Awkward Botanical Sketches #5: Leaves of Yellowstone Edition

Earlier this month, I met up with Eric LoPresti and others at Yellowstone National Park to help take a census of Abronia ammophila, a rare plant endemic to the park and commonly referred to as Yellowstone sand verbena. Abronia (a.k.a. the sand-verbenas) is a small genus of plants in the family Nyctaginaceae that is native to western North America. Several species in the genus have fairly limited distributions, and as the common name implies, members of this genus generally occur in sandy soils. A. ammophila is no exception. A report written by Jennifer Whipple and published in 2002 described it as “restricted to stabilized sandy sites that lie primarily just above the maximum splash zone along the shoreline of [Yellowstone Lake].” Despite the large size of the lake, A. ammophila is not widespread. Most individuals are found along the north shore of the lake, and even there it has been declining. According to Whipple’s report, “Yellowstone sand verbena has been extirpated from a significant portion of its original range along the shoreline of the lake due largely to human influences.”

Like other sand verbenas, A. ammophila has sticky leaves to which sand particles easily adhere, a phenomenon known as psammophory and an act that may help in defense against herbivory. The plant grows prostrate across the sand and produces attractive, small, white, trumpet-shaped flowers in groups of up to 20 that open wide when light levels are low, such as in the evening and in times of heavy cloud cover. The flowers are self-fertile, but insects may also play a role in pollination. It is imperative that questions surrounding its pollination biology, seed dispersal, and other factors regarding its life history are answered in order to halt any further decline of the species and ensure its survival for generations to come.

While in Yellowstone, I enjoyed looking at the all plants, several of which were new to me. I decided to sketch a few of the leaves that I found common around our campsite. I was particularly interested in discolored, diseased, drought-stressed, and chewed-on leaves, since they are more interesting to sketch and color. While I was at it, I attempted to draw a Yellowstone sand verbena seedling as well.

wild strawberry (Fragaria sp.)
Richardson’s geranium (Geranium richardsonii)
lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta)
veiny dock (Rumex venosus)
cinquefoil (Potentilla sp.)
seedling of Yellowstone sand verbena (Abronia ammophila)

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Book Review: In Defense of Plants

Many of us who are plant obsessed didn’t connect with plants right away. It took time. There was a journey we had to go on that would ultimately bring us to the point where plants are now the main thing we think about. After all, plants aren’t the easiest things to relate to. Not immediately anyway. Some of us have to work up to it. Once there, it’s pretty much impossible to go back to our former lives. What was once just a background of green hues is now a rich cast of characters, each with their own name, unique features, and distinct story to tell. Essentially, we went through what Matt Candeias refers to as our ” green revolution.” Candeias – author and host of the long-running blog and podcast, In Defense of Plants – shares his story of learning to love plants and offers a convincing arguement for why you should love them too in his new book, aptly titled, In Defense of Plants.

It’s hard to picture Candeias as anything but a plant lover. If you’ve been following his work, you’ll know he makes it a point to put plants at center stage. It seems that much of the popular content available about plants focuses on the usefulness of plants as they pertain to humans. In many cases it can be easier to find out how to grow a certain plant species than to learn about where it’s from and what it’s like in the wild. Candeias let’s the plants speak for themselves by giving them a voice through his blog, podcast, and now his book. Through the stories he shares we get a peek into the way Candeias sees plants, with the hope being that others might also “be bitten by the botanical bug.”

One of the first plants that captured the attention of Candeias was perennial blue lupine (Lupinus perennis). While assisting with a habitat restoration project at a sand and gravel quarry, Candeias was tasked with improving the establishment of lupine, which is the host plant for the caterpillars of an endangered species of butterfly called Karner blue. The work he did at the quarry and the botanical research that went into it helped Candeias realize that plant’s aren’t at all boring, but are “incredibly interesting organisms worthy of respect and admiration” and that “plants can be both surprisingly relatable and incredibly alien all at once.” His “green revolution” had begun.

The seeds of lupine are dispersed ballistically. As the seed pods dry, tension builds. Then, as Matt Candeias writes in In Defense of Plants, “with an audible pop, the pods eventually explode, catapulting the seeds out into the environment.”

In each chapter of In Defense of Plants we get a peak into the experiences that brought Candeias to where he is now as he discovers the wonder of plants. His personal stories help introduce the main topic of each chapter. Topics include plant sex, plant dispersal, plant defenses, carnivorous plants, and parasitic plants. From countless possible examples, Candeias selects a few of his favorite plant species to help illustrate each topic. Along the way, the reader is presented with various other interesting plant-related facts as Candeias discusses the behaviors of some of the world’s most fascinating plants. In the chapter on dispersal, for example, unlikely agents of seed dispersal (like catfish!) are introduced, as well as phenomena like geocarpy, in which plants are essentially planting themselves.

Carnivorous plants provide an excellent gateway into convincing people who claim to have no interest plants that they actually do. It’s difficult to deny the impressive nature of a meat-eating plant. In the carnivorous plant chapter, Candeias introduces us to the various ways such plants capture and consume their prey, and even wonders if some of these plants should be considered omnivores. After all, certain butterworts digest pollen that falls onto their sticky leaves, and some bladderworts suck in plenty of algae and possibly gain nutrients from the act. If capturing insects inside leaves modified to look like pitchers or on leaves covered in digestive enzyme-producing glands doesn’t impress you, consider the carnivorous actions of corkscrew plants, which drill their leaves into the soil to go after soil-dwelling organisms like protozoans and worms.

Parasitic plants should also excite a reluctant plant lover. These are plants that take all or most of what they need to survive from another plant or host organism. Mistletoes are one of the more familiar parasitic plants, and Candeias describes several, including one that lives almost entirely within the stems of cacti. In fact, “you would never know a cactus had been infected until the mistletoe living within decides to flower,” at which point the flowers push their way out through the sides of the cactus. Dodder is another fairly common, highly specialized, and easy to identify parasitic plant. It basically looks like “a tangled pile of orange spaghetti tossed over the surrounding vegetation.” Orchids, a favorite of Candeias, are known for being mycoheterotrophs, which essentially means they parasitize fungi. Their seeds come unequipped with the energy stores needed to get going, so they borrow resources from mycorrhizal fungi in order to get their start. Years pass before the orchid can offer anything in return.

Datura is a genus of plants that produces toxic compounds like scopolamine and atropine. In his book, In Defense of Plants, Matt Candeias warns, “it would only take a small amount of these chemicals to completely ruin your week and slightly more to put you in a grave.”

After spending more than 200 pages celebrating plants and their amazing abilities and diversity, it’s fitting that Candeias spends the final chapter of his book mourning some of the ways the actions of humans threaten the existence of so many plants. He remarks how unfortunate it is that “plants with their unseeing, unhearing, unfeeling ways of life usually occupy the lowest rung of importance in our society.” Many of us barely notice the loss, yet “plants are the foundation of functioning ecosystems.” Due to that fact, “destroying plant communities causes disastrous ripples that reverberate throughout the entire biosphere of our planet.” Everything suffers when plants are lost. Fortunately, the book doesn’t end on this dark note. Candeias’s overall message is hopeful. When we learn to understand, appreciate, and care about plants, we will want to do everything we can to protect and restore them. With any luck, after reading this book, you too will want to offer your time, energy, and resources in defense of plants.

Listen to Matt talk about his new book on this episode of his podcast.

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To Fruit or Not to Fruit – The Story of Mast Seeding

Perennial plants that are able to reproduce multiple times during their lifetime don’t always yield the same amount of seeds each time they reproduce. For some of these plants, there is a stark difference between high-yield years and low-yield years, with low-yield years outnumbering the occasional high-yield years. In years when yields are high, fruit production can seem excessive. This phenomenon is called masting, or mast seeding, and it takes place at the population level. That is, during a mast year, virtually all individuals in a population of a certain species synchronously produce a bumper crop of seeds.

Plants of many types can be masting species. Bitterroot milkvetch (Astragalus scaphoides) and a tussock grass known as Chionochloa pallens are masting species, for example. However, this behavior is most commonly observed in trees, notably nut producing trees like oaks, beeches, and pecans. As you might imagine, the boom and bust cycles of mast seeding plant populations can have dramatic ecological effects. Animals that eat acorns, for example, are greeted with a veritable buffet in a mast year, which can increase their rate of reproduction for a spell. Then, in years when acorns are scarce, the populations of those animals can plummet.

How and why masting happens is not well understood. It is particularly baffling because masting populations can cover considerably large geographic areas. How do trees covering several square miles all “know” that this is the year to really go for it? While a number of possible explanations have been explored, there is still much to learn, especially since so many different species growing in such varied environments exhibit this behavior.

A popular explanation for mast seeding is predator satiation. The fruits and seeds of plants are important food sources for many animals. When a population of plants produces fruit in an unusually high abundance, its predators won’t possibly be able to eat them all. At least a few seeds will be left behind and can sprout and grow into new plants. By satiating their predators they help ensure the survival of future generations. However, even if a plant species has evolved to behave this way, it still doesn’t explain how all the plants in a particular population seem to know when it’s time for another mast year.

Predator satiation is an example of an economy of scale, which essentially means that individual plants benefit when the population acts as a whole. Another economy of scale that helps explain masting is pollen coupling. This has to do with the timing of flowering in cross pollinating species. If individuals flower out of sync with one another, the opportunities for cross pollination are limited. However, if individuals in a population flower simultaneously, more flowers will be pollinated which leads to increased fruit and seed production.  For this to happen, there are at least two factors that come into play. First, the plants have to have enough resources to flower. Making flowers is expensive, and if the resources to do so (like carbon, nitrogen, and water) aren’t available, it won’t happen. Second, weather conditions have to work in their favor. Timing of flowering depends, not only on daylength, but on temperature, rainfall, and other local weather conditions. If individuals across a population aren’t experiencing similar weather, the timing of their flowering may be off.

pollen-producing (male) flowers of pecan (Carya illinoinensis) — via wikimedia commons; Clemson University

Resource matching and resource budgeting are other proposed explanations for masting. Since plants can only use the resources available to them for things like growth and reproduction, they vary each year in how much growing or reproducing they do. Theoretically, if plants in a population are all going to flower in the same year, they all have to have access to a similar amount of resources. Often, the year following a mast year, there is a significant drop in fruit production, as though the plants have used up all of their available resources for reproduction and are taking a break. Some hypothesize that masting is a result of resource storage, and that plants save up resources for several years until they have what they need for yet another big year.

Another thing to consider is how plant hormones might play a role in masting. Gene expression and environmental cues both result in hormonal responses in plants. As Bogdziewicz, et al. write in Ecology Letters (2020), “if hormones and the genes that control them are hypersensitive to an environmental signal, masting can be at least partially independent of resource- and pollen-based mechanisms.” This and other potential explanations for masting are, at this point, largely theoretical. In their paper, Bogdziewicz, et al. propose a number of ways that theoretical predictions can be experimentally tested. If the “research agenda” outlined in their paper is carried out, they believe it will “take the biology of masting from a largely observational field of ecology to one rooted in mechanistic understanding.”

In her book, Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer proposes an additional explanation for the mechanisms behind masting – the trees are talking to one another. Not in the way that you and I might converse, but rather by sending signals through the air via pheromones and underground via complex fungal networks. There is already evidence for this behavior when it comes to plants defending themselves from predators and in sharing resources, so why not in planning when to reproduce? As Kimmerer writes regarding masting, “the trees act not as individuals, but somehow as a collective.” The question now is how.

seedlings of European beech (Fagus sylvatica), a mast-seeding species — via wikimedia commons; user: Beentree

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Winter Trees and Shrubs: Northern Catalpa

The names of plants often contain clues that can either help with identification or that tell something about the plant’s history or use. The name, catalpa, is said to be derived from the Muscogee word, katałpa, meaning “winged head,” presumably referring to the tree’s winged seeds. Or maybe, as one writer speculates, it refers to the large, heart-shaped, floppy leaves that can make it look like the tree is “ready to take flight.” Or perhaps it’s a reference to the fluted, fused petals of the tree’s large, tubular flowers. I suppose it could mean any number of things, but I’m sticking with its seeds, which are packed by the dozens in the tree’s long, slender, bean-like fruits. The seeds are flat, pale brown, and equipped with paper thin, fringed appendages on either side that assist in wind dispersal – wings, in other words.

winged seeds of northern catalpa (Catalpa speciosa)

Catalpa speciosa, or northern catalpa, is a relatively fast growing, short-lived tree native to the Midwest and one of only two species in the genus Catalpa found in the United States. Its distribution prior to the arrival of Europeans appears to have been restricted to a portion of the central Mississippi River valley, extending west into Arkansas, east into Tennessee, and north into Illinois and Indiana. It has since been widely planted outside of its native range, naturalizing in areas across the Midwest and eastern US. Early colonizers planted northern catalpa for use as fence posts, railroad ties, and firewood. Its popularity as an ornamental tree is not what it once was a century ago, but it is still occasionally planted in urban areas as a shade tree. Its messiness – littering the ground below with large leaves, flowers, and seed capsules – and its tendency to spread outside of cultivation into natural areas are reasons why it has fallen out of favor with some people.

The oval to heart-shaped, 8 to 12 inch long leaves with long petioles rotting on the ground below the tree are one sure sign that you’ve encountered a catalpa in the winter time. The leaves are some of the first to fall at the end of the growing season, briefly turning an unmemorable yellow before dropping.

leaf of northern catalpa (Catalpa speciosa) in the winter with soft hairs on the underside still visible

The leaf arrangement on northern catalpa is whorled and sometimes opposite. The twigs are easy to identify due to several unique features. They are stout, round, and grayish brown with prominent lenticels. The leaf scars are large, rounded, and raised up on the twig, looking a bit like little suction cups. They are arranged in whorls of three, with one scar considerably smaller than the other two. A series of bundle traces inside the scar form an ellipse. The leaf buds are tiny compared to the scar and are protected by loose, pointed, brown bud scales. Northern catalpa twigs lack a terminal bud. In the winter, seed capsules or the stalk of an old inflorescence often remain attached to the terminal end of the twig. The pith inside of the twig is thick, white, and solid.

twig of northern catalpa (Catalpa speciosa)

pith inside twig of northern catalpa (Catalpa speciosa)

Another common name for Catalpa speciosa is cigar tree, a name that comes from its up to 18 inch long, cigar-like seed capsules that hang from the otherwise naked tree throughout the winter. The sturdy, cylindrical pod starts out green in the summer and turns dark brown by late fall. Seed pods that haven’t fallen or already split open will dehisce in the spring time, releasing their papery seeds to the wind.

fruits of northern catalpa (Catalpa speciosa) hanging from the tree in the winter

The young bark of northern catalpa is thin and easily damaged. As it matures, it becomes furrowed with either scaly ridges or blocky plates. Mature trees are generally twisted at the base but otherwise grow straight, reaching 30 to 60 feet tall (sometimes taller) with an open-rounded to narrow-oval crown.

maturing bark of northern catalpa (Catalpa speciosa)

Northern catalpa is one of the last trees to leaf out in the spring. In late spring or early summer, 10 inch long clusters of white, tubular flowers are produced at the tips of stems. Before the flowers open, they look a bit like popped popcorn, reminding me of a song from my childhood (which I will reluctantly leave right here). The margins of its trumpet-shaped petals are ruffled and there is yellow, orange, and/or purple spotting or streaking on the inside of the tubes.

flower of northern catalpa (Catalpa speciosa) just before it opens

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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.

A Few More Snags Near Ketchum

Nearly a year has passed since Sierra and I took a trip to Ketchum, Idaho and I reported on some of the snags we encountered there. After months without a break, we finally had the chance to get away for a few days, and since we were desperate for some time off and a change of scenery, we couldn’t turn it down. Plus, we were heading back to Ketchum, so I knew I’d get to check out a few more snags. I was stoked.

I’m obsessed with trees, and my preference is for live ones (generally speaking), but dead trees are certainly gaining in popularity. After all, a dead tree isn’t truly dead. As its corpse slowly rots, it continues to harbor and support life inside and out in a substantial way. Forests need dead trees just as much as they need live trees. Plus, ecology aside, dead trees are no less photogenic than any other tree.

Death isn’t all bad. New life springs from decay. Given our current state of affairs, we need this reminder, and snags offer it in spades. As Sierra and I pulled up to the Apollo Creek trailhead, we looked out onto a section of forest that had clearly been ravaged by fire in the not too distant past. Acres of standing and fallen burned out trees bore witness to this fact. Yet among the dead, life flourished, as dozens of songbirds actively foraged on and around the charred trees. They were there for the insects that were feeding on the dead wood, fueling themselves for fall migration. In the spring, when the birds return, some of them may even nest in the cavities of the dead trees. They will feed again on the insects and raise up a new generation of songbirds that will do the same. In and among snags there are myriad examples just like this, showing us the countless ways in which death supports new life.

What follows is a small sampling of the snags we encountered this time around on our trip to Ketchum.

post-fire snag among many other snags

a series of cavities in a post-fire snag

snag surrounded by live trees

three new snags

fallen snag

broken snag

new tree emerging from a nurse stump

not a snag, but one of many lupines we saw flowering along Apollo Creek Trail

Flowers Growing Out of Flowers (Things Are Getting Weird Out There)

I’m sure that anyone living through the events of 2020 would agree, these are truly wild times. So, when I stumbled across some purple coneflowers that appeared to be growing flowers out of flowers, I thought to myself, “Of course! Why not!?!” The world is upside down. Anything is possible.

As it turns out, however, this phenomenon occurs more frequently than I was aware. But it’s not necessarily a good thing, particularly if you’re concerned about plant health. We’ll get to that in a minute. First, what’s going on with these flowers?

Flowers in the aster family are unique. They have the appearance of being a single flower but are actually a cluster of two types of much smaller flowers all packed in together. Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) is a great example of this. Its flower heads are composed of dozens of disc flowers surrounded by a series of ray flowers. The minuscule disc flowers form the cone-like center of the inflorescence. The petals that surround the cone are individual ray flowers. This tight cluster of many small flowers (or florets) is known as a composite. Sunflowers are another example of this type of inflorescence.

Flowers are distinct organs. Not only are they the reproductive structures of flowering plants, but unlike the rest of the plant, they exhibit determinate growth. Flowers are, after all, plant shoots that have been “told” to stop growing like other shoots and instead modify themselves into reproductive organs and other associated structures. Unlike other shoots, which continue to grow (or at least have the potential to), a flower (and the fruit it produces) is the end result for this reproductive shoot. This is what is meant by determinate growth. However, sometimes things go awry, and the modified shoots and leaves that make up a flower don’t develop as expected, producing some bizarre looking structures as a result.

An example of this is a double flower. Plants with double flowers have mutations in their genes that cause disruptions during floral development. This means that their stamens and carpels (the reproductive organs of the flowers) don’t develop properly. Instead, they become additional petals or flowers, resulting in a flower composed of petals upon petals upon petals – a look that some people like, but that have virtually nothing to offer the pollinators that typically visit them. Because of their ornamental value, double-flowered varieties of numerous species – including purple coneflower – can be found in the horticultural trade.

double-flowered purple coneflower

Genetic mutations are one way that odd looking flowers come about. It is not the cause, however, of the freak flowers that I recently came across. What I witnessed was something called phyllody and was the result of an infection most likely introduced to the plant by a leafhopper or some other sap-sucking insect. Phyllody, which has a variety of causes, is a disruption in plant hormones that leads to leaves growing in place of flower parts. As a result, the flowers become sterile and green in color. In the case of purple coneflower, leafy structures are produced atop shoots arising from the middle of ray and/or disc florets. In other species, shoots aren’t visible and instead the inflorescence is just a cluster of leaves. In a sense, the reproductive shoot has returned to indeterminate growth, having switched back to shoot and leaf production.

Phyllody can have either biotic or abiotic causes. Biotic meaning infection by plant pathogens – including certain viruses, bacteria, and fungi – or damage by insects. Abiotic factors like hot weather and lack of water can result in a temporary case of phyllody in some plants. Phyllody plus a number of other symptoms made it clear that the purple coneflower I encountered had a fairly common disease known as aster yellows. This condition is caused by a bacterial parasite called a phytoplasma, and is introduced to the plant via a sap-sucking insect. It then spreads throughout the plant, infecting all parts. The phyllody was a dead give away, but even the flowers that weren’t alien-looking were discolored. The typical vibrant purple of the ray flowers was instead a faded pink color. The flowers that had advanced phyllody – along with the rest of the plant – were turning yellow-green.

This inflorescence isn’t exhibiting phyllody yet, but the purple color in the ray flowers is quickly fading.

Hundreds of plant species are susceptible to aster yellows, and not just those in the aster family. Once a plant is infected with aster yellows, it has it for good and will never grow or reproduce properly. For this reason, it is best to remove infected plants from the garden to avoid spreading the infection to other plants. As cool as the flowers may look, infected plants just aren’t worth saving.

Further Reading: 

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.

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The Hidden Flowers of Viola

Violas keep a secret hidden below their foliage. Sometimes they even bury it shallowly in the soil near their roots. I suppose it’s not a secret really, just something out of sight. There isn’t a reason to show it off, after all. Showy flowers are showy for the sole purpose of attracting pollinators. If pollinators are unnecessary, there is no reason for showy flowers, or to even show your flowers at all. That’s the story behind the cleistogamous flowers of violas. They are a secret only because unless you know to look for them, you would have no idea they were there at all.

Cleistogamy means closed marriage, and it describes a self-pollinating flower whose petals remain sealed shut. The opposite of cleistogamy is chasmogamy (open marriage). Most of the flowers we are familiar with are chasmogamous. They open and expose their sex parts in order to allow for cross-pollination (self-pollination can also occur in such flowers). Violas have chasmogamous flowers too. They are the familiar five-petaled flowers raised up on slender stalks above the green foliage. Cross-pollination occurs in these flowers, and seed-bearing fruits are the result. Perhaps as a way to ensure reproduction, violas also produce cleistogamous flowers, buried below their leaves.

an illustration of the cleistogamous flower of Viola sylvatica opened to reveal its sex parts — via wikimedia commons

Flowers are expensive things to make, especially when the goal is to attract pollinators. Colorful petals, nectar, nutritious pollen, and other features that help advertise to potential pollinators all require significant resources. All this effort is worth it when it results in the ample production of viable seeds, but what if it doesn’t? Having a method for self-pollination ensures that reproduction will proceed in the absence of pollinators or in the event that floral visitors don’t get the job done. A downside, of course, is that a seed produced via self-pollination is essentially a clone of the parent plant. There will be no mixing of genes with other individuals. This isn’t necessarily bad, at least in the short term, but it has its downsides. A good strategy is a mixture of both cross- and self-pollination – a strategy that violas employ.

The cleistogamous flowers of violas generally appear in the summer or fall, after the chasmogamous flowers have done their thing. The fruits they form split open when mature and deposit their seeds directly below the parent plant. Some are also carried away by ants and dispersed to new locations. Seeds produced in these hidden flowers are generally superior and more abundant compared to those produced by their showy counterparts. People who find violas to be a troublesome lawn weed – expanding far and wide to the exclusion of turfgrass – have these hidden flowers to blame.

That being said, there is a defense for violas. In the book The Living Landscape by Rick Darke and Doug Tallamy, Tallamy writes: “Plants such as the common blue violet (Viola sororia), long dismissed by gardeners as a weed, can be reconstituted as desirable components of the herbaceous layer when their ecosystem functionality is re-evaluated. Violets are the sole larval food source for fritillary butterflies. Eliminating violets eliminates fritillaries, but finding ways to incorporate violets in garden design supports fritillaries.”

sweet violet (Viola odorata)

In my search for the cleistogamous flowers of viola, I dug up a sweet violet (Viola odorata). I was too late to catch it in bloom, but the product of its flowers – round, purple, fuzzy fruits – were revealed as I uprooted the plant. Some of the fruits were already opening, exposing shiny, light brown seeds with prominent, white elaiosomes, there to tempt ants into aiding in their dispersal. I may have missed getting to see what John Eastman calls “violet’s most important flowers,” but the product of these flowers was certainly worth the effort.

Fruits formed from the cleistogamous flowers of sweet violet (Viola odorata)

Up close and personal with the fruit of a cleistogamous flower

The seeds (elaiosomes included) produced by the cleistogamous flower of sweet violet (Viola odorata)

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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

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