Selections from the Boise Biophilia Archives

For a little over a year now, I’ve been doing a tiny radio show with a friend of mine named Casey O’leary. The show is called Boise Biophilia and airs weekly on Radio Boise. On the show we each take about a minute to talk about something biology or ecology related that listeners in our local area can relate to. Our goal is to encourage listeners to get outside and explore the natural world. It’s fascinating after all! After the shows air, I post them on our website and Soundcloud page for all to hear.

We are not professional broadcasters by any means. Heck, I’m not a huge fan of talking in general, much less when a microphone is involved and a recording is being made. But Casey and I both love spreading the word about nerdy nature topics, and Casey’s enthusiasm for the project helps keep me involved. We’ve recorded nearly 70 episodes so far and are thrilled to know that they are out there in the world for people to experience. What follows is a sampling of some of the episodes we have recorded over the last 16 months. Some of our topics and comments are inside baseball for people living in the Treasure Valley, but there’s plenty there for outsiders to enjoy as well.

Something you will surely note upon your first listen is the scattering of interesting sound effects and off the wall edits in each of the episodes. Those come thanks to Speedy of Radio Boise who helps us edit our show. Without Speedy, the show wouldn’t be nearly as fun to listen to, so we are grateful for the work he does.

Boise Biophilia logo designed by Sierra Laverty

In this episode, Casey and I explore the world of leaf litter. Where do all the leaves go after they fall? Who are the players involved in decomposition, and what are they up to out there?

 

In this episode, Casey gets into our region’s complicated system of water rights, while I dive into something equally complex and intense – life inside of a sagebrush gall.

 

In this episode, I talk about dead bees and other insects trapped and dangling from milkweed flowers, and Casey discusses goatheads (a.k.a. puncture vine or Tribulus terrestris) in honor of Boise’s nascent summer celebration, Goathead Fest.

 

As much as I love plants, I have to admit that some of our best episodes are insect themed. Their lives are so dramatic, and this episode illustrates that.

 

The insect drama continues in this episode in which I describe how ant lions capture and consume their prey. Since we recorded this around Halloween, Casey offers a particularly spooky bit about garlic.

 

If you follow Awkward Botany, you know that one of my favorite topics is weeds. In this episode, I cover tumbleweeds, an iconic western weed that has been known to do some real damage. Casey introduces us to Canada geese, which are similar to weeds in their, at times, overabundance and ability to spawn strong opinions in the people they share space with.

 

In this episode, I explain the phenomenon of marcescence, and Casey gives some great advice about growing onions from seed.

 

And finally, in the spring you can’t get by without talking about bulbs at some point. This episode is an introduction to geophytes. Casey breaks down the basics, while I list some specific geophytes native to our Boise Foothills.

 

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Field Trip: Orton Botanical Garden

In the inaugural year of this blog, I wrote a short post about a visit to Plantasia Cactus Gardens, a botanical garden in Twin Falls, Idaho that specializes in cold hardy cactus and other succulents. I finally made a return visit all these years later (thanks to a co-worker who organized the trip). Back in 2013, the garden was private but open to the public by appointment. Today, the garden is still open by appointment but is now a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization with a new name: Orton Botanical Garden.

With the name change and non-profit status comes a new mission statement. The garden has been an impressive display of cold hardy cactus and succulents along with native and drought-tolerant plants for many years now. It has also long been a resource for educating visitors on the importance of these plants, as well as the importance of water conservation through water efficient landscaping. So the mission statement isn’t necessarily a new direction, but rather an affirmation of what this garden has done so well for years. Few gardens are doing cold hardy, drought-tolerant plants at the level that Orton Botanical Garden is.

Many of the plants at Orton Botanical Garden are made available to the public for purchase through an annual plant sale in May, as well as through an online store. This is another great service because sourcing some of these plants is not easy, and this one of the few places they can be found for sale.

Wherever you live in the world, this is a garden that should be on your bucket list. Even at a mere 5 acres in size, one could easily spend hours exploring it, and each visit reveals something new. What follows is just a small sampling of the things you will find there.

Toroweap hedgehog (Echinocereus coccineus var. toroweapensis)

scarlet hedgehog (Echinocereus coccineus var. coccineus)

White Sands kingcup cactus (Echinocereus triglochidiatus var. triglochidiatus)

Orcutt’s foxtail cactus (Escobaria orcuttii var. koenigii)

a peak down a shallow gully flanked by cholla (Cylindropuntia spp.)

Colorado hookless cactus (Sclerocactus glaucus)

Fremont’s mahonia (Mahonia fremontii)

close up of Fremont’s mahonia (Mahonia fremontii)

spiny pillow (Ptilotrichum spinosum)

hairstreak on cliff fendlerbush (Fendlera rupicola)

Utah sweetvetch (Hedysarum boreale)

Several species of buckwheats were in bloom, including this Railroad Canyon buckwheat (Eriogonum soliceps).

There were also quite a few penstemon species blooming, like this sidebells penstemon (Penstemon secundiflorus).

More Awkward Botany Field Trips:

Podcast Review: Botanical Mystery Tour

My interest is piqued any time plants are featured or plugged in popular culture. Hence my ongoing series of posts, Botany in Popular Culture, featuring Futurama, Saga of the Swamp Thing, etc. Plants just don’t get enough airtime, so it must be celebrated when they do. Which is why I was excited to learn about Chicago Botanic Garden‘s new podcast, Botanical Mystery Tour, in which the plants referenced in pop culture take center stage.

The hosts, as they state in each episode’s introduction, “dive into the botany hidden in our favorite stories.” To help with the discussion, they bring in experts that work at Chicago Botanic Garden to explore the science (and fiction) behind the plant references. In addition to discussing pop culture and the related science, the guests share details about the work they do at the Garden and some of the research they are working on.

In the first episode, Jasmine and Erica ask Paul CaraDonna about the drone bees featured in an episode of Black Mirror. Since many bee species are in decline, will we have to resort to employing robot bees to pollinate plants that rely on bee-assisted pollination? A great discussion about native bees and colony collapse disorder ensues.

(But maybe the idea of autonomous drone insects isn’t too far-fetched…)

In episode two, the hosts ask why humans are so obsessed with corpse flowers. Thousands of people flock to botanical gardens to see these humongous, stinky flowers on the rare occasions they are in bloom, so what is so appealing about Amorphophallus titanum? Patti Vitt joins the discussion to share details about this fascinating plant.

A corpse flower in bloom is a brief and uncommon occurrence, reminiscent of the Sumatran Century Flower in The Simpsons and the 40 Year Orchid in Dennis the Menace.

 

The third episode features the sarlaccs of Star Wars. It turns out, sarlaccs are carnivorous plants. This discovery spawns an interesting discussion with horticulturist Tom Weaver about what defines a carnivorous plant and the various ways that different carnivorous plant species capture and kill their prey.

The fourth (and latest) episode is an exploration into the magical world of mushrooms. In Alice in Wonderland, Alice encounters a large, hookah-smoking caterpillar sitting atop a giant mushroom. Are there mushrooms big enough that a person could actually sit on them like Alice does? Greg Mueller joins the podcast to address this and many other mycology-based questions. The conversation includes a great discussion about why a botanical garden (whose main focus is plants) would be interested in fungus.

The discussions in this podcast are fun and enlightening. The hosts shine the spotlight on often overlooked characters in popular media, and with the help of their guests, lead captivating conversations about the science related to these characters. With only a handful of episodes available so far, it will be easy to get caught up. And then you, like me, will find yourself anxiously looking forward to embarking on another Botanical Mystery Tour.

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Is there a plant-themed podcast or podcast episode you would like to recommend? Please do so in the comment section below.

The Dragon of Yankee Fork: Spalding Viaduct

This is a guest post by Martha Dalke Hindman. It is an excerpt from her upcoming book, The Dragon of Yankee Fork. This is the final of three posts. See also: Devil’s Washbasins and Grave Markers.

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Spalding Viaduct, from the Old Mission site over the Railroad tracks
Built in 1924, steel rods, concrete construction, supporting arches and pillars.
570 feet long, 20 feet wide, a Link in U.S. Highway 95 connecting Idaho, North to South.
Today, a Chain Link Fence and Steel Gates surround the structure.

Black Locust trees, cascading white or lavender flowers
Compound leaves, dark brown seed pods.
Shade and shelter for family picnics and softball games
Beside the Spalding Viaduct, the Nez Perce Tribal Cemetery

black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia)

Travel with my Dad was always an adventure. However, the Spalding Viaduct on U.S. Highway 95, was the scariest stretch of concrete highway, we ever encountered.

Dad slowed to a stop as we approached the Spalding Viaduct. A semi tractor-trailer rig was traveling north and in the center of the viaduct, leaving no room for any other vehicles. I watched as the driver carefully drove his rig down the narrow span. The driver slowed, saluted his “thanks” to us, and continued his journey. Normal traffic, backed up at either end of the viaduct, continued to their destinations. Dad and I were on our way to Boise – Idaho’s Capitol City.

Dad continued the story about how the Spalding Viaduct on U.S. Highway 95 connects the State of Idaho, North to South and South to North.

“The Spalding Viaduct is the vital link for travelers to stay within the geographical boundaries of the State of Idaho. Otherwise, to reach Boise from Lewiston, travel west and south on U. S. Highway 12 to Walla Walla, Washington, cross the Columbia River south to Umatilla, Oregon Highway 82. Outside Umatilla, connect with U.S. Highway 84 east through Southeast Oregon, across the Snake River at Ontario, Oregon and into Boise. The only other way to reach Boise from our home in Moscow, is to travel south on U.S. Highway 95 to Lewiston, turn east on U.S. Highway 12 into Hamilton, Montana. From Hamilton, south on U.S. Highway 93 through the magnificent Bitterroot Valley, to the Montana, Idaho border. U.S. Highway 15 takes you to Idaho Falls and U.S. Highway 86 into Boise. Coming from our home in Moscow, travel time to Boise would be two days. That is why the Spalding Viaduct is so vital to North-South and South-North traffic.”

“Dad, do we change time zones before we reach Boise??”

“Yes, Martha Lee. Time zones change from Pacific Standard Time, to Mountain Standard Time when we cross the Salmon River Bridge at Riggins. Because we are traveling south, we lose one hour. Watch for a roadside park with a picnic table. Mother packed a lunch full of sandwiches, goodies and a thermos full of ice cold water. We should arrive in Boise about 7 pm. Mountain Standard Time. In the meantime, enjoy the scenery.”

“Dad, there is JUST the place for our picnic, under the shade of the black locust trees.”

We parked our car at the picnic area next to the Spalding Viaduct. The black locust trees in bloom, a gentle breeze brought “fishy” smells from the Clearwater River, the water still high and rapid from the spring rains. The log drive was finished, only a few pieces of debris floated by.

Several families were finishing their noon meal, as we sat down at the long wooden table and unpacked our lunch. Mother had prepared peanut butter and honey sandwiches, potato salad, liverwurst slices, cheddar cheese, carrots and strawberries from our garden, chocolate chip cookies, and a large Coleman thermos of cold water. What a feast!

The afternoon sun was warm, the breeze calm, just the recipe for a game of softball. Dad batted first. A gentle swing to left field. Home Run!!

My turn to bat! I swung, missing the first ball. The second pitch, I hit, but it flew straight into the Clearwater River. The strong current carried my softball downstream. I could not catch it. End of Game!

I cried. Dad put his strong arms around my sagging shoulders. “It’s OK, Martha Lee. I’ll see to it that you have another softball. We will never know how far your old ball will travel. It may get stuck in debris along the river banks, or it may end up in the Pacific Ocean, riding the ocean currents to the shores of the Hawaiian Islands, or maybe even into Shanghai Harbor, China!”

Several days later, Dad came home with a package under his arm. With a twinkle in his eye, Dad gave me the box. I opened the shiny, square box. Inside was a new softball ready to be played with and loved just as much as the old one.

Thanks, Dad.

Additional Information:

The Spalding Viaduct is falling apart, literally. Large pieces of the concrete columns become loose and fall to the ground. This once vital link on U.S. Highway 95 is closed with steel gates and a chain link fence. Moss grows where semi trucks carrying goods and produce South to North and North to South, passenger cars and buses, traveling South to Boise and North to Canada, watched out for each other on the narrow roadway.

Modern day travelers and truck traffic continues to travel North-South and South-North on U.S. Highway 95, over a new bridge (built in 1962) across the Clearwater River to the East of the Spalding Viaduct. A new stretch of highway was constructed from the river bridge, over the railroad tracks, up the hill, and onto the Camas Prairie. U.S. Highway 95 continues south to Grangeville, Riggins, and ends at Middleton, Idaho. U.S. Highway 44 connects with U.S. Highway 84 into Boise.

Updates were made to the current bridge in 2014. Click here for more information.

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Poetry, personal stories, images, journal entries, recipes for Springerle, Cinnamon Rolls, Fried Cakes, “a little bit of science thrown in for good measure,” print and online resources, all define “The Dragon of Yankee Fork,” an Idaho Alphabet from A to Z. It all began on a long piece of cream colored shelf paper! (Visit the Go Fund Me page to learn more about the project and contribute to its creation.)

Martha Dalke Hindman’s outdoor classroom was the travel adventures she shared with her father around the State of Idaho. From dusty roads, fishing expeditions, and a keen sense of observation, learning about Idaho’s heritage gave Ms. Hindman her voice in poetry and personal short stories. She may be reached at martha20022 [at] gmail [dot] com.

Introducing Herbology Hunt

This is a guest post by Jane Wilson.

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Many people are “plant blind”. They walk through areas of fantastic wildlife or just down their street without noticing what grows there. Even plants growing in the gutter have an interesting backstory.

The term “Plant Blindness” was first put forth by Wandersee and Schlusser in 1998. Without an appreciation of plants in the ecosystem, people will be less likely to support plant research and conservation.

Herbology Hunt was born out of a love of plants and wild places and a determination to get kids outdoors and really looking at their environment. One of the founders started Wildflower Hour on Twitter – a place for people to share photos of wildflowers found in Britain and Ireland – and from this was stemmed a children’s version, which became Herbology Hunt. The Herbology Hunt team put together spotter sheets for each month of the year. Each sheet includes five plants that can be found throughout the month. They were made available as a free download, so schools and individuals can print them for use on a plant hunt.

By the end of 2018, we had created a year’s worth of spotter sheets. We are now looking to promote their use throughout Great Britain. Eventually we want to reward children who find 50 of the plants with a free T-shirt, and we will be looking for sponsors to support this. We have been supported by the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland and the Wild Flower Society who have made the monthly spotter sheets available. They can be downloaded here or here.

Herbology Hunt Spotter Sheet for January

The Wild Flower Society has a great offer for Juniors interested in plants – it costs £3 to join and you get a diary to record your finds.

Going outdoors and noticing wildlife has been shown in some scientific studies to improve cardio-vascular health and mental health. A herbology hunt must surely be a good thing to do with children to help them get into a better lifestyle that will benefit their future health. We hope that many families and schools will use our spotter sheets as a way to help children become more passionate about the environment and enjoy the benefits of being outdoors.

Check out the Wildflower Hour website for more information about Herbology Hunt, along with instructions on how to get involved in #wildflowerhour, plus links to social media accounts and the Wild Flower (Half) Hour podcast.

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Also: Check out Jane Wilson’s website – Practical Science Teaching – for more botany-themed educational activities.

2018: Year in Review

Another year has passed, which means it’s time again for a Year in Review. As I have done in the past, I am including links to a selection of posts that came out in 2018. Most of these posts are part of ongoing series. You can find the rest of the posts from 2018 in the Archives widget on the right side of the screen (or at the bottom of the page if you are viewing this on a mobile device).

Among many memorable happenings this year, the one I feel most compelled to highlight here is a short radio show that a friend and I started doing on Radio Boise, our community radio station. The show is called Boise Biophila, and each week Casey O’Leary and I spend about a minute each talking about something biology or ecology related with the goal of encouraging people to get outside and take a closer look at the natural world around them. After the shows air, I put them up on our Soundcloud page for all to hear for years to come. You can follow us there, as well as on our Facebook page.

Ficus carica via PhyloPic

In the spring of 2018 we set up a Donorbox account, which is a simple way for people who enjoy Awkward Botany and want to see it continue to give us a little financial encouragement. We received several donations at that time, and we are very grateful to those that contributed. But just like public radio or any other organization that would like to receive your support in the form of money, we continue our plea. If Awkward Botany means something to you and you feel compelled to share some of your hard-earned dollars with us, we are happy to receive them and promise to put them to good use.

Donate

Money aside, a major contribution you can make to the success of Awkward Botany is to share it with your friends. Spread the word in conversation, through the postal system, over the phone, or through one or more of the myriad social media platforms. However you choose to share is none of our business. We are just happy that you do.

You are also encouraged to follow our various social media pages: Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook. Above all, keep reading. We have lots more posts in the works for 2019, and we wouldn’t want you to miss out on the fun. Our appreciation for plants and the natural world is a constant, and we hope you will continue to share in our botany nerd revelry throughout the coming year.

Fragaria vesca via PhyloPic

Book Reviews:

Botany in Popular Culture:

Tiny Plants:

Field Trip:

Eating Weeds:

Two-parters:

Guest Posts:

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)