Botany and Everyday Chemistry

What’s not to love about plants? They provide us with oxygen, food, medicine, fuel, fibers, and countless other things. They help filter groundwater and sequester carbon. They beautify our landscapes and communities. They provide habitat for wildlife and help reduce soil erosion. And the list goes on.

But there is more to plants than meets the eye. There is something deeper within – at their cellular and molecular levels – that is just as worthy of our fascination and appreciation as the blooms that beautify our yards and the fruits that fill our tables, and that is the abundant and diverse world of chemical compounds present in the botanical kingdom.

But how does one gain an understanding and appreciation for such a subject. Luckily, there is a blog for that. It’s called Compound Interest. Authored by UK chemistry teacher, Andy Brunning, Compound Interest explores the “chemistry and chemical reactions we come across on a day-to-day basis.” Much of what Andy writes about doesn’t have anything to do with plants – fireworks, bacon, gunpowder, snowflakes, etc. – but a sizeable portion of his posts do (evidenced particularly by the Food Chemistry category). For example: Did you know nutmeg is hallucinogenic? Have you ever wondered why avocados turn brown so quickly? Why is it that some people have such a strong aversion to cilantro (aka coriander)? What makes coffee bitter, chili peppers spicy, and catnip so attractive to cats?

These and so many other questions are answered by Andy in a fun and approachable way. One thing that makes Compound Interest so approachable is the use of infographics to tell the stories and explain the science. Each post is accompanied by an infographic featuring photos of the subject, structural formulas of the chemicals, and short descriptions.  For example, this infographic explains why beets are red and why our urine turns red after eating them:

Chemistry-of-Beetroot

The infographics can also be downloaded as pdf files, like this one that explains the chemistry behind the smell of fresh-cut grass.

In this manner, the images and files can be easily shared with others. In fact, Andy encourages this practice, provided that the originals are not altered and that Compound Interest is given proper credit. He is particularly interested in seeing his infographics used in a classroom setting. Read more about the content usage guidelines here. Produced by someone who is obviously passionate about chemistry, these posts and graphics are meant to educate and excite people about everyday chemistry both in the botanical world and beyond.

Succulent Blogs on Tumblr

About four months ago, Awkward Botany branched out into the world of Tumblr, a short-form blogging platform with a heavy social media bent. I haven’t put as much time into it as I would like (and I still have lots to learn about it), but so far the time I have spent there has been entertaining and informative.

One discovery I have made is that there are lots of tumblogs dedicated to botany and horticulture. This shouldn’t come as a surprise though; there are tumblogs concerning pretty much any topic you can think of. Plus, people love plants, so why shouldn’t there be tumblogs aplenty devoted to them?

One subsection of plant-related tumblogs that I have particularly enjoyed following are the cactus and succulent themed ones. In the botanical world, which is replete with diversity, there is no shortage in the variety of colors, textures, and forms to be found. Cacti and succulents are especially fascinating in this regard. Now thanks to Tumblr, hours can be spent admiring them while sitting comfortably in front of a computer screen. I say that with a hint of sarcasm, of course. Seeing these plants in person (either in their natural habitat or in cultivation) would obviously be better, but when that option is not available, the internet is the next best thing.

Over the past few months I have collected a list of cactus and succulent related tumblogs. Below are my favorites. Some of them consist exclusively of photos grabbed from other sites, while others are composed of personal photos along with a mix of other photos. A few of them also offer advice and take questions concerning cactus and succulent cultivation.

what a nice little succulent

What A Nice Little Succulent a blog about growing succulents in a Brooklyn apartment…from seed! What’s not to like? Great blog name, too.

jacculents

Jack + Succulents – Jack grows succulents in Malaysia and shares advice on how to cultivate and care for them. He also likes coming up with clever names, like Jacculents and Jacktus.

cactguy

Cactguy – Speaking of clever names, Cactguy is a blog produced by a self-proclaimed “cactus fiend.” His pictures are labeled so that you can not only admire the plants but learn the names of them as well.

cactiheart

Not Cact-I, Cact-Us – Yes, the clever names abound in the cactus and succulent loving community.

succulent lover

Succulent Lover – A love for succulents pure and simple.

These five blogs barely scratch the surface. There are lots more great ones out there, including Succulents Forever!, Sweet Succulents, and Succulent Love. An excellent one if you are looking for more information about succulents is Cactus Man Dan, which is written by an obsessed cactus and succulent collector in England. He can help you answer any questions you may have about growing and identification.

Do you know of any other cactus and succulent (or plants in general) tumblogs that you would like to recommend? If so, leave your recommendations in the comment section below. And if you feel so inclined, please follow Awkward Botany on Tumblr and/or Twitter. Lastly, with this post I am introducing the new Reviews and Recommendations tab. Go there to read my past review and recommendation posts, and stay tuned for many more to come. 

 

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

Various and Sundry Particulars from Awkward Botany Headquarters

Things are afoot at Awkward Botany Headquarters. Lots of new blog entries are in the works, and if all goes well, I will continue to post something every 7-10 days (or so).  Of course, I would like to post more regularly than that, but you know how it goes – there are only so many hours in a day/too much to do and too little time/etc.

Apart from blog posts that I want to write, I have many more ideas concerning Awkward Botany stirring around inside my addled brain. I hesitate to say too much about them now, but as the weeks and months proceed, I hope to share some of those ideas with you. One idea I will hint at for now is having guest blog posts – inviting other plant enthusiasts aboard to write a post or two for the blog. Something to think about…

The big news for right now though is that Awkward Botany has recently joined the tumblr universe. I am tumble logging, tumblogging, microblogging (or whatever you want to call it) in an Awkward Botany sort of way. Why have a microblog associated with a macroblog, you ask? Because I have lots to share, and some of those things don’t seem to fit well in a proper Awkward Botany post – things like pictures (of my garden and elsewhere), links to articles, recommendations, observations, etc. – things that are just easier to include in a micro-post rather than a macro-post. Plus I, like most bloggers, would like to see more people visiting my blog, so perhaps this will be a way to draw in a few more readers. And perhaps not. Either way, everyone should check it out: awkwardbotany.tumblr.com  If you are on Tumblr, follow my microblog. If you are on Twitter, follow me there as well: @awkwardbotany If you are not a tumblr-er or a tweeter and don’t intend to be, that’s cool; however, if you like this macroblog (and if you visit the microblog and decide you like that, too), please consider sharing Awkward Botany with your friends, family members, and associates. They might also enjoy it, and I would be forever grateful. A win-win!

Now here is a picture of a mushroom:

SAMSUNG

And here is an article about the importance of plant conservation: Why Plant Conservation Matters and How Gardeners Can Help

Thank you for reading!

Baobab Trees Facing Extinction

Declining populations of baobab trees have been a concern for more than a decade now. That concern has been amplified with the release of a recent study that shows that two baobab tree species endemic to Madagascar risk losing the majority of their available habitat due to climate change and human development in the coming decades.

Baobab trees are spectacular sights. Unique in appearance, they can grow up to about 100 feet tall with trunk diameters as wide as 36 feet and can live for hundreds (possibly thousands) of years. As the trees age, they develop hollow trunks used for storing water (as much as 26,000 gallons!) to help them survive long periods of drought. The fruits of baobab trees are coconut-sized and edible and are said to taste like sherbet. The leaves of at least one species are eaten as a vegetable, and the seeds of some species are used to make vegetable oil. Various other products, including fibers, dyes, and fuel are also derived from baobab trees.

There are nine species of baobab trees (Adansonia spp.). Eight are native to Africa and one is native to Australia. Two of the African species are also found on the Arabian Peninsula, and six of the African species are found only on Madagascar. Three of the Madagascan species (A. grandidieri, A. perrieri, and A. suarezensis) are listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List. Currently, A. perrieri has the lowest population of the three species, with only 99 observed trees. It is estimated that by 2080, its range will be reduced to 30% of what it currently is, further threatening its survival. A. suarezensis has a considerably larger population (15,000 trees) but a much smaller distribution area (1,200 square kilometers). By 2050, this area is estimated to be reduced to only 17 square kilometers, practically guaranteeing its eventual extinction. On the bright side, A. grandidieri has a population of about one million trees and an extensive range that should remain largely undisturbed in the coming decades.

An interesting component to this story is how giant tortoises fit in. The fruits and seeds of baobab trees are relatively large, and so their dispersal is best carried out by animals. Seeds that fall too close to the parent trees have little chance of survival since they will be shaded out and will have to compete with large, adjacent trees. Animals that eat the fruits of the baobab trees help to disperse the seeds by defecating them in areas away from large trees where the seedlings will have a greater chance of survival. Two species of giant tortoises that were once native to Madagascar but have now been extinct for hundreds of years were likely primary dispersers of baobab tree seeds. A recent study used a species of giant tortoise not native to Madagascar (the Aldabra giant tortoise) to test this hypothesis. The tortoise readily consume the fruit of the baobab tree. The seeds remain in the tortoise’s digestive system for up to 23 days, giving the tortoise plenty of time to move to an area suitable for seed germination. Given these findings, biologists are currently working to introduce Aldabra giant tortoises to Madagascar to help save the baobab trees.

Climate change, loss of habitat due to human development, and loss of seed dispersers due to extinction threaten the survival of some baobab tree species, but by recognizing this threat, biologists can work towards preventing their eventual extinction. As we gain a better understanding and appreciation for the need for biodiversity on our planet, we will resolve to take greater steps to protect it.

To learn more about baobab trees facing extinction and giant tortoises as seed dispersers, visit the Scientific American blog, Extinction Countdown, here and here.

baobab tree

Adansonia grandidieri

photo credit: wikimedia commons

Excerpt from Amanda Thomsen Interview

Plenty of books have been written about gardening and landscaping 101, but none are quite like Kiss My Aster by Amanda Thomsen. The title alone should clue you in that Thomsen’s approach is unique. Flipping through the pages it becomes more apparent. It’s a graphic novel. It’s a choose your own adventure book. There is a pink unicorn and a vampire reference, but there is also great information for those interested in gardening. Much of it is geared towards beginners, but seasoned gardeners will find it useful as well. This book is in a league of it’s own…so it’s certainly worth a look.

In the latest issue of Greenwoman Magazine, Sandra Knauf interviews Amanda Thomsen. It’s a lively conversation, in which Thomsen reveals how the book came about, among other things. What follows is an excerpt from that interview. Get your hands on a copy of the magazine for the full conversation.

Knauf: Who or what inspired you to become a gardener? A writer?

Thomsen: When I was little I wanted to do three things when I grew up: 1. Be a writer, 2. Recycle, and 3. Wear red lipstick. Happily, I have achieved these three goals. Although I always wanted to be a writer, I did ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to make that happen growing up. No one pointed me in the right direction. I’ve taken a few writing classes, but overall nothing that was memorable. I have always been super creative and have just looked for ways to demonstrate that!

My parents were the prototypes for yuppies. For some reason, and I think it was my dad’s Indiana upbringing, they were SUPER into Crockett’s Victory Gardening on PBS and did, literally, everything he did. We have a 30′ x 50′ victory garden each summer and I just grew up in it. They had a greenhouse added to the house, canned up everything from applesauce to giardiniera. It was a delicious way to grow up, and I didn’t realize that EVERYBODY didn’t have that until I was, like, 20. Maybe older. I didn’t realize there were jobs in gardening and horticulture.

Knauf: You have this funny, sassy, sexy, free-spirited, curse-word-strewn, delightfully naughty blog for a few years, and you’re a landscaper, and suddenly you’re blogging for Horticulture magazine’s website, and now you blog for Fine Gardening. I don’t want to disrespect these fine publications, but, well, they can be at times just a bit, shall we say, dry. How did you get together with them?

Thomsen: Horticulture asked me to join this contest they were having for a blogger. I did and I won. It was hard on me to blog exclusively for them and not on my personal blog at all – not even about personal stuff – but that was the deal. Fine Gardening has been a great, laid back home for my more horty things to say. I leave the eff-bombs at the door and get my freak on over there and I’ve loved it. AND they’ve given me a chance to write articles, which is seriously one of my happiest achievements in life…

All these magazines KNOW that if they are going to survive, they have to get new, younger readers, and I’m happy as a salami at a mustard party to help do that for them.

Knauf: How did the idea for a book come about?

Thomsen: I was dreaming about how to make books more interactive when I thought of the idea. Originally it was going to be SO comprehensive that I thought I’d need help writing it. You know, a backyard bible of sorts. Then I got this wack-a-doo idea of having a hipster gardening book that was illustrated with, you know those terrible IKEA instructions with no words and very vague symbolism? I wanted to do it like that. Carleen Madigan at Storey literally found me in a dumpster and asked me if I had ideas for books. We met up in Boston while I was there speaking, and I just LOVED her. She was totally the midwife of this book. I literally wrote the whole book for her and if I could make her laugh then I was golden. I wrote the whole book, and then they found the illustrators, which completely adds everything.  The illustrations are way better than the writing!

kissmyaster

Visit Amanda Thomsen’s blog: www.kissmyaster.co

Read the entire interview and more at Flora’s Forum.

Consider yourself introduced…

Winter is in full-force (at least for us northern hemisphere dwellers), so it may seem like an odd time to start blogging about the plant world. Everything has gone dormant. All color is gone. From now until the first signs of spring, we mostly just have gray days and frozen ground to look forward to – little in the way of life. But a blog has got to start somewhere and at some point, right? Especially when it’s been brewing in the back of my skull for so long. So why not now? And why not with this measly post announcing its arrival?

Plants have been my passion for years now. They have also become my career. This general obsession I have with them has led me to start this narrowly (yet in some ways quite broadly, as you will see) focused blog. My intention is to write about plants…but what about them exactly? A quick brainstorming session yields this list of topic ideas for posts: the science of plants, rare and endangered plants, the wonders of plants, my favorite plants, tips on growing and caring for plants, places to go to see plants, the benefits of plants, plants in the news, etc. It turns out there is a lot to say about plants – they are an extremely fundamental part of our existence on earth after all. Without plants, we certainly would not be here.

Whether the things about plants that you enjoy most include the science, the cultivation, the recreation, or simply just the aesthetics, there really is something that anyone can relate to when it comes to the world of plants. This blog will attempt to explore all of those things from the perspective of an educated yet still amateur and awkward botanist. I will endeavor to be approachable, interesting, and entertaining. Please feel free to post any comments and suggestions that you may have along the way, and let’s all have a friendly conversation and enlightening experience as we explore the endlessly fascinating and wildly rich world that is plant life.

white oak