Book Review: Grow Curious

In the early 2000’s when I was really getting excited about learning how to garden, one of the first resources I turned to was a website called You Grow Girl by Gayla Trail. I probably saw it mentioned in a zine about gardening. Something about it felt very punk rock. Trail’s site was different than other resources, and it spoke to the anti-authoritarian, non-conformist in me. Reading through the About page today, Trail’s punk rock spirit hasn’t waned, and I can see why her site appealed to me.

Now with well over two decades of gardening experience to draw from, Trail continues to run her site, has written five books (including one called You Grow Girl), and her “contemporary, laid-back approach” to gardening remains essentially the same. In her words, she “places equal importance on environmentalism, style, affordability, art, and humour.” Her “aim has always been to promote exploration, excitement, and a d.i.y approach to growing plants without the restrictions of traditional ideas about gardening.” We share these sentiments, which is why when I learned of her most recent book, Grow Curious, I knew I needed to read it.

Grow Curious by Gayla Trail accompanied by a pressed leaf from Trail’s garden.

Grow Curious is an activity book for gardeners of all ages, backgrounds, and skill levels. It diverges from most books about gardening in that it is not a how-to or a what-to-plant-where guide. It is instructional, but only in ways that are less about getting our chores done and more about helping us explore our gardens in order to see them in a new light and open our eyes to the remarkable world that is right outside our door – a world often overlooked because we have work to do. Trail’s book is also meant to reinvigorate any of us that may be a bit disillusioned by the act of gardening – having misplaced our spark along the way, lost in the drudgery of it all. It’s about stopping for a minute, looking around, and seeing things we maybe haven’t noticed before but that have been there all along.

Because Grow Curious is a compilation of garden activities (“an invitation to play”) interspersed with prose, there is no need to consume it chronologically. Activities can be done in order or chosen at random. They can be skipped altogether or done at different times of the year. The book, however, is organized by season, starting in spring and ending in winter. In this way, the story of the birth and death of the garden is told, a polarity that Trail reflects on throughout the book. In the introduction to “Fall,” she writes of the growing season coming to a close and the garden becoming “a scene of decay.” The garden’s death can help us come to terms with other deaths, including our own. On a brighter side, the return of spring can bring a newfound sense of “hope, transformation, and optimism;” along with “the energy of renewal.”

Botanical rubbings – one of dozens of creative, garden activities found in Grow Curious by Gayla Trail

The bulk of this book is a series of activities that are meant to, as the subtitle proclaims, “cultivate joy, wonder, and discovery in your garden.” In general, the instructions are minimal – a short paragraph or two; a single sentence followed by a list of things to observe or do. In this way, you have the freedom to explore and make things up as you go, without worrying about rules or whether or not you are doing it right. Activities include touching an insect, observing the shapes of leaves and stems, smelling soil, taking pictures from new and unusual angles, visiting your garden in the dead of night, et cetera. Some activities are more involved, like raising a caterpillar or researching something to death. Other activities require little effort, like pulling up some plants to see what color their roots are or tasting an edible plant part that you have never tasted before. To facilitate advanced exploration, many of the activities include ideas or ways to “Go Further.”

Among the pages of activities are Trail’s musings on gardening and life (as it relates to gardening), and I found these to be equally intriguing.  Like her thoughts on fear and insecurity: “I was inexperienced and uncertain, full of my own fears and excuses.” And her “balanced” view on pests in the garden: “Since our insect partners often depend on the so-called bad guys, it turns out that a balanced garden needs both.” Her encouragement to observe the differences between wild plants and weeds that grow within and beyond the borders of our gardens, and her plea for us to “invite wildness” in, noting the “knotty labyrinth” that exists between “wild” and “cultivated” – “social constructs that we place in opposition to each other.”

Orange roots of California poppy (Eschscholzia californica). “As you’re digging up, moving around, and planting out new crops, trees, bushes, and perennials this fall, take note of plants that have colourful roots.” — Gayla Trail

If you have been following Awkward Botany for a while, you can probably see why this book is right up my alley. If you enjoy reading Awkward Botany, this book should be right up your alley, too.

Advertisements

Artificial Photosynthesis – A Case of Biomimicry

Humans have long sought solutions to their problems by observing nature and trying to mimic it. These endeavors have lead to improvements in the designs and production processes of countless things. In recent decades there has been a growing movement composed of scientists, engineers, and innovators of all types to expressly seek for answers to today’s most pressing problems by deeply observing and analyzing the natural world. These efforts are coupled with a desire to learn how to work with nature rather than against it in an attempt to secure a more sustainable future for life on Earth. This is the essence of biomimicry.

To this end, plants have much to teach us. Everything from their basic forms and functions to the way they fight off pests and diseases to the way they communicate with each other is worth exploring for biomimicry purposes. A plant-based phenomenon that has probably received the most attention – and for good reason – is photosynthesis, the process that enables plants to use the sun to make food.

Put another way, photosynthesis is the process of converting light energy into chemical energy. Specialized proteins in plant cells absorb particles of light which initiates the passing of electrons across a series of molecules. Subsequently, water is split by a protein complex into oxygen and hydrogen protons. The oxygen is released from the plant, while the electrons and hydrogen protons go on to help generate two compounds – NADPH and ATP – which are later used to power the reaction that transforms atmospheric carbon dioxide into sugars. The concept of photosynthesis, while fairly simple to grasp from a high level (i.e. light + water + carbon dioxide = sugars + oxygen), is actually quite complex, and there is still much too discover concerning it.

photo credit: wikimedia commons

photo credit: wikimedia commons

One thing is certain, photosynthesis is ubiquitous. As long as the sun is overhead, most plants, algae, and cyanobacteria are photosynthesizing at a steady clip and are thereby helping to power just about every other living organism on the planet. Without plants, most of the rest of us could not survive. Janine M. Benyus offers this human-centric view in her book Biomimicry:

Consider that everything we consume, from a carrot stick to a peppercorn filet, is the product of plants turning sunlight into chemical energy. Our cars, our computers, our Christmas tree lights all feed on photosynthesis as well, because the fossil fuels they use are merely the compressed remains of 600 million years worth of plants and animals that grew their bodies with sunlight. All of our petroleum-born plastics, pharmaceuticals and chemicals also spring from the loins of ancient photosynthesis. … Plants gather our solar energy for us and store it as fuel. To release that energy, we burn the plants or plant products, either internally, inside our cells, or externally, with fire.

Since plants are so well-versed in using sunlight to create food and energy, it only makes sense that we would look to them to learn how we might improve and expand upon our quest for renewable energy production. We already use the sun to produce electricity by way of photovoltaic systems; however, these systems are limited in that they can only produce electricity when the sun is shining, and electricity is difficult to store. Artificial photosynthesis involves using that electricity to power catalysts that can split water into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen can be used as a fuel or can be fed into reactions involving carbon dioxide, ultimately resulting in a carbon-based fuel source. Fuels produced this way – referred to as solar fuels – could be stored and used regardless of whether or not the sun is out.

Artificial photosynthesis has largely moved beyond the theoretical stage. Multiple efforts have demonstrated ways in which water can be split using the light of the sun and solar fuels can thereby be produced. Mass production is the next step, and that is where the real limitations lie. The production of solar fuels has to be done cheaply enough to compete with other available fuels, and the infrastructure to use such fuels has to be available. These hurdles may very well be overcome, but it will take time. Meanwhile, research continues, adding to the mountains of studies already published.

photo credit: wikimedia commons

photo credit: wikimedia commons

On such study published in 2011 describes an “artificial leaf” that was developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology by Daniel Nocera and a team of researchers. Listen to an interview with Nocera on Science Friday and watch this BBC Worldwide video to learn more about this discovery. This Nature article explains why the artificial leaf is not yet commercially available, and why we are not likely to see it any time soon.

Another development in artificial photosynthesis was published earlier this year in Nano Letters. It is the product of Peidong Yang and the Kavli Energy NanoSciences Institute. While Nocera and his team stopped at the production of hydrogen gas, Yang’s lab added bacteria to the mix and were able to use the sun’s energy to transform carbon dioxide into acetate. If passed along to another species of bacteria, the acetate could be used to produce various synthetic fuels. Learn more about this by reading this livescience article and watching this FW: Thinking video. As with other artificial photosynthesis developments, limitations abound, but the research is promising.

Artificial photosynthesis is a compelling subject and one worth keeping an eye on. Follow the links below to learn more:

Biomimicry is an equally compelling subject and one I hope to explore further in future Awkward Botany posts. Meanwhile, check out these links:

Poisonous Plants: Castor Bean

A series of posts about poisonous plants should not get too far along without discussing what may be the most poisonous plant in the world – one involved in high and low profile murders and attempted murders, used in suicides and attempted suicides, a cause of numerous accidental deaths and near deaths, developed for use in biological warfare by a number of countries (including the United States), and used in bioterrorism attacks (both historically and presently). Certainly, a plant with a reputation like that is under tight control, right? Not so. Rather, it is widely cultivated and distributed far beyond its native range – grown intentionally and used in the production of a plethora of products. In fact, products derived from this plant may be sitting on a shelf in your house right now.

Ricinus communis, known commonly as castor bean or castor oil plant, is a perennial shrub or small tree in the spurge family (Euphorbiaceae) and the only species in its genus. It is native to eastern Africa and parts of western Asia but has since been spread throughout the world. It has naturalized in tropical and subtropical areas such as Hawaii, southern California, Texas, Florida, and the Atlantic Coast. It is not cold hardy, but is commonly grown as an ornamental annual in cold climates. It is also grown agriculturally in many countries, with India, China, and Mozambique among the top producers.

Silver maple leaf nestled in the center of a castor bean leaf.

Silver maple leaf nestled in the center of a castor bean leaf.

Castor bean has large palmately lobed leaves with margins that are sharply toothed. Leaves are deep green (sometimes tinged with reds or purples) with a red or purple petiole and can reach up to 80 centimeters (more than 30 inches) across. Castor bean can reach a height of 4 meters (more than 12 feet) in a year; in areas where it is a perennial, it can get much taller. Flowers appear in clusters on a large, terminal spike, with male flowers at the bottom and female flowers at the top. All flowers are without petals. Male flowers are yellow-green with cream-colored or yellow stamens. Female flowers have dark red styles and stigmas. The flowers are primarily wind pollinated and occasionally insect pollinated. The fruits are round, spiky capsules that start out green often with a red-purple tinge and mature to a brown color, at which point they dehisce and eject three seeds each. The seeds are large, glossy, bean-like, and black, brown, white, or often a mottled mixture. They have the appearance of an engorged tick. There is a small bump called a caruncle at one end of the seed that attracts ants, recruiting them to aid in seed dispersal.

Female flowers and fruits forming on castor bean.

Female flowers and fruits forming on castor bean.

All parts of the plant are toxic, but the highest concentration of toxic compounds is found in the seeds. The main toxin is ricin, a carbohydrate-binding protein that inhibits protein synthesis. The seeds need to be chewed or crushed in order to release the toxin, so swallowing a seed whole is not likely to result in poisoning. However, if seeds are chewed and consumed, 1-3 of them can kill a child and 2-6 of them can kill an adult. It takes several hours (perhaps several days) before symptoms begin to occur. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, severe stomach pain, diarrhea, headaches, dizziness, thirst, impaired vision, lethargy, and convulsions, among other things. Symptoms can go on for several days, with death due to kidney failure (or multisystem organ failure) occurring as few as 3 and as many as 12 days later. Death isn’t imminent though, and many people recover after a few days. Taking activated charcoal can help if the ingestion is recent. In any case, consult a doctor or the Poison Control Center for information about treatments.

The seeds of castor bean are occasionally used to make jewelry. This is not recommended. In The North American Guide to Common Poisonous Plants and Mushrooms, the authors warn that “drilling holes in the seeds makes them much more deadly because it exposes the toxin.” Wearing such jewelry can result in skin irritation and worse. The authors go on to say that “more than one parent has allowed their baby to suck on a necklace of castor beans.” I doubt such parents were pleased with the outcome.

castor bean seeds

Castor beans are grown agriculturally for the oil that can be extracted from their seeds. Due to the way its processed, castor oil does not contain ricin. The leftover meal can be fed to animals after it has been detoxified. Castor oil has been used for thousands of years, dating as far back as 5000 BC when Egyptians were using it as a fuel for lamps and a body ointment, among other things. Over the centuries it has had many uses – medicinal, industrial, and otherwise. It makes an excellent lubricant, is used in cosmetics and in the production of biofuel, and has even been used to make ink for typewriters. One of its more popular and conventional uses is as a laxative, and in her book, Wicked Plants, Amy Stewart describes how this trait has been used as a form of torture: “In the 1920’s, Mussolini’s thugs used to round up dissidents and pour castor oil down their throats, inflicting a nasty case of diarrhea on them.”

A couple of years ago, I grew a small stand of castor beans outside my front door. I was impressed by their rapid growth and gigantic leaves. I also enjoyed watching the fruits form. By the end of the summer, they were easily taller than me (> 6 feet). I collected all of the seeds and still have them today. I knew they were poisonous at the time, but after doing the research for this post, I’m a little wary. With a great collection of castor bean seeds comes great responsibility.

The castor beans that once grew outside my front door.

The castor beans that once grew outside my front door.

There is quite a bit of information out there about castor beans and ricin. If you are interested in exploring this topic further, I recommend this free PubMed article, this Wikipedia page about incidents involving ricin, this article in Nature, and this entry in the Global Invasive Species Database. Also check out Chapter 11 (“Death by Umbrella”) in Thor Hanson’s book, The Triumph of Seeds.

Drought Tolerant Plants: Fernbush

The first of many plants to be profiled in this series on drought tolerant plants is Chamaebatiaria millefolium, known commonly as fernbush or desert sweet. Fernbush is a shrub that is found in most western U.S. states, generally in locations that are dry and rocky with sandy or gravelly soils.  However, it also occurs in sights with loam or clay loam soils, making it a plant that is not too finicky about soil types. It is found at a wide range of elevations (from 3,000 feet up to 11,000 feet) and in a wide variety of plant communities, including lodgepole pine subalpine forests, juniper-pinyon pine woodlands, mountain mahogany-oak scrublands, and sagebrush steppes. It is occasionally browsed by certain animals, but not enough to be considered an important food source. Instead, its major wildlife value is providing cover for birds, small mammals, and antelope.

Fernbush is by far one of my favorite shrubs. Its the leaves that make it so interesting. As the common name suggests, the leaves look just like little fern fronds, and considering that ferns tend to be associated with shady, moist environments, it seems strange to see a fern-like bush growing in full sun in a dry, rocky site. Alas, fernbush is not a fern, but instead a shrub with very cool leaves.

IMG_0838

IMG_0837

Fernbush grows to about as wide as it does high (between 1-3 meters), and depending on where it is growing it is evergreen or semi-evergreen, dropping the older leaves from the lower portions of its branches during the winter. Its bark is smooth and russet or cinnamon-colored. Flowers appear in clusters at the tips of branches in mid to late summer and are small, white or cream colored, and rose-like with five petals.

SAMSUNG

The fruit of fernbush is called a follicle and contains very small seeds, mere millimeters in size. The spent flower stalks are attractive in their own right and provide great winter interest. They can be pruned off in the spring in preparation for new flower stalks and to keep the plants looking good.

IMG_0834

Fernbush is very drought tolerant. Once its established, it needs very little (if any) supplemental water. It is likely that the leaves of fernbush give it this trait. They are small and finely divided, as well as being hairy and resinous. Physical adaptations such as these reduce water loss through transpiration, which helps the plant use available water more efficiently. Though not very commercially available, fernbush, with its unique appearance and late summer blooms, is a great addition to waterwise gardens and landscapes.

Fun Fact: Chamaebatiaria is a monotypic genus, meaning that it is a genus consisting of only one species. In this regard, Chamaebatiaria millefolium is a true rarity.

Autumn Leaves

It’s October, so fall is in full force in the northern hemisphere. Days are shorter and temperatures are cooler, but one sure sign that fall is here is that the leaves on deciduous trees are changing colors. Every autumn, leaves that were once a familiar green turn brilliantly red, fiery orange, or vibrantly yellow. And then they fall to the ground leaving trees exposed – just trunks and branches  – skeletons of what they once were during warmer and brighter days.

But why?

Surprisingly enough, the colors seen in autumn are largely present in the leaves throughout their lives, but we don’t see them. We only see green. This is because chloroplasts (cell organelles responsible for carrying out photosynthesis) contain chlorophyll, one of three main pigments found in the cells of leaves throughout the growing season. Chlorophyll absorbs red and blue light and reflects green light. Because chloroplasts are so abundant in the cells of leaves, leaves look green.

But carotenoids are hanging around, too. The second of the three main pigments, carotenoids protect chlorophyll from oxidation and aid in photosynthesis. They reflect blue-green and blue light and appear yellow, however their population is considerably smaller compared to chlorophyll, so their yellow color is masked.

When day length decreases, the level of chlorophyll in plant cells diminishes. As a result, the yellow color of the carotenoids begins to show. Also, a layer of cells called the abscission layer forms between branches and petioles (i.e. leaf stems). This abscission layer is what eventually causes branches to drop their leaves. As the chlorophyll begins to die off and the abscission layer forms, anthocyanins (the third of the three main pigments found in plant cells) are synthesized. Anthocyanins absorb blue, blue-green, and green light and appear red.

With chlorophyll virtually absent (and photosynthesis brought to a halt) carotenoids and anthocyanins become the major pigments found in leaves, giving them the autumn colors we are accustomed to seeing. But here is where it gets tricky…

Fall leaf color is largely dependent on various environmental conditions, including temperature, amount of sunlight, and soil moisture. If autumn is warm and wet, chlorophyll may be slow to die, and anthocyanins may be slow to form. Chlorophyll drops off more readily when it is cool and dry, and anthocyanins synthesize more readily when days are sunny. Dry, sunny days followed by cool, dry nights are said to offer the most vibrant fall colors. Additionally, global climate change is now playing a role, so fall colors may start to appear earlier or later or last longer or shorter depending on the region.

Do you have a favorite place to view fall foliage? Add your comments below.

SAMSUNG

Cornus sericia – red-osier dogwood

SAMSUNG

Ribes aureum – golden current

SAMSUNG

Quercus palustris – pin oak

ash

Fraxinus sp. – ash

ailanthus

Ailanthus altissima – tree of heaven