Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Blog Update: it's spring! But also, I'm still here!

Happy Spring!! Here where I live it's really, really hard to believe it's actually spring and not still winter (see picture below for the amount of snow we still have), especially since we had a blizzard yesterday afternoon. Not much snow actually stayed on the ground, but still...looking out the window yesterday afternoon made me very, very unhappy. Seems like this winter is never ending! Because it's a new season, I changed my blog colours to be more spring-y and reminiscent of spring flowers. And, of course, can't have a year go by without featuring my favourite colour on my blog background: PINK! :)




As I'm sure you've noticed (and some of you have actually e-mailed me; I do appreciate your concern), I've been a little...absent from my blog in the last month (and I guess the month before that, too...). It's not because I've lost interest or I've run out of pictures (you can NEVER run out of plants to blog about with a plant blog...), it's because I've been very, very busy this semester. I'm TAing as usual, I'm also recording lectures of another course for an online course project by the department, I'm helping map the second-year mandatory course curriculum in Biology for the department, I've been volunteering with ReForest London (more on that later), today I'm giving a talk to the London Garden Club about gardening with native species, I have a talk tomorrow at a teaching conference about my blog and the impact I think it's had since April 2012, I'm giving a talk in April at the Earth Day Colloquium on campus about the importance of trees in London, Ontario (and the history of trees in London), AND, last but certainly not least, I'm trying to finish my thesis. Whew! I've been busy. I do have more blog posts planned for when the term starts to slow down (April! Less to do in April! Trust me!)

So about this volunteering thing with ReForest London. A bit about the organization first....

ReForest London is a not-for-profit organization that is all about bringing nature back to the city. Their goal by 2020 is to plant one million trees in the city, on public or private property (visit their Million Tree Challenge website HERE). There are many different ways to volunteer with the organization (tree planting, they have a neighbourhood Tree Captain program, tree giveaways, tree sales, etc.) and I've chosen one of their new programs to volunteer with called the Tree Teacher Program. There are three presentations that we give: Native Trees, The Importance of Trees, and The Emerald Ash Borer. The goal is to start educating the public about why trees are important and valuable, how they improve the quality of life of people living in the city, and why our natural areas should be protected. I've been having a great time with the program so far, and the most rewarding experience by far were my three talks with the Boys and Girls Club in the Teen Zone. The Teen Zone is where (obviously) teens come together after school to use the computers, play video games, do arts and crafts, sit on the couches and talk, or use any number of the facilities they have in the building. The ages of the teens participating in the program is probably 12-15 (just a guess based on conversations I've overheard about school), and they're interested in being on the computer or playing computer games (or listening to music really loudly) in the evenings and nothing else. To try to teach them about why trees are awesome was a big challenge, but I'm always up for a challenge. Oh, and of course I couldn't use the words "learn" or "teach", because that sounds WAY too much like school and that brings their interest level from 10% to -400%. So instead we "talked" about trees. Much less threatening.

The first session we talked about native trees and why trees from this area were pretty cool and worth knowing about (NOT learning about! Ha). I had them draw pictures about why trees are important in their life, and we played Tree Leaf Bingo. They had a blast, and learned a bunch. They were probably shocked that I managed to squeeze in some learning during non-learning time! The next time I talked about why trees were important (using their pictures in my presentation, which all of them thought was pretty awesome), and then we learned how to identify trees using a simple binary key and herbarium specimens (since trees with leaves are clearly hard to come by at this time of year...). They were SO IMPRESSED by herbarium specimens that now they want to come to campus to visit the herbarium and check out the stacks. Who would have thought that a herbarium would be a "cool place to visit" in the eyes of a 14-year-old that hates libraries?! One of them even told me at the end of that session "herbarium specimens are cooler than candy." If you say so! :) The third session was about Pests and Pathogens of Trees (a modification of the Emerald Ash Borer presentation), and that was the one that went over the best. I was allocated 30 minutes for a 15-minute presentation, some questions, and an activity. The session ended up going for 2 hours. TWO HOURS! It was two of the most rewarding hours of my life. All of the teens want to come to campus to visit again to walk around and visit the trees in the arboretum: the oldest, the biggest, the funniest-looking, etc. I never in a million years dreamed that I would turn a bunch of kids from "trees are boring" into "I WANT TO COME VISIT TO LEARN MORE ABOUT TREES!!!" It was amazing. Just goes to show that a little perseverance and a lot of patience can do wonders.

So. That's my life in a nutshell over the last couple of months. As much as I love what I'm doing, I can't WAIT for life to slow down a bit! I've been counting down the days until the end of classes, which is really unusual for me because I love interacting with students so much. But the end of classes means the end of marking essays. And as much fun as that is...I'd rather not :)

More blog posts (especially about plants) coming soon!

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The most hated plant in North America

Today is a very special blog post, brought to you by one of my very best(est) friends, Tanya! Everyone say Hi to Tanya! (Hi Tanya!) Tanya gets to work outside all day every day (OK, not all day every day, but she gets to be outside A LOT with her job), and has some really awesome pictures of really unusual plants in North America. This one certainly isn't uncommon, but that doesn't make it any less special! This blog is her first (of hopefully many!) guest post for my blog, and she's writing about a plant most of us absolutely hate. And if you don't know if you hate it...do you get a runny nose and red, itchy eyes in the fall? Yes? Then you hate this plant. Trust me :)

Without further ramblings by yours truly, take it away Tanya!

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Species name: Ambrosia artemisiifolia

Common name: common ragweed, annual ragweed

Location: top image from our guest contributor; images 2, 3, and 5 from melody at Dave's Garden (available HERE); image 4 from htop at Dave's Garden (available HERE)


There may be another plant that a greater number of people despise (dandelions, maybe?), but for sheer intensity of feeling, I would argue that the most hated plant around must be Common Ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia).  Every year in mid-August, many of us get that old, familiar itchy-eyes and runny-nose feeling that sends us running for filtered, air-conditioned air and antihistamines, and Common Ragweed is most likely the culprit.   

As Jen mentions in THIS POST, many people blame their fall allergies on showy flowering plants like the innocent goldenrods.  But, in order to cause your allergic reaction, you must breathe in the pollen grains, which means that the plant you’re allergic to is wind-pollinated: the plant produces lots and lots of pollen light enough to be blown around in the wind, and it’s betting that some of it will land on the female parts of another plant of the same species.  Plants that use this strategy have small, inconspicuous flowers because they don’t need to expend energy to attract pollinators like bees and butterflies to carry the pollen around for them.  Common Ragweed falls into this category: its pollen can be carried by the wind for hundreds of kilometers.  It’s hard to get away from this stuff.

Common Ragweed is native to North America (Jen says: I put "non-native" for the species status so that I could have a diagram with the "Invasive" box highlighted!) but has become an invasive species in Europe and Japan.  It is a “supertramp” species (yes, that’s a legitimate ecological term), which means that it produces lots of seed, disperses widely, and does really well in disturbed habitats. When you start looking for Common Ragweed, you’ll most likely find it in highly disturbed areas, like beside roads and in agricultural fields rather than stable forested areas, so really, it’s all our fault there’s so much of this stuff around: we’ve created lots of habitat for it!  There’s probably much more Common Ragweed around now than there was when Europeans arrived in North America.  You can burn it, pull it, mow it, or kill it with chemicals, but it will most likely come back in full force the very next year.  A good argument for increasing the amount of healthy forest and grassland habitats where Common Ragweed can’t compete, I say.

Ragweed leaves are compound and finely divided, and look a little like Wild Carrot (Daucus carota, which you can read all about in THIS POST) or Yarrow (Achillea millefolium, which you can read all about in THIS POST).  The flowers and seeds are produced in a tall spike called a raceme, and the plant grows to be about one meter in height.  This means that, in many areas, it isn’t completely covered by snow throughout the winter, and any of the seeds remaining on the plant remain accessible to animals like birds and small mammals.  The seeds have a very high oil content too, which makes them even more valuable to wildlife.  When Common Ragweed is causing you or your loved ones autumn misery, think about the mice and voles that will be depending on their stored ragweed seeds to survive until spring... and in the process, spreading them all over the place so there will be lots more for next year!

Thursday, January 30, 2014

The chestnut that horses don't want







Species name: Aesculus hippocastanum

Common name: horse chestnut

Location: Western University campus

The horse chestnut is a tree native to southern Europe around the Mediterranean and the Balkan Mountains. While the native range of this species is actually quite small, it is one of the dominant species that exists there and is also widely planted around the world. It can be a pretty nasty species (more on that below), but has a stunning flower display in late April and early May. The fruits, looking very similar to the fruits of the Ohio buckeye (which you can read all about HERE), start to appear in late summer. They are mostly left alone, but can be eaten (and seem to be enjoyed) by deer.

The common name of this plant is incredibly misleading, but is based in history. First the "horse" part refers to an anecdotal story that after horses ate the fruit, they would no longer complain of chest pain. You'd have to be some sort of pretty awesome horse-whisperer to be able to have a horse tell you it no longer had chest pain! The other minor detail to this story...you wouldn't be able to hear the horse telling you "Thanks! My chest pain is gone!" over the sounds of its seizures. Horse chestnut seeds and the fruit walls are poisonous to horses and should never be fed to them under any circumstances. Horses are pretty smart animals; they won't touch them. The other half of the name comes from the fact that it was believed that this tree was closely related to the American chestnut tree, mostly due to the fact that they have similar fruit and seed appearances. The leaves, however, are wildly different and the flowers of the true chestnut trees are also not nearly as showy. They are not easily confused, nor are they closely related! The true chestnuts and the horse chestnut are only distantly related.

The uses of the horse chestnut are so varied it makes me wonder if this really is a "miracle tree". The first use I'm just going to do the ultimate "thou shalt not do" and just copy-paste from the horse chestnut Wikipedia article because it's so mind-boggling. Here it is:
"In the past, horse-chestnut seeds were used in France and Switzerland for whitening hemp, flax, silk and wool. They contain a soapy juice, fit for washing of linens and stuffs, for milling of caps and stockings, etc., and for fulling of cloth. For this, 20 horse-chestnut seeds were sufficient for six litres of water. They were peeled then rasped, or dried and ground in a malt or other mill. The water must be soft, either rain or river water; hard well water will not work. The nuts are then steeped in cold water, which soon becomes frothy, as with soap, and then turns milky white. The liquid must be stirred well at first, and then, after standing to settle, strained or poured off clear. Linen washed in this liquid, and afterwards rinsed in clear running water, takes on an agreeable light sky-blue colour. It takes spots out of both linen and wool, and never damages or injures the cloth."
That is...crazy. How is this not marketed as a product?! A "natural" way to clean wool and linen, and the fibres are not destroyed in the process. The only thing I can figure is that it must be prepared fresh each time, and so it's viable today as a marketable product. If it was, it could be turned into a "Tide Stick type of product"--a Wool Stick?--and sold as a spot cleaner. This could be quite the money-maker...

The second historical use of the plant is as a soap and shampoo, along the same lines as the first use. The seeds are ground into boiling water in a sealable container (which sounds like a disaster waiting to happen, but what do I know?!), shaken vigorously (try not to have the container explode on you...), and then strained. Once the liquid is cool enough to be applied to the scalp, it works to remove the buildup from your hair. Nifty! Not nifty enough for me personally to want to try it, but nifty all the same.

Along a totally different vein, the seeds of the horse chestnut can also be broken into small pieces and then added to a fermentation solution containing the bacterium Clostridium acetobutylicum, from the same genus of bacteria that gives us botulism which is a very potent type of food poisoning, which produces acetone as an end product of fermentation (instead of the usual ethanol like brewer's yeast produces). Acetone can then be diluted to make nail polish remover, or it could be used later in the production of cordite (it's first use, prior to nail polish remover), an explosive used in bombs (and as a gunpowder replacement in other explosive devices like bullets).

And yet another completely different use, in order for an outdoor patio to be called a true "beer garden," it must be shaded by horse chestnuts according to Bavarian law. Now the term applies to any outdoor patio space where beer is the main item consumed, but that didn't used to be the case. Bavarian law also dictates (as an aside) the only four ingredients which may be used in the beer-making process: water, barley, hops, and yeast. If the "beer" that you drink contains anything other than those four ingredients (such as wheat beers, rice beers, or beers flavoured with things other than hops), it technically cannot be called beer.

One of the compounds found in horse chestnut seed extract, aescin, is used medicinally to treat a condition called chronic venous insufficiency or CVI. This condition arises when the veins can no longer return deoxygenated blood in your body back to your heart (where it pumps it to your lungs to push out the carbon dioxide and pick up new oxygen). This can result in severe pain due to a lack of oxygen in the extremities, and in especially severe cases can result in the loss of limbs. The causes of this condition can be quite varied, with specific medical conditions often arising in CVI (like diabetes, MS, and even a brief disruption of oxygen to a developing embryo in the womb) or the result of repeated leg injuries (like in the case of paratroopers, tree-climbers, mountain climbers, or people who climb utility poles for repairs). This is not a do-it-yourself medical treatment, however. The aescin must be carefully extracted from the seeds and purified in order to exclude any esculin, a deadly toxic glycoside also present in horse chestnut seeds, from the preparation. If even a small amount of esculin is ingested it can result in seizure, vomiting, severe dehydration, coma, and even death. Unfortunately, this doesn't stop homeopathic practitioners from prescribing it as a homeopathic remedy to thin the blood. Yet another example of the idea that just because it's natural doesn't mean it's good for you or even safe. Be aware of what you're putting in your body and the potential side effects!

Monday, January 27, 2014

A new development, a cool blog posted by someone else, and a weird plant news story

This blog will be three things all rolled into one, and not at all like my usual blogs that I post. Three things to cover! So let's start with the first...

Some of you might have noticed a new pretty picture that has appeared in the side bar (over THERE *points to the right of the screen*) near the top. Why the new badge? Well, my blog has been syndicated with Science Borealis. No, this doesn't mean they pay me to air re-runs. Although, that would be very, very cool (getting PAID to BLOG?! One can dream), it's not at all what's going on :) Instead, it's more like a website that's a giant RSS feed. It shows blogs written highlighting science in Canada, all neatly arranged by topic (biology, physics, chemistry, there's some math, general science, science outreach...a whole bunch of topics!). If you click on the image, it takes you right to the Science Borealis homepage, where you can see a stream of blogs (updated every time one is posted!) and the category that they fall into. If you've got some time that you'd like to spend reading about a given topic, you can also search through that specific category and read up on that perspective from a whole lot of science bloggers in Canada. If you haven't visited the site yet, you should. I don't get any kind of personal incentive to send you there, in case you were wondering. Instead, I just like spreading the message about all the awesome blogs written by Canadian scientists. We're a talented bunch! Well, they're a talented bunch. I'm just good at pretending :)



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OK! Topic two.

There's this really neat series of blogs that have recently been brought to my attention called the Berry Go Round. You can read more about it in detail HERE, but in a nutshell it's a series of blog posts written by a whole bunch of different bloggers in science and nature. It's a very "non-sciency" approach to nature, and there are some very, very talented people that write about why nature (plants in particular) rocks. How did I not know about this before?! Every month a different blogger volunteers to create a blog post highlighting some interesting blog posts that they've read about a specific topic. This month's post is all about where nature and humans intersect, and how we often rely on nature and natural ecological processes more than we think. And GUESS WHAT?! I'm featured. Woo hoo! If you'd like to read this month's Berry Go Round post, you can do so HERE at my "Internet Friend" Tim Havenith's blog called Notes of Nature. As an aside, Tim is a pretty awesome blogger so you should browse his blog if you've got some time on your hands. The pictures he takes are also quite stunning. There are times I have some pretty severe pictographical jealousy.


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And last but not least, topic three!

I stumbled across this really, REALLY unusual news story on Twitter last month, and I sat there shaking my head at the absurdity of it. I've mentioned this place before in my blog, but there's a really amazing botanical garden in England known as the Royal Botanical Garden Kew (or, in plain English just Kew). They have probably the biggest greenhouse and botanical garden complex in the world (I don't know that for a fact but boy...it seems big!), and they have some spectacular plant displays from gigantic water lilies (which I blogged about HERE) to teeny tiny orchids and everything inbetween. One of their glasshouses (or greenhouses, as us North Americans like to call them) was built before most of the houses in the entire city I live in. It's crazy a bunch of glass can last that long!

OK, right. Relevance. 

Two weeks ago the world's smallest lily was stolen from Kew. That's right, a plant was stolen. The plant is special not only because it's the world's smallest lily, but also because it is critically endangered; it is known now only from "captivity" since it went extinct in the wild (it's native range is a very, very small area in Rwanda) about six years ago. The botanists at Kew finally managed to recreate the environmental conditions required for the plant to flourish, and have managed to grow 50 plants from seed. And then someone stole the parent plant. Stole it! Right out from under the noses of Kew's staff, in the middle of the day. So if you think only animal poaching exists, think again. Plant poaching is alive and well, unfortunately. The best part about all of this is that the plant will almost certainly die since its captors don't know the exact environmental conditions required for the plant to flourish. This case is being taken so seriously in England that the Metropolitan police are on the case and are prepared to prosecute the thieves to the highest degree possible. And since this plant was on international "thou shalt not possess" treaties...the penalties may be incredibly steep. So if you hear of someone trying to pawn off a half-dead miniature lily on Craigslist, let Kew or the Met police know. Stop stealing critically endangered plants, people! They're there to look at, not to take at your leisure.

If you'd like to read the news story, you can do so on the Telegraph site HERE.

Nymphaea thermarum, the world's smallest lily, stolen from Kew Gardens 

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The creeping vine from Virginia







Species name: Parthenocissus quinquefolia

Common name: Virginia creeper

Location: Western University campus

As promised in my last blog, this post is about the "other" common vine with blackish-blue berries common, and native, to this area: Virginia creeper. Many people are actually surprised to learn that this species is native, as we don't often associate native species as being potentially invasive species. Anyone who has ever grown Virginia creeper in their garden under ideal conditions knows it will absolutely explode in growth and smother out anything in its path; a rather unfortunate characteristic since I like to encourage gardening with native species! Fortunately, Virginia creeper isn't as vigorous as grower as periwinkle or kudzu, so when you go to bed one night and wake up the next morning your house won't be covered in it (that has never actually happened, but at times it sure feels like both of those plants could grow that fast). The Virginia creeper vine is native to eastern North America, and its native range extends from Quebec and Ontario south to Texas and Alabama. There's a bit of an argument about whether or not its native range is also extending into northeastern Mexico (a few botanists believe it to be either introduced or a different species, depending on who you ask).

Virginia creeper is one of the banes of my existence because it doesn't follow the rules set out by its Latin name. The species epithet "quinquefolia" refers to its five leaflets, all originating from the same point on the petiole which is referred to as a palmately compound leaf. Unfortunately, no one told the Virginia creeper that it had five leaflets originating from a common point on the petiole. When young, sometimes the leaves only produce three leaflets (called a trifolate leaf). This is all fine and dandy, except what other plant might you know about that produces three leaflets from a common point, with the same general leaflet shape as Virginia creeper, and can also grow as a smothering vine along tree trunks? That's right, poison ivy. If you don't want to get mistaken for poison ivy, don't go looking like poison ivy! Geez. There have been a few times I've been out in forests where I could have SWORN that what my supervisor was grabbing onto to push out of the way was poison ivy, but turns out he knew it was only an abnormal Virginia creeper vine. Better to be safe than sorry I think, so I steer clear. Based on the skin sensitivity I display towards other stinging or itchy things (plant or animal-based), I would probably blow up like a balloon if I got the two confused. Keep trifolate leaves away from me and I'm a happy camper :)

All of that being said, Virginia creeper can be a nasty plant in its own right. The whole plant contains oxalic acid, which can be a very potent skin irritant to some people (and those with sensitive skin to other plant-based toxins, especially rhubarb juice, are most likely to be affected). The berries also contain very high levels of oxalic acid and so should not be eaten. Rarely will they cause any type of major problem other than intense intestinal discomfort, but if children confuse them for grapes and eat a lot of them there could be severe consequences. The oxalic acid crystals are sharp enough to perforate mucous membranes, and so severe internal bleeding can result after ingesting significant amounts. As with many toxic plants, a hot-water infusion made from the fruits (most of the time, but sometimes also the leaves) of this plant were used by Native North Americans as a treatment for heart conditions, diarrhea, prostate disease (or other diseases or disorders that might cause difficulty or painful urination), and joint swelling due to (most often) rheumatoid arthritis. No clinical trials have ever been set up to determine if the plant can be effective against any of these conditions, but the possibility is there.

Aside from its traditional medicinal use, this plant is becoming more and more popular as a garden ornamental species. It is very successful in full sun, and does a great job of climbing up buildings to act as insulation from the sun (and so is especially successful on south-facing walls). Fortunately for homeowners using this plant in landscaping, it (like Boston Ivy but unlike English Ivy) produces sticky knobs to attach itself to a substrate (like your brick wall on your house). English Ivy, that nasty little vine, produces penetrating roots that worm their way right into the mortar between the bricks in order to anchor itself. This means that Virginia creeper is a much less destructive plant to grow on the side of your house. There's always a catch to all things that sound to good to be true, isn't there?! The catch for this plant is that removing adhesive knobs can still be quite a labour-intensive process because pulling the live plant from the wall will still rip out small pieces of brick and mortar along with the adhesive knobs. If, however, you cut the plant at the base (either at ground-level for complete removal or just a branch here and there for trimming purposes) and let the plant wither and die on the house, it can be removed once brown with no damage at all (the adhesive knobs have to be alive to be adhesive!). It's like magic! The only downside is that Virginia creeper vines do lose their leaves in the fall (but not before turning a BRILLIANT shade of red first), so you don't get the same kind of winter insulation as you do with English ivy. But for the cost of having to re-brick the side of your house...I think the substitution is worth it!

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Wine? Wine not!







Species name: Vitis riparia

Common name: riverbank grape

Location: Western University campus

The riverbank grape is one of our great native vine species (the other major native eastern North American species to be featured in the next blog, Virginia creeper). It is a very vigorous grower, capable of growing up to the top of a riparian forest tree canopy (not nearly as tall as a "normal" tree canopy of a forest, since trees that live in riparian, or riverbank, areas don't tend to be able to grow as tall). In the southern areas of its native range it can be a real pest species, but here in Ontario other native species are pretty good at competing with it. Some trees have a harder time than others, but non-native species have an especially difficult time with the smothering tendencies this species sometimes has. That being said, as soon as it is transplanted, either naturally via bird poop (the most common animal vector) or "artificially" via human transplantation, into an area of lowland or upland forest the forest canopy can really suffer as a result. It is remarkably good at smothering new saplings before they have a chance to grow tall enough to escape it, and some forests are so thick with grape vines they're impassable. A great example of a species that grows well in harmony with other species in its native habitat, but can become a real pest, even in its native range, if introduced beyond those limits.

The riverbank grape has a bit of a bad rap in Ontario and the northeastern United States, but that perception seems to be changing a bit. In the 1940s and 1950s, the US government (the Canadian government quickly followed suit) decided that riverbank grape vines were a forest pest and that this species should be eradicated. There had been a lot of accidental introductions of this species into areas important in the logging and lumber trade, and if you're allowing a vine to smother your profits you're not a very good businessperson! So instead of just local eradication programs, these programs were carried out across the United States and into Ontario and Quebec, and whenever a riverbank grape vine was seen in a forest (either riparian area or otherwise) it was sprayed with very toxic herbicides. This was very effective at killing the vines, but also equally effective in killing all of the surrounding vegetation and poisoning the soil (both for soil microbes, very important in forest health, but also making it inhospitable to new seedlings). Unfortunately, it was far too late before anyone realized what was happening, so you still find "dead zones" where mature trees escaped the soil poisoning by having a root system vast enough to support itself with un-poisoned soil, but the understory species are completely missing. I have a rather personal connection to riverbank grape, because one of the species of fungi that I study for my PhD grows exclusively on grape vine in North America. Unfortunately, there's a catch (as there always seems to be with rules regarding where fungi are most likely to be found): it only grows on mature, living or dead grape vine. This means that any suitable habitat that might have been in forest ecosystems in the 1800s when a lot of the work was being done on the fungal flora of North America no longer exists for this species. For this reason, it was collected three times in the 1880s by great, now long-dead, mycologists only to never be recorded ever again. Have these species gone extinct because of our destruction of their host species? No one, including myself, knows that for sure. Since the 1930s there has been a lack of concerted effort to document the diversity of forest species, only re-invigorated in the early 2000s. What I can say is that for the last 6 years whenever I'm in a forest where there's grape vine I look for it...and haven't found it yet. Perhaps I'm not looking in the right spot, or perhaps it doesn't exist anymore. I'll let you know in 20 years when I either find it or give up looking. ;) This idea of "disappearing species" is not unique in mycology; there are also a lot of plant species that were discovered during the times of the Great World Explorers (as I like to call them) that have never been found again. Part of the problem stems from the lack of location data for the collections--how do I know where "Aunt Edna's House, near the south greenhouse but past the wood pile, 5 minutes from the beach" is?! Sure, maybe EVERYONE in 1872 knew where Aunt Edna's house was...but it's long gone by now. You don't realize just how useful GPS coordinates are until you have to figure out something like that!

Anyway, back on topic...

Riverbank grape fruits are reportedly edible, and were also reportedly an important food source in the summer for early settlers in North America. Now, I'm guessing that tastes have progressed a bit since those times, or perhaps they were much less picky eaters than we are now (or maybe a bit of both). Have you ever tried a grape from a wild grape vine? They are TERRIBLE. I wasn't expecting a sweet grape when I tried one, but holy jeez. This was...terrible. That's the only way I can describe it. It was gooey and had the most awful texture on the planet (almost like jello on the inside), plus one of the most sour fruits I've ever had in my life (puts the Cornelian cherry to shame, which you can read all about HERE, and I often eat lemons for fun...so that tells you something about my tolerance for "sour"). My friend Tanya convinced me to try one when we were out geocaching one afternoon, and I could taste the lingering "lip-puckering sour" in my mouth for hours. That's the last time I ever listen to Tanya. Ha.

Sure, the grapes don't taste that great and the plant isn't all that much to look at (although, I personally really love the shape of their leaves and the cute little curving tendrils that are most visible during the winter and early spring), riverbank grape is one of the single most important "novelty agriculture species" that we have in North America. I call them an agricultural novelty not because their use is new, but because the product we get from them is certainly not necessary for everyday life (some people might argue with me on that one; we'll agree to disagree) nor has it ever been. Wild grape vines are VERY tolerant to winter conditions in North America, which can be incredibly harsh, especially in the ground. Traditional wine grape vines, of the species Vitis vinifera, don't have a very cold hardy root system, and are prone to freezing damage in northern climates. For this reason, riverbank grape rootstock is often grafted onto a wine grape scion (or "top") for commercial grape production for the wine industry. Once grapevine producers were experts in the creation of natural hybrids, they started experimenting with different varieties of V. vinifera as well as V. riparia to make more cold-tolerant grape vines, but with the same commercial qualities of traditional wine grapes. Another major benefit is that the resulting hybrid is much more resistant to common fungal diseases encountered on grape vines. Eventually what was obtained were varieties that were genetically 50-80% wine grapes, and 20-50% riverbank grape. Baco Noir, Marchel Foch (sometimes called Marechal Foch) and Frontenac grapes are all hybrids between these two species, and produce some of the best wine in the world. Isn't it amazing what a little traditional plant breeding can do?! Cheers to grapes.

Traditional uses by Aboriginal North Americans are also numerous; they are used as a food (although, I'm guessing in small numbers), to make jellies and jams, and to produce a type of traditional North American wine. From what I understand, this wine is really unpleasant when compared to wine from a "real" winery, but it really packs a punch: it has 2-3 times the alcohol content of a traditional wine. Maybe it's alcoholic enough you don't realize how terrible it is! Not commercially sold, but every so often you might be able to find some courtesy of a backyard brewer. Let me know how it is, if you get a chance to try it.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Burr it's cold!









Species name: Arctium sp. (probably Arctium lappa)

Common name: burdock (probably greater burdock)

Location: Western University Campus, London, Ontario

I decided to start this year off with a bang, or a burr if you will, using a blog post with lots of pretty pictures. :) Who doesn't love pretty pictures?! The burdock plant is pretty well-known in North America where it was introduced from Europe, the Middle East and Asia (pretty much every area in the Northern Hemisphere EXCEPT North America). Across its native and introduced range it has the potential to become quite invasive, as it thrives in disturbed, nitrogen-rich soils. This makes it an especially-potent agricultural weed species. In most cases, however, when burdock seeds enter an area (especially a landscaped garden like you'd find around a home) a couple might develop into plants but spreading is rare. While I took these pictures on campus, there is also a very small colony (two plants) growing in my back yard. Since they're out of the way, I've left them there and hoped that the "keeper of the garden" (aka my dad) doesn't find them ugly enough to remove. To me, they're pretty in their own way. I wouldn't want lots of them (since they're irritating in their own way, too!), but one or two is just fine.

I had a bit of trouble getting this plant down to the species level because I neglected to make notes of (or take pictures of) the distinguishing characteristics between the greater burdock and the lesser burdock. One of the main ways to tell them apart is by looking at the base of the flower, or what we would call the "burr." If the flower is on a stalk, it's the greater burdock, and if the flower is directly attached to the branch (or is on a very short stalk), it's the lesser burdock. Since I think these pictures are just great, I'm going to go with the greater burdock :) Next time since I know what I'm looking for I'll make sure I photograph the stalks (or lack thereof) that the flowers are sitting on so I can make sure my identification is correct! There is one more burdock species in Ontario (also a non-native species) called the woolly burdock, but this one is easily distinguished from the other two. It has a bract at the bottom of each leaf that has very fine spike-like hairs on it. Neither of the other two species we have here show this characteristic. Aside from the flowers on (or not on) stalks, the other way to tell the lesser and greater burdock apart is based on size; the greater burdock is almost twice the size at maturity, and can have a taproot up to three feet long. For a plant that's only about three times bigger than that (but many in Canada don't reach that size), that's an enormous root! For all three species there are separate male and female flowers within the flower head. You can tell the difference by looking for the stigmas (the female bits of the flowers); they are pointed out with the bright pink arrow in the picture third from the bottom. Usually the stigmas only develop after the stamens of the male flowers have released their pollen; this way the plant can make sure the stigmas will catch pollen, but it won't be its own pollen; this is one of the mechanisms most often used to ensure cross-pollination between individual plants, rather than the pollen of an inflorescence landing on the stigma from that same inflorescence.

The burdock plant is pretty awesome for two reasons. First, if you look closely at the last picture you'll see that the burrs open up at the top to release the seeds, which are like miniature dandelion seeds, fluffy bit and all. The actual burr is covered in hairs with a hook at the end, and the tip of the hook has a very sharp point. This makes the burr feel "sticky" when you put it on your skin or when you grab at one, even though there's actually no sticky substance on the hairs. If you own a dog and have ever walked it through a forest or a field, I'm sure you're well aware of the nightmare that is "de-burring" a dog. The type of hair that covers dogs is just made for burrs using those hooked hairs to latch on for seed dispersal. Eventually, the dog will roll around on the ground, breaking open the burr and releasing the seeds (or the seeds will just gradually fall out of the hole in the burr, being released as the dog walks). Burrs certainly didn't co-evolve with dogs, but more like woolly mammoths, bears, moose, and other animals characteristic of northern climates (dogs just happen to be what is most likely to come by now). In the 1940s, a very smart man by the name of George de Mestral was getting very annoyed at having to pick burrs off of his dog after taking him for walks. After a few years of this he decided to clip some out of the dog fur instead of pulling them off so he could look at how the burrs attach to the dog hair. He realized he could exploit this technology; by collecting his dog's hair that comes off in brushes and the hairs of the burr, he could glue one to one side of two things he wanted to join, and glue the other to the other side. Once they come in contact, they would be permanently joined until they were carefully separated. Obviously no one wants dog hair and burrdock burrs glued to their clothing, but making synthetic versions of both of these gave us one of the most important inventions in the 20th century: velcro. Parents will small children: Mr. de Mestral I'm sure says "you're welcome!"

The other awesome part about this plant is that the giant taproot forming at the base of the plant is actually edible. Back in the Middle Ages in Europe this plant was actually one of many staple food crops, and was eaten and cultivated across Europe. Since then it has largely been abandoned as a source of food, but every so often you find it popping up in local cuisine. In Japan, for example, greater burdock roots are still peeled and cooked in a traditional stir-fry dish called kinpira gobo ("kinpira" for carrot, "gobo" for burdock). I didn't realize what I was eating at the time, but I had this dish when I was in Japan. It's pretty good! Not all that much flavour, but certainly not undesirable. I would definitely have it again now that I know what I'm eating.

Greater burdock roots also have a long history of being used in Traditional Chinese Medicine to treat blood and kidney diseases. Depending on what part of the plant is consumed (not the roots), it can be a pretty powerful diuretic, so if you don't know what you're doing, don't cook it. Other medicinal uses have not been established to be effective or ineffective, but there is some anecdotal evidence to suggest that some uses may be beneficial. First, the Ojibwa people have used burdock roots in a tea-like preparation to treat cancer (no evidence this is effective) and the leaves in a maceration with oils to treat baldness (also no evidence this is effective, but it does clean hair nicely if rinsed well). The Chinese also crush the seeds and consume the powder to treat flu, nausea and colds, and there is some evidence that this might be effective. The seeds contain chemicals called arctigenin, arctiin and aglycone, which have been shown in mice to be effective as: anti-viral treatments (especially against influenza A), anti-inflammatory agents (especially in the small intestine, but also to some degree in swollen joints as a result of arthritis), and anti-cancer treatments (extracts from the seeds, and pulverized seeds themselves, have been shown to kill tumour cells growing on artificial nutrient medium in petri dishes; this has never been tested in a living body of any type of animal). You never know; in a few decades burdock extract might be one of our new "wonder drugs"!

I'm back at blogging, and thanks for sticking through my absence! I really appreciate all of your continued support in my endeavours to spread the word that plants are awesome. Happy New Year to those that celebrate at this time of year!

Monday, January 6, 2014

Happy Winter!

While I was off on "blogging vacation," it switched over to being winter...literally and figuratively. Sure, we've had some cold days up until now, but lately it has been "stay inside never to emerge from the house" kind of cold. Tomorrow is supposed to feel like -40 degrees C with the wind chill. Are you kidding me!? Who can live like this?! I'm not sure what exactly Canada did to the weather gods, but whatever it is...we're all sorry. So very, very sorry. And we promise never to do it again. Just please...warm...up...!!!

Regardless of how cold it is, we officially welcomed the Winter Solstice (or summer for all you southern hemisphere residents) near the end of December, which means this blog needs new colours! Reminiscent of the freezing cold temperatures, we've got an icy blue for your viewing pleasure. Hopefully it's not too retinal-burning.

Welcome to winter! Nothing against you, winter, but feel free to leave as soon as you'd like. I think we've all had enough of you already. Bring on spring!

Saturday, December 21, 2013

So apparently I'm taking a hiatus!

You know those times when you just...forget to write blogs? And then wonder how 3 weeks has passed and no one reminded you? Yeah, this is one of those times :)

So what I've decided is to continue my blog-writing hiatus to the beginning of January. This gives me a whole month to enjoy family get-togethers, the "HOLY-JEEZ-I-AM-IN-NO-WAY-READY-FOR-CHRISTMAS" mad scramble at the grocery store (done and done, at least we thought we were. Still need to go buy baking ingredients! Wish me luck...), watching a bunch of Christmas-themed movies on TV, and writing a solid chunk of my thesis.

But don't worry! I will definitely be back in January with a whole bunch of new and exciting blogs. Thank you to everyone who continues to read my blog about why plants are awesome, and hopefully I can get some new "converts" in my students next term. Feel free to share my blog link around to your friends and family; even though no new blogs will be posted until January, there should be more than enough to keep them busy until then!

Enjoy your families over the next few days. You only get one, whether you like them or not :) Merry Christmas, Happy Kwanzaa, Happy Hanukkah, and Happy "whatever other Holiday you're celebrating in December"!

Friday, November 29, 2013

The maple of Black Friday






Species name: Acer nigrum

Common name: black maple

Location: Western University campus

What better way to celebrate the phenomenon that is Black Friday with a...black maple! You bet I've been holding off on this blog for weeks! For those of you not from the United States or Canada and who are unfamiliar with this "Black Friday thing," here's a brief run-down. Traditionally in Canada the day after Christmas is called Boxing Day. Truly, I have no idea what the history of Boxing Day is, but now it has morphed into the National Day of Shopping. Crazy people (like me) get up at 6 am in order to make it to the mall as soon as it opens, and every store has some kind of crazy sale. Boxing Day is one of my favourite days of the year since I love shopping, but I absolutely refuse to pay full-price for an item. Not to be outdone, the United States has Black Friday. Since Christmas isn't actually that big of a deal in the US (trust me, I'm surprised, too), Thanksgiving is their biggest national holiday (aside from possibly Independence Day in some areas), and it weirdly occurs on a Thursday. In order to "bridge the gap" between Thanksgiving and the weekend, the phenomenon known as Black Friday has evolved. That is the day that Americans get up ridiculously early and go shopping. And let me tell you: Black Friday deals in some stores are ridiculous. While I've never been to the States on a Black Friday (and never intend to go; the day is notorious for people getting trampled to death in order to get to the good deals first), I've heard some great stories of people scoring big-screen TVs for $32, or a brand new iPhone 5C for $49 with no contract. That's crazy! I have no idea whether Boxing Day or Black Friday came first, but I like to think Boxing Day did. Because I'm Canadian, and all good things are Canadian before Americans steal our ideas. Like basketball. And hockey.

Back to plants! The black maple is actually a "species" under furious debate amongst botanists, and the crowd is currently split about its species status. There are some botanists (that I like to think are in the majority, but I'm honestly not sure) that say the black maple is a good species and deserves its own Latin name. There's another group, however, that is absolutely convinced that it's merely a subspecies of the sugar maple, and should actually be called Acer saccharum subsp. nigrum. Unfortunately, should this prove to be the case, the black maple would lose all designation as a species and no longer be protected by any kind of Species At Risk legislation across all of North America, where it has its native range. To me, this would be tragic since I happen to really like black maples. But I do see where "the other side" is coming from: black maples and sugar maples readily hybridize with each other, their wood can be used for the exact same purposes in the lumber trade because they have the same grain qualities and the same chemical makeup (the same amount of lignin and cellulose, with the same type of ring structure), they can both be used to produce maple syrup (although, black maples much less so than sugar maples), and they have very similar maple key characteristics. The most notable difference is the shape of the leaves; the black maple leaf is much more rounded at the bottom than the sugar maple (which is nearly flat), the black maple leaf has only three main lobes with no minor lobes (the sugar maple leaf has three main lobes and two much smaller lobes at the base near the petiole), and the leaves of the black maple "droop" like they're always slightly dehydrated (while sugar maple leaves are flat and not droopy at all). In fact, the slightly floppy quality to the leaves is the reason why most black maples are accidentally massacred on residential properties. Because they always look like they're drought-stressed and need water, people who don't know that's what black maples look like normally drown them to death. The poor trees! And I will admit, until a few months ago I would have been in the "drowning the tree" boat. I always thought this poor tree needed some water (and since it is in the middle of an island in a huge parking lot, not getting much water is a very real possibility) and so likely would have drowned it, too, had I not been told differently. Now we all know. :)

So what are black maples good for, aside from maple syrup? Well, a lot if you ask the Ojibwa people. Not only did they boil the sap of the black maple to concentrate the sugars to use as a sweetener in cooking, but they also boiled the bark and drank the resulting liquid to treat diarrhea and to act as a diuretic. Neither of these uses have been evaluated in clinical trials. The branches of this tree can also be very straight, and so made good wood for arrows and were the preferred source for "arrow wood". The wood of the black maple is also easily carved, especially when young, and so was sometimes carved into elaborate shapes for ornamental pieces and for kitchen items like spoons and bowls.

If you went out to brave the crowds today, hopefully you managed to pick up something you liked and got a great deal!

Friday, November 22, 2013

Remembering JFK with cornflowers






Species name: Centaurea cyanus

Common name: bachelor's button, cornflower

Location: picture 1 from HERE, picture 2 from HERE, picture 3 from HERE and picture 4 from HERE

Today is a rather special day in history, whether you're American or not, and this special day deserves its own special blog post. In case you aren't aware of the significance of today, it is the 50th anniversary of the assassination of the former President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, in Texas. He was one of the most well-liked Presidents in US history, and will always be remembered as one of the great young minds that died far too young. With that said, let's see how well I can weave this into a blog about plants.

The cornflower, also called the bachelor's button or the common cornflower, is native to Europe where it historically grew like a weed. It prefers highly disturbed areas like prairies (historically, the sustaining life source of a prairie was fire which wipes out much of the herbaceous growth, allowing new species to colonize the area), which is why it can sometimes be seen growing alongside the Flander's poppy, as seen in the fourth image above (I thought that was rather fitting, since both flowers are now considered the flowers of remembrance depending on which continent and/or country you're from). Unfortunately for the cornflower, it also thrives as an agricultural weed since agricultural fields are, by default, highly disturbed areas. They are plowed every year which encourages weedy plants (or plants that can grow very quickly) to move in and colonize the area. Because of the intense amount of herbicides that are applied to agricultural fields, many of the once-ideal habitats for cornflowers are now being lost. This has led to the placement of the cornflower onto many endangered species lists across much of its native range (the population in the UK has gone from 264 sites to just 3 sites in 50 years; also a rather fitting time of measurement). Fortunately for the cornflower, it's not about to go extinct any time soon. It has been introduced as an ornamental species in North America, and parts of Africa and Asia where it is considered a naturalized species (locally invasive in some areas). In Australia it is a pest species. In fact, because of the planting of this species ornamentally it was recently featured near the top of the list of the top 100 species that have the potential to be brought back from the brink of extinction. With proper rehabilitation efforts and the protection of prairie habitats across Europe, this species could once again thrive.

There are also some locations where cornflowers are planted for agricultural purposes aside from seed generation for the ornamental flower trade. Cornflower "petals" (I'll get into this in a minute) are dried and often used as an additive in loose leaf teas to impart flavour and colour into some blends. The flavour is very subtle; so subtle I doubt you would even be able to pick up the taste. More often than not, cornflowers are added to loose teas just to make them look pretty in their package. And who isn't about to buy tea because it looks pretty?! I'll admit, I've been guilty of that on more than one occasion. Sometimes with successful results, but often with "BLAAARRRRGGGGHHHHHH!!!!" results. That's also how I buy my wine. You'd think I would learn from these experiences...

The petals seen in the cornflower aren't really petals at all. The "flower" of a cornflower is a compound flower, or a flower head. Each one of the "petals" is called a ray floret, and each one of the dark purple wispy bits on the inside of the flower head is called a disc flower. This is the typical flower head (or inflorescence) structure of flowers in the aster or sunflower family.

Aside from being the flower of remembrance in the United Kingdom and much of the rest of Europe, cornflowers hold special meaning to JFK. Not only was blue his favourite colour, but on those days when he wore flowers on his lapel (which was quite often) they were always cornflowers. In fact, on the day his son, John F. Kennedy Jr., was married he had cornflowers pinned to his lapel and cornflowers were featured in the bridal bouquet and in every centrepiece as a symbol of remembrance for his father.

I often wonder what the world would be like today if people like JFK and Martin Luther King Jr. were still alive. Would gay marriage be an issue? Would it be a bigger issue than it is today? What about poverty and homelessness? Drug use? I guess it doesn't do much to hypothesize about how the world would be different, but instead try to make it different. Push the envelope to do better, to be better.

May you Rest In Peace, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. May 29, 1917 - November 22, 1963


JFK Jr. giving his father a final salute

Thursday, November 21, 2013

BLOG RERUN: Mom's Secret Recipe

UPDATE TO THE UPDATE: Guess what?! Today is American Thanksgiving! Or, as we in Canada like to call it, Thursday. Happy Thanksgiving to my American readers. Enjoy the day off, and I'm VERY excited for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. For me, it's one of the highlights of November. I'll be really disappointed this year if the gigantic balloons don't make an appearance because of the high winds (but understandable; safety over balloons!). But more importantly...rest up! We've got some shopping to do tomorrow.


UPDATE: It has come to my attention that in my desire to be awesome and pseudo-celebrate American Thanksgiving, I have managed to jump the gun and do so a week early. SO! Stop reading this blog. Stop it! GO AWAY! Just kidding. Please don't go away. But skip this entry! And come back in a week.

(a version of this blog was originally posted on November 22, 2012)

Today I decided to do something completely different on my blog, because...well, because I can!

I was having a hard time coming up with another plant that screamed "Thanksgiving," since today is American Thanksgiving. I've already done two different species of pumpkins, and the only other suitable plant to blog about would be sweet potatoes...and those are a kettle of fish I was planning on getting into next year (still hasn't been done, despite my best intentions. One day!). So what other plant could I possibly blog about? There's no other typical vegetable of Thanksgiving that is universal to all celebrations, no matter where in the country you are. But then a colleague in the Biology Department, gave me a fabulous idea: why not blog about a recipe instead? Brilliant! So that's exactly what I'm going to do.

I'm going to feature my absolute favourite part of Thanksgiving, and Christmas (and sometimes even Easter) dinner: stuffing! I'm about to give away my mom's secret recipe (sorry mom!), so get your pens ready. Ready? Here it is:

My Mom's Famous Stuffing Recipe:
- bread (enough to stuff a turkey of your choice)
- water (enough to dampen the bread, but not make it soggy)
- onion (you like onion? Add a lot! Don't like onion? Add a little!)
- ground sage (see comments for onion, above)
- ground poultry seasoning (see comments for onion, above)
- love (don't have love on hand? Steal some from someone else!)

Steps: 
1. Tear up the bread by hand. Do it the way of the pilgrims. Food processors are the easy way out. Leave it chunky, don't make bread crumbs.
2. Chop up the onion. Dice it relatively finely, but not so fine it turns to mush when it starts cooking.
3. Put bread and onion in a giant bowl. Dump in your herbs.
4. Add in a little bit of water, and here's where your love comes in handy. Make sure your hands are clean, and mix that by hand. Mix, mix, mix. Still feels dry? Add a bit more water. Mix, mix mix. Still feels dry? Keep adding water and mixing until it's the desired consistency. Not soggy, but the bread sticks together with the mixture when you squish it into a ball. Feel free to make shapes here. I suggest snowmen. Use baby carrots as the nose. Take pictures!
5. Once you've got your desired consistency of stuffing, stuff it into your bird and enjoy the smell while it cooks.

Now you must be sworn to secrecy never to tell anyone how to do it! The bright side of giving away my mom's "secret" recipe is that NO ONE has been able to reproduce how it tastes. Trust me. That love? That's the secret ingredient. Each person's love tastes just a little bit different. And perhaps hand lotion...

So how on earth can I turn this into a blog? Well, there are three obvious species here that can be featured in this blog, each of which I'll do in a mini-blog: wheat, onion, and sage. Here we go!


A field of genetically modified wheat to resist fungal infections (Science Centric)

Wheat fruits, called a caryopsis (Flashcard Machine)

Species name: Triticum aestivum

Common name: bread wheat

Location: See above for internet sources; a common, non-native species

Wheat is native to the Middle East, in a region known as the Fertile Crescent and was first thought to be domesticated almost 11,000 years ago. This is a region of the Middle East from which we get many of our most important crops in North America. There are actually  more than 20 species of wheat, each of which are used for different purposes. The most common way that species of wheat have been "created" over the last few millenia is through spontaneous tetraploidy. This means that the plants have undergone some sort of cell division problem that has caused all of the DNA of the plant to go into one pollen grain and none in the other, instead of half of the DNA going into each pollen grain. One of these pollen grains comes into contact with an egg that has done this same thing, and now an embryo exists with the complete genome of its mother plant and father plant (and sometimes this is actually the same individual; this is called "selfing"). If this happened in humans or almost any other animal, the embryo would not be viable. In plants, however, this is incredibly common and probably the most common method of creating new species of plants. This is a pretty remarkable adaptation, too; think about how much genetic variation could be available to an organism containing four copies of each gene instead of only two! The expression rare recessive diseases would essentially be eliminated from the population. Some common wheat species that we use are the diploid T. aestivum which is mainly used for flour that goes into breads and cakes; T. durum (tetraploid), used for making pasta and couscous, is low in gluten; T. dicoccum (diploid), also known as emmer, is used for breadmaking in Egypt and some parts of Europe; and T. spelta (hexaploid), an ancient form of wheat (popular during the Middle Ages) still used now as a low-gluten equivalent to bread wheat.



Onions with their green leaves still attached (Illinois Vegetable Garden Guide)

Some different varieties of onions (Garden of Eaden)

Species name: Allium cepa

Common name: onion

Location: See above for internet sources; a common, non-native species

Onions are probably native to Central Asia, but there is much uncertainty about where they originated. Onions as a species are only known from cultivation, which is incredibly unusual as far as crop plants go. It is possible that it has gone through so many rounds of human selection that it is now genetically distinct from its ancestral species (the most likely explanation), or the ancestral species has now gone extinct (the unlikely explanation). There is one species, A. asarensefrom Iran, that is genetically very closely related to the common onion. All species of the genus Allium produce sulphur compounds, which give them their pungent smell. When these sulphur compounds come into contact with water they produce sulphuric acid, one of the most potent acids known. This is the chemical basis for the "IT BURNS MY EYES!!!!" reaction most people get when cutting onions. The easiest way to get rid of this effect is by refrigerating your onions before use, or putting them briefly in the freezer before chopping (just enough to make them cold, not frozen). This prevents the cut onion from being able to "bleed" as much as a non-refrigerated onion, contributing to less eye-burn. Also, make sure you wash your hands with soap before rubbing your eyes. Some people say plugging your nose also helps; I think it's more the silliness factor than anything else. The sulphur compounds are still becoming airborne and the mucous membranes of your eyes still contain a lot of water, so the chemical reaction cannot be modified by plugging your nose. I would contribute that to the placebo effect more than anything else. These sulphur compounds in onions (and garlic) have been exploited medicinally by humans for centuries. Yes, onions do have medicinal properties! They are very potent against bacteria and fungi, and so are popular for treating colds, the flu, and, of all things, Athlete's Foot. If you suffer from this (quite disgusting) fungal infection on your toenails, put some freshly chopped warm onions in a pot of warm water. Submerge your feet for a while, rinse, and pat dry. Fungi are incredibly intolerant to sulphur, so this should take care of them in a jiffy. In fact, many creams for Athlete's Foot exploit the natural sulphur-containing chemicals of onions!



The sage plant (GroAction.com)

Sage flowers (Soulistic Wellness)

Species name: Salvia officinalis

Common name: garden sage

Location: See above for internet sources; a common, non-native species

Sage is one of the most popular seasonings in the world, let alone in North America. The sage plant is native to the Mediterranean Region of Europe and Africa, where it still grows commonly in the wild. In North America it has the potential to become an invasive species in warmer climates, so just be careful if you plant it outside. It doesn't seem to tolerate Canadian winters well, or if it does it rarely spreads beyond where it was originally planted. The flower is incredibly characteristic of the mint family; it is purple, has a darker eyespot than the rest of the flower, the male and female parts of the flower overhang the bottom petal of the flower, and features a large bottom petal that can act as a "landing pad" for bees for pollination. This flower is very specialized for pollination by insects that can see ultraviolet light, and the reproductive parts have been modified to ensure that pollen gets onto that "secret spot" on the back of the bee's neck where it cannot access the pollen to groom it off of itself mid-flight. Bees actually love being covered in pollen by flowers not because they enjoy pollinating flowers, but because they pack this onto specialized areas on their legs to take back to the hive to feed the young larvae. Without the ability to put pollen onto the back of a bee's neck, the flower will be incredibly inefficient at cross-pollination, and will essentially be giving away its sperm to be used as bee food. Some biologists argue that bees are the most inefficient pollinators in the world! Sage also has some demonstrated health benefits and medicinal uses, although it is reported as being able to treat much more than it has actually been shown to do. One of the most promising uses of sage leaf extract (containing a combination of a huge number of essential oils; the exact combination of different chemicals has never successfully been created in a lab) is as a treatment for hyperlipidemia, or an increased level of lipids in the blood. This isn't just equivalent to obesity; in fact, obese people are incredibly efficient at filtering fats out of their blood and storing them in fat tissues (hence the obesity). This is more a result of a vast variety of genetic diseases that cause, sometimes for unknown reasons, lipids to build up in the blood. Other times it can be acquired due to various other medical conditions, the two most common being diabetes and renal failure. Chronic high levels of lipids in the blood can be incredibly dangerous to the circulatory system because it changes the viscosity of the blood, causing the heart to work harder. This can lead to different kinds of heart disease, heart attack, and stroke.

Happy Thanksgiving to all my American readers!

Gobble Gobble (not a plant)