When Sunflowers Follow the Sun

Tropisms are widely studied biological phenomena that involve the growth of an organism in response to environmental stimuli. Phototropism is the growth and development of plants in response to light. Heliotropism, a specific form of phototropism, describes growth in response to the sun. Discussions of heliotropism frequently include sunflowers and their ability to “track the sun.” This conjures up images of a field of sunflowers in full bloom following the sun across the sky. However cool this might sound, it simply doesn’t happen. Young sunflowers, before they bloom, track the sun. At maturity and in bloom, the plants hold still.

What is happening in these plants is still pretty cool though, and a report published in an August 2016 issue of Science sheds some light on the heliotropic movements of young sunflowers. They begin the morning facing east. As the sun progresses across the sky, the plants follow, ending the evening facing west. Over night, they reorient themselves to face east again. As they reach maturity, this movement slows, and most of the flowers bloom facing east. Over a series of experiments, researchers were able to determine the cellular and genetic mechanisms involved in this spectacular instance of solar tracking.

Helianthus annuus (common sunflower) is a native of North America, sharing this distinction with dozens of other members of this recognizable genus. It is commonly cultivated for its edible seeds (and the oil produced from them) as well as for its ornamental value. It is a highly variable species and hybridizes readily. Wild populations often cross with cultivated ones, and in many instances the common sunflower is considered a pesky weed. Whether crop, wildflower, or weed, its phototropic movements are easy to detect, making it an excellent subject of study.

Researchers began by tying plants to stakes so that they couldn’t move. Other plants were grown in pots and turned to face west in the morning. The growth of these plants was significantly stunted compared to plants that were not manipulated in these ways, suggesting that solar tracking promotes growth.

The researchers wondered if a circadian system was involved in the movements, and so they took sunflowers that had been growing in pots in a field and placed them indoors beneath a fixed overhead light source. For several days, the plants continued their east to west and back again movements. Over time, the movements became less detectable. This and other experiments led the researchers to conclude that a “circadian clock guides solar tracking in sunflowers.”

Another series of experiments helped the researchers determine what was happening at a cellular level that was causing the eastern side of the stem to grow during the day and the western side to grow during the night. Gene expression and growth hormone levels differed on either side of the stem depending on what time of day it was. In an online article published by University of California Berkeley, Andy Fell summarizes the findings: “[T]here appear to be two growth mechanisms at work in the sunflower stem. The first sets a basic rate of growth for the plant, based on available light. The second, controlled by the circadian clock and influenced by the direction of light, causes the stem to grow more on one side than another, and therefore sway east to west during the day.”

The researchers observed that as the plants reach maturity, they move towards the west less and less. This results in most of the flowers opening in an eastward facing direction. This led them to ask if this behavior offers any sort of ecological advantage. Because flowers are warmer when they are facing the sun, they wondered if they might see an increase in pollinator visits during morning hours on flowers facing east versus those facing west. Indeed, they did: “pollinators visited east-facing heads fivefold more often than west-facing heads.” When west-facing flowers where warmed with a heater in the morning, they received more pollinator visits than west-facing flowers that were not artificially warmed, “albeit [still] fewer than east-facing flowers.” However, increased pollinator visits may be only part of the story, so further investigations are necessary.

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Book Review: Hellstrip Gardening, part two

Hellstrip Gardening by Evelyn J. Hadden is a book intended to help transform roadside beds (or any neglected or hard to garden spot) into a verdant and productive green space. A “paradise,” if you will. Last week, I introduced the concept of hellstrips and briefly discussed the first section of Hadden’s book. This week we are looking at the second section, which is all about the unique challenges and obstacles that hellstrip gardening entails. Hadden has divided this section into 8 main areas of focus. She provides a ton of great information that is sure to be incredibly useful for anyone seriously engaged in improving a hellstrip. If you are one of those people, I highly recommend referring to the book. For simplicity’s sake, this post will include a quick overview of each of the main themes, detailing a few of the things that stood out to me.

Working with Trees

Trees offer many benefits to urban and suburban areas; however, it is not uncommon to see hellstrips with trees that are much too large for the space. Hellstrips are often surrounded by paved surfaces and are heavily trafficked. This leads to soil compaction which results in roots being starved of oxygen and water. Where there are power lines overhead, oversized trees must be heavily pruned to make room for them. Consider planting small or medium sized trees in these spaces. Make sure the soil is well aerated and that there is enough space for the roots to expand out beyond the canopy. Hadden advises avoiding growing turfgrass below trees because it is shallow rooted and uses up much of the available water and oxygen; instead plant deep rooted perennials that naturally grow in wooded environments.

Working with Water

Depending on where you are located, your hellstrip is either going to be water limited or water abundant. Water availability also varies depending on the time of year. If you are mostly water limited, include plants that can tolerate drought conditions. Avoid planting them too close to each other so that they aren’t competing for water. Increase your soil’s water holding capacity by adding organic matter and mulching bare ground. Strategically placed boulders can create cool, moist microclimates where plants can endure hot, dry stretches. If you are dealing with too much water, you can “increase the absorption power” of your property by ensuring that your soil is well aerated and high in organic matter. Plant high water use perennials, grasses, shrubs, and trees with extensive root systems. Replace impermeable surfaces with ground covers and permeable pathways to reduce runoff, and reshape beds so that they collect, hold, and absorb excess runoff.

Working with Poor Soil

Curbside beds in urban areas are notorious for having soil that is compacted, contaminated, and depleted of nutrients. This issue can be addressed by removing and replacing the soil altogether or by heavily amending it. Another solution is to only include plants that can tolerate these harsh conditions. Most likely you will do something in between these two extremes. Adding organic matter seems like the best way to improve soil structure and fertility. Because contaminants from paved surfaces are regularly introduced to curbside gardens, there is a good chance that the soil may contain high levels of lead and other heavy metals. It is a good idea to test the soil before planting edibles. Contaminated soils can be remediated by growing certain plants like annual sunflowers, which take up heavy metals into their tissues. These plants must then be disposed of as hazardous waste.

Common sunflower (Helianthus annuus) is one of several plants that can be used to remediate polluted soils. (photo credit: www.eol.org)

Common sunflower (Helianthus annuus) is one of several plants that can be used to remediate polluted soil (photo credit: www.eol.org)

Working with Laws and Covenants

Regulations and restrictions may prohibit you from creating the hellstrip garden you dream of having. Start by informing yourself of your areas laws and covenants. Some restrictions may be based on public safety (such as restrictions on street trees) while others may be based on outdated ways of thinking. Hadden advises not to assume that a regulation can’t be reversed; however, first you must prepare a well reasoned argument based on facts and evidence. Will your landscape design conserve resources, provide ecological services, improve property values, enhance the neighborhood in some way? Perhaps “your property can model a new landscaping strategy.” Prepare to state your case respectfully, intelligently, and convincingly, and you might just find yourself at the forefront of a new movement.

Living with Vehicles

A garden growing along a roadway is sure to be confronted by vehicles. Hadden suggests using “easily replaceable plants for vulnerable areas.” You can also protect your garden by installing a low fence or wall or by planting sturdy shrubs, prickly plants, or plants that are tall and/or brightly colored. If parking is a regular occurrence, leave room for people to exit their vehicles without trampling the garden. A garden surrounded by paved surfaces will be hotter than other areas on your property, so plant heat tolerant plants or shade the garden with trees and shrubs. A hedge, trellis, fence, or berm can act as a wind and dust break and can help reduce noise. Aromatic plants can help combat undesirable urban smells, and noise can be further masked by water features and plantings that attract songbirds.

Living with Wildlife

Wildlife can either be encouraged or discouraged depending on your preferences. Discouraging certain wildlife can be as simple as “learn[ing] what they need in terms of food and shelter, and then eliminat[ing] it.” A garden full of diverse plant life can help limit damage caused by leaf-eating insects. Encouraging birds and bats can also help control insects. Herbivory by mammals can be reduced by growing a wide array of plants and not over fertilizing or overwatering them. Conversely, encouraging wildlife entails discovering what they like and providing it. For example, to encourage large populations of pollinators, plant a diversity of plants that flower throughout the year and provide nesting sites such as patches of bare ground for ground nesting bees. Keep in mind that your property can be part of a wildlife corridor – a haven for migrating wildlife in an otherwise sea of uninhabitable urban space.

Living with Road Maintenance and Utilities

Curbsides gardens are unique in that they are directly affected by road maintenance and they often must accommodate public utility features like electrical boxes, fire hydrants, street signs, and telephone poles. In areas where salts are applied to roads to reduce ice, hellstrips can be planted with salt tolerant plants and can be deeply watered in order to flush salts down into the soil profile. In areas that receive heavy snowfall, avoid piling snow directly on top of plants. Always call utility companies before doing any major digging to find out where underground pipes and electrical cables are located. Utility features can be masked using shrubs, trellises, and vining plants (especially annual vines that are easily removed and replaced); just be sure to maintain access to them. If your hellstrip consists of “unsightly objects,” Hadden recommends “composing a riveting garden scene to divert attention from an uninspiring view.”

Fire hydrant decorated with ivy (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Fire hydrant decorated with ivy (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Living with the Public

Your hellstrip is the most public part of your yard, so you are going to have to learn to share. In order to keep trampling to a minimum and contained to certain areas, make it obvious where pathways are and use berms to raise up the beds. Keep the paths clear of debris and avoid messy fruit and nut trees that can make pathways unfriendly to walk on. Avoid planting rare and valuable plants in your curbside garden. Remember that your hellstrip is typically the first part of your property that people see, so make a good first impression. Also, consider the potential that your public hellstrip garden has for building community and inspiring others.

There is so much more in this section; it is impossible to discuss it all here. Again, if you are serious about improving a hellstrip, get your hands on this book. All hellstrips are different and will have unique challenges. Hadden does a great job of touching on nearly any issue that may arise. Now that we’ve covered challenges and obstacles, next week we will look at designing, building, and managing hellstrip gardens.

Cultivated Sunflowers and Their Wild Relatives

This is the ninth in a series of posts reviewing the 17 articles found in the October 2014 Special Issue of American Journal of Botany, Speaking of Food: Connecting Basic and Applied Science.

Transistions in Photoperiodic Flowering Are Common And Involve Few Loci in Wild Sunflowers (Helianthus; Asteraceae) by Lucas P. Henry, Ray H. B. Watson, and Benjamin K. Blackman

The seasonal timing of flowering is an important trait to consider in crop plants, because it dictates where geographically a particular crop can be grown and also plays a role in fitness and yield. Flowering time is determined by a combination of genetics and environmental factors. One of the major environmental factors is day length, a phenomenon known as photoperiod response (or photoperiodism).  There are three main types of photoperiod response: short-day (plants flower when “grown in day lengths below a critical maximum threshold”), long-day (plants flower when “grown in day lengths above a critical minimum threshold”) and day-neutral (“plants flower at the same time under all day length conditions”). A plant’s response to day length can be obligate – restricted to a particular response – or facultative – capable but not restricted. Understanding the genetics of photoperiod response is important for breeding efforts, and can help in the development of crop varieties that have improved yields and that can be either grown in broader geographic areas or that are specifically selected for local regions.

Agricultural breeding programs often investigate wild relatives of crop plants for potential traits that could lead to improvements. There is “renewed interest” in these investigations “because genome-enabled methods [of identifying desirable genes] and international investment in germplasm resources have dramatically reduced the associated labor, time, and risk.” The authors of this study, recognizing extensive variation in flowering time in both common sunflower (Helianthus annuus) and its wild relatives, examined the genetic basis for this variation in an effort to support sunflower breeding programs.

Common Sunflower, Helianthus annuus (photo credit: Wikimedia commons)

Common Sunflower, Helianthus annuus (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Helianthus is a genus consisting of around 70 species, most of which are native to North America (a few occur in South America). Several species in this genus are cultivated as food crops and/or as ornamental plants. H. annuus is the most commonly cultivated species, valued for its edible seeds and the oil they produce as well as for various other things. Wild relatives of H. annuus have “been a frequent source of genetic raw material for agricultural innovation,” aided by the fact that “barriers to interspecies crosses are incomplete or can be overcome through embryo culture or chromosomal doubling.” Helianthus is a diverse genus, including generalist species occurring in “diverse environments over broad geographic regions” and specialist species occurring in “habitats characterized by high temperature, water, or salt stress.” For this reason, “wild sunflowers are prime sources to mine for alleles that confer higher yield in new or marginal” agricultural settings.

A relatively small subset of Helianthus species were involved in this study; however, the subset represented a “phylogenetically dispersed sample.” One interesting finding was that the evolution of an obligate short-day requirement for flowering has occurred in several species, “particularly those with ranges restricted to the southern United States.” The authors suggest that a reason for this finding could be that “long, hot, and humid summers” in this region “may be unfavorable for growth or reproduction.” Thus, while populations of H. annuus “likely escape these conditions by flowering in the long days of late spring,” other Helianthus species put off “flowering until the arrival of cooler, less humid falls.” Flowering during cooler times is beneficial because pollen fertility decreases and seed maturation slows at high temperatures. The risk of fungal pathogens attacking flowers and dispersed seeds is also reduced during periods of lower humidity.

Another important finding was that the diversity in photoperiod response in Helianthus appears to have a “relatively simple genetic architecture.” If this is the case, it could “greatly facilitate rapid crop improvement by marker-assisted selection.” Further studies are necessary, specifically those involving “intra- and interspecific crosses segregating for variation in photoperiod response,” in order to confirm the authors’ findings and justify “broader investment of resources into these applied efforts.”

Nuttall's Sunflower (Helianthus nuttallii), one of Common Sunflower's wild relatives (photo credit: www.eol.org)

Nuttall’s Sunflower (Helianthus nuttallii), one of Common Sunflower’s wild relatives (photo credit: www.eol.org)

While much was learned from this study, the authors acknowledge the need for “future investigations with greater taxonomic and environmental sampling.” Researchers recently produced a “draft genome” for sunflower. This additional resource will greatly aid breeding programs and further inform studies, like this one, that are interested in the “mechanistic factors and ecological agents that have promoted the emergence of the great diversity and lability in photoperiod response observed in wild sunflowers.”