All the Plant Shows, part two

Plant podcasts are big these days, or at least that’s what it seems, which is why this has turned into a multi-part post (see part one). While in the process of compiling a list of plant podcasts that I’ve become aware of, I keep stumbling onto more. Which is great! It’s a trend that I hope continues. As it continues, I will go on compiling them here until we have ourselves a list of All the Plant Shows!

Planthropology – Plants plus anthropology equals Planthropology. This podcast covers all the many ways that plant lives and human lives intersect and features conversations with plant people about their love of plants and the work they do that involves plants. Vikram (the host) is a chatty and genial guy and a great twitter follow.

The Plant Prof – Another Vikram joint. This spin-off of Planthropology features Vikram sans guests talking about an assortment of plant-related topics. Each episode is only a few minutes long. Quick, casual, and easy to digest.

Plant Daddy Podcast – Houseplants are quite popular these days, likely due to the growing number of people living in dense urban areas. Apartment living generally means that if you want to garden, you have to do it indoors and/or on a balcony. With increased interest in indoor growing comes a slew of podcasts about it. Plant Daddy Podcast is one of the best. Matthew and Stephen really know their plants and have years of combined experience caring for a vast number of species. Other plant experts occasionally join the show to talk about the specifics of cultivating and caring for plants in small spaces.

Plantrama – Mainly a gardening podcast, but very plant-focused. C.L. and Ellen are experienced gardeners and quite knowledgeable about plants. Episodes come out regularly, and each one is under 30 minutes. In that time, the hosts cover at least three topics. Juniper berries, begonias, and orchid pots, for example. Or cherry tomatoes, silverberry, and saving seed. It’s two good friends having a chat about plants, and you get to listen in.

The Plant Kiki – A kiki is a casual conversation among friends. When plants are a major theme of the discussion, it’s a plant kiki! For each episode, Colah, of Black in the Garden podcast (another must listen), brings together a group of friends to talk about plants and whatever else comes up. The conversations are lively, humorous, insightful, and fun. If you enjoy exploring questions like “If Beyoncé were a plant, what plant would she be?” this podcast is for you.  

Crime Pays But Botany Doesn’t – Joe is a self-described misanthrope. He doesn’t care much for people, but he loves plants (and geology). This podcast is similar to Joe’s You Tube channel of the same name, in that it’s mostly him describing his time botanizing in various locations across North America and beyond. Expletive-filled rants help fill the time. Occasionally Joe brings on a guest to talk about plants (or trains). With hours and hours of content available, this is easily one of the best and most entertaining plant shows around.

The Taproot – A podcast produced by Plantae, a plant science hub created and managed by the American Society of Plant Biologists. Each episode is an interview with an individual who is working in or studying plant science. There are discussions about the work that went into a particular plant science journal article, as well as conversations about navigating academia and professional life. It’s a great source of information for students and professionals, with excellent tips on how to succeed in educational pursuits and beyond.   

PlantNetwork Podcast PlantNetwork is an organization that supports public gardens and professional gardeners in Britain and Ireland. Their podcast is a series of short interviews with people who work at public gardens or in some other capacity in the horticulture industry.

Speaking of public gardens, educating the public about plants is a mission of botanic gardens and arboreta. Some botanic gardens do this through podcasts. Below are a few that I have come across. If you happen to be aware of others, please let me know.

Branch Out – A plant science podcast produced by The Royal Botanic Garden Sydney with a catalog consisting of six seasons covering a wide array of plant-based topics. Vanessa geeks out about plants and nature with a bevy of incredible guests. No surprise, much of the content concerns Australian plants, gardens, agriculture, and ecology. But who isn’t fascinated by Australia’s flora and fauna? The production on each episode is excellent, and the stories are captivating. 

Plant Power – A short series of podcasts produced by North Carolina Botanical Garden highlighting just how essential plants are to life on earth. Brief conversations about climate change, protecting pollinators, growing and conserving native plants, etc. 

Botanical Mystery Tour – A delightful podcast from Chicago Botanic Garden that takes the stories of plants in popular culture and explores the science behind them. In each episode, a staff member at CBG joins the hosts, Jasmine and Erica, to discuss the topic and talk about their work at the Garden. Whenever botany shows up in popular culture, it’s an event worth celebrating. It’s good to know there’s a podcast devoted to this cause.

Unearthed: Mysteries from an Unseen World – A podcast series from Royal Botanic Gardens Kew hosted by James Wong. Each episode is a mini audio documentary investigating a particular mystery, story, or current event involving plants (or, in the case of one episode, fungi). This podcast has great production and excellent, fact-based storytelling – exactly the sort of thing you’d expect from a place like Kew.

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These certainly aren’t all the plant shows. Part three is in the making. In the meantime, is there a particular plant-themed podcast (or podcast episode) that you enjoy and would like to recommend? If so, share it with us in the comment section below.

All the Plant Shows, part one

Podcasts are among the most accessible and powerful mediums through which we can tell and hear the stories of plants. The popularity of podcasts is evidence that if we want to share our love of plants with the world and get others to love them too, we have to be using podcasts to do it. They are essential tools in the communication of plant science and, when used effectively, they may even help the plant-indifferent gain a lifelong appreciation for the botanical world.

As a longtime listener of podcasts and a lover of plants, I have been on a constant search for podcasts about plants. I’ve even included reviews of some of those podcasts here on this blog (see reviews for Gastropod, In Defense of Plants, Native Plant Podcast, The Field Guides, Botanical Mystery Tour, and Plants and Pipettes). I’m not sure if it’s just me, but it seems that in the past few years, plant podcasts have experienced a boom. There are definitely more plant-themed podcasts out there now than I recall seeing when I first went in search of them nearly a decade ago, and I imagine there are more out there than I’m even aware of. Seeing that, I figured it was time to collect all those podcasts into a single post (or series of posts). Each podcast is deserving of a post of its own, but in the meantime, a few sentences will have to do.

When I say plant podcasts, I realize that could include gardening podcasts. Why shouldn’t it? After all, what’s gardening without plants? However, this isn’t a gardening blog, and even as an avid gardener (and a professional one), I don’t really listen to many gardening podcasts. A few gardening or gardening-adjacent podcasts are included here either because I particularly enjoy them or because they tend to go beyond the act of gardening and are particularly known for giving plants the center stage.

In Defense of Plants – Long-running and consistent, this is the go-to podcast (and website) for learning about plants and plant science. It’s adamant about telling the stories of plants for plant’s sake. A typical episode features the host, Matt, interviewing experts and plant science professionals about their specific area of study or work.

Native Plant Podcast – Going strong for 5 years now, this podcast is exactly what it says it is – a podcast about native plants. There is a major focus on gardening and landscaping with native plants, which the main host, John, has been doing since before it was cool. Every episode ends with a pet story and a toast.

The Field Guides – Easily one of my favorite podcasts, largely because the hosts are so affable and are clearly having fun, but also because the format is so unique. Each episode, Steve and Bill pick a natural history topic and then walk around in a natural area talking about it – the sounds of footsteps and the wildlife around them included. Not specifically a plant podcast, but plants come up in every episode even if they aren’t the main topic of discussion.

Plants and Pipettes – A podcast focused mainly on what’s going on inside of plants – molecular plant biology, in other words. If that doesn’t sound like your thing, give it a shot anyway. The hosts are fun and funny, good at explaining things, and find lots of other plant and plant-adjacent things to talk about in addition to molecular biology. Plus, you are probably more interested in cellular-level interactions than you think you are.

Plant Crimes – True crime stories involving plants. Well-researched and well-crafted tales about things like missing water lilies, redwood poaching, and how lemons and the mob are related. Ellen interviews people involved in or knowledgeable about the incidents and weaves excerpts from those conversations into her storytelling. I’m anxiously awaiting the second season.

Plant Book Club – Ellen (of Plant Crimes) and Tegan and Joram (of Plants and Pipettes) read a plant-themed book and then talk about it. Everything you love about their individual podcasts combined into one. It’s a tour de force!

Botanize! – An audio series produced by Encyclopædia Britannica. Each episode is a brief exploration of a plant, group of plants, or some other plant-centric topic. It’s way more entertaining than reading an encyclopedia entry. Melissa is a charismatic host who is clearly excited about plants and nature. Her and her occasional guests add personal experiences to the science of plants.

Cultivating Place – This is a perfect example of a more-than-just-gardening gardening podcast. In Jennifer’s words, “gardens encourage a direct relationship with the dynamic processes of the plants, animals, soils, seasons, and climatic factors that come to bear on a garden, providing a unique, and uniquely beautiful, bridge connecting us to our larger environments — culturally and botanically.” Each episode features a conversation with a grower, gardener, naturalist, scientist, artist, or otherwise and, while many of the episodes are garden-focused, others go beyond the garden to discuss other plant-y things like seed banking (see this recent episode with Dr. Naomi Fraga).

A Way to Garden – This is perhaps a more typical gardening podcast, but easily one of the best ones out there. My belief is that gardens ought have a purpose that goes beyond their aesthetic qualities. They should be ecologically functional, acting as habitat rather than destroying it. Margaret seems to think so too. Plus, she loves birds and is a great conversationalist, and who can resist her regular check-ins with Ken Druse?


This is part one of (at least) two. There are many more podcasts to highlight here. In the meantime, is there a particular plant-themed podcast (or podcast episode) that you enjoy and would like to recommend? If so, share it with us in the comment section below.

Seed Shattering Lost – The Story of Foxtail Millet

For a plant to disperse its seeds, it must first let go of them. Sounds obvious, but it is a key step in the dispersal process and an act that is actually coded in a plant’s DNA. As fruits ripen and seeds mature, an abscission layer is formed that separates the seed-bearing fruits from the plant. No longer attached to their parents, seeds are left to their own devices. If all goes well, they will find themselves in a suitable location where they can germinate and grow into a whole new plant, fully equipped to make seed babies of their own.

The releasing of mature seeds is known as shattering, a term most commonly used in reference to grasses and plants with dehiscent seed pods (i.e. fruits that split open when ripe, such as those in the bean and mustard families). In grasses, seeds form along a central stem called a rachis. As the seeds ripen, they separate from the rachis and drop from the plant. In some cases, the rachis is brittle and a section of it breaks off with each seed that falls.

Seed shattering is not a desirable trait when it comes to food crops. It’s easy to see how yields can be poor if seeds disperse before they are harvested. Thus, an essential step in domesticating certain agricultural crops was selecting plants that lacked this particular trait. Instead of dropping mature seeds, such plants hold on to them, making them easy to collect. A simple and naturally occurring mutation in the genes of these plants allowed early farmers to select varieties that were more ideal for agriculture than their wild progenitors.

Genetic studies of agricultural crops have located genes in a number of species that code for seed shattering, confirming that domestication in many cases involved selecting plants with this gene turned off. A recent study, published in Nature Biotechnology (October 2020), took a different route in locating this gene, looking instead at a weedy, wild relative of a crop that was domesticated at least 8000 years ago. Green foxtail (Setaria viridis) is the wild antecedent of foxtail millet (Setaria italica), a crop that, while still commonly grown for food in parts of Asia, is mostly grown for hay, silage, and bird seed in North America. Recently, interest in foxtail millet and other millets (a term used to refer to the grains of several different species of grasses) is on the rise due to the ability of these crops to tolerate drought and heat.

Illustration of three Setaria species from Selected Weeds of the United States (Agriculture Handbook No. 366) published in 1970

Setaria viridis is an abundant, widespread weed adapted to human disturbance. It’s of Eurasian origin but has been present in North America since the early 1800’s and was likely introduced both intentionally and accidentally. It’s an annual grass with prominent, bristly flowerheads that are easily recognizable and the reason for its common name, green foxtail. A handful of other closely related, similar-looking species are also common weeds in North America. Due to useful traits including its short life cycle, small genome, and self-fertility, S. viridis has been used frequently as a model species to carry out a variety of scientific studies. The study referred to above aimed to further enhance the use of green foxtail, particularly when it comes to crop science.

Researchers traveled across the United States collecting nearly 600 samples of green foxtail in order to better understand its genome. They found that the North American population of green foxtail is composed of multiple introductions and that, as the species has followed humans around, it has quickly adapted to diverse climates found across the continent. In examining the genome, they were able to identify the genetic underpinnings for three traits that have importance to agriculture: response to climate, leaf angle (which is used as a predictor of yield in grain crops), and seed shattering.

foxtail millet (Setaria italica) via wikimedia commons

The seed shattering gene – which the researchers named Less Shattering 1 (SvLes1) – was an especially interesting discovery. When compared to the orthologous gene found in foxtail millet, they found that a frameshift mutation had caused a disruption in the gene, turning it off. Using CRISPR (a gene editing tool) they were able to recreate a similar interruption in green foxtail, which resulted in a loss of seed shattering similar to that of foxtail millet. It became clear that selecting plants with this mutation was an essential step in the domestication of this ancient grain.

An excerpt about seed shattering from Fruit from the Sands by Robert N. Spengler III: 

In many of the world’s domesticated grains, especially those from the founder crops of southwest Asia (i.e. wheat and barley), the earliest phenotypical trait of domestication that archaeobotanists look for is a tough rachis, the small stem by which an individual grain or small cluster of grains is attached to the ear. In their wild form, most grains are programmed to detach easily after the grain ripens; however, in domesticated cereals, the grains remain attached to the ear throughout the harvesting process. This change is an inadvertent result of human harvesting with sickles: as people reap their harvest, the grains with a brittle rachis are dropped and those with a tough rachis are collected, stored, and replanted for successive harvests.

Further Reading:

Tea Time: Lemon Balm Tea

Cooler weather has me thinking about hot tea again. This time around I decided to go with something I’ve already tried and know that I like. Despite the fact that lemon balm can be quite abundant and readily available, I don’t really drink it that often. Yet, considering claims made regarding its calming nature, this is definitely the year to have it.

lemon balm (Melissa officinalis)

Melissa officinalis is an herbaceous perennial native to the Mediterranean Basin and beyond. It has been widely planted outside of its native range and has become naturalized – some might say weedy – in many parts of the world. It self-sows easily and also spreads readily via stolons and/or rhizomes. It isn’t picky about soil type and grows well in both sun and part shade. Lemon balm is in the mint family and acts in a similarly aggresive way to some of its relatives, but luckily isn’t nearly as tenacious as mint in its tendency to dominate a garden bed.

The leaves of lemon balm have a wrinkled appearance, are triangular or wedge-shaped with toothed margins, and are arranged oppositely on square stems up to three feet tall. Small, white or pale yellow (sometimes pale pink) flowers are inconspicuous and produced in the axils of leaves. They are often sparse enough to be hardly noticeable. This plant’s aesthetic appeal is all about its pleasant and prolific green foliage. Yet, despite the simplicity of its flowers, lemon balm is known for being attractive to bees and is often propagated specifically to feed honeybees. In fact, the genus name Melissa apparently means honeybee in Ancient Greek.

lemon balm flower

The leaves of lemon balm can be consumed fresh or dried and have a number of other uses besides tea. They have a sweet, lemon-like scent and, like so many other herbs with a long history of human use, have a wide array of medicinal claims associated with them. Many sources agree on lemon balm’s ability to calm the nerves, reduce stress and anxiety, and fight off insomnia. According to The Herb Society of America’s Essential Guide to Growing and Cooking with Herbs, lemon balm “has been used as a relaxing agent and as an aid to restful, nightmare-free sleep.” Sounds like I could use more lemon balm in my life.

dried lemon balm leaves

Lemon balm tea can be made with either fresh or dried leaves, but fresh leaves seem to make a more flavorful tea. I had only tried tea made from dried leaves until recently and have decided that I prefer fresh leaves. Simply harvest a few leaves, cut or tear them apart to release the lemony flavor, place them in a cup, and cover them in hot water. Some recipes (like this one) suggest adding honey, while others mix lemon balm with additional herbs known for their lemon-like flavor or relaxing nature (lemon thyme and lemon verbena, for example). Sierra was immediately taken by lemon balm tea when she tried it – in contrast to her experience with violet leaf tea – and even said it was right up there with her preferred black teas. I’m not surprised, as it is one of my favorite teas as well.

lemon balm tea made with freshly harvested leaves

More Tea Time Posts on Awkward Botany:

Weeds of Boise: Ahavath Beth Israel Synagogue Garden

Anyone who has maintained a garden or small farm knows that with all the work it takes to keep up on the garden itself, outlying areas can quickly become overtaken by weeds. Low on the list of priorities, areas outside of our garden borders are ideal locations for wild urban vegetation to thrive. Pulling all the weeds within the garden is a big enough task as it is; thus, weeds out of our reach are left to their own devices, occasionally getting mown down by a string trimmer or brush mower (if time allows), but otherwise living largely unscathed. And so, places such as these are excellent for familiarizing oneself with our wild urban flora.

I found an example of this scenario at the Ahavath Beth Israel Synagogue Garden in Boise, Idaho. This community garden is a partnership between Congregation Ahavath Beth Israel (CABI) and Global Gardens, providing refugees in the area an opportunity to grow food for their families and participate in community activities.

When I visited this site, it was clear that the weeds on the edge of the garden had been mowed down at some point. New plants had popped up after the fact while others were in the process of recovering from the “haircut” and putting on new, shrubbier growth. The mowing and the fact that it was late in the summer made identifying remnants of earlier weeds too difficult to bother. Most of the weeds that I did find were either summer annuals or perennials. A visit in the spring would reveal an entirely different cast of characters.

I stayed on the border of the garden, not wanting to invade anyone’s plot or snoop around too much. The point of the visit was to highlight weeds found outside of the borders of a garden anyway. I would imagine that, since the garden is used to grow annual fruits and vegetables, most of the weeds in the beds would be annuals as well. Longer-lived weeds don’t generally tolerate regular disturbance and instead find refuge in unkept areas outside of cultivation.

Below are a few photos from the site along with a preliminary list of the weeds that I found.

salsify (Tragopogon dubius)

puncture vine (Tribulus terrestris)

field bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis)

Siberian elm (Ulmus pumila)

common mallow (Malva neglecta)

black medic (Medicago lupulina)

Weeds found at the Ahavath Beth Israel Synagogue Garden:

  • Amaranthus spp. (pigweed)
  • Bassia scoparia (kochia)
  • Chenopodium album (lamb’s quarters)
  • Chondrilla juncea (rush skeletonweed)
  • Convolvulus arvensis (field bindweed)
  • Conyza canadensis (horseweed)
  • Digitaria sanguinalis (crabgrass)
  • Epilobium brachycarpum (tall annual willowherb)
  • Euphorbia maculata (spotted spurge)
  • Hordeum jubatum (foxtail barley)
  • Lactuca serriola (prickly lettuce)
  • Malva neglecta (common mallow)
  • Medicago lupulina (black medic)
  • Oenothera biennis (common evening-primrose)
  • Plantago lanceolata (narrowleaf plantain)
  • Polygonum aviculare (prostrate knotweed)
  • Rumex crispus (curly dock)
  • Setaria sp. (foxtail)
  • Sonchus sp. (sow thistle)
  • Taraxacum officinale (dandelion)
  • Tragopogon dubius (salsify)
  • Trifolium pratense (red clover)
  • Ulmus pumila (Siberian elm)
  • Verbena bracteata (prostrate vervain)

Like all posts in the Weeds of Boise series, this will be updated as I identify and photograph more of the weeds found in this location.

Flowers Growing Out of Flowers (Things Are Getting Weird Out There)

I’m sure that anyone living through the events of 2020 would agree, these are truly wild times. So, when I stumbled across some purple coneflowers that appeared to be growing flowers out of flowers, I thought to myself, “Of course! Why not!?!” The world is upside down. Anything is possible.

As it turns out, however, this phenomenon occurs more frequently than I was aware. But it’s not necessarily a good thing, particularly if you’re concerned about plant health. We’ll get to that in a minute. First, what’s going on with these flowers?

Flowers in the aster family are unique. They have the appearance of being a single flower but are actually a cluster of two types of much smaller flowers all packed in together. Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) is a great example of this. Its flower heads are composed of dozens of disc flowers surrounded by a series of ray flowers. The minuscule disc flowers form the cone-like center of the inflorescence. The petals that surround the cone are individual ray flowers. This tight cluster of many small flowers (or florets) is known as a composite. Sunflowers are another example of this type of inflorescence.

Flowers are distinct organs. Not only are they the reproductive structures of flowering plants, but unlike the rest of the plant, they exhibit determinate growth. Flowers are, after all, plant shoots that have been “told” to stop growing like other shoots and instead modify themselves into reproductive organs and other associated structures. Unlike other shoots, which continue to grow (or at least have the potential to), a flower (and the fruit it produces) is the end result for this reproductive shoot. This is what is meant by determinate growth. However, sometimes things go awry, and the modified shoots and leaves that make up a flower don’t develop as expected, producing some bizarre looking structures as a result.

An example of this is a double flower. Plants with double flowers have mutations in their genes that cause disruptions during floral development. This means that their stamens and carpels (the reproductive organs of the flowers) don’t develop properly. Instead, they become additional petals or flowers, resulting in a flower composed of petals upon petals upon petals – a look that some people like, but that have virtually nothing to offer the pollinators that typically visit them. Because of their ornamental value, double-flowered varieties of numerous species – including purple coneflower – can be found in the horticultural trade.

double-flowered purple coneflower

Genetic mutations are one way that odd looking flowers come about. It is not the cause, however, of the freak flowers that I recently came across. What I witnessed was something called phyllody and was the result of an infection most likely introduced to the plant by a leafhopper or some other sap-sucking insect. Phyllody, which has a variety of causes, is a disruption in plant hormones that leads to leaves growing in place of flower parts. As a result, the flowers become sterile and green in color. In the case of purple coneflower, leafy structures are produced atop shoots arising from the middle of ray and/or disc florets. In other species, shoots aren’t visible and instead the inflorescence is just a cluster of leaves. In a sense, the reproductive shoot has returned to indeterminate growth, having switched back to shoot and leaf production.

Phyllody can have either biotic or abiotic causes. Biotic meaning infection by plant pathogens – including certain viruses, bacteria, and fungi – or damage by insects. Abiotic factors like hot weather and lack of water can result in a temporary case of phyllody in some plants. Phyllody plus a number of other symptoms made it clear that the purple coneflower I encountered had a fairly common disease known as aster yellows. This condition is caused by a bacterial parasite called a phytoplasma, and is introduced to the plant via a sap-sucking insect. It then spreads throughout the plant, infecting all parts. The phyllody was a dead give away, but even the flowers that weren’t alien-looking were discolored. The typical vibrant purple of the ray flowers was instead a faded pink color. The flowers that had advanced phyllody – along with the rest of the plant – were turning yellow-green.

This inflorescence isn’t exhibiting phyllody yet, but the purple color in the ray flowers is quickly fading.

Hundreds of plant species are susceptible to aster yellows, and not just those in the aster family. Once a plant is infected with aster yellows, it has it for good and will never grow or reproduce properly. For this reason, it is best to remove infected plants from the garden to avoid spreading the infection to other plants. As cool as the flowers may look, infected plants just aren’t worth saving.

Further Reading: 

Book Review: The Gyroscope of Life

Gyroscopes are entertaining toys and incredibly useful tools. They retain their balance and resist changes to their orientation as long as their flywheel is spinning. As the flywheel slows or stops, the gyroscope wobbles out of control and ultimately quits. Considering their design and function, it’s easy to find parallels between gyroscopes and living systems. Consistent energy inputs keep living things alive. Changes can bring imbalance; major disruptions can lead to death. There is a reason we often describe the natural world as a sort of balancing act. It is the work of an ecologist to make sense of this balancing act. The better we understand it, the more equipped we are to protect it and operate responsibly within it.

It is through this lens that David Parrish writes about the biological world in The Gyroscope of Life, a book that Parrish refers to as “a love song to the field of biology.” Parrish has spent much of his life observing and studying the natural world and, as professor emeritus of Crop and Soil Environmental Sciences at Virginia Tech, undoubtedly shared much of what he presents in his book with countless students over the years. The Gyroscope of Life reads like part memoir and part last lecture, and is the work of someone who has an obvious passion for science and nature.

Parrish spends the first few chapters of his book writing mostly about his life and how he came to be a biologist. He acknowledges his privelege – “born male, white, and American in an era where each of those attributes provided me major advantages” –  having essentially been placed on third base from the start, “well down the third base line.” An aspiring zoologist turned botanist, he spent his early years in graduate school studying seeds and seed dormancy. It’s a topic that obviously interests him, as several pages of the book are spent considering what’s going on inside of a seed. “Seeds provide the widest-spread examples of suspended life,”  Parrish says. Are they alive or dead or neither?

Two additional, major life events play a prominent role in the arc of Parrish’s book. One being his break from organized religion and the other his battle with advanced prostate cancer. He grew up in an orthodox Christian home with a very literal understanding of the Bible. His education put him at odds with what he was taught growing up about (among other things) the age of the earth and its creation. Eventually he came to understand that science and religion “exist in separate non-overlapping spheres – the physical and the metaphysical.” He doesn’t necessarily see science and religion as being inherently at odds with each other, but his understanding of science makes it difficult to “find resonance in religion” due to the “cacophony of dissonance” it offers.

In addressing his prostate cancer, Parrish underwent an operation that gave him a newfound perspective on gender. Freed from “testosterone poisoning,” he was able to more fully consider sex and gender from a biological perspective, which he says he had been doing for decades prior to the operation. He spends a good portion of the book “demystifying sex and gender.” One compelling example he offers involves avocado flowers, which actually change gender over time, a phenomenon known as synchronous dichogamy.

avocado flowers (Persea americana) via wikimedia commons

Over the course of its pages, The Gyroscope of Life covers a significant number of topics in the fields of biology and ecology. It’s a relatively short book, but as it careens through such wide-ranging material, it does so in an approachable and suprisingly succint manner. Parrish’s sense of humor, which doesn’t waver despite how bleak the discussion sometimes gets, helps carry the story along and keeps things interesting. Parrish covers evolution (“[Biologists] argue that, if evolution didn’t happen, it should.”), taxonomy (“the name for naming things”) and sytematics, ecological niches (“[humans] are essentially living niche-free and ecosystemless”), domestication, and so much more. The last chapter is spent discussing agroecosystems (“the organisms and abiotic environment that interact in a human-managed agricultural setting”), a topic he spent much of his career studying.

The underlying message of this book, as I see it, is a simultaneous celebration for life on earth and a concern for the direction things are going considering how humans have managed things. Parrish has some admonition for humans in light of how we’ve treated our home planet, but he isn’t too heavy-handed about it. Overall, reading the book felt like sitting in on a lecture given by a friendly and dynamic professor who has obviously given a lot of thought to what he has to say.

Check out the following video to see David Parrish describe the book in his own words.

More Book Reviews on Awkward Botany:

Revisiting the Moon Tree

I first learned about Moon Trees in the fall of 2015. One of the trees – a loblolly pine – had been planted at an elementary school just down the street from where I was living at the time. It wasn’t a new thing – it was planted back in 1977, during the period when most other Moon Trees where being planted around the country and the world – but because it wasn’t doing too well, it was in the news. Members of the community, concerned about its long-term survival, were pitching in to help keep it alive. Once I was made aware of it, I also became concerned and decided to go check on it. I even wrote a post about it, which you can read here.

Now that nearly 5 years have passed, I figured I should go check on it again. I hadn’t heard any more news about it, so I assumed it was still hanging in there, but who knows? Maybe not. Since I was going to be on that side of town for Father’s Day, I made plans to stop by. My dad hadn’t seen the tree yet, so he decided to join me.

As we approached Lowell Elementary on our bikes, I was half-expecting the tree to be gone. It was in pretty sad shape when the community stepped in to help it. Braced for this possibility, I anxiously peered down the street as we biked closer. When the tree came into view, I felt relief and announced, “There it is!”

All this time later, it still looks a little rough. The majority of its bark remains largely obscured by crusty, dried up sap, and its canopy isn’t as full as it likely would be if it was a picture of health. But it’s alive and, surprisingly enough, still growing taller, reaching for the moon.

Any loblolly pine would feel out of place in Idaho – it’s a species whose distribution spans the southwest region of the United States, which is starkly different from the northwest – however, this individual in particular is an anomaly. The seed it sprouted from took a journey into space, circled the moon a number of times and then, as a sapling, was planted in Idaho (of all places). Now, over 40 years later, it stands as a symbol of resilience. Something we could all use right now, I’m sure.

This sign was installed shortly after my original Moon Tree post.

Boise, Idaho’s Moon Tree in June 2020

My dad by the Moon Tree in Boise, Idaho

Me by the Moon Tree in Boise, Idaho

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Was a Moon Tree planted near you? Is it still around? Tell us about it in the comment section below.

 

The Dispersal of Ancient and Modern Apples by Humans and Other Megafauna

Crop domestication often involves selection for larger fruits. In some crops, humans took plant species with relatively small fruits and, over many generations of artificial selection, developed a plant with much larger fruits. Consider giant pumpkins as an extreme example. Yet in the case of apples, relatively large fruits already existed in the wild. Producing larger apples happened quickly and, perhaps even, unconsciously. Apples were practically primed for domestication, and as Robert Spengler explains in a paper published last year in Frontiers in Plant Science, looking back in time at the origins of the apple genus, Malus, can help us understand how the apple we know and love today came to be.

Apples are members of the rose family (Rosaceae), a plant family that today consists of nearly 5000 species. According to the fossil record, plants in the rose family were found in large numbers across North America as early as the Eocene (56 – 33.9 million years ago). They were present in Eurasia at this time as well, but Spengler notes, “there is a much clearer fossil record for Rosaceae fruits and seeds in Europe and Asia during the Miocene and Pliocene (20 – 2.6 million years ago).” Around 14 million years ago, larger fruits and tree-form growth habits evolved in Rosaceae subfamilies, giving rise to the genera Malus and Pyrus (apples and pears). Small, Rosaceae fruits were typically dispersed by birds, but as Sprengler writes, “it seems likely that the large fruits [in Malus and Pyrus] were a response to faunal dispersers of the late Miocene through the Pliocene of Eurasia.” Larger animals were being recruited for seed dispersal in a changing landscape.

Glacial advances and retreats during the Pleistocene (2.6 million – 11,700 years ago) brought even more changes. Plants with effective, long distance seed dispersal were favored because they were able to move into glacial refugium during glacial advances. Even today, these glacial refugium are considered genetic hot spots for Malus, and could be useful for future apple breeding. As the Pleistocene came to a close, many megafauna were going extinct. This continued into the Holocene. Large-fruited apple species lost their primary seed dispersers, and their ranges became even more contracted.

Humans have had an extensive relationship with apples, which began long before domestication. Foraging for apples was common, and seeds were certainly spread that way (perhaps even intentionally). Favorable growing conditions were also created when forests were cleared and old fields were left fallow. Apple trees are early successional species that easily colonize open landscapes, gaps in forests, and forest edges, so human activity that would have created such conditions “could have greatly promoted the spread and success of wild Malus spp. trees during the Holocene.”

The earliest evidence we have of apple domestication (in which “people were intentionally breeding and directing reproduction”) occurred around 3000 years ago in the Tian Shan Mountains of Kazakhstan, where Malus sieversii – a species that is now facing extinction – was being cultivated. This species was later brought into contact with other apple species, a few of which were also being cultivated, including M. orientalis, M. sylvestris, and M. baccata. These species easily hybridized, giving us the modern, domesticated apple, M. domestica. As Spengler writes, “the driving force of apple domestication appears to have been the trans-Eurasian crop exchange, or the movement of plants along the Silk Road.” Continued cultivation and further hybridization among M. domestica cultivars over the past 2000 years has resulted in thousands of different apple varieties.

The unique thing about domesticated apples is that their traits are not fixed in the same way that traits of other domesticated crops are. Growing an apple from seed will result in a very different apple than the apple from which the seed came. Apple traits instead have to be maintained through cloning, which is accomplished mainly through cuttings and grafting. Apples hybridize with other apple species so readily that most apple trees found in the wild are hybrids between wild and cultivated populations.

Spengler considers the study of apple domestication to be “an important critique of plant domestication studies broadly, illustrating that there is not a one-size fits-all model for plant domestication.” The “key” for understanding apple domestication “rests in figuring out the evolutionary driver for large fruits in the wild – seed dispersal through megafaunal mammals – and the process of evolution for these large fruits – hybridization.” He notes that “domestication studies often ignore evolutionary processes leading up to human cultivation,” which, in the case of apples, involves “hybridization events in the wild” that led to the evolution of large fruits “selected for through the success in recruiting large megafaunal mammals as seed disperses.” Many of those mammals went extinct, but humans eventually assumed the role, selecting and propagating “large-fruiting hybrids through cloning and grafting – creating our modern apple.”

Excerpt from Fruit from the Sands by Robert N. Spengler:

Indeed, the relationship between apples and people is close and complex, spanning at least five millennia. The story of the apple begins along the Silk Road… In recent years genetic studies have resolved much of the debate over these origins. Nevertheless, the ancestry of the apple is highly complex. Cloning, inbreeding, and reproduction between species have created a genealogy that looks more like a spider’s web than a family tree. To growers, the beauty of the apple lies not in its rosy skin but in its genetic variability and plasticity, its ability to cross with other species of Malus and other distant lines of M. domestica, and the ease with which it can be grafted onto different rootstocks and cloned.

See Also: Science Daily – Exploring the Origins of the Apple

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Interested in learning more about how plants get around? Check out the first issue of our new zine Dispersal Stories.

Book Review: Fruit from the Sands

“By dispensing plants and animals all around the world, humans have shaped global cuisines and agricultural practices. One of the most fascinating and least-discussed episodes in this process took place along the Silk Road.” — Fruit from the Sands by Robert N. Spengler III

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My understanding of the origins of agriculture and the early years of crop domestication are cursory at best. The education I received was mostly concerned with the Fertile Crescent, as well as crops domesticated by early Americans. The Silk Road, as I understood it, was the route or routes used to move goods across Asia and into eastern Europe well after the domestication of many of the crops we know today. Other than the fact that several important crops originate there, little was ever taught to me about Central Asia and its deep connection to agriculture and crop domestication. I suppose that’s why when I picked up Fruit from the Sands by Robert N. Spengler III, published last year by University of California Press, I wasn’t entirely prepared for what I was about to read.

It wasn’t until I read a few academic reviews of Fruit from the Sands that I really started to understand. Spengler’s book is groundbreaking, and much of the research he presents is relatively new. The people of Central Asia played a monumental role in discovering and developing much of the food we grow today and some of the techniques we use to grow them, and a more complete story is finally coming to light thanks to the work of archaeologists like Spengler, as well as advances in technology that help us make sense of their findings.

This long history with agricultural development can still be seen today in the markets of Central Asia, which are loaded with countless varieties of fruits, grains, and nuts, many of which are unique to the area. Yet this abundance is also at risk. Crop varieties are being lost at an alarming rate with the expansion of industrial agriculture and the reliance on a small selection of cultivars. With that comes the loss of local agricultural knowledge. Yet, with climate change looming, diversity in agriculture is increasingly important and one of the tools necessary for maintaining an abundant and reliable food supply. Unveiling a thorough history of our species’ agricultural roots will not only give us an understanding as to how we got here, but will also help us learn from past successes and failures. Hence, the work that Spengler and others in the field of archaeobotany are doing is crucial.

To set the stage for a discussion of “the Silk Road origins of the foods we eat,” Spengler offers his definition of the Silk Road. The term is misleading because there isn’t (and never was) a single road, and the goods, which were transported in all directions across Asia, included much more than silk. In fact, some of what was transported wasn’t a good at all, but knowledge, culture, and religion. In Spengler’s words, “The Silk Road … is better thought of as a dynamic cultural phenomenon, marked by increased mobility and interconnectivity in Eurasia, which linked far-flung cultures….This network of exchange, which placed Central Asia at the center of the ancient world, looked more like the spokes of a wheel than a straight road.” Spengler also sees the origins of the Silk Road going back at least five thousand years, much earlier than many might expect.

Most of Spengler’s book is organized into chapters discussing a single crop or group of crops, beginning with grains (millet, rice, barley, wheat) then moving on to fruits, nuts, and vegetables before ending with spices, oils, and teas. Each chapter compiles massive amounts of research that can be a bit overwhelming to take in all at once. Luckily each section includes a short summary, which nicely distills the information down into something more digestible.

Spengler’s chapter on broomcorn millet (Panicum miliaceum) is particularly powerful. While in today’s world millet has largely “been reduced to a children’s breakfast food in Russia and bird food in Western Europe and America,” it was “arguably the most influential crop of the ancient world.” Originally domesticated in East Asia, “it passed along the mountain foothills of Central Asia and into Europe by the second millennium BC.” It is a high-yielding crop adapted to hot, dry conditions that, with the development of summer irrigation, could be grown year-round. These and other appealing qualities have led to an increase in the popularity of millet, so much so that 2023 will be the International Year of Millets.

The “poster child” for Spengler’s book may very well be the apple. Popular the world over, the modern apple began its journey in Central Asia. As Spengler writes, “the true ancestor of the modern apple is Malus sieversii,” and “remnant populations of wild apple trees survive in southeastern Kazakhstan today.” As the trees were brought westward, they hybridized with other wild apple species, bringing rise to the incredible diversity of apple cultivars we know today. Sadly though, most of us are only familiar with the small handful of common varieties found at our local supermarkets.

Of course, as Spengler says, “No discussion of plants on the Silk Road would be complete without the inclusion of tea (Camellia sinensis),” a topic that could produce volumes on its own. Despite the brevity of the section on tea, Spengler has some interesting things to say. One in particular involves the transport of tea to Tibet in the seventh century, where “an unquenchable thirst for tea” had developed. But the journey there was long and difficult. Fermented and oxidized tea leaves traveled best. Along the way, “the leaves were exposed to extreme cold as well as hot and humid temperatures in the lowlands, and all the time they were jostled on the backs of sweaty horses and mules.” This, however, only improved the tea, as teas exposed to such conditions “became a highly sought-after commodity among the elites.”

“In Central Asia, Mongolia, and Tibet, tea leaves were oxidized, dried, and compressed into hard bricks from which chunks could be broken off and immersed in water.” – Robert N. Spengler III in Fruit from the Sands (photo via wikimedia commons)

As dense as this book is, it’s also quite approachable. The information presented in each of the chapters is thorough enough to be textbook material, but Spengler does such a nice job summing up the main points, that there are plenty of great takeaways for the casual reader. For those wanting a deeper dive into the history of our food (which in many ways is the history of us), Spengler’s book is an excellent starting point.

More Reviews of Fruit from the Sands:

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