Confidential Carnivore

This is a guest post. Words and images by Jeremiah Sandler

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If you live in North America or Europe, chances are you have seen Dipsacus fullonum, commonly called teasel.  Its tall (up to 2 meters), spiky flower stalks with large purple flowers are easy to spot in low-lands, ditches, or along highways.  Since this prolific seeder’s introduction to North America from Europe, it has steadily increased its habitat to occupy nearly each region of the United States. Of course, like all plants, teasel has its preferences and is more frequent in some areas than in others.

dipsacus fullonum_jeremiah sandler

Teasel is an unassuming, herbaceous biennial.  It takes two years to complete its life cycle: First-year growth is spent as a basal rosette, and second-year growth is devoted to flowering.  Standard biennial, right?  As of 2011, an experiment was conducted on this plant that changed the way we see teasel, and possibly all other similar plants.

“Here we report on evidence for reproductive benefits from carnivory in a plant showing none of the ecological or life history traits of standard carnivorous species.” -Excerpt from the report titled Carnivory in the Teasel Dipsacus fullonum — The Effect of Experimental Feeding on Growth and Seed Set by Peter J.A. Shaw and Kyle Shackleton.

We all have favorite carnivorous plants, Venus flytraps, pitcher plants, sundews, etc.. Their showy traps and various means of attracting insects are all marvels of evolution in the plant kingdom.  These insectivorous plants evolved these means of nutrient acquisition in an answer to the lack of nutrients in their environment’s soil.  In some of these plants, there is a direct relationship between number of insects consumed and the size of the entire plant. In others, there is no such relationship.

The unassuming, biennial teasel can now join the ranks of carnivore, or protocarnivore.  It didn’t evolve in bogs or swamps where soil nutrients are depleted.  It has no relationship to the standard carnivorous species. It doesn’t have any flashy traps. In fact, it has no obvious traits which suggest it can gain nutrients from insects. Teasel’s carnivorous habits can be likened somewhat to the carnivorous habits of bromeliads; water gathered in their leaves traps insects.

In Shaw and Shackleton’s experiment (done in two field populations), maggots were placed in water gathered in the center of some first-year rosettes of teasel.  Other rosettes in the same population were left alone as controls.  Not surprisingly, the teasels which were ‘fed’ larvae did not change in overall size.  The size of the overwintering rosette did not offer any predictability towards the size of flower shoots for the coming year. However, something strange did happen:

“…addition of dead dipteran larvae to leaf bases caused a 30% increase in seed set and the seed mass:biomass ratio.”…“These results provide the first empirical evidence for Dipsacus displaying one of the principal criteria for carnivory”

Teasel has some physiology to absorb nutrients from other macroorganisms despite teasel evolving in an entirely different setting than typical carnivorous plants.  Teasel’s already proficient reproductive capacity is enhanced by using insects as a form of nutrients in a controlled setting.  

Many exciting questions have been raised by this experiment. How has this absorption mechanism come about, without the obvious use of lures or other structures to attract insects? And how does teasel maximize upon its own morphology in the wild, if at all?  What would the results be if these experiments were recreated on other similar species?

There are studies being conducted all the time that further the boundaries of what we know about these stationary organisms. There are new discoveries waiting just around the corner. Carnivory in plants is amazing because it transcends common notions about plants; especially in the case of the unassuming teasel.

Selected Resources:

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Jeremiah Sandler lives in southeast Michigan where he works in the plant health care industry. He is currently pursuing a degree in horticulture and an arborist license. He is interested in all things plant related and plans to own a horticulture business where he can share his passion with others. Follow Jeremiah on Instagram: @j4.sandler

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Botany in Popular Culture: Futurama’s Holiday Spectacular

Matt Groening and David X. Cohen’s animated sitcom, Futurama, is replete with social commentary. Set in the 31st Century, it’s not surprising that much of that commentary involves environmental issues. Episode 13 of season 6 – a special, holiday season episode – addresses a number of such issues, including extinction, global warming, fossil fuel depletion, and Colony Collapse Disorder. The episode is broken up into three, distinct segments; each has its own storyline, but all – apart from being environmentally themed – center around traditional (in the fictional world of Futurama) holiday celebrations. Hence, the title of the episode: The Futurama Holiday Spectacular.

Botany plays a particularly prominent role in the first segment of the episode. In the 31st Century, Christmas has morphed into a holiday called Xmas. In the opening scene, the Planet Express Crew has decorated a palm tree to look like a Christmas tree. Looking despondent, Philip J. Fry (a pizza delivery boy from the 21st century who was inadvertently cryopreserved and thawed 1,000 years later) laments, “Something about Xmas just doesn’t feel like Christmas.”  Just then, the arrival of Santa is announced.

In the 31st Century, Santa Claus has been replaced by a robot called Robot Santa, and instead of gifts and holiday cheer, he brings violence and mayhem. The crew begins to lock down the Planet Express headquarters in preparation for Robot Santa’s arrival. Disturbed by this, Fry demands to know how “this crazy holiday” is celebrated – “preferably in song.”  At which point, Robot Santa bursts out of the fireplace singing, “It’s the violentest season of the year…”

robot santa

After a few violent exchanges between the crew and Robot Santa, Robot Santa sings, “The one thing that you need to make your Xmas Day splendiferous / Is a pine tree – a pine tree that’s coniferous.” The crew agrees; they need “an old-fashioned pine tree.” But there is one problem.

“Pine trees have been extinct for over 800 years,” explains Professor Farnsworth. Apparently, they were all chopped down and turned into toilet paper during something called “The Fifty-Year Squirts.” Yet, the Professor exclaims, “There is one hope and, as usual, it’s Norwegian!” And at that, the crew heads off to Norway.

In Norway, the crew arrives at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault where, as the Professor explains, “since 2008, the vault has preserved seeds of every known plant species in case of extinction.” They are confronted by a seed vault employee who asks why the crew is “pokey-poking about the seed vault – guardian of mankind’s precious botanical heritage there?”

The Professor tells the man that they are there to “rummage about a bit.” The crew notes that there is a Germ Warfare Repository that has been constructed right next to the seed vault and asks if there are any cross-contamination concerns. The man says, “No,” and then lets them inside where he brings them a container marked Pinus xmas. Amy notices some “splork” on the seeds and asks, “It’s not germs is it?” Again the man says, “No.” 

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The Planet Express crew at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault being presented with the seeds of Pinus xmas.

Back in New New York, Fry plants a pine tree seed outside the Planet Express building. A year later, a sapling as tall as Fry has emerged. Fry declares, “Now that’s a tree worth chopping down.” At that point, President Nixon pulls up in his limousine and sees the tree. “That’s what my poll numbers need, ” he says turning to Vice President Cheney – both of them animated heads in jars. Cheney orders Nixon to steal the tree.

The tree is transplanted in front of the White House. During the Xmas tree lighting ceremony, the tree begins to grow rapidly. Apparently it was contaminated with a weaponized virus after all. It begins to produce cones which then fly off the tree and explode. Shortly after the explosions, more pine trees begin to emerge and grow rapidly, at which point Leela exclaims, “Wait! This could be a good thing. Reforestation has begun!” However, this reforestation is occurring at an extremely rapid pace, and before long all land on Earth is completely covered in pine trees.

Soon, all manner of wildlife is found frolicking among the trees. Again Leela exclaims, “Arguably, this could be a good thing. The planet has returned to its primeval state!” The Professor concurs, “All these pine trees are fighting global warming by producing oxygen.”

But the “good news” doesn’t last long. The oxygen level continues to increase and quickly reaches 80%. Ignorantly, Bender decides to celebrate his own laziness with a cigar. As he lights it, the entire planet bursts into flames. Robot Santa returns to announce, “Ho ho ho! Everyone’s dead!”

Futurama

Similar dark comedy ensues in the other two segments as the crew learns about the holiday traditions of Robanukah and Kwanzaa. Again, both segments explore important environmental concerns in the process. Al Gore’s animated head in a jar makes appearances throughout the episode. If you are looking for some added hilarity during this holiday season – as well as some bleak environmental messaging – you can’t go wrong with Futurama’s Holiday Spectacular.

Interesting fact: In 2011, this episode of Futurama won an Environmental Media Award for best comedic television episode with an environmental message. EMA’s have been awarded since 1991 to “honor film and television productions and individuals that increase public awareness of environmental issues and inspire personal action on these issues.”

Why Awkward? Why Botany? Why Now?

Have you ever wondered why this blog is called Awkward Botany? I have. Naming things can be difficult, and there are days that I question whether Awkward Botany was the right choice and if instead another name would have been more appropriate. Most days I am happy with the name, but I also perceive that there might be questions about where it came from and what it means. Or maybe no one cares? Either way, I figured I would start the year off by putting this out there. It may or may not be of interest to anyone, but so be it. Rest assured that regular programming will resume shortly.

Why Awkward?

Awkward is a word that best describes my general state of being. I am uncomfortable in virtually all social situations. The degree to which discomfort manifests itself varies depending on the circumstances, but it is always there. Anxious is another fitting word to describe me. On the surface I may appear calm and collected, but my mind is constantly racing. It’s hard to relax.

I am a high level introvert, and there was a time when this really bothered me. I didn’t like feeling so shy, nervous, and bumbling. I didn’t like that my voice got shaky every time I talked in front of a group of two or more people (no matter how well I knew them). I wanted to be able to make a phone call or start up a conversation without first having to rehearse what I was going to say a dozen times in my head. I envied people who could socialize so freely and who could dance like no one was watching even when plenty of people were. I saw my shell as a curse and thought I was defective because of it.

These feelings haven’t gone away, but they have waned. In my adult years I have grown to accept, even embrace, my awkwardness and introversion. I’m not particularly thrilled about being this way, but I find ways to celebrate it. Claiming the awkward title is one way that I do that. It is nothing to be ashamed of, despite at times feeling shamed for it. Just acknowledging that fact makes tiptoeing out of my comfort zone that much easier.

Awkward can also mean amateurish or inexpert. I am a degree holding and professional horticulturist and I have taken a number of graduate level plant science courses, but I certainly don’t claim to be an expert botanist. I am passionate about botany, and I love to study and explore it, but I am not on the same level as professional botanists. I could be someday, but that isn’t really the point. I would rather illuminate the amateur aspect, the part an enthusiast can play, the role of the citizen scientist…or citizen botanist in this case. The point being that anyone can join in the conversation regardless of their credentials; all that is required is passion, enthusiasm, and a willingness to learn (and to admit when you’re wrong). That is why I have settled on the tagline, “citizen botany for the phytocurious.” Perhaps this approach will inspire other awkward entities to emerge, like awkward history, awkward herpetology, awkward astronomy, awkward linguistics… Just a thought.

Why Botany?

I am unapologetically obsessed with plants. It is not something I fully realized about myself until I was in my twenties; still it feels like it must be in my DNA. I spend significant portions of each day thinking about plants, reading about plants, writing about plants, and working with plants. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. If I am this taken by plants, then why not botany?

But why should people care about plants? Those who already find themselves fascinated by them don’t really need an answer to this question, and the space it would take to enumerate the myriad reasons why plants matter is more than I want to take up in a single post. Suffice it to say that if plants were not around, we would not be around. And if the vital functions of plants don’t convince you to care, just imagine a world without green things and ask yourself if that’s a world you’d want to live in. Dr. Chris Martine, a professor of botany at Bucknell University, defends botany famously in an article he wrote for the Huffington Post last summer.

Why Now?

This is a nebulous question, and I could take it in several directions. To simplify things I will address this line of inquiry: why am I blogging now, rather than expressing myself using some other medium (or none at all)?

When I was in the 7th grade, I discovered that I like to write. It feels wired into my DNA the same way my interest in plants does. I have been writing regularly ever since. At first it was just poetry, short stories, and song lyrics. Then when I was in my teenage years, I discovered punk rock and along with that fanzines, or zines for short. I had been envisioning something similar to zines before I knew about them, so once I came across them, I knew that I had to make one. Over the course of about 17 years, I produced at least 66 zines under 9 different titles. My two main titles were Elephant Mess and The Juniper. While I haven’t completely given up on zine writing, I have been on hiatus for about two years now.

juniper 16_edit 2

My hiatus is largely due to the expense of doing zines (photocopies, postage, office supplies, etc.) and the markedly reduced interest in them (a PO Box full of mail used to be a fairly common sight for me; now it never happens). So I blog instead. I hesitate to compare blogs to zines, though. For a seasoned zinester like me, that feels blasphemous. But there are clearly some similarities, and now that the internet has become nearly ubiquitous, for someone who likes to write and publish content regularly, blogs seem like the way to go.

But I don’t see this blog as the end goal either. I love to write, and I have long wanted to be a writer. Maintaining a blog doesn’t necessarily mean I’m on the road to a successful writing career, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. For now, Awkward Botany is where I hang my hat, and I am more than happy to call it home.

2014: Year in Review

It is time again to look back at a year gone by and look forward to another year to come. Usually when we get to this point on the calendar, regardless of how my year has gone, I am anxious to put another year behind me and jump headlong into a new one, reinvigorated by that fresh start feeling that a new year seems to bring.

I manage this blog like a manage most things in my life, by the seat of my pants, not always sure where I am going with it but confident I will figure it out along the way. I have really enjoyed doing the blog this year, and I have felt a sense of direction for it emerging (at least in my mind; not sure if it comes across in the posts), and so in the spirit of that trajectory, I am thrilled to be entering my third year. I have a head full of ideas and I am gaining steam, so if things go the way I envision, this will be an abundant year of diverse posts that will hopefully prove to be enlightening, entertaining, and engrossing.

Serial Posts, etc.

In 2014 I started a few series of posts, and I plan to start more in 2015. The first one I started was an Ethnobotany series, which so far includes Holy Basil, Marigolds, and Cinchona. I also began a series on Drought Tolerant Plants, which so far consists of An Introduction, Fernbush, and Blue Sage. Flower Anatomy and Fruits were part of another new series exploring Botanical Terms. Some ideas for other series include: Poisonous Plants, Famous Botanists in History, and Botany in Popular Culture. None of these series has a regular posting schedule and each will continue indefinitely. I also plan to write more book reviews, as I only managed one in 2014 (Seedswap by Josie Jeffery). And speaking of reviews, probably my most ambitious endeavor of 2014 was reviewing the 17 articles in the October 2014 Special Issue of American Journal of Botany. You can read a recap here.

Social Media

It’s no mystery that having a social media presence in this day and age is imperative to the success of virtually any venture, especially a blog since the internet is veritably flooded with them. I’ve decided that Twitter is my favorite form of social media for now, and so I have been spending most of my time there. You can find and follow me @awkwardbotany. I also started a sister microblog on Tumblr in 2014. I mostly post plant and garden photos, and occasionally I share links to plant related things that I find interesting. Find and follow me here.

If you like what you read here and want to support Awkward Botany, the most helpful thing you can do is share it with your friends, family, and acquaintances. The easiest way to do that is by linking to individual posts on your preferred social media sites (there are buttons at the end of each post that help you do that). Or you can just tell people about it in person by using your mouth to make words, the old fashioned way. If you do share Awkward Botany online, consider including #phytocurious. You can also use this hashtag for anything plant related, including (especially) pictures of plants, that way I can easily find the cool plant things you are posting and share in your plant nerd glee.

Guest Posts

I hinted last year that I was considering publishing guest posts, and I have decided that I really want to do that. I’m going to be kind of picky about what I post, but don’t let that stop you from submitting something. You can write about your favorite plant, interesting plant science research, plants in the news, book or other media reviews, or anything else plant related. If this interests you, let me know by using the contact form or by sending me a message on Twitter. We can discuss further details from there.

Year of Pollination

Because I have developed such a fascination with pollinators and pollination (and because it is such an important topic), I have decided to dub 2015 the Year of Pollination. So far what this means is that I will be posting about pollinators and pollination at least once if not twice a month during each month of the year. This idea is young, so it could mean other things, too. Time will tell, so stay tuned.

SAMSUNG

I have lots of other thoughts and ideas swirling around in my brain, but I will keep them to myself for now until they are more fully formed. What I have included here will suffice. Thank you so much for reading and sharing. I wish you and yours all the best in 2015.

Documentary: Know Your Mushrooms

Earlier this month, the 33rd annual Telluride Mushroom Festival took place in Telluride, Colorado. This is an event that draws in hundreds (thousands, perhaps?) of fungi enthusiasts. As a budding fungi enthusiast myself, I get excited when I hear tale of gatherings such as these, and while I did not make it out this year, the Telluride Mushroom Festival is high on my list of things to attend sometime in the years to come.

My fascination with fungi started shortly before I headed to graduate school in Illinois in 2009. I had just read about mycoremediation in a book called Toolbox for Sustainable City Living, and that, along with what I had learned about soil fungi in my college soils courses, had me very curious about the world of mycology. I have yet to spend the kind of time that I would like to on this subject, but it remains of great interest to me.

A couple years ago I was writing weekly recommendations on my previous blog, the juniper bends as if it were listening. One of my weekly recommendation posts was about a documentary film called, Know Your Mushrooms. I am reposting that review  here in honor of this month’s mushroom festival in Telluride, and because I think it’s a film worth watching. No, it is not about plants per se, but it is about a kingdom of living things that regularly interacts with plants. Not only that, but it’s about a major player in the ecology of practically every ecosystem on earth. Bottom line: if you are at all interested in the natural world, you will be interested in this film.

know your mushrooms

Mushrooms freaks, fungiphiles, and myco-fanatics alike are all probably well aware of this fantastic documentary film by Ron Mann entitled, Know Your Mushrooms, but for uninitiated folks and novices like myself, this is a great introduction. This film will acquaint you with a peculiar crowd of mushroom lovers and fungus aficionados, where you will marvel in their uniqueness and their vast knowledge concerning the fascinating world of mycology. Mann bases his film around his visit to the Telluride Mushroom Festival in Colorado, where mushroom fans have gathered annually for many years now to celebrate and revel in the fungal world. Mann converses with several mushroom experts and enthusiasts, but spends most of his time with self-proclaimed guru, Larry Evans. Alongside Evans, Mann explores numerous mycological topics, including mushroom hunting, mushroom cooking, poisonous mushrooms, psychedelic mushrooms, mushroom folklore, mushroom health benefits, and the ecological and environmental benefits of fungi (mycoremediation!). This is a very well-produced and well-directed film, maintaining the interest and attention of the viewer as it transitions from one aspect of mushroom culture to another, simultaneously providing education and entertainment throughout. If your viewing experience is anything like mine, by the time this film is over, you will be wishing that you were as knowledgeable about mushrooms as the folks featured in this film. As a result of watching Mann’s documentary, I have vowed to redouble my efforts and commit myself to the study of mycology so that one day I can join fellow fungus freaks in a celebration of this magnitude. Perhaps you will join us…

Morels harvested on the forest floors of Illinois

Morels harvested on the forest floor of Illinois

14 Botanical Terms for Flower Anatomy

I like to know the names of things. Certainly I don’t have to know what everything is called in order to appreciate it for what it is, but that appreciation deepens when I understand it better. Scientific exploration helps us discover the workings of the world around us, and through that exploration comes the naming and describing of things. The names are largely arbitrary apart from the fact that they help us keep track of the descriptions associated with the discoveries. Calling things by name and knowing how to describe them not only increases our awareness of the natural world but can also give us greater appreciation for the larger picture and our place in it all. With that I introduce a new series of posts concerning botanical terms.

It’s mid-summer now (at least in the northern hemisphere) and flowers abound, so this first Botanical Terms post will help us become better familiar with flower anatomy. [I’m also releasing this post while the Botanical Society of America convenes for its annual conference in my current hometown – Boise, Idaho – so it seems fitting]. Of course, as soon as I began looking into the subject of flower anatomy, I realized very quickly that, like so many other things, it is incredibly complex. First of all, in the larger world of plants, not all produce flowers. Non-vascular plants don’t. And within the category of vascular plants, non-seed producing plants don’t make flowers either. Within the category of seed producing plants, there are two groups: gymnosperms and angiosperms. Angiosperms produce flowers; gymnosperms don’t. Even though that narrows it down quite a bit, we are still dealing with a very large group of plants.

The complexity doesn’t stop there, of course. Memorizing the names of flower structures and recognizing them on each flowering plant would be easy if every flowering plant had all of the same structures and if all structures existed on each flower. However, this is not the case. Depending on the flower you are looking at, some structures may be absent and some may have additional structures that are not common ones. Also, some plants have inflorescences that appear as a single flower but are actually a collection of many smaller flowers (or florets), like plants in the sunflower family (Asteraceae) for example. Regardless, we are going to start with basic terms, as there are a large number of flowering plants that do exhibit  all or most of the following basic structures in their flowers.

flower anatomy

Pedicel and Peduncle: These terms refer to the stem or stalk of the flower. Each individual flower has a pedicel. When flowers appear in groups (also known as an inflorescence), the stalk leading up to the group of flowers is called a peduncle.

Sepal and Calyx: Sepals are the first of the four floral appendages. They are modified leaves at the base of the flower that protect the flower bud. They are typically green but can be other colors as well. In some cases they may be very small or absent altogether. The sepals are known collectively as the calyx.

Petal and Corolla: Petals are colorful leaf-like appendages and the most familiar part of a flower. They come in myriad sizes, shapes, and colors and are often multi-colored. Their purpose is to attract pollinators. Many plants are pollinated by specific pollinators, and so their petals are designed to attract those pollinators. The petals are known collectively as the corolla.  

Stamen, Anther, and Filament: Pollen is produced in a structure called an anther which sits atop a filament. Collectively this is known as a stamen. Stamens are considered the male portion of the flower because they produce the pollen grains that fertilize the egg to form a seed. Flowers often have several stamens, and on flowers that have both male and female structures, the stamens are found surrounding the female portion.

Pistil, Carpel, Stigma, Style, and Ovary: The female portion of a flower consists of a stigma (where pollen grains are collected), a style (which raises the stigma up to catch the pollen), and an ovary (where pollen is introduced to the ovules for fertilization). Together this is known as a carpel. A collection of carpels fused together is called a pistil. Just like with stamens, flowers can have multiple pistils.

Start learning to identify floral structures on flowers like rugosa rose (Rosa rugosa). (photo credit: eol.org)

Start learning floral anatomy on flowers with easily recognizable structures like the flowers of rugosa rose (Rosa rugosa). (photo credit: eol.org)

Flowers are small art pieces worthy of admiration in their own right. However, recognizing and exploring the different floral structures can be just as enthralling. The structures vary considerably from species to species, each its own piece of nature’s artwork. So, I encourage you to find a hand lens (or better yet a dissecting microscope) and explore the intimate parts of the flowers around you.