Eating Weeds: Blue Mustard

Spring is here, and it’s time to start eating weeds again. One of the earliest edible weeds to emerge in the spring is Chorispora tenella, commonly known by many names including blue mustard, crossflower, and musk mustard. Introduced to North America from Russia and southwestern Asia, this annual mustard has become commonplace in disturbed areas, and is particularly fond of sunny, dry spots with poor soil. It can become problematic in agricultural areas, but to those who enjoy eating it, seeing it in large quantities isn’t necessarily viewed as a problem.

rosettes of blue mustard (Chorispora tenella)

The plant starts off as a rosette. Identifying it can be challenging because the shape of the leaves and leaf margins can be so variable. Leaves can either be lance-shaped with a rounded tip or more of an egg shape. Leaf margins are usually wavy and can be deeply lobed to mildly lobed or not lobed at all. Leaves are semi-succulent and usually covered sparsely in sticky hairs, a condition that botanists refer to as glandular.

A leafy flower stalk rises from the rosette and reaches between 6 and 18 inches tall. Like all plants in the mustard family, the flowers are four-petaled and cross-shaped. They are about a half inch across and pale purple to blue in color. Soon they turn into long, slender seed pods that break apart into several two-seeded sections. Splitting apart crosswise like a pill capsule rather than lengthwise is an unusual trait for a plant in the mustard family.

blue mustard (Chorispora tenella)

Multiple sources comment on the smell of the plant. Weeds of North America calls it “ill-scented.” Its Wikipedia entry refers to it as having “a strong scent which is generally considered unpleasant.” The blog Hunger and Thirst comments on its “wet dish rag” smell, and Southwest Colorado Wildflowers claims that its “peculiar odor” is akin to warm, melting crayons. Weeds of the West says it has a “disagreeable odor,” and warns of the funny tasting milk that results when cows eat it. All this to say that the plant is notorious for smelling bad; however, I have yet to detect the smell. My sense of smell isn’t my greatest strength, which probably explains why I’m not picking up the scent. It could also be because I haven’t encountered it growing in large enough quantities in a single location. Maybe I’m just not getting a strong enough whiff.

Regardless of its smell, for those of us inclined to eat weeds, the scent doesn’t seem to turn us away. The entire plant is edible, but the leaves are probably the part most commonly consumed. The leaves are thick and have a mushroom-like taste to them. They also have a radish or horseradish spiciness akin to arugula, a fellow member of the mustard family. I haven’t found them to be particularly spicy, but I think the spiciness depends on what stage the plant is in when the leaves are harvested. I have only eaten the leaves of very young plants.

The leaves are great in salads and sandwiches, and can also be sauteed, steamed, or fried. I borrowed Backyard Forager’s idea and tried them in finger sandwiches, because who can resist tiny sandwiches? I added cucumber to mine and thought they were delicious. If you’re new to eating weeds, blue mustard is a pretty safe bet to start with – a gateway weed, if you will.

blue mustard and cucumber finger sandwiches

For more information about blue mustard, go here.

Eating Weeds 2018:

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Tiny Plants: Idahoa

This is a post I wrote three years ago as a guest writer for a blog called Closet Botanist. That blog has since dissolved, hence the re-post.

This year, we returned to the location in the Boise Foothills where I encountered the plant that inspired this post. I found what might be seedlings of the tiny plant. If that’s the case, the phenology is a bit delayed compared to three years ago. I’ll check again in a week or so. Until then, meet Idahoa.

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I have taken a real liking to tiny plants. So many of the plants we regularly interact with are relatively big. Large trees loom above us. Tall shrubs greet us at eye level. Flowering perennials come up around our knees or higher. But how often do we get down low and observe the plants that hug the ground or that reach just a few centimeters above it? Turf grass is ubiquitous and groundcovers are common, but among such low growing plants (or plants kept low), even more diminutive species lurk.

It was a hunt for a tiny plant that sent me down a certain trail in the Boise Foothills earlier this spring. Listening to a talk by a local botanist at an Idaho Native Plant Society meeting, I learned about Idahoa scapigera. A genus named after Idaho!? I was immediately intrigued. Polecat Gulch was the place to see it, so off I went.

Commonly known as oldstem idahoa, flatpod, or Scapose scalepod, Idahoa scapigera is the only species in its genus. It is an annual plant in the mustard family, which means it is related to other small, annual mustard species like Draba verna. It is native to far western North America and is distributed from British Columbia down to California and east into Montana. It occurs in a variety of habitat types found in meadows, mountains, and foothills.

Idahoa scapigera is truly tiny. Before it flowers, it forms a basal rosette of leaves that max out at about 3 centimeters long. Next it sends up several skinny flower stalks that reach maybe 10 centimeters high (some are much shorter). One single flower is born atop each stalk. Its petite petals are white and are cupped by red to purple sepals. Its fruit is a flat round or oblong disk held vertically as though it is ready to give neighboring fruits a high five. Happening upon a patch of these plants in fruit is a real joy.

Which brings me to my hunt. It was the morning of March 20th (the first day of Spring) when I headed down the Polecat Gulch trail in search of Idahoa, among other things. The trail forms a loop around the gulch and is about 6 miles long with options for shortening the loop by taking trails that cut through the middle. I have yet to make it all the way around. Stopping every 10 yards to look at plants, insects, and other things makes for slow hiking.

I was about a half mile – 1 hour or more – into the hike when Idahoa entered my view. A group of them were growing on the upslope side of the trail, greeting me just below waist level. Many of them had already finished flowering and had fresh green fruits topping their thin stalks. At this location they are a late winter/early spring ephemeral. I made a mental note of the site and decided to return when the fruits had matured. Next year, I will head out earlier in hopes of catching more of them in flower.

On the way to Idahoa, I noted numerous other small, green things growing in the sandy soil. It turns out there are countless other tiny plants to see and explore. It got me thinking about all the small things that go unnoticed right underneath our feet or outside of our view. I resolved to move slower and get down lower to observe the wonders I’ve been overlooking all this time.

Further Reading:

Introducing Herbology Hunt

This is a guest post by Jane Wilson.

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Many people are “plant blind”. They walk through areas of fantastic wildlife or just down their street without noticing what grows there. Even plants growing in the gutter have an interesting backstory.

The term “Plant Blindness” was first put forth by Wandersee and Schlusser in 1998. Without an appreciation of plants in the ecosystem, people will be less likely to support plant research and conservation.

Herbology Hunt was born out of a love of plants and wild places and a determination to get kids outdoors and really looking at their environment. One of the founders started Wildflower Hour on Twitter – a place for people to share photos of wildflowers found in Britain and Ireland – and from this was stemmed a children’s version, which became Herbology Hunt. The Herbology Hunt team put together spotter sheets for each month of the year. Each sheet includes five plants that can be found throughout the month. They were made available as a free download, so schools and individuals can print them for use on a plant hunt.

By the end of 2018, we had created a year’s worth of spotter sheets. We are now looking to promote their use throughout Great Britain. Eventually we want to reward children who find 50 of the plants with a free T-shirt, and we will be looking for sponsors to support this. We have been supported by the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland and the Wild Flower Society who have made the monthly spotter sheets available. They can be downloaded here or here.

Herbology Hunt Spotter Sheet for January

The Wild Flower Society has a great offer for Juniors interested in plants – it costs £3 to join and you get a diary to record your finds.

Going outdoors and noticing wildlife has been shown in some scientific studies to improve cardio-vascular health and mental health. A herbology hunt must surely be a good thing to do with children to help them get into a better lifestyle that will benefit their future health. We hope that many families and schools will use our spotter sheets as a way to help children become more passionate about the environment and enjoy the benefits of being outdoors.

Check out the Wildflower Hour website for more information about Herbology Hunt, along with instructions on how to get involved in #wildflowerhour, plus links to social media accounts and the Wild Flower (Half) Hour podcast.

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Also: Check out Jane Wilson’s website – Practical Science Teaching – for more botany-themed educational activities.

Field Trip: Bergius Botanic Garden and Copenhagen Botanical Garden

There are very few downsides to working at a botanical garden, but one of them is that the growing season can be so busy that taking time off to visit other botanical gardens when they are at their peak is challenging. Case in point, my visit to Alaska Botanical Garden last October. Another case in point, this December’s visit to a couple of gardens in Scandinavia.

That’s right, Sierra and I took a long (and much needed) break from work and headed to the other side of the world for some fun in the occasional sun of Denmark and Sweden. While we were there we visited two botanical gardens, one in Stockholm and the other in Copenhagen. Considering we were there in December, we were impressed by how many things we found all around that were still blooming. We were also impressed by how much winter interest there was in the form of seed heads, spent flower stalks, and other plant parts left in place, as opposed to everything being chopped down to the ground as soon as fall arrives (which is often the case in our part of the world). We may not have been there in the warmest or sunniest time of year, but there was still plenty of natural beauty to capture our attention.

Bergius Botanic Garden

The first of the two gardens we visited was Bergius Botanic Garden (a.k.a. Bergianska trädgården) in Stockholm, Sweden. It is located near Stockholm University and the Swedish Museum of Natural History. It was founded in 1791 and moved to its current location in 1885. It was immediately obvious that the gardens were thoughtfully planned out, particularly the systematic beds in which the plants were organized according to their evolutionary relationship to each other. The extensive rock garden, which was a collection of small “mountains” with a series of paths winding throughout, was also impressive. Since we arrived just as the sun was beginning to set, we were happy to find that the Edvard Anderson Conservatory was open where we could explore a whole other world of plants, many more of which were flowering at the time.

Walking into Bergius Botanic Garden with the Edvard Anderson Conservatory in the distance.

Sierra poses with kale, collard, and Brussels sprout trees in the Vegetable Garden.

seed heads of velvetleaf (Abutilon theophrasti)

corky bark of cork-barked elm (Ulmus minor ‘Suberosa’)

pomelo (Citrus maxima) in the Edvard Anderson Conservatory

Camellia japonica ‘Roger Hall’ in the Edvard Anderson Conservatory

carrion-flower (Orbea variegata) in the Edvard Anderson Conservatory

Cape African-queen (Anisodontea capensis) in the Edvard Anderson Conservatory

Copenhgen Botanical Garden

The Copenhagen Botanical Garden (a.k.a. Botanisk have) is a 10 hectare garden that was founded in 1600 and moved to its current location in 1870. It is part of the University of Copenhagen and is located among a series of glasshouses built in 1874, a natural history museum, and a geological museum. Unfortunately, the glasshouses and museums were closed the day we visited, but we still enjoyed walking through the grounds and exploring the various gardens.

A large rock garden, similar to the one at Bergius, was a prominent feature. We learned from talking to a gardener working there that since Denmark is not known for its rich supply of large rocks, most of the rocks in the garden came from Norway. However, a section of the rock garden was built using fossilized coral found in Denmark that dates back to the time that the region was underwater.

Another great feature was the Nordic Beer Garden, a meticulously organized collection of plants used in beer recipes from the time of the Vikings to the Nordic brewers of today. Even though the majority of the plants in this garden were dormant, the interpretive signage and fastidious layout was memorable.

Walking into Copenhagen Botanical Garden with the Palm House in the distance.

lots of little pots of dormant bulbs

seed head of Chinese licorice (Glycyrrhiza echinata)

fruits of Chinese lantern (Physalis alkekengi)

alpine rose (Rhododendron ferrugineum)

Viburnum farreri ‘Nanum’

seed head of rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus)

pods exposing the seeds of stinking iris (Iris foetidissima)

Field Trip: UBC Botanical Garden and VanDusen Botanical Garden

Last week, we found ourselves in Vancouver, British Columbia for a work-related conference put on by American Public Gardens Association. In addition to learning heaps about plant collections and (among other things) the record keeping involved in maintaining such collections, we got a chance to visit two Vancouver botanical gardens. Both gardens were pretty big, so covering the entire area in the pace we generally like to go in the time that was allotted was simply not possible. Still, we were smitten by what we were able to see and would happily return given the chance. What follows are a few photos from each of the gardens.

UBC Botanical Garden

UBC Botanical Garden is located at the University of British Columbia. Established in 1916, it is Canada’s oldest university botanical garden. We saw a small fraction of the Asian Garden, which is expansive, and instead spent most of our time in other areas, including the Alpine Garden, the Carolinian Forest Garden, the Food Garden, and one of my favorite spots, the BC Rainforest Garden. The Rainforest Garden is a collection of plants native to British Columbia, which was the original focus of UBC Botanical Garden’s first director, John Davidson.

fall foliage of redvein enkianthus (Enkianthus campanulatus)

Franklin tree in bloom (Franklinia alatamaha) in the Carolinian Forest Garden

alpine troughs

bellflower smartweed (Aconogonon campanulatum)

cutleaf smooth sumac (Rhus glabra ‘Laciniata’) in the BC Rainforest Garden

the fruits of Gaultheria pumila in the E.H. Lohbrunner Alpine Garden

Himalayan blueberry (Vaccinium moupinense) in the E.H. Lohbrunner Alpine Garden

VanDusen Botanical Garden

VanDusen Botanical Garden is a 55 acre garden that opened in 1975 and is located on land that was once a golf course. It features an extensive collection of plants from around the world accompanied by a series of lakes and ponds as well as lots of other interesting features (like a Scottish Shelter, a Korean Pavilion, an Elizabethan Maze, and more). Our time there was far too brief. The whirlwind tour we joined, led by the education director, was a lot of fun, and if the threat of missing our bus wasn’t looming, we would have been happy to stay much longer.

Japanese anemone (Anemone x hybrida ‘Whirlwind’)

fall color on the shore of Heron Lake

knees of bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) in R. Roy Forster Cypress Pond

witch hazel (Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Pallida’)

a grove of giant redwoods (Sequoiadendron giganteum)

We tried the fruit of dead man’s fingers (Decaisnea insignis). It tastes a bit like watermelon.

Japanese stewartia (Stewartia pseudocamellia)

More Awkward Botany Field Trips:

Botany in Popular Culture: The Tan Hua Flowers in Crazy Rich Asians

When a flower blooms, a celebration is in order. Flowers abound for much of the year, which means parties are called for pretty much non-stop (something Andrew W.K. would surely endorse). Since we can’t possibly celebrate every bloom, there are certain plants we have decided to pay more attention to – plants whose flowers aren’t so prolific, predictable, or long-lived; or plants whose flowers come infrequently or at odd times of the day (or night).

This is the case with the flowers of the night blooming cactus, Epiphyllum oxypetalum, which goes by many names including Dutchman’s pipe cactus, queen of the night, orchid cactus, night blooming cereus, and tan hua. Tan hua is the Chinese name for the plant, and this is how it is referred to in the book, Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan.

In the book, Nick Young brings his American girlfriend, Rachel Chu, to meet his ridiculously wealthy family in Singapore. Before the trip, Rachel was in the dark about the Young’s wealth. She first meets the family and their gargantuan mansion when Nick’s grandma, seeing that her tan hua flowers are about to bloom, throws an impromptu (and lavish) party. Nick refers to the flowers as “very rare,” blooming “extremely infrequently,” and “quite something to witness.”

In a seperate conversation, Nick’s cousin, Astrid, tries to convince her husband to attend the party by claiming, “it’s awfully good luck to see the flowers bloom.” Later, another one of Nick’s cousins tells Rachel, “it’s considered to be very auspicious to witness tan huas blooming.”

Tan hua (Epiphyllum oxypetalum) via wikimedia commons

Native to Mexico and Guatemala, E. oxypetalum was first brought to China in the 1600’s. Its beauty and intrigue along with its relative ease of cultivation helped it become popular and widespread across Asia and other parts of the world. Watching it bloom is considered a sacred experience by many, including in India, where it is said to bring luck and prosperity to households who are fortunate enough to see theirs bloom.

Epiphyllums are epiphytic, meaning they grow non-parasitically on the surfaces of other plants, such as in the crevices of bark or the crotches of branches. Like other cacti, they are essentially leafless, but their stems are broad, flat, and leaf-like in appearance. Showy, fragrant flowers are born along the margins of stems. The flowers of tan hua, as described in Crazy Rich Asians, appear as “pale reddish petals curled tightly like delicate fingers grasping a silken white peach.” A report (accompanied by photos) published by Sacred Heart University describes watching tan hua flowers progess from bud formation to full bloom, a process that took more than two weeks.

Tan huas are certainly not rare, as Nick described them. A number of Epiphyllum species and their hybrids are commonly cultivated; there is even an Epiphyllum Trail at San Diego Zoo’s Safari Park. Listed as “least concern” on the IUCN Red List, their popularity as ornamentals is noted but is not seen as affecting wild populations. Night blooming plants, while fascinating, aren’t all that rare either. Such plants have adapted relationships with creatures, like bats and moths, that are active during the night, employing their assistance with pollination. A paper published in Plant Systematics and Evolution describes the floral characteristics of Epiphyllum and similar genera: “The hawkmoth-flower syndrome, consisting of strongly-scented, night-blooming flowers with white or whitish perianths and long slender nectar-containing floral tubes is present in Cereus, Trichocereus, Selenicereus, Discocactus, Epiphyllum, and a number of other cactus genera.”

That being said, the specialness of a short-lived, infrequent, night blooming flower should not be understated, and really, parties being thrown in honor of any plant are something I can certainly get behind. Sitting in the courtyard late at night, the Young family and their guests watched as “the tightly rolled petals of the tan huas unfurled like a slow-motion movie to reveal a profusion of feathery white petals that kept expanding into an explosive sunburst pattern.” The look of it reminds Astrid of “a swan ruffling its wings, about to take flight.”

Later, “the tan huas began to wilt just as swiftly and mysteriously as they had bloomed, filling the night air with an intoxicating scent as they shriveled into spent lifeless petals.”

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Additional Resources:

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*Thank you Kathy for letting me borrow your Kindle so that I could write this post.

Death by Crab Spider, part two

Crab spiders that hunt in flowers prey on pollinating insects. Thus, pollinating insects tend to avoid flowers that harbor crab spiders. We established this in part one. Now we ask, what effect, if any, does this interaction have on a crab spider infested plant’s ability to reproduce? More importantly, what are the evolutionary implications of this relationship?

In a study published in Ecological Entomology earlier this year, Gavini, et al. found that pollinating insects avoided the flowers of Peruvian lily (Alstroemeria aurea) when artificial spiders of various colors and sizes were placed in them. Bumblebees and other bees were the most frequent visitors to the flowers and were also the group “most affected by the presence of artificial spiders, decreasing the number of flowers visited and time spent in the inflorescences.” This avoidance had a notable effect on plant reproduction, namely a 25% reduction in seed set and a 15% reduction in fruit weight. The most abundant and effective pollinator, the buff-tailed bumblebee, was deterred by the spiders, leading the researchers to conclude that, “changes in pollinator behavior may translate into changes in plant fitness when ambush predators alter the behavior of the most effective pollinators.”

Peruvian lily (Alstroemeria aurea) via wikimedia commons

But missing from this discussion is the fact that crab spiders don’t only eat pollinators. Any flower visiting insect may become a crab spider’s prey, and that includes florivores. In which case, crab spiders can benefit a plant, saving it from reproduction losses by eating insects that eat flowers.

In April of this year, Nature Communications published a study by Knauer, et al. that examined the trade-off that occurs when crab spiders are preying on both pollinators and florivores. Four populations of buckler-mustard (Biscutella laevigata ssp. laevigata) were selected for this study. Bees are buckler-mustard’s main pollinator, and in concurrence with other studies, they significantly avoided flowers when crab spiders were present.  Knauer, et al. also determined that bees and crab spiders are attracted to the same floral scent compound, β-ocimene. This compound not only attracts pollinators, but is also emitted when plants experience herbivory, possibly to attract predators to come and prey on whatever is eating them.

buckler-mustard (Biscutella laevigata) via wikimedia commons

In this study, the predators called upon were crab spiders. Florivores had a notable impact on plants in this study, and the researchers found that when crab spiders were present, florivores were significantly reduced, thereby reducing their negative impact. They also noted that “crab spiders showed a significant preference for [florivore-infested] plants over control plants.”

And so it is, a plant’s floral scent compound attracts pollinators while simultaneously attracting the pollinator’s enemy, who is also called in to protect the flower from being eaten. Luckily, in this case, buckler-mustard is easily pollinated, so the loss of a few pollinators isn’t likely to have a strong negative effect on reproduction. As the authors write, “pollinators are usually abundant and the low number of ovules per flower makes a few pollen grains sufficient for a full seed set.”

crab spider on zinnia

But none of these studies are one size fits all. Predator-pollinator-plant interactions are still not well understood, and there is much to learn through future research. A meta-analysis published in the Journal of Animal Ecology in 2011 looked at the research that had been done up to that point. Included were a range of studies involving sit-and-wait predators (like crab spiders and lizards) as well as active hunters (like birds and ants) and the effects of predation on both pollinators and plant-eating insects. They concluded that where carnivores “disrupted plant-pollinator interactions, plant fitness was reduced by 17%,” but thanks to predation of herbivores, carnivores helped increase plant fitness by 51%. This suggests that carnivores, overall, have a net positive effect on plant fitness.

Many pollinating insects have an advantage over plant-eating insects because they move quickly from flower to flower and plant to plant, unlike many herbivores which move more slowly. This protects pollinators from predation and helps explain why plant-pollinator interactions are not disrupted as easily by carnivores. Additionally, as the authors note, “plants may be buffered against loss of pollination by attracting different types of pollinators, some of which are inaccessible to carnivores.”

But again, there is still so much to discover about these complex interactions. One way to gain a better understanding is to investigate the effects of predators on both pollinators and herbivores in the same study, since many of the papers included in the meta-analysis focused on only one or the other. As far as crab spiders go, Knauer, et al. highlight their importance in such studies. There are so many different species of crab spiders, and they are commonly found on flowers around the globe, so “their impact on plant evolution may be widespread among angiosperms.”

In other words, while we still have a lot to learn, the impact these tiny but skillful hunters have should not be underestimated.