Book Review: Weeds Find a Way

At what age do we become aware that there are profound differences among the plants we see around us? That some are considered good and others evil. Or that one plant belongs here and another doesn’t. Most young children (unless an adult has taught them) are unaware that there is a difference between a weed and a desirable plant. If it has attractive features or something fun to interact with – like the seed heads of dandelions or the sticky leaves of bedstraw – they are all the same. At some point in our trajectory we learn that some plants must be rooted out, while others can stay. Some plants are uninvited guests – despite how pretty they might be – while others are welcome and encouraged.

But weeds are resilient, and so they remain. Weeds Find a Way, written by Cindy Jenson-Elliot and illustrated by Carolyn Fisher, is a celebration of weeds for their resiliency as well as for their beauty and usefulness. This book introduces the idea of weeds to children, focusing mainly on their tenacity, resourcefulness, and positive attributes rather than their darker side. “Weeds are here to stay,” so perhaps there is a place for them.

The book begins by listing some of the “wondrous ways” that weed seeds disperse themselves: “floating away on the wind,” attaching themselves to “socks and fur,” shot “like confetti from a popped balloon.” And then they wait – under snow and ice or on top of hot sidewalks – until they find themselves in a time and place where they can sprout. Eventually, “weeds find a way to grow.”

Weeds also “find a way to stay.” We can pull them up, but their roots are often left behind to “sprout again.” Pieces and parts break off and take root in the soil. Animals may swoop in to devour them, but weeds drive them away with their thorns, prickles, and toxic chemicals. In these ways they are a nuisance, but they can be beautiful and beneficial, too.

This illustrated story of weeds is followed by some additional information, as well as a list of common weeds with brief descriptions. Weeds are defined as plants “thought to be of no value that grow in places where people do not want them to grow,” adding that even “misunderstood and underappreciated plants that are native to a region and have multiple uses” can be labeled weeds.

The concept of weeds as invasive species is also addressed; some introduced plants move into natural areas and can “crowd out native vegetation, block streams, and drive away wild animals.” That being said, weeds also provide us with “endless opportunities to study one of nature’s most wonderful tools: adaptation.” Weeds are problematic as much as they are useful, it’s simply a matter of perspective.

A criticism of this book might be that it doesn’t focus enough on the negative aspects of weeds. There is plenty of that elsewhere. The aim of this book is to connect us with nature, and as Jensen-Elliot writes, “you don’t need a garden to know that nature is at work.” When there is a weed nearby, nature is nearby. Weeds “adapt and grow in tough times and desolate places,” and they make the world beautiful “one blossom at a time.”

Podcast Review: The Field Guides

Who doesn’t love nature walks and scientific journal articles? Luckily there is a podcast that combines the two. The Field Guides is hosted by two guys who are obsessed with the natural world and the science behind it. For each episode the hosts pick a nature topic to study in depth, then they head out to a natural area to talk about what they learned. The discussion takes place outside as they hike around, giving listeners the experience of being “out in the field, in the woods, and on the trail.”

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The discussion is conversational as the two hosts (and occasional guests) share things from different studies they have read, inserting personal anecdotes and thoughts as they arise. Observations on what they are seeing as they walk and talk also enter into the conversation. The nature sounds in the background make for a great score, and surprises along the way add a little suspense and intrigue to the experience.

The Field Guides is a young podcast – about a year and a half old – and has averaged around one episode per month. Episodes vary in length from as few as 20 minutes to an hour, so catching up on past episodes is not an insurmountable task. And it’s worth it. The guides have already explored some great topics that shouldn’t be missed, including hibernation, birds in the winter, salamanders, spruce grouse, and ice spikes. A bonus episode takes the listener along on a Christmas bird count, which, speaking for myself, is an inspiration to get involved in this 117 year old tradition. As a plant nerd, the botanically themed episodes are particularly interesting, and have so far included fall foilage, witch hazel, pokeweed, staghorn sumac, and others.

This is a ball gall on a tall goldenrod (Solidago altissima). The first episode of The Field Guides is all about the fascinating world of goldenrod galls. (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

A ball gall on a tall goldenrod (Solidago altissima). The first episode of The Field Guides is all about the fascinating world of goldenrod galls. (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

The notes that accompany each episode are often extensive and include things like references to the journal articles discussed and other resources cited, answers to questions that came up during the episode, and corrections to any mistakes that were made. Clearly the hosts are thorough in their research and passionate about the subjects they cover, but they are not without a sense of humor. The information presented is great, but what makes this podcast so listenable is the way that it is presented. It’s approachable, fun, and light-hearted – drawing the listener in to the conversation and out in to nature.

Check out individual interviews with the hosts of The Field Guides on these two episodes of In Defense of Plants podcast: Environmental Action with Bill Michalek and Reflections on Science with Steven Fleck

More Podcast Reviews on Awkward Botany:

Book Review: The New Wild

What if we were to look at invasive species with fresh eyes? Traditionally we have viewed them as interlopers hellbent on environmental destruction, but have we considered the good they can do? Should our efforts to eradicate them be tempered – eliminating them when it seems absolutely necessary, but accepting them when they are doing some good; welcoming them when they have something to offer. What does their presence mean anyway? What does it say about the ecosystems they inhabit and about us? Invasive species are convenient scapegoats, taking the blame for much of the ecological devastation that we started in the first place. Is that justified?

This is, essentially, the theme of The New Wild, a book by Fred Pearce that urges us to reconsider the ways we think, talk, and act towards invasive species. More than that, it is about dumping the idea that pristine nature (a mythological concept anyway, and one that is not all that useful) is the only true wild, and that nature invaded by alien species is a lesser thing that needs to be fixed. The truth is, nature is and always has been in a constant state of flux, and it is unconcerned about the provenance of the species that compose it. As Pearce puts it, if it’s doing “a useful job,” “it matters not a jot where a species comes from.”

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Invasion biology is a relatively new field of study, stemming from the publishing of Charles Elton’s book, The Ecology of Invasions by Animals and Plants, in 1958. For thousands of years, humans have had a hand in moving species of all kinds around the planet, but it was in the latter half of the 20th century that our awareness of the ecological damage that some of these species can do really developed. Since then we have made great efforts to remove such species and put things back the way we found them. The zeal with which we have done so hasn’t always been justified or effective, and throughout what at times has felt like an all out war against foreigners, a profound sense of animosity and suspicion towards anything non-native has taken root in our psyche.

Pearce hopes to mitigate these feelings and get us to reconsider some of our actions. To start with, he calls into question the distinction between aliens and natives: “A broad time horizon shows there is no such thing as a native species. All lodgings are temporary and all ecosystems in a constant flux, the victims of circumstance and geological accident.” Also, “many aliens are so well integrated that they are assumed to be native,” and “species come and go so much, as a result of both human and natural forces, that conventional hard distinctions about what belongs where have long been all but meaningless.”

Instead of judging a species by its provenance, “we should treat species on their merits and learn a little tolerance and respect for foreigners.” While “being alien can sometimes be problematic,” it can equally result in the renewal of “flagging ecosystems, creating new space for natives and providing ecosystem services.” Seeing that those services are in place is what should really matter, and “[ecological services] are best done by the species on hand that do it best.” After all, nature is not a system of “preordained perfection,” but instead “a workable mishmash of species, constantly reorganized by the throw of the dice.”

In his criticisms of the field of invasion biology, Pearce investigates some of the “constantly recycled ‘facts’ about alien species.” He finds many of the claims to be unfounded and oft-repeated statistics to be blatant misrepresentations of the original studies. He concludes that “some of the most widely used statistics in the canon of invasion biology do not stand up.” To support his point, he offers several examples of how alien species have added to the biodiversity in certain ecosystems and he shares stories that “show how we instinctively blame aliens for ecological problems that may have a lot more to do with our own treatment of nature.”

Immigrant Killers by Carolyn King, one of many books making a case for the war on alien species.

Immigrant Killers by Carolyn King, one of many books published in the past few decades that makes the case for waging war on alien species.

In so many words, Pearce’s stance is that the classic “aliens are bad, and natives are good” approach is outdated – “nature doesn’t care about conservationists’ artificial divide between urban and rural or between native and alien species,” which means that our perception of aliens should shift from being “part of the problem to part of the solution.” Abandoned farmlands, secondary forests, recolonized waste places, urban sprawl, and other novel ecosystems across the globe offer explicit examples of species from all backgrounds coming together to create functional habitats. This is the new wild.

Pearce is not advocating that we throw in the towel and let invasive species run rampant: “It would be foolish to claim that alien species never do any harm or that efforts to uproot them are always doomed to fail.” His support for the new wild is “not a call to let it rip.” Instead, “conservation in the twenty-first century requires an open-minded assessment of what might work – not a sullen retreat into blinkered orthodoxy.” So, rather than try to stop the flux of nature (an act that is decidedly “anti-nature”), let’s see where it goes, alien species and all; and when we do decide to beat back invasives and intervene “to preserve what we like,” we should be mindful that nature may be “traveling in a different direction.” As Pearce writes, “the new wild is flourishing, and it will do better if we allow it to have its head.”

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Obviously this is a controversial topic, but the ideas in this book are worth exploring further. Pearce’s notes are extensive, and I intend to read through many of his resources. Stay tuned for more posts. Meanwhile, you can listen to an interview with Pearce on this episode of Talking Plants. For a more critical veiw of Pearce’s book, check out these reviews by Los Angeles Review of Books and The EEB & Flow.

 

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

Children’s Books About Evolution

Evolution is a difficult subject to learn, let alone teach. Because evolution is generally such a slow process, it involves a timeline that is challenging for us to comprehend. Evolution is also commonly misunderstood, so misconceptions abound, be they purposeful misrepresentations, gaps in understanding, or otherwise. Wrapping one’s brain around even the basic tenets of evolution can take years of study, yet it is one of the most fundamental concepts of biology; failing to understand it stifles one’s knowledge of and appreciation for the study of life on Earth. On the flipside, gaining an understanding of the workings of evolution can inspire a greater appreciation for our place in the universe and can instill in oneself the urgency of conservation.

Despite being a tough subject to grasp, there is no reason why children should be exempt from learning about it. However, because it is such a complex topic, adults can struggle to find ways to explain it. Luckily, there are some great children’s books about evolution that introduce the subject in basic ways. These books are good starting points and can help cultivate a desire to explore the topic further. Understanding evolution and the science surrounding our world and the broader universe is a lifelong pursuit. Children will benefit from a head start.

What follows are reviews of a handful of books that may be useful in teaching kids about the theory of evolution.

I Used to Be a Fish by Tom Sullivan

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This book is an excellent place to start. It is a quick and easy read, and it introduces – in a very simple way – the evolutionary lineage of humans. It doubles as a lesson on evolution and, as Sullivan puts it, “a tribute to every child’s power to transform their lives and to dream big,” which is achieved by highlighting the imagination of the main character and defining evolution as the gradual development over a lifetime towards achieving goals and aspirations.

In the Author’s Note, Sullivan briefly explains some important aspects of evolution: it is “a very slow process” that “occurs over generations to entire populations of creatures,” it doesn’t occur in a straight line like the book implies but instead looks “more like a tree with many complicated branches,” and “it doesn’t happen because a creature wants it to.”

One step in our evolutionary lineage as depicted in I Used to Be a Fish by Tom Sullivan

One step in our evolutionary lineage as depicted in I Used to Be a Fish by Tom Sullivan

Life history

Timeline from I Used to Be a Fish by Tom Sullivan. Look how far we’ve come!

Grandmother Fish by Jonathan Tweet; illustrated by Karen Lewis

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This book is similar to Sullivan’s book, but it adds a little more detail to the story and invites interaction from its audience. As major periods in our evolutionary lineage are reached, readers are asked to “wiggle” like our Grandmother Fish, “crawl” like our Grandmother Reptile, “squeak” like our Grandmother Mammal, “hoot” like our Grandmother Ape, and so on. As the story transitions from one main character to another, simplified versions of evolutionary trees are shown (like the one below).

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A larger version of “Our Evolutionary Family Tree” is featured at the end of the story followed by several pages of additional information that adults can use to further explain evolution to children, including discussions on three major concepts of evolution (descent with modification, artificial selection, and natural selection), more details on the main characters in the book, and a guide to correcting common errors about evolution.

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When Fish Got Feet, Sharks Got Teeth, and Bugs Began to Swarm by Hannah Bonner

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This book is much more text heavy than the first two, but is still very approachable. The illustrations are both humorous and informative, and Bonner excels at explaining complex topics in a way that makes them easy to digest. Rather than covering hundreds of millions of years of evolution like the first two books, this book focuses mainly on events that occurred during the Silurian and Devonian periods – between 360 and 444 million years ago. It was during this time that plants were making their way to land and diverging into many different forms. Arthropods were doing the same. During this period, the earth’s atmosphere became more oxygen rich and soil began to accumulate largely due to the growth and expansion of land plants.

Recipe for a land plant from When Fish Got Feet by Hannah Bonner

Recipe for a land plant from When Fish Got Feet by Hannah Bonner

This was also a period of great diversification in the fish world. Jaws were becoming more common and skeletons made of bone (as opposed to cartilage) were developing.  The first tetrapods (fish with legs) emerged from the oceans and onto land in the Devonian period. These tetrapods were our early ancestors, and Bonner explains how some of the skeletal features that fish developed during this time period were precursors to our current skeleton.

Unlike the first two books, the evolution of plants receives some attention in Bonner’s book. It is during the Devonian period that the first trees and seed-bearing plants appear. As in the other books, there are additional resources at the end, including this important warning by Bonner: “Please remember that anyone can set up a Web site, so not everything you will encounter will be good science.”

A time line of life on earth from When Fish Got Feet by Hannah Bonner

A timeline of life on earth from When Fish Got Feet by Hannah Bonner

Key to helping children understand evolution is understanding it ourselves, and there are, of course, endless resources out there to help with this. I will suggest just two additional books. In keeping with the spirit of children’s books, there is a great illustrated biography of Charles Darwin (who is considered the Father of Evolution) called Darwin For Beginners by Jonathan Miller and Borin Van Loon. It’s basically Darwin’s life told in graphic novel form. And keeping with the fish theme, you can’t go wrong with Neil Shubin’s, Your Inner Fish, a fascinating look into the origins of many of the parts, pieces, and other features of the human body.

Do you have a favorite book, children’s or otherwise, about evolution? Please share it in the comment section below.

Podcast Review: Native Plant Podcast

Always on the lookout for more podcasts to listen to, I somehow stumbled upon Native Plant Podcast. I wish I could remember the rabbit hole I went down that brought me to this masterpiece, but I can’t. What I do remember is being hesitant at first. I am all for calling things what they are. A restaurant called “Restaurant?” Why not? A podcast about native plants called “Native Plant Podcast?” Sure. It’s not the most creative name, but it works. What I was worried about, though, was that a podcast calling itself after native plants was going to be preachy, pushy…or just dull.

Yet I work with native plants every day(!), and I love them – so my initial judgement must say more about myself than anything else. Despite my hesitation – and my inclination to judge a podcast by its cover – I gave it a shot. I’m so glad that I did, because what I found was a highly informative show that is simultaneously delightful, fun, goofy, and entertaining. It’s a podcast that doesn’t take itself too seriously. The hosts and their guests share an important message about the benefits of native plant gardening, and they do so with passion and a sense of urgency while remaining lighthearted and approachable.

native plant podcast logo and sign

Native Plant Podcast is young. The first episode came out in January 2016. It is run by three individuals that met at the Cullowhee Native Plant Conference in North Carolina (a conference that is often mentioned on the podcast). Mike Berkeley and John Magee are the regular hosts; Jesse Turner mainly operates behind the scenes but makes appearances on a few episodes. They each have their own nursery and/or landscaping businesses that deal largely with native plants. Together they have decades of experience working with native plants. In an episode with Neil Diboll of Prairie Nursery, Mike makes the comment that they “were into native plants before it got cool.” Several of the guests that have been on the podcast so far can say the same thing.

One such guest is Miriam Goldberger, owner of Wildflower Farm and author of Taming Wildflowers, who appears on two episodes (part 1 and part 2). Other notable guests include Thomas Rainer, co-outhor of Planting in a Post-Wild World, and David Mizejewski, a naturalist for the National Wildlife Federation. So far all of the guests have been great, and since the the podcast has only been around for a few months, it is easy to catch up on past episodes.

As someone who enjoys sitting around talking about plants, this podcast is perfect since much of the “airtime” is taken up by such discussions. The episodes about winter interest and spring gardening are particularly great for this sort of thing. Two other standout episodes are the introductory episode, in which Mike and John discuss how they got started working with native plants, and the episode about defining native plants, in which Mike, John, and Jesse all take a crack at coming up with a definition. A topic that comes up often on the podcast is native plant cultivars (John understandably cringes each time he hears the portmanteau of “native” and “cultivar”), which seems to be a controversial topic in the native plant world.

Prairie dropseed (Sporobolus cryptandrus) - one of Mike and John's favorite grasses and a plant that comes up frequently on the podcast. (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Prairie dropseed (Sporobolus cryptandrus) – one of Mike and John’s favorite grasses and a plant that comes up frequently on the podcast. (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

In each episode of the podcast there is an interview/discussion followed by three short segments: listener questions, stories about dogs or other pets (the hosts really love their dogs), and a toast (in which the hosts pop open their beers in front of the microphone for all to hear). The twitter bio for the Native Plant Podcast sums it up well: “A podcast started by a group of goofballs to highlight the beauty and functionality of native plants in the landscape.” These goofballs really know their stuff, and I highly recommend listening to their show.

Bonus quote from the episode with Neil Diboll:

Everybody says they love Mother Nature, but if you look at people’s yards, very few people actually invite her over. Most people have lawns that are mown to within an inch or two of their lives, and the typical American garden is like a big pile of mulch with a few perennials stuck in it or maybe a few shrubs stuck in it. These are really non-functional gardens from a standpoint of an ecological approach, so bringing your landscaping to life is creating ecological gardens that are not just for the owner of the property, but for all life that you can attract to the land for which you are the steward.

In Defense of Plants – A Podcast Review

I’m an avid podcast listener; however, the majority of the podcasts I listen to, while satisfying many of my varied interests, don’t speak to my interests in plants and plant science. Recently, when I went searching for such a podcast, I happened upon In Defense of Plants. Alas, my podcast queue felt complete.

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In Defense of Plants began as a blog authored by a guy named Matt. The podcast emerged about 3 years later, and in the first episode (which was posted in January 2015), Matt explains why he started the blog. While searching the internet in an effort to learn more about plants, he discovered that people weren’t writing the stories that he really wanted to read – stories that went beyond mainly talking about the anthropogenic uses of plants. Rather, Matt was interested in the stories of the plants themselves, their biological and evolutionary histories and how they fit in with the ecological world around them. Unable to find such a blog, he decided to start one himself.

His passion for plants for plant’s sake continues in his podcast. It’s evidenced both in the topics he covers as well as in the way he speaks enthusiastically and affectionately about the plants involved in the stories he tells and their habitats. He finds people to interview that are as excited about plants as he is – some are friends, some are research scientists, and some are people otherwise involved in botany or horticulture. All have interesting things to say about the world of plants and plant ecology.

Ludisia discolor - the plant that inspired Matt to start the blog

Ludisia discolor – the plant that inspired Matt to start the blog (photo credit: www.eol.org)

Over the mere nine months that the podcast has been in existence, Matt has shared some of his personal botanical explorations. When he started the podcast he was living in Buffalo, NY. He completed a Master’s degree program there and has since moved to Illinois to pursue a PhD. His most recent episodes find him exploring the tallgrass prairie of the Midwest. He’s got my attention, since this is one of my favorite ecosystems in North America.

Standout episodes to me so far have been the two part episode with Russel Funderburk as they walk through the grounds of the Highlands Biological Station, the discussion with Dave Spiering about urban ecology, and the interview with Dr. Robert Warren about invasive species (“a refreshing take”). The episode about pack rat middens and the candid discussion with Matt’s friend Steve about why they botanize are also great. Matt and Steve also do an episode about plant poaching, a topic that deserves much more attention than it gets.

The love Matt has for plants is infectious, and it is hard not to feel his excitement as he helps tell their stories. So, if you find that your podcast queue is lacking something purely plant related, In Defense of Plants is a podcast you should definitely be following.

Yerba Mate (Ilex paraguariensis)

Yerba Mate (Ilex paraguariensis) is featured in two episodes of In Defense of Plants. Listen to part one and part two. (photo credit: wikimedia commons)