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:

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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.

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Horticulture Students Wanted

“Horticulture is under siege.” At least that’s the claim made in a letter and action plan penned by the top administrators of six prominent horticulture institutions based in North America. In their letter addressed to “Colleague[s] in Horticulture,” they claim that among the general public there is a “lack of horticulture awareness and poor perception of horticulture careers”. This has lead to low enrollment in high school and college horticulture programs and a dearth of qualified, young horticulturists entering the work force. Because the youth of today “appear to have little or no awareness of the importance and value of horticulture,” they are not choosing to pursue “interesting, challenging, and impactful careers” in the field.

In order to address this issue, this team of horticulture professionals has developed a plan “to increase public awareness of the positive attributes of horticulture.” Plants are essential for life on earth; humans could not exist here without them. It is the field of horticulture that supplies humanity with much of the food that it consumes, including fruits, vegetables, nuts, and herbs. Horticulture also fills our landscapes with plants that provide the backdrop to our daily lives, transforming otherwise drab and harsh urban areas into lush green spaces. And speaking of “green,” horticulture is helping us save our planet. Through teaming up with engineers and other professionals, horticulturists are helping to develop solutions to issues like climate change, water quality, storm water runoff, energy production, and biodiversity loss. Innovative and emerging strategies such as green roofs, wildlife gardens, carbon sequestration, biofuels, and sustainable agriculture require horticulture expertise in order to succeed.

These are just some of the benefits of horticulture that the authors of this plan hope to share with the general public in an effort to change public perception and attract young recruits. If they don’t succeed, the consequences may be dire – or at least that’s how they make it sound. An article on philly.com regarding the recent letter put it this way: “if something isn’t done soon…horticulture could become a lost art and a forgotten science.”

Yeah, it’s a bit dramatic sounding. It’s hard for me to believe that the situation is really that desperate. However, what I will say is that a career in horticulture is not for everyone. It certainly isn’t for anyone who dreams of being rich and/or famous one day. That’s probably not going to happen. People who choose a career in this field do so because they have a passion for plants, a love of beautiful, inviting landscapes, and perhaps a proclivity for fresh, homegrown fruits and vegetables. A career in horticulture is not glamorous by any means, but it is highly rewarding – at least from my perspective. So sure, youngsters should consider it…but they should also consider themselves warned.

And now it’s time for show and tell. I graduated with a degree in horticulture at a four year university in the intermountain northwest. After that, I ventured off to the Midwest to pursue a graduate degree researching green roof technology. Perhaps the following pictorial of some of my adventures will inspire a few of you young folks to consider a similar path. Either that or there is always that liberal arts degree you’ve been dreaming of…

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As an undergraduate, I helped manage a student-run organic farm

community garden plot

I had a community garden plot overlooking the rolling hills of the Palouse

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I took a jet boat trip up the Snake River to help prune an abandoned apple orchard

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Then I went to Illinois to study green roof technology as a graduate student

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I presented my research findings at a big conference in Philadelphia

And so can you…or something like it. Comment below if you would like to put in your plug (or caveat) for pursuing a career in horticulture. The world needs you.