China can be found in almost every province.”

The Discovery of a Living Fossil

In the early 1940’s, the genus Metasequoia was only known scientifically in fossil form. It had, in its day, been a widespread genus, found commonly in many areas across the Northern Hemisphere. It thrived among the dinosaurs. However, sometime during the Pliocene, the genus was thought to have died out. Thousands of fossils were left behind, and that would have been the end of the story had a member of its genus not been discovered still alive in a Chinese province later that decade. Its discovery is easily one of the greatest botanical stories of the 20th century, fascinating in its own right. The circumstances surrounding its scientific description, as it turns out, are equally interesting.

In the January 2016 issue of Landscape Architecture Magazine, Kyna Rubin details the event in an article entitled The Metasequoia Mystery. It’s the type of story that you almost need a crazy wall to sort out. A broad cast of characters interacted at various levels in order to make this profound discovery during a tumultuous time when the world was at war and China was being invaded by Japan.

Speaking of Japan, let’s start there. In 1941, Japanese paleobotanist, Shigeru Miki, published research describing fossils that for decades were thought to be either Sequoia or Taxodium as a new genus, Metasequoia. As Rubin points out, due to the war, “not every Chinese botanist would have had access to recent international research, let alone articles by botanists of an enemy country.” This could explain why in 1943 when Zhan Wang – a professer of forestry at Beijing University and the forest administrator for the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry – was introduced to a living Metasequoia by an old classmate and local villagers in the Hubei Province, he wasn’t sure what he was looking at.

The tree was obviously important to the local people. They called it shuisa (water fir) and had built a shrine around it. Wang collected several branches and some cones that had fallen on a rooftop. At the time he identified it as Glyptostrobus pensilis (water pine), a tree common to the area; but he may have wondered if this was correct.

Eventually Wang’s samples and the details of his collection were brought to the attention of Wanjun Zheng, a dendrologist at the National Central University. Intrigued, Zheng sent his graduate student, Jiru Xue, to collect more samples from the same tree that Wang had encountered. These samples were more complete, and when they were presented to Xiansu Hu – the director of Fan Memorial Institute of Biology in Beijing – the mystery was solved. Hu had access to Miki’s research and concluded that what they had was a living fossil.

In 1948, Hu and Zheng published a paper describing the species and giving it the official name, Metasequoia glyptostroboides. The discovery ignited the botanical community as well as the general public, and soon seeds of what became commonly known as dawn redwood were being disseminated across the globe. Unfortunately, Wang’s contribution was not mentioned in the original paper, and the exact account of the discovery became convoluted.

photo credit: wikimedia commons

Dawn redwood (Metasequoia glytostroboides) is a deciduous, medium to large tree. Its cones are round and about 1 inch long. Its leaves are oppositely arranged and have a feather-like appearance. Its bark is fibrous, stringy, and red-brown to gray in color.  (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

At some point, a discussion between Zheng and a forester named Duo Gan (also known as Toh Kan) revealed that Gan had come across the tree in 1941, but he did not make any collections. Despite Zheng learning of Gan’s encounter after Zheng and Hu’s original paper had been published, Gan’s story became prominent, further obscuring the role that Wang played.

It’s important to note that none of Wang’s original collections were used as the type specimen – the particular specimen of an organism to which the scientific name is formally attached and is referred to in the scientific literature. The type specimen was collected by Xue. This is not uncommon, as initial collections may not always be in the best condition and may not include all the parts and pieces necessary to identify and describe a new species. But, as Rubin notes, “it was Wang’s specimens [that Zheng and others] had first examined and those specimens brought the tree to their attention to begin with.” So Wang’s contribution is an important part of the story.

Thanks to Wang’s former students, his role in the discovery has received greater exposure. Jinshuang Ma in particular has made it his mission to highlight the part that Wang played in the event. Apart from maintaining a website all about Metasequoia, Ma also spent several years searching for a lost herbarium specimen collected by Wang, which he found in an abandoned herbarium in Nanjing. You can read about his find in this article from the August 2003 issue of the journal Taxon. (Ma’s well researched summary of the events surrounding the Metasequoia discovery is also worth reading.)

Failure to acknowledge Wang’s contribution (at least initially) perhaps didn’t make waves outside of China, but in Rubin’s words, “the omission of Wang’s contribution sparked immediate hullabaloo inside China’s botanical circles in the late 1940’s.” Power and class differences likely played a big role. Hu and Zheng were established scholars that had received their educations in the United States and France respectively. Wang was young, from a remote village, and had not studied abroad. While Wang “went on to become one of China’s most distinguished forestry experts and botanists,” he was early in his career at the time of the Metasequoia discovery.

A deep respect for the elders in his field may be the reason that Wang’s students claim that he “never complained” about his treatment. His students go on to say that Wang “was not interested in personal gain,” and instead was simply satisfied to see that Metasequoia “was now growing successfully all over the world and was better protected.” It is listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List and would likely be extinct in its shrunken native range had awareness of its existence not come about when it did.

Fossil of Metasequoia occidentalis - photo credit: wikimedia commons

Fossil of Metasequoia occidentalis – photo credit: wikimedia commons

There are plenty of other interesting details to this story. Read the full article and check out the links on to learn more. The account of Jiru Xue (also known as Hsueh Chi-Ju), the graduate student who collected the type specimens, is particularly interesting. Suprisingly, the tree Wang and Xue took their collections from is still alive today and is estimated to be over 400 years old.

Other longform article reviews on Awkward Botany: