Book Review: The Comic Book Guide to Growing Food

If you’re new to gardening, starting a garden can be quite intimidating. The learning curve can seem steep and the barriers to entry can feel vast. Having a beautiful, productive garden like those you might see around your neighborhood can seem like an unreachable goal. What isn’t obvious when encountering nice gardens are the mistakes made, the lessons learned, and the years of trial and error that brought the garden and gardener to where they are now. Even the most experienced gardeners continue to fail and learn from those failures, which is part of what makes gardening such an exciting pursuit. The looming question for beginners, though, is where do I start?

Luckily, resources abound for new gardeners – from countless books and magazines, to YouTube videos and podcasts, to university and college courses and degrees. Easily one of the best places to start if you live in the United States are extension services of land-grant colleges and universities. One of their main reasons for existence is to help people grow successful gardens. But while the dream of having a garden is exciting, the information one needs to absorb in order to get there can be overwhelming. Rote learning of basic instructions presented in a dry way can turn people off from wanting to proceed, which is why I find Joseph Tychonievich and Liz Anna Kozik’s recent book, The Comic Book Guide to Growing Food, so refreshing. Just about everything can be made more entertaining when presented in comic book form, and gardening tutorials are no exception.

As with most comic books, The Comic Book Guide to Growing Food tells a story. Mia is a computer programmer who lives next to George, an avid gardener. One day, Mia finds George having trouble sending photos to his grandchildren. Mia offers to help; George reluctantly accepts. In return, George gifts Mia a basket of spring greens and daffodils from his garden, which prompts Mia to share her dream of one day having a garden. George jumps at the opportunity to help, and thus begins a new friendship and yearlong mentorship as George helps Mia start her first garden.

George guides Mia along each step of the way – from choosing a location in her yard, to deciding what to plant and when, to helping her deal with pests and diseases, to knowing what and when to harvest, and to, finally, encouraging her to throw a garden party to share her bounty with friends. Much more is explained along the way, often with George starting the conversation with, “The #1 rule of gardening…”, and Mia cringing at yet another #1 rule to remember.

Planting too early can be deadly for frost sensitive plants. Don’t be fooled by fake spring.

The story is simple and easy to follow, and the information is basic but solid. There are greater details to explore, but for a beginning gardener, this book is an excellent starting point. The resource section at the end of the book will get the reader to those greater details when they’re ready. I found George’s harvesting guide particularly useful. As a gardener living in the semi-arid Intermountain West, I had to laugh when George claimed that some years he doesn’t water his garden at all. A vegetable garden in our climate typically wouldn’t survive long without regular, supplemental irrigation. However, if you live in a region that reliably receives rain in the summer, watering may be unnecessary. Thankfully, there is a “Cheat Sheet” included in the book with a great flowchart to help you determine if and when to water.

Joseph provided the text for this book and is a skilled garden communicator, something he’s been doing for much of his life. Without his words, this book would not be the stand-out resource that it is. However, it was Liz’s artwork that sold me on this book. Having followed her work on twitter for a while now, I was thrilled to learn she had a book out. Much like Joseph’s lessons in gardening, Liz’s artwork is simple and approachable, yet accurate enough to recognize exactly what plant is being represented even without the finer details found in the botanical illustrations of many field guides. This book is honestly worth having just to be able to hold in your hands a collection of Liz’s beautiful artwork.

A selection of easy herbs to grow from The Comic Book Guide to Growing Food

Buy the book, but also check out the personal websites of the author and illustrator:

2020: Year in Review

This past year was certainly not the year that any of us hoped it would be. We all know why, so there’s no reason to get into it here. Point being, posts on Awkward Botany were a bit fewer and further between in 2020. My day job kept me busier than usual, and my motivation to do much else was pretty much zapped. Regardless, I’m still pleased with what I was able to put out into the world. I’m particularly excited about my new Weeds of Boise project, in which I attempt to catalog the wild urban flora of my hometown. Expect more of that in 2021.

Certainly the biggest news of 2020 is that Sierra (a.k.a. Idaho Plant Doctor) and I bought a house! We started looking in earnest late last summer and weren’t having much luck. Just as we were considering putting our dreams on hold for a bit, we came across a little house in a neighborhood we love. The house was perfect for us, with a big pollinator garden out front and a series of garden boxes in various locations around the property, along with a nice chicken coop (five chickens included!). It was a tiny urban farm looking for new owners, and we were the chosen ones! I like to think that we bought a garden, and it came with a house. This year will be a year of discovery as we watch the yard come to life and fulfill our dream of having a garden of our own. We will definitely keep you posted.

But that’s not all. On the 1st of January, Sierra and I got married in a tiny ceremony in our new backyard. We had planned on getting married in the fall of 2020, but the pandemic quickly put those plans to rest. Now, with a place of our own and a desire to put a tough year behind us, we started the new year off on a positive note. With a number of precautions in place, we were able to celebrate the start of our new lives together with some of our close friends and family. Despite it being the middle of winter, the weather was perfect for our little outdoor gathering. The love and generosity we were shown from so many people that weekend is something we will never forget. 

two nerds getting married

What follows are the usual items found in a Year in Review post – ways you can follow Awkward Botany on social media, links to donate monetarily to Awkward Botany (no pressure), and posts from 2020 that are part of new and ongoing series of posts. New in 2021 is the Awkward Botany Bookshop. Bookshop is a site that makes it possible to purchase books online and support local bookstores in the process. When you buy books through Awkward Botany’s page, we receive a small percentage of the sale, which helps us continue to put out more of the plant nerdy content you’ve come to expect. There is a small selection of books in the store now, and I’ll continue to add more, so check back often. If there are books you’d like me to add to the store, please let me know. 

Follow Awkward Botany on Social Media:

Donate to Awkward Botany:

A Selection of Awkward Botany Posts from 2020

Botany in Popular Culture

Zine and Book Reviews

Weeds of Boise

Tea Time

Podcast Reviews

Awkward Botanical Sketches

Winter Trees and Shrubs

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.

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:

Party Time for Puncture Vine During COVID Times

In spite of a global pandemic, the third annual Boise Goathead Fest took place last Saturday in Boise, Idaho. In order to make it happen, organizers had to think creatively, completely reenvisioning the event in order to keep the community safe and healthy. This, of course, meant no giant bike parade and no large gathering in the park. Instead, members of individual households embarked on their own socially-distanced bike rides, meeting up in small groups for a wide variety of mini-events across town. An online radio show made possible by Radio Boise provided the day’s soundtrack and kept us all up to date with regular live announcements.

On Saturday morning, Sierra and I decorated our bikes and ourselves and headed out on our two-person bike parade. Our first stop was the Goathead Monster’s Lair located in the alley behind Boise Bicycle Project. There we picked up food, beverages, and a map. The list of places to go and things to see was extensive. At our relaxed pace, there was no way we were going to see it all, which wasn’t really our goal anyway. Times are strange, and we were just happy to be out in the world taking part in another Goathead Fest.

Entrance to the Goathead Monster’s Lair

2020 COVID Edition Boise Goathead Fest Map

Learning some facts about goatheads with Mr. A on guitar and violin

Sierra and I next to one of many goathead-themed art installations featured around town

Bikes were allowed at Idaho Botanical Garden for one hour only – a Goathead Fest exclusive!

Not only is the Goathead Fest a celebration of bicycles and community and an opportunity to raise money for pedal-powered non-profits in the Treasure Valley, it’s also a way to bring awareness to a noxious weed responsible for countless flat tires year in and year out. Tribulus terrestris is the bane of bicyclists. Its round, spiky fruits lie in wait to royally ruin our rides. Thanks to collection efforts that take place in the months leading up to the Goathead Fest, thousands of pounds of puncture vine are removed from our streets each year.

This year, another round, spiky ball threatened to ruin our ride. This threat is much smaller and considerably more damaging. Invisible to the naked eye, it has infected hundreds of members of our community, killing many of them, much like it has done in communities across the world. With the threat of COVID-19 looming over our heads, the Boise Goathead Fest felt and looked much different. We masked up and tried to keep our distance from each other. We dispersed ourselves across the city and enjoyed the company of much smaller crowds. As someone who, apart from work and occassional trips to the store, has largely removed himself from social gatherings, I felt nervous to be out. Thanks to the thoughtfulness and awareness of Goathead Fest organizers, my fears were largely soothed. It was important for me to, once again, be together with Boise’s bicylce community and feel a renewed sense of hope for the future.

We are all looking forward to the day when the only round, spiky ball that threatens to keep us off our bikes are those blasted goatheads, and even those – if we keep at it – might someday be a thing of the past.

More Party Time for Puncture Vine on Awkward Botany

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:

Podcast Review: Plants and Pipettes

Gardening was my first introduction to plants. I enjoyed growing plants so much that I decided to study them. Or rather, I studied the growing of them, i.e. horticulture. During my studies, I became increasingly interested in botany, a vast scientific field that investigates all things plant related, from their evolutionary history to their cellular biology to their interactions with other organisms, etc. Now I am obsessed with pretty much anything to do with botany. However, the molecular side of plant science has never been much of a pursuit of mine. Until now.

What has piqued my interest in this isn’t a university course or a dense textbook on the subject, but instead a podcast hosted by two molecular biologists – Tegan and Joram – who make learning about molecular plant science considerably more interesting than I had previously found it to be. Their podcast (and blog of the same name) is called Plants and Pipettes, and they have been consistently publishing both written and audio content on their site for well over a year now.

The bulk of the Plants and Pipettes podcast consists of Tegan and Joram summing up and discussing a recent plant science research article. While I occasionally get lost in the discussion (particularly when the research delves deep into molecular biology), they both do an exceptional job explaining the science and offering insights that I would not get if I attempted to read the papers on my own. When listening to this portion of the podcast, it helps to have a basic understanding of molecular biology, but it isn’t entirely necessary as the hosts often review basic concepts while discussing the research.

Over the course of the podcast’s history, additional segments have been added. These rarely have anything to do with molecular biology, so if you don’t see yourself tuning in for the research discussion, definitely tune in for the rest. One segment is called My Favorite Plant in which one of the hosts talks about a plant they are interested in that week. Next is Diversity in Plant Science, in which they pick a person that is not a white male and talk about their life and contributions to science (George Washington Carver, for example). After that they define and discuss a cognitive bias, and then they share random things (sometimes science-y, sometimes not) that they find fun or interesting or important to share. Each episode typically ends with a cat fact, as they both have a profound love for cats (although everything is a cat to Joram, apparently).

grass triggerplant (Stylidium graminifolium) was Joram’s favorite plant in episode 12 of Plants and Pipettes (image credit: wikimedia commons)

A highlight among the early episodes was an interview they did with a researcher at the University of Minnesota who is working with pennycress (Thlaspi arvense). This plant is a common weed, but it shows potential for being a productive and useful oilseed crop, similar to a few of its relatives in the mustard family. Speaking of weeds, a fun fact in episode 29 caught my interest, in which Tegan shares an example of Vavilovian mimicry involving rice and barnyard grass (Echinochloa crus-galli). A great introduction to their ongoing series about cognitive biases is episode 37 in which they discuss the Texas sharpshooter fallacy. And of course, I have to recommend listening to episode 48, in which Tegan gives a shout out to Awkward Botany and my new zine Dispersal Stories. How cool is that!?

pennycress (Thlaspi arvense) discussed in episode 8 of Plants and Pipettes (image credit: wikimedia commons)

While I am not always able to keep up with the discussions about molecular plant biology, I still really love listening to this podcast. Apart from the interesting content, the hosts are the real appeal.  Not only do I appreciate their social justice rants and their support for open science, but I also find their sense of humor and lack of pretension refreshing. They are excellent models of the way that science communication should be done. 

If you check out Plants and Pipettes and decide you need more Tegan and Joram in your life, check out a new podcast they just started with Ellen from Plant Crimes podcast called Plant Book Club, in which they choose a plant-themed book to read and discuss. You can also watch/listen to Tegan and Joram talking about their podcast on Career Conversations

More Podcast Reviews on Awkward Botany:

Tea Time: Violet Leaf Tea

The genus Viola is large and widespread. Its flowers are easily recognizable and obviously popular. A significant number of Viola species, hybrids, and cultivars are commercially available and commonly planted in flower beds and container gardens. Certain species have even become weeds – vicious lawn invaders in some people’s opinion. Violets (or pansies in some cases) are also edible. Their leaves and/or flowers can be used in salads, drinks, and desserts. One way to use the leaves is to make tea, so that’s what I did.

I imagine you can make tea from any Viola species, but after some searching I found that two species frequently mentioned are Viola odorata and Viola sororia – two very similar looking plants, one from the Old World and the other from the New World.

sweet violet (Viola odorata)

Viola odorata – commonly known as sweet violet, wood violet, or English violet – is distributed across Europe and into Asia and has been widely introduced outside of its natural range. It has round, oval, or heart-shaped leaves with toothed margins that grow from the base of the plant, giving it a groundcover-type habit. Its flowers range from dark purple to white and are borne atop a single stem that curves downward at the top like a shepherd’s crook. It has no leafy, upright stems, and it spreads horizontally via stolons and rhizomes. The flowers are distinctly fragrant and have a long history of being used in perfumes.

One way to get a good whiff of these flowers is to try a trick described in the book The Reason for Flowers by Stephen Buchmann:

Go into a garden or any natural area and select one or more flowers you want to investigate…. Select a small, thoroughly washed and dried glass jar with a tight-fitting lid. Place just one type of flower in the jar. Set your jar in a warm, sunny place such as a windowsill and come back in an hour or two. Carefully open the lid and sniff…. If you’ve selected a blossom with even the faintest scent, you should be able to smell it now, since the fragrance molecules have concentrated inside the jar.

sweet violet flowers inside glass jar

Viola sororia – native to eastern North America –  is also commonly planted outside of its native range. It’s clearly a favorite, having earned the distinction of state flower in four U.S. states. Known as the common blue violet (or myriad other commons names), it looks and acts a lot like sweet violet. I distinguish them by their flowers, which are wider and rounder (chunkier, perhaps) than sweet violet flowers, and their leaves, which are generally more heart-shaped. Feel free to correct me. If, like me, you’re having trouble identifying violets, keep in mind that Viola species are highly variable and notorious hybridizers, so don’t beat yourself up over it. It’s their fault, not yours.

common blue violet (Viola sororia)

Violets bloom when the air is cool and the days are short. They are among the earliest plants to flower after the new year and among the latest plants flowering as the year comes to a close. In his entry on violets in The Book of Forest and Thicket, John Eastman refers to these early bloomers as “this low, blue flame in the woods.” They are like “a pilot light that ignites the entire burst of resurrection we call spring.” I can’t really picture spring without them. I find their unique flowers so intriguing that I fixate on them whenever I see them. And once I learned that I could make a tea out of their leaves, I had to try it.

I used the leaves of Viola odorata (or what I, with my amateur skills, identified as V. odorata). I picked several of what looked to be young leaves and left them to dry in the sun for several days. Later, I chopped them up and brewed a tea according to the instructions found on this website, which suggests using one tablespoon of dried leaves in sixteen ounces of water. Apparently, a little goes a long way, and I probably could have used fewer leaves than I did.

dried, chopped up leaves of sweet violet (Viola odorata) for making tea

The tea has a nice green color and smells a bit like grass to me. It may even taste like grass. I found it fairly bitter. Sierra didn’t like it and called it musty. I enjoyed it, but would likely enjoy it more if I hadn’t made it quite so strong. The aforementioned website also recommends combining violet leaf with other things like mint, dandelion, clover, and/or chamomile. I imagine a combination of ingredients could be better than just violet leaf on its own. Another site warns that “some of the wild violets have an unpleasant soapy flavor,” so that’s something to keep in mind when selecting your leaves for tea and other things. Either way, violet leaf tea is an experience worth having.

See Also: Pine Needle Teas

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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