Two years ago I shared my first collection of urban botanical art photos. Since that time I have collected several more. I had hoped to get lots of photos during my trips out of town, and while I did manage to get a few, it turns out that my hometown of Boise, Idaho has a sizable (and growing) selection of plant-related public art. Thus, several of these are local finds.
Caulerpa taxifolia is considered one of the worst invasive species in the world. It is also one of the most popular case studies in invasion biology. Its story is riveting, featuring themes like mutation, adaptation, early detection but no rapid response, exploitation of human disturbances, classic traits of successful invasives (e.g. rapid growth, asexual propagation, generalist behavior, toxic chemicals that discourage herbivory); there is even an example of successful eradication. Plant Humor recently featured an excellent post telling Caulerpa’s story. They kindly allowed me to share it on Awkward Botany. So here it is, the nightmarish account of Killer Algae.
This is a guest post by Rachel Rodman. Photos by Daniel Murphy.
Every U.S. state has its own set of symbols: an official flower, an official tree, and an official bird. Collectively, these organisms form the stuff of trivia and are traditionally presented in the form of a list.
But, lists…well. As charming as lists can sometimes be, lists are rarely very satisfying.
So I decided to try something different.
I am not, of course, the first person to be unhappy with the eclectic, disordered nature of many biological assemblages. In the 18th century, Linnaeus developed a classification system in order to make sense of that untidiness. Kingdom, Phylum, Class, and so on.
In the 19th century, Darwin set biodiversity into an even more satisfying intellectual framework, outlining a model that linked organisms via descent from a series of common ancestors. And, as early as 1837, he experimented with a tree-like structure, in order to diagram these relationships.
Following Darwin’s lead, I’ve worked to reframe the state flowers and state trees in terms of their evolutionary history (*see the methods section below). And today, in honor of Darwin’s 209th birthday, I am delighted to present the results to you.
Let’s start with the state flowers.
In this tree, Maine’s “white pine cone and tassel” forms the outgroup. Among all the state “flowers,” it is the only gymnosperm—and therefore, in fact, not actually a flower.
Notice, also, that the number of branches in this tree is 39—not 50. Most of this stems from the untidy fact that there is no requirement for each state to select a unique flower. Nebraska and Kentucky, for example, share the goldenrod; North Carolina and Virginia share the dogwood.
With the branch labeled “Rose,” I’ve compressed the tree further. The state flowers of Georgia, Iowa, North Dakota, New York, and Oklahoma are all roses of various sorts; with my data set (*see methods below), however, I was unable to disentangle them. So I kept all five grouped.
This is a rich tree with many intriguing juxtapositions. Several clades, in particular, link geographical regions that are not normally regarded as having a connection. Texas’ bluebonnet, for example, forms a clade with Vermont’s red clover. So, similarly, do New Hampshire’s purple lilac and Wyoming’s Indian paintbrush.
The second tree—the tree of state trees—is similarly rewarding. This tree is evenly divided between angiosperms (19 species) and gymnosperms (17 species).
Iowa’s state tree is simply the “oak”—no particular species was singled out. To indicate Iowa’s selection, I set “IA” next to the node representing the common ancestor of the three particular oak species: white oak, red oak, and live oak, which were selected as symbols by other states.
Arkansas’ and North Carolina’s state tree, similarly, is the “pine,”—no particular species specified. I’ve indicated their choice in just the same way, setting “AR” and “NC” next to the node representing the common ancestor of the eight particular pine species chosen to represent other states.
In this tree of trees, as with the tree of flowers, several clades link geographical regions that are not usually linked—at least not politically. Consider, for example, the pairing of New Hampshire’s white birch with Texas’ tree, the pecan.
Another phylogenetic pairing also intrigued me: Pennsylvania’s eastern hemlock and Washington’s western hemlock. It evokes, I think, a pleasing coast-to-coast symmetry: two states, linked via an east-west cross-country bridge, over a distance of 2,500 miles
In this post, I’ve presented the U.S. state flowers and U.S. state trees in evolutionary framework. The point in doing that was not to denigrate any of the small, human stories that lie behind these symbols—all of the various economic, historical, and legislative vagaries, which led each state to select these particular plants to represent them. (Even more importantly, I have no wish to downplay the interesting nature of any of the environmental factors that led particular plants to flourish and predominate in some states and not others.)
The point, instead, was to suggest that these stories can coexist and be simultaneously appreciated alongside a much larger one: the many million year story of plant evolution.
With Darwin’s big idea—descent with modification—the eclectic gains depth and meaning. And trivia become a story—a grand story, which can be traced back, divergence point by divergence point: rosids from asterids (~120 mya); eudicots from monocots (~160 mya); angiosperms from gymnosperms (~300 mya), and so on and so on.
So today, on Darwin’s 209th, here, I hope, is one of the takeaways:
An evolutionary framework really does make everything—absolutely everything: U.S. state symbols included—more fun, more colorful, more momentous, and more intellectually satisfying.
To build these two trees, I relied on a data set from TimeTree.org, a website maintained by a team at Temple University. At the “Load a List of Species” option at the bottom of the page, I uploaded two lists of species in .txt format; each time, TimeTree generated a phylogenetic tree, which served as a preliminary outline.
Later, once I’d refined my outlines, I used the “Get Divergence Time For a Pair of Taxa” feature at the top of the page in order to search for divergence time estimates. As I reconstructed my trees in LibreOffice, I used these estimates to make my branch lengths proportional.
Rachel Rodman has a Ph.D. in Arabidopsis genetics and presently aspires to recontextualize all of history, literature, and popular culture in the form of a phylogenetic tree. Won’t you help her?
This is a guest post. Words and images by Jeremiah Sandler
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.
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.
- Wikipedia – Protocarnivorous Plant and Dipsacus fullonum
- USDA Forest Service: Dipsacus fullonum, Dipsacus laciniatus
- Darwin Online: Insectivorous Plants
Jeremiah Sandler lives in southeast Michigan where he works in the plant health care industry. He has a degree in horticultural sciences and is an ISA certified arborist. 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: @j.deepsea
Would you like to write a guest post? Or contribute to Awkward Botany in some other way? Find out how.
For three years now I have been maintaining this blog solo. This doesn’t always have to be so. A single individual with truncated resources cannot possibly do it all. I can and will continue to write posts on a regular basis for the foreseeable future, but – at least in my mind – Awkward Botany can and should be so much more.
Consider Awkward Botany’s mission statement (the beta version):
Creating a space where novices, amateurs, and experts alike can share in the discovery, exploration, and celebration of plants and plant ecology.
The way I see it, Awkward Botany has the potential to be more than just a blog. It could be a beacon – sounding out the love for plants and plant ecology across myriad platforms and in myriad ways. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Here is what I envision for the short term:
- More and better writing by writers other than just myself
- More photographs and illustrations of plants, especially those of professional quality
- Audio and video components (to be determined)
- Improvements to the website (to be determined)
- Products (to be determined)
I say “to be determined” because these are ideas in embryo. They will mature in time; however, without outside help, they are doomed to proceed at a snail’s pace.
Perhaps this is where you come in? If you like what you see here, and the idea of Awkward Botany growing into something greater interests you in any way, then there are various ways in which you can help make this happen.
Become a guest writer.
I have a put a few feelers out there for guest writers, but I haven’t had anyone bite yet. If you love plants and want to write about them, let me know. True, I am going to be a little picky about what I publish here, but I’m sure we can work something out.
Design a logo.
Are you a professional or amateur graphic designer? Would you like more exposure or experience? Awkward Botany needs a logo. Obviously – at this point – I don’t have the money to pay anyone for their design work. But I will happily shout from the rooftops the name of the person/company that designs a logo for me. If this sounds like a job for you, let me know.
Photographs, Illustrations, Infographics…
I have found that one of the most time consuming things about composing a blog post is searching for just the right images to accompany the writing. Sure, good writing stands alone, but images help break up the text and add context to what the writing is all about. Not only am I a bumbling, untrained photographer, but I also have limited access to many of the plants and other things that I write about. There are open source images available online, but they are also quite limited, and sifting through them for just the right image often ends unfruitful or in settling for a less than ideal photo. If you enjoy photographing or drawing plants, please get in touch. Again, I have no money to offer, but I will always give credit where credit is due, and I am more than happy to sing praises to your name in all outlets available.
I am especially looking for illustrators/illustrations for Awkward Botany and Awkward Botany related projects. Infographics would be great as well. Any graphic designers out there who would like to work with me on designing such things for Awkaward Botany and beyond, please get in touch.
Audio and Visual Help.
I have dreams of taking Awkward Botany beyond the written word. I don’t want to start a podcast, but it would be great to do some interviews and have the audio clips available for people to listen to. Video would also be fun. If you have experience creating audio and/or video and would like to offer advice or assistance, please let me know.
Donate Old Textbooks, Field Guides, Floras, and Scientific Journals.
Did you take a course in botany? Do you still have your textbook? If you’d like to get rid of it, consider sending it my way. Same goes for any entomology or ecology related courses. I’d be happy to take textbooks off your hands, as well as field guides, floras, and old copies of scientific journals relating to plants, entomology, pollination, ecology, invasion biology, etc. You can mail them cheaply by requesting the USPS media rate. Send such things to:
Daniel Murphy, PO Box 9862, Boise Idaho 83707, USA
Donate Your Hard Earned Money.
I certainly don’t expect anyone to send money without receiving anything in return. BUT, if you do happen to have a few dollars burning a hole in your pocket and you need someplace for them to go, I would be happy to have them. Rest assured your dollars and cents will be put to a good cause. Lack of funds really limits the progress of this blog, so any additional funding is greatly appreciated. As I am able, I hope to reward those who donate. I also plan to pay forward a percentage of the donated money I receive to Planting Science – an organization that connects scientists with students in order to advance scientific training and literacy among the younger generation. I also intend to be transparent concerning any and all donations I receive. If such a thing interests you, please consider sending a few bucks via the following links or the mailing address above.
Buy Me a Gift.
If a cash money donation doesn’t suit you, consider sending Awkward Botany something from it’s Amazon Wish List. The items on this list include resources that will help advance the mission of Awkward Botany.
Follow and Share.
Probably the simplest thing you can do to support Awkward Botany (and one of the most effective) is read, follow, and share. Awkward Botany is on Twitter and Tumblr. Follow me at either or both of those locations if you feel so inclined. If you like what you see here, share it with your friends via whatever social media outlet you prefer and/or word of mouth. Five gold stars if you do.
If you are interested in assisting Awkward Botany in any of the above ways – or if you have some ideas of your own – please contact me via the Contact page or via snail mail (!) at the address above. There are likely many other ways that you can help, so this post will be updated frequently as such needs are articulated. It will find a permanent home in the “About” tab at the top of the page.
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…”
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.”
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!”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.