2016: Year in Review

2016 was another busy year at Awkward Botany headquarters. A major highlight was the response I received from the Help Wanted announcement that I posted early last year. Several people expressed interest in writing guest posts, while several others volunteered to help out in other ways (contributing images, illustrations, logos, etc.). The offer still stands, so please be in touch if you would like to contribute in any way.

Speaking of being in touch, the comments I’ve received and the connections I’ve made through social media and beyond really add to the experience of doing this blog. Not only does it make this more of a conversation, but it is greatly motivating to know that people find this to be a valuable and entertaining resource. Thank you to all who have reached out. And thanks to silent observers as well. Let’s stay in touch.

As I have done in the past, I am including a list of some of the posts from this past year, mainly those that are part of ongoing series. Many posts don’t fall within these categories, so all others can be found in the ‘Archives’ widget on the right side of the screen.

Book Reviews:

Poisonous Plants:

Famous Botanists in History:

Drought Tolerant Plants:

Field Trips:

Ethnobotany:

Botany in Popular Culture:

Tiny Plants:

Rare and Endangered Plants

Podcast Review:

Guest Posts:

What Is a Plant, and Why Should I Care? part one, part two, part three, part four

Along with the great guest posts, I also received Awkward Botany logos from three incredible artists/graphic designers. I loved them all, and I am very thankful for the time and talent that was spent creating them. The logos are featured below. In order of appearance they were created by Franz Anthony, Mesquite Cervino, and Mara McCall. If you have an idea for an Awkward Botany logo, please let me know. I would love to see it.

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And now a heads up…

In the coming months I plan to focus most of my posts on “weeds” and invasive species. These are topics that I have found increasingly intriguing, so I am hoping that writing a long series of posts about them will help satisfy my curiosity. This may or may not be your thing, but I hope you will stick around regardless. I plan to continue to include some guest posts, which will hopefully help break up the monotony. Also, I know I said this last year and it didn’t actually happen, but I will most likely be taking some breaks from my weekly publishing schedule in order to work on some other projects. Those projects and more will be revealed at some point in time, along with other ideas I have rolling around in my head. If the thought of me taking breaks from posting here bothers you, I invite you to join me on twitter and tumblr, where I will continue to post random things regularly.

Until then, I wish you all a splendid 2017. It should be an interesting one, so buckle up.

Yucca in the snow at Idaho Botanical Garden in Boise, Idaho

Yucca in the snow at Idaho Botanical Garden in Boise, Idaho

Drought Tolerant Plants: Pearly Everlasting

Despite being such a widely distributed and commonly occurring plant, Anaphalis margaritacea is, in many other ways, an uncommon species. Its native range spans North America from coast to coast, reaching up into Canada and down into parts of Mexico. It is found in nearly every state in the United States, and it even occurs throughout northeast Asia. Apart from that, it is cultivated in many other parts of the world and is “weedy” in Europe. Its cosmopolitan nature is due in part to its preference for sunny, dry, well-drained sites, making it a common inhabitant of open fields, roadsides, sandy dunes, rocky slopes, disturbed sites, and waste places.

Its common name, pearly everlasting, refers to its unique inflorescence. Clusters of small, rounded flower heads occur in a corymb. “Pearly” refers to the collection of white bracts, or involucre, that surround each flower head. Inside the bracts are groupings of yellow to brown disc florets. The florets are unisexual, which is unusual for plants in the aster family. Plants either produce all male flowers or all female flowers (although some female plants occasionally produce florets with male parts). Due to the persistent bracts, the inflorescences remain intact even after the plant has produced seed. This quality has made them a popular feature in floral arrangements and explains the other half of the common name, “everlasting.” In fact, even in full bloom, the inflorescences can have a dried look to them.

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Pearly everlasting grows from 1 to 3 feet tall. Flowers are borne on top of straight stems that are adorned with narrow, alternately arranged, lance-shaped leaves. Stems and leaves are gray-green to white. Stems and undersides of leaves are thickly covered in very small hairs. Apart from contributing to its drought tolerance, this woolly covering deters insects and other animals from consuming its foliage. In The Book of Field and Roadside, John Eastman writes, “Insect foliage feeders are not numerous on this plant, owing to its protective downy ‘gloss.’ … The plant’s defensive coat seems to prevent spittlebug feeding on stem and underleaves. The tomentum also discourages ant climbers and nectar robbers.”

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Not all insects are thwarted however, as Anaphalis is a host to the caterpillars of at least two species of painted lady butterflies (Vanessa virginiensis and V. cardui). Its flowers, which occur throughout the summer and into the fall. are visited by a spectrum of butterflies, moths, bees, and flies.

Because the plants produce either male or female flowers, cross-pollination between plants is necessary for seed development. However, plants also reproduce asexually via rhizomes. Extensive patches of pearly everlasting can be formed this way. Over time, sections of the clonal patch can become isolated from the mother plant, allowing the plant to expand its range even in times when pollinators are lacking.

The attractive foliage and unique flowers are reason enough to include this plant in your dry garden. The flowers have been said to look like eye balls, fried eggs, or even, as Eastman writes, “white nests with a central yellow clutch of eggs spilling out.” However you decide to describe it, this is a tough and beautiful plant deserving of a place in the landscape.

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Read more:

Photos in this post are of Anaphalis margaritacea ‘Neuschnee’ and were taken at Idaho Botanical Garden in Boise, Idaho.

How to Make Petrified Wood

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So, you want to petrify some wood, eh? Here is a list of the basic ingredients that you will need:

  • A log (or some other chunk of wood)
  • Sediment, mud, volcanic ash, lava, or some type of inorganic material in which to bury the log and create an oxygen-free environment
  • Groundwater rich in silica (or other mineral commonly found in rocks)
  • Additional minerals including iron, copper, and manganese for coloring
  • Time and patience (because this is going to take a while – millions of years perhaps)

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Petrification refers to organic material being converted entirely into stone through two main processes: permineralization and replacement. First, the log you intend to petrify must be buried completely, cutting off the oxygen supply and thereby slowing the decay process considerably. Over time, groundwater rich in silica and other minerals will deposit the minerals in the pore spaces between the cells of the log. Later, the mineral rich water will slowly dissolve the cells and replace them with the minerals as well. The slower the better, assuring that the textures of the bark and wood and details such as the tree rings will remain visible. After enough million years have passed, the log may find itself exposed, pushed out of the ground by an earthquake or landslide or some other act of nature. What entered the ground as a living or recently dead tree, is now 100% inorganic material. And it is much heavier.

The colors in your petrified log will vary depending on the presence and concentrations of minerals in the groundwater. Cobalt, copper, and chromium will create greens and blues. Iron oxides will give the log hues of red, orange and yellow. Manganese adds pink and orange. During the petrification process, various circumstances can cause the silica to form a variety of crystal structures and other formations within the log. These formations can include amethyst, agate, jasper, opal, citrine, and many others. When all is said and done, your petrified log will be a true work of art.

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Petrification is a fossilization process. Thus, a section of petrified wood is a fossil, and it can be used to help paint a picture of what a particular region was like back when the tree was alive. It can also help us gain a better understanding of how life has evolved on this planet. Areas with large concentrations of petrified wood are located throughout the world, each with its own unique story to tell about the tree species once found in the area and the circumstances that led to their petrification. One such location is Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona. The petrified wood found there came from trees living in the area over 200 million years ago.

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Is a few million years too long to wait? Scientists have developed ways to petrify wood in the laboratory in as little as four or five days. One such process was developed at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory about a decade ago. It involves soaking a section of wood in hydrochloric acid for two days and then in either a silica or titanium solution for another two days. After air-drying, the wood is placed in an argon gas filled furnace and slowly heated to 1400° Celsius over a period of two hours. It is then left to cool to room temperature in the argon gas. What results is a block of ceramic silicon carbide or titanium carbide. Probably not as beautiful and interesting to look at as the one that took millions of years to form, but cool nonetheless.

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Read more about petrified wood here and here.

The photos in this post were taken at Idaho Botanical Garden in Boise, Idaho. If you find yourself in the area, stop by and check out their petrified log which was found in the Owyhee Mountains.