Dr. Beal’s Seed Viability Experiment

In 1879, Dr. William J. Beal buried 20 jars full of sand and seeds on the grounds of Michigan State University. He was hoping to answer questions about seed dormancy and long-term seed viability. Farmers and gardeners have often wondered: “How many years would one have to spend weeding until there are no more weeds left to pull?” Seeds only remain viable for so long, so if weeds were removed before having a chance to make more seeds, the seed bank could, theoretically, be depleted over time. This ignores, of course, the consistent and persistent introduction of weed seeds from elsewhere, but that’s beside the point. The question is still worth asking, and the study still worth doing.

When Dr. Beal set up the experiment, he expected it would last about 100 years, as one jar would be tested every 5 years. However, things changed, and Dr. Beal’s study is now in its 140th year, making it the longest-running scientific experiment to date. If things go as planned, the study will continue until at least 2100. That’s because 40 years into the study, a jar had to be extracted in the spring instead of the fall, as had been done previously, and at that point it was decided to test the remaining jars at 10 year intervals. In 1990, things changed again when the period was extended to 20 years between jars. The 15th jar was tested in 2000, which means the next test will occur in the spring of next year.

In preparing the study, Dr. Beal filled each of the 20 narrow-necked pint jars with a mixture of moist sand and 50 seeds each of 21 plant species. All but one of the species (Thuja occidentalis) were common weeds. He buried the jars upside down – “so that water would not accumulate about the seeds” – about 20 inches below ground. Near each bottle he also buried seeds of red oak and black walnut, but they all rotted away early in the study.

After the retrieval of each bottle, the sand and seed mixture is dumped into trays and exposed to conditions suitable for germination. The number of germinates are then counted and recorded. Over the years, the majority of the seeds have lost their viability. In 2000, only three species germinated  – Verbascum blattaria, a Verbascum hybrid, and Malva rotundifolia. There were only two individuals of the Verbascum hybrid, and only one Malva rotundifolia. The seeds of Verbascum blattaria, however, produced 23 individuals, suggesting that even after 120 years, the seeds of this species could potentially remain viable long into the future.

moth mullein (Verbascum blattaria)

In the 2000 test, the single seedling of Malva rotundifolia germinated after a cold treatment. Had the cold treatment not been tried, germination may not have occurred, which begs the question, how many seeds in previous studies would have germinated if subjected to additional treatments? Dr. Beal himself had wondered this, expressing that the results he had seen were “indefinite and far from satisfactory.” He admitted that he had “never felt certain that [he] had induced all sound seeds to germinate.”

There are also some questions about the seeds themselves. For example, the authors of the 2000 report speculate that poor germination seen in Malva rotundifolia over most of the study period could be “the result of poor seed set rather than loss of long-term viability.” The presence of a Verbascum hybrid also calls into question the original source of those particular seeds. A report published in 1922 questions whether or not the seeds of Thuja occidentalis were ever actually added to the jars, and also expresses uncertainty about the identify of a couple other species in the study.

Despite these minor issues, Dr. Beal’s study has shed a great deal of light on questions of seed dormancy and long-term seed viability and has inspired numerous related studies. While questions about weeds were the inspiration for the study, the things we have been able to learn about seed banks has implications beyond agriculture. Seed bank dynamics are particularly important in conservation and restoration. If plants that have disappeared due to human activity have maintained a seed bank in the soil, there is potential for the original population to be restored.

In future posts we will dive deeper into seed banks, seed dormancy, and germination. In the meantime, you can read more about Dr. Beal’s seed viability study by visiting the following links:

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Eating Weeds: Blue Mustard

Spring is here, and it’s time to start eating weeds again. One of the earliest edible weeds to emerge in the spring is Chorispora tenella, commonly known by many names including blue mustard, crossflower, and musk mustard. Introduced to North America from Russia and southwestern Asia, this annual mustard has become commonplace in disturbed areas, and is particularly fond of sunny, dry spots with poor soil. It can become problematic in agricultural areas, but to those who enjoy eating it, seeing it in large quantities isn’t necessarily viewed as a problem.

rosettes of blue mustard (Chorispora tenella)

The plant starts off as a rosette. Identifying it can be challenging because the shape of the leaves and leaf margins can be so variable. Leaves can either be lance-shaped with a rounded tip or more of an egg shape. Leaf margins are usually wavy and can be deeply lobed to mildly lobed or not lobed at all. Leaves are semi-succulent and usually covered sparsely in sticky hairs, a condition that botanists refer to as glandular.

A leafy flower stalk rises from the rosette and reaches between 6 and 18 inches tall. Like all plants in the mustard family, the flowers are four-petaled and cross-shaped. They are about a half inch across and pale purple to blue in color. Soon they turn into long, slender seed pods that break apart into several two-seeded sections. Splitting apart crosswise like a pill capsule rather than lengthwise is an unusual trait for a plant in the mustard family.

blue mustard (Chorispora tenella)

Multiple sources comment on the smell of the plant. Weeds of North America calls it “ill-scented.” Its Wikipedia entry refers to it as having “a strong scent which is generally considered unpleasant.” The blog Hunger and Thirst comments on its “wet dish rag” smell, and Southwest Colorado Wildflowers claims that its “peculiar odor” is akin to warm, melting crayons. Weeds of the West says it has a “disagreeable odor,” and warns of the funny tasting milk that results when cows eat it. All this to say that the plant is notorious for smelling bad; however, I have yet to detect the smell. My sense of smell isn’t my greatest strength, which probably explains why I’m not picking up the scent. It could also be because I haven’t encountered it growing in large enough quantities in a single location. Maybe I’m just not getting a strong enough whiff.

Regardless of its smell, for those of us inclined to eat weeds, the scent doesn’t seem to turn us away. The entire plant is edible, but the leaves are probably the part most commonly consumed. The leaves are thick and have a mushroom-like taste to them. They also have a radish or horseradish spiciness akin to arugula, a fellow member of the mustard family. I haven’t found them to be particularly spicy, but I think the spiciness depends on what stage the plant is in when the leaves are harvested. I have only eaten the leaves of very young plants.

The leaves are great in salads and sandwiches, and can also be sauteed, steamed, or fried. I borrowed Backyard Forager’s idea and tried them in finger sandwiches, because who can resist tiny sandwiches? I added cucumber to mine and thought they were delicious. If you’re new to eating weeds, blue mustard is a pretty safe bet to start with – a gateway weed, if you will.

blue mustard and cucumber finger sandwiches

For more information about blue mustard, go here.

Eating Weeds 2018:

Poisonous Plants: Red Squill

Humans have been at war with rats since time immemorial. Ridding ourselves of their nuisance behavior is increasingly unlikely, and in fact, some scientists believe that, following human extinction, rats will be poised to take our place as the most dominant species on earth. Despite being thwarted repeatedly, we make tireless attempts to control rat populations. One major weapon in our arsenal is poison, and one of the most popular rat poisons was derived from a plant with a formidable bulb.

Urginea maritima (known synonymously as Drimia maritima, among other Latin names) is a geophyte native to the Mediterranean Basin, where it survives the hot, dry summer months by going dormant, waiting things out underground. Growth occurs in the cooler months, its bulb expanding annually before it finally flowers late one year after reaching at least 6 years old. Its flower stalk rises to as tall as 2 meters, extending heavenward from a bulb that can weigh as much as a kilogram. Its inflorescence is long, narrow, and loaded with small flowers that are generally white, but sometimes pink or red.

The oversized bulb of Urginea maritima — via wikimedia commons

Urginea maritima is commonly known as red squill or white squill (and sometimes simply, squill). Other common names include sea onion, sea squill, and giant squill. It is related the squill referred to in the Harry Potter universe, which is known botanically as Scilla. However, plants in the genus Scilla are much more dimunutive and generally flower in the spring rather than the fall. Like red squill, Scilla species are known to be poisonous; however, they don’t have the reputation for producing deadly rat poison that red squill does.

Like so many poisonous plants, red squill has a long history of being used medicinally to treat all sorts of ailments. As with any folk remedy or natural medicine, a doctor should be consulted before attempting to treat oneself or others. A 1995 report tells of a woman who ate red squill bulbs to treat her arthritic pain. She exhibited symptoms characteristic of ingesting cardiac glycosides – the toxic compound found in red squill – including nausea, vomiting, and seizures. She died 30 hours after eating the bulbs.

red squill (Urginea maritima) — via wikimedia commons

Toxic compounds are found throughout the plant, but are particularly concentrated in the bulb (especially its core) and the roots. Toxicity is at its highest during summer dormancy and when the plant is flowering and fruiting. The compound used to poison rats is called scilliroside. Bulbs are harvested in the summer, chopped up, and dried. The chips are then ground down to a powder and added to rat bait. Results are highly variable, so to increase its effectiveness, a concentrate can be made by isolating the toxic compound using solvents.

Red squill was introduced to southern California in the 1940’s as a potential agricultural crop. The region’s Mediterranean climate and the plant’s drought tolerance made it ideal for the area. The bulbs can be grown for manufacturing rat poison, and the flowers harvested for the cut flower industry. Breeding efforts have been made to produce highly toxic varieties of red squill for rat poison production.

the flowers of red squill (Urginea maritima) — via wikimedia commons

Around the time red squill was being evaluated as an agricultural crop, studies were done not only on its toxicity to rats, but to other animals as well. A 1949 article details trials of a red squill derived poison called Silmurine. It was fed to rats as well as a selection of farm animals.  Results of the study where “not wholly satisfactory” when it came to poisoning rats. Silmurine was less effective on Rattus rattus than it was on Rattus norvegicus. Thankfully, however, it was found to be relatively safe for the domestic animals it was administered to. Most puked it up or avoided it. Two humans accidentally became part of the study when they inadvertently inhaled the poison powder. Ten hours later they experienced headaches, vomiting, and diarrhea, “followed by lethargy and loss of appetite,” but “no prolonged effects.”

Vomiting is key. Ingesting scilliroside induces vomiting, which helps expel the poison. However, rodents can’t vomit (surprisingly), which is why the poison is generally effective on them.

Today, squill is available as an ornamental plant for the adventurous gardener. For more about that, check out this video featuring a squill farmer:

More Poisonous Plants posts on Awkward Botany:

Field Trip: Bergius Botanic Garden and Copenhagen Botanical Garden

There are very few downsides to working at a botanical garden, but one of them is that the growing season can be so busy that taking time off to visit other botanical gardens when they are at their peak is challenging. Case in point, my visit to Alaska Botanical Garden last October. Another case in point, this December’s visit to a couple of gardens in Scandinavia.

That’s right, Sierra and I took a long (and much needed) break from work and headed to the other side of the world for some fun in the occasional sun of Denmark and Sweden. While we were there we visited two botanical gardens, one in Stockholm and the other in Copenhagen. Considering we were there in December, we were impressed by how many things we found all around that were still blooming. We were also impressed by how much winter interest there was in the form of seed heads, spent flower stalks, and other plant parts left in place, as opposed to everything being chopped down to the ground as soon as fall arrives (which is often the case in our part of the world). We may not have been there in the warmest or sunniest time of year, but there was still plenty of natural beauty to capture our attention.

Bergius Botanic Garden

The first of the two gardens we visited was Bergius Botanic Garden (a.k.a. Bergianska trädgården) in Stockholm, Sweden. It is located near Stockholm University and the Swedish Museum of Natural History. It was founded in 1791 and moved to its current location in 1885. It was immediately obvious that the gardens were thoughtfully planned out, particularly the systematic beds in which the plants were organized according to their evolutionary relationship to each other. The extensive rock garden, which was a collection of small “mountains” with a series of paths winding throughout, was also impressive. Since we arrived just as the sun was beginning to set, we were happy to find that the Edvard Anderson Conservatory was open where we could explore a whole other world of plants, many more of which were flowering at the time.

Walking into Bergius Botanic Garden with the Edvard Anderson Conservatory in the distance.

Sierra poses with kale, collard, and Brussels sprout trees in the Vegetable Garden.

seed heads of velvetleaf (Abutilon theophrasti)

corky bark of cork-barked elm (Ulmus minor ‘Suberosa’)

pomelo (Citrus maxima) in the Edvard Anderson Conservatory

Camellia japonica ‘Roger Hall’ in the Edvard Anderson Conservatory

carrion-flower (Orbea variegata) in the Edvard Anderson Conservatory

Cape African-queen (Anisodontea capensis) in the Edvard Anderson Conservatory

Copenhgen Botanical Garden

The Copenhagen Botanical Garden (a.k.a. Botanisk have) is a 10 hectare garden that was founded in 1600 and moved to its current location in 1870. It is part of the University of Copenhagen and is located among a series of glasshouses built in 1874, a natural history museum, and a geological museum. Unfortunately, the glasshouses and museums were closed the day we visited, but we still enjoyed walking through the grounds and exploring the various gardens.

A large rock garden, similar to the one at Bergius, was a prominent feature. We learned from talking to a gardener working there that since Denmark is not known for its rich supply of large rocks, most of the rocks in the garden came from Norway. However, a section of the rock garden was built using fossilized coral found in Denmark that dates back to the time that the region was underwater.

Another great feature was the Nordic Beer Garden, a meticulously organized collection of plants used in beer recipes from the time of the Vikings to the Nordic brewers of today. Even though the majority of the plants in this garden were dormant, the interpretive signage and fastidious layout was memorable.

Walking into Copenhagen Botanical Garden with the Palm House in the distance.

lots of little pots of dormant bulbs

seed head of Chinese licorice (Glycyrrhiza echinata)

fruits of Chinese lantern (Physalis alkekengi)

alpine rose (Rhododendron ferrugineum)

Viburnum farreri ‘Nanum’

seed head of rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus)

pods exposing the seeds of stinking iris (Iris foetidissima)

Field Trip: UBC Botanical Garden and VanDusen Botanical Garden

Last week, we found ourselves in Vancouver, British Columbia for a work-related conference put on by American Public Gardens Association. In addition to learning heaps about plant collections and (among other things) the record keeping involved in maintaining such collections, we got a chance to visit two Vancouver botanical gardens. Both gardens were pretty big, so covering the entire area in the pace we generally like to go in the time that was allotted was simply not possible. Still, we were smitten by what we were able to see and would happily return given the chance. What follows are a few photos from each of the gardens.

UBC Botanical Garden

UBC Botanical Garden is located at the University of British Columbia. Established in 1916, it is Canada’s oldest university botanical garden. We saw a small fraction of the Asian Garden, which is expansive, and instead spent most of our time in other areas, including the Alpine Garden, the Carolinian Forest Garden, the Food Garden, and one of my favorite spots, the BC Rainforest Garden. The Rainforest Garden is a collection of plants native to British Columbia, which was the original focus of UBC Botanical Garden’s first director, John Davidson.

fall foliage of redvein enkianthus (Enkianthus campanulatus)

Franklin tree in bloom (Franklinia alatamaha) in the Carolinian Forest Garden

alpine troughs

bellflower smartweed (Aconogonon campanulatum)

cutleaf smooth sumac (Rhus glabra ‘Laciniata’) in the BC Rainforest Garden

the fruits of Gaultheria pumila in the E.H. Lohbrunner Alpine Garden

Himalayan blueberry (Vaccinium moupinense) in the E.H. Lohbrunner Alpine Garden

VanDusen Botanical Garden

VanDusen Botanical Garden is a 55 acre garden that opened in 1975 and is located on land that was once a golf course. It features an extensive collection of plants from around the world accompanied by a series of lakes and ponds as well as lots of other interesting features (like a Scottish Shelter, a Korean Pavilion, an Elizabethan Maze, and more). Our time there was far too brief. The whirlwind tour we joined, led by the education director, was a lot of fun, and if the threat of missing our bus wasn’t looming, we would have been happy to stay much longer.

Japanese anemone (Anemone x hybrida ‘Whirlwind’)

fall color on the shore of Heron Lake

knees of bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) in R. Roy Forster Cypress Pond

witch hazel (Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Pallida’)

a grove of giant redwoods (Sequoiadendron giganteum)

We tried the fruit of dead man’s fingers (Decaisnea insignis). It tastes a bit like watermelon.

Japanese stewartia (Stewartia pseudocamellia)

More Awkward Botany Field Trips:

Botany in Popular Culture: The Tan Hua Flowers in Crazy Rich Asians

When a flower blooms, a celebration is in order. Flowers abound for much of the year, which means parties are called for pretty much non-stop (something Andrew W.K. would surely endorse). Since we can’t possibly celebrate every bloom, there are certain plants we have decided to pay more attention to – plants whose flowers aren’t so prolific, predictable, or long-lived; or plants whose flowers come infrequently or at odd times of the day (or night).

This is the case with the flowers of the night blooming cactus, Epiphyllum oxypetalum, which goes by many names including Dutchman’s pipe cactus, queen of the night, orchid cactus, night blooming cereus, and tan hua. Tan hua is the Chinese name for the plant, and this is how it is referred to in the book, Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan.

In the book, Nick Young brings his American girlfriend, Rachel Chu, to meet his ridiculously wealthy family in Singapore. Before the trip, Rachel was in the dark about the Young’s wealth. She first meets the family and their gargantuan mansion when Nick’s grandma, seeing that her tan hua flowers are about to bloom, throws an impromptu (and lavish) party. Nick refers to the flowers as “very rare,” blooming “extremely infrequently,” and “quite something to witness.”

In a seperate conversation, Nick’s cousin, Astrid, tries to convince her husband to attend the party by claiming, “it’s awfully good luck to see the flowers bloom.” Later, another one of Nick’s cousins tells Rachel, “it’s considered to be very auspicious to witness tan huas blooming.”

Tan hua (Epiphyllum oxypetalum) via wikimedia commons

Native to Mexico and Guatemala, E. oxypetalum was first brought to China in the 1600’s. Its beauty and intrigue along with its relative ease of cultivation helped it become popular and widespread across Asia and other parts of the world. Watching it bloom is considered a sacred experience by many, including in India, where it is said to bring luck and prosperity to households who are fortunate enough to see theirs bloom.

Epiphyllums are epiphytic, meaning they grow non-parasitically on the surfaces of other plants, such as in the crevices of bark or the crotches of branches. Like other cacti, they are essentially leafless, but their stems are broad, flat, and leaf-like in appearance. Showy, fragrant flowers are born along the margins of stems. The flowers of tan hua, as described in Crazy Rich Asians, appear as “pale reddish petals curled tightly like delicate fingers grasping a silken white peach.” A report (accompanied by photos) published by Sacred Heart University describes watching tan hua flowers progess from bud formation to full bloom, a process that took more than two weeks.

Tan huas are certainly not rare, as Nick described them. A number of Epiphyllum species and their hybrids are commonly cultivated; there is even an Epiphyllum Trail at San Diego Zoo’s Safari Park. Listed as “least concern” on the IUCN Red List, their popularity as ornamentals is noted but is not seen as affecting wild populations. Night blooming plants, while fascinating, aren’t all that rare either. Such plants have adapted relationships with creatures, like bats and moths, that are active during the night, employing their assistance with pollination. A paper published in Plant Systematics and Evolution describes the floral characteristics of Epiphyllum and similar genera: “The hawkmoth-flower syndrome, consisting of strongly-scented, night-blooming flowers with white or whitish perianths and long slender nectar-containing floral tubes is present in Cereus, Trichocereus, Selenicereus, Discocactus, Epiphyllum, and a number of other cactus genera.”

That being said, the specialness of a short-lived, infrequent, night blooming flower should not be understated, and really, parties being thrown in honor of any plant are something I can certainly get behind. Sitting in the courtyard late at night, the Young family and their guests watched as “the tightly rolled petals of the tan huas unfurled like a slow-motion movie to reveal a profusion of feathery white petals that kept expanding into an explosive sunburst pattern.” The look of it reminds Astrid of “a swan ruffling its wings, about to take flight.”

Later, “the tan huas began to wilt just as swiftly and mysteriously as they had bloomed, filling the night air with an intoxicating scent as they shriveled into spent lifeless petals.”

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Additional Resources:

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*Thank you Kathy for letting me borrow your Kindle so that I could write this post.

Eating Weeds: Dandelion Flowers

Mention weeds, and the first plant most of us think of is dandelion. It is essentially the poster child when it comes to weeds and one of the few weeds that entire books have been written about. Its notoriety partly comes from being so ubiquitous and recognizable, but it also comes from its utility. It has a long history of being used medicinally and culinarily, and, surprising to some I’m sure, is still grown agriculturally today.

Dandelion is an attractive and useful plant whose main offense is being so accomplished and proficient at staying alive, reproducing, and moving itself around. The principal thing it gets accused of is invading our lawns. With its brightly colored flowers on tall stalks and its globe of feathery seeds, it makes itself obvious, unlike other lawn invaders that tend to blend in more. Once it makes itself at home, it refuses to leave, adding to the frustration. Consider the vats of herbicide that have been applied to turf grass in an attempt to wipe out dandelions. The fact that they hang around, taunting those who care about that sort of thing, helps explain why they are so hated.

common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

As Ken Thompson writes in The Book of Weeds, dandelions are “too familiar to need describing,” and since there is already so much written about them, I don’t feel the need to write much myself. Below, instead, are a few excerpts from a handful of books that discuss them.

“It seems many of us possess a conscious will not to believe anything good about this remarkable harbinger of spring which, by its ubiquity and persistance, make it the most recognized and most hated of all ‘weeds.'” — The Dandelion Celebration by Peter Gail

“Dandelion heads consist entirely of overlapping ray florets. … Each floret has its own male and female organs, the (female) style surmounting the (male) stamens. Stamens are unnecessary, however, for the plant to produce seed; much, if not most dandelion seed reproduction occurs asexually (apomixis), without pollen fertilization or any genetic involvement of male cells. But insect pollination (each floret produces abundant nectar in its tubular base) and self-pollination, plus vegetative reproduction via sprouting of new plants from roots and root fragments, also occurs – so this plant has all reproductive fronts covered, surely an important reason for its wide abundance and distribution.” — The Book of Field and Roadside by John Eastman

“Wild violets are too limp and their flowers to insipidly small, too prone to damp, dark corners, as if lacking upright amour propre; in contrast, dandelions are too lush and healthy, their vigorous, indestructible roots, gaudy flowers, and too-plentiful seed heads all too easily spawned with their easygoing means of reproduction by parachute-like seeds, landing where they will, suggesting something of human sexual profligacy.” — Weeds by Nina Edwards

Charles Voysey “The Furrow” (© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

“Dandelions demonstrate evolution in action on suburban lawns. Over several seasons of mowing, the only dandelions that can flower are short-stemmed plants that duck the blade. Mowing thus becomes a selective factor, and in time most of the yard’s surviving dandelion flowers hug the ground.” — The Book of Field and Roadside by John Eastman

“When you stop seeing them as villains, many weeds can be considered as useful plants and certainly have been in the past. Dandelions produce fresh, green leaves nearly all year round. They make a nice addition to a salad, although most people find them too bitter to eat in any quantity. … Dandelion roots are edible too, and have been used in the past as a coffee substitute. If you can find some nice fat burdock roots to go with them, you could even make your own old-fashioned dandelion and burdock drink.” — The Alternative Kitchen Garden by Emma Cooper

“Early medieval Arabian physicians recognized the medicinal properties of dandelion, recorded in Egyptian tombs and described by Theophrastus. Its diuretic effects are mirrored in the common names of pissabed and the French pissenlit; it is recommended for the liver, kidneys, and gallbladder, and even for the treatment of diabetes. In India it is also a traditional remedy for snakebites and its milky sap is said to cure surface tumors and warts, and even unsightly moles and freckles.” — Weeds by Nina Edwards

I ate dandelion flowers blended up with eggs and cooked like scrambled eggs. Its a simple recipe that I adapted from instructions found in the The Dandelion Celebration by Peter Gail. The flowers taste more or less the way they smell. They have a bitterness to them that is akin to their leaves but isn’t nearly as strong. I have eaten dandelion leaves several times and I like them, so the bitterness doesn’t really bother me. If I were to make this again I would use a higher egg to dandelion flower ratio, because even though I enjoyed the flavor, it was a little strong.