Friday, August 31, 2012

The English French Oak, or the French English Oak

Species name: Quercus robur

Common name: English oak, French oak

Location: Ontario

Luckily, given the common name, this plant is native to most of Europe and parts of North Africa. I'm glad I didn't have to come up with some kind of creative way to explain why it's named the way it is! Despite being a common natural species in European woodlands, it has never truly made its way into North America as a popular ornamental plant unlike the many others that have. North Americans will see this plant in the odd garden, but it never achieves great height here so is not planted as a shade tree; that's one of the qualities that makes for a popular non-native ornamental tree. Fast growth to provide shade quickly, and growing to be a large size to provide shade across a large area.

In Europe this species is commonly planted for lumber use, as it produces very hard heartwood with a desirable grain pattern. It is used most often in fine furniture, and is also sometimes used in hardwood flooring. As an ornamental there have been about 15 hybrids created for various desirable characteristics, from dwarf characteristics to a "creeping" stature similar to a weeping willow.

As a symbol, this tree is very important across much of Europe. In Britain, it is the national emblem and is often used by the royal family as an emblem (where it gets another of its common names, the Royal oak). The Royal Oak is the name of 547 different pubs across Britain (all owned by different people!), and has been the name of at least eight Royal Navy ships. There is a rather famous specimen of this tree (sometimes referred to as the Carroll Oak) growing at Birr Castle in Ireland that is 6.5 m in circumference, and is estimated to be over 400 years old! That's an old tree.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Petunia The Musical Magical Flower

Species name: Petunia x hybrida 'Supertunia Raspberry Blast'

Common name: petunia

Location: Ontario

Surprisingly enough, I learned today that this plant is native to South America! All of my South American readers will probably be wondering why this is surprising, and to be honest I have no idea. I just always figured it was from Asia and never really gave the plant much thought. If I had of thought about it, I would have very quickly realized that this plant must be in the Solanaceae or the tomato family (which it is), and that most of the members of this family originated in South America. So not all that surprising after all!

This genus Petunia (it's always nice when botanists decide that a Latin name sounds good enough to make it the common name of the plant, too) is comprised of about 65 species, but only the ornamental hybrid is grown widely around the world. There are four main types of hybrids that are classified based on growth form: the large flower form, the multi-petal form (where the stamens have been bred to be petals due to a genetic mutation), the miniature form, and the creeping form. The fact that this plant can creep at all poses a serious risk to native wildflowers, and so that form should be planted with extreme caution around naturalized areas since there's always the potential for escape. This plant would be incredibly unlikely to survive the winter, but given the right conditions it just might.

The majority of petunia flowers, like many members of the Solanaceae, are most fragrant at night. In fact, most people would argue that petunias have no smell at all since they never experience the nighttime fragrance. The only notable exception to this is also the exception to the method of pollination for petunia flowers: the species Petunia exserta. This species has brilliant red flowers that are pollinated by hummingbirds, and consequently have a strong sweet odor even during the day.

A word of caution to the farmers out there that also enjoy ornamental plants around their homes: it is strongly suggested that you avoid petunias as an ornamental plant. They are one of the main food sources for a moth named Helicoverpa zea, which also lays its eggs in the flowers. The larvae emerge from the eggs and completely consume the flowers, leading to a rather nasty-looking plant. This in and of itself isn't any danger to an agricultural crop; it's once the larvae leave the petunia flowers looking elsewhere for food that they become a really serious pest. If found on corn, the common name of the insect is the "corn earworm," if found on tomato it is the "tomato fruitworm," if found on cotton it is the "cotton bollworm." This pest causes thousands of tonnes of crops to be lost every year around the world, but especially in North America. This illustrates one of the many issues surrounding non-native plants as garden ornamentals: once you plant the non-native species, you never know what it's going to bring with it that can devastate an ecosystem. The way that this species is controlled now is through the use of genetically modified crops that contain the active toxin in the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, and are known as Bt-crops.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

What's the name of this plant again?

Species name: Ginkgo biloba

Common name: ginkgo, maidenhair tree

Location: Ontario

Up until relatively recently (late 1700s to early 1800s), this species of tree was well known from the fossil record (along with the approximately 8 other species in the genus) but believed to be extinct in the wild. There were a few living specimens known at the time in China, Korea and Japan that had been cultivated and tended by monks for thousands of years, and so they were considered to be, quite literally, living fossils. Two stands of trees were discovered in China and from those two remaining small populations, all of the rest of the trees in cultivation around the world were derived. Unfortunately, it was discovered recently that the two remaining natural populations show an incredibly high level of genetic uniformity (suggesting they might, in fact, be two "families" of trees and therefore very closely related to each other) which puts them at great risk should a pathogen develop that targets ginkgo trees. This probably isn't an "if" and more a "when"! Like bananas, all of the ginkgo trees would be wiped out if we couldn't come up with a solution in time. Similarly to the Dawn redwood, the ginkgo tree is monotypic, meaning that it is the only remaining species in the genus, and all of the rest of the close relatives to this species are known only from fossils. You can read all about the Dawn redwood HERE. Interestingly enough, the Dawn redwood, like the ginkgo, is also critically endangered in the wild.

There are two characteristics about the ginkgo that are worth noting. The first is that these trees are dioecious, meaning that there are separate male and female trees. If you're planting a ginkgo tree on your property for purely ornamental purposes, make sure you choose a male tree! The female trees are the ones that bear the fruits, and the fruits have a hideous smell (think of the smell of rotting, rancid butter and that will begin to describe it...) that lingers throughout the winter with every temporary melt of snow. If you would like to plant the tree to consume the seeds for their reported medicinal values, make sure you plant both a male and a female tree to ensure large amounts of seed production. The second interesting characteristic about this tree is that they don't actually produce fruit, because fruit can only be produced by Angiosperm trees and this is a Gymnosperm. This means that the ginkgo, despite looking like it has broad leaves (similar to something like a maple or aspen or oak) it actually has modified needles (like pine or spruce or a cycad)! The "fruits" are actually just seeds with a swollen outer surface called a sarcotesta, and is developmentally very different than the fleshy part of a fruit. Once that layer is removed (should you attempt this insane, smelly feat, WEAR GLOVES! The smell, once on your skin, has to be leeched out, not washed out!), the remaining seed "shell", the sclerotesta is revealed and it looks a whole lot like an unopened pistachio (but a lot bigger).

The ginkgo seeds are culinary delicacies in many locations around the world, not the least of which being in China where it is used in large amounts around Chinese New Year in a dish called Buddha's Delight (if you've never tried it, you must! It's delicious). The Japanese and Koreans also make dishes that feature the ginkgo seed, and they are served year-round (but more so on special occasions since they are expensive). The other main use of this plant aside from its culinary and ornamental uses is the medicinal use. This is actually one of the suggested reasons for the decline of the population of ginkgo trees throughout its native range. Other theories state that massive ecological changes caused drastic declines in population and the ongoing medicinal value of the plant was the straw that broke the camel's back, so to speak. Regardless, there are now plantations in China for the dedicated medicinal use of this plant.

Medicinally, the main claims to fame with ginkgo and human health revolve around memory and dementia. First, it is claimed that ginkgo supplements help with memory retention in the aging process. It is suggested that if you consume 240 mg of ginkgo extract per day it will improve your long-term memory and help prevent the onset of Alzheimer's disease. In a very large study in 2008 done by the Journal of the American Medical Association, there was no effect of ginkgo extract consumption and memory, or a correlation between ginkgo consumption in any form and the onset of Alzheimer's. People who consumed ginkgo were just as likely to get it as those that didn't. A much smaller study in 2010 by the American Geriatric Society published in the Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry showed that it had a significant effect over a placebo in people already suffering from Alzheimer's (or other diseases that are Alzheimer's-like) on memory retention. A third study showed that for up to 2.5 hours after consumption, ginkgo extract and ginkgo seeds had a significant effect on memory retention in memory-recall experiments in healthy people. So far there are no studies that show that ginkgo is harmful to your health, so if you choose to take it to improve your memory at the very least it will do nothing. But until more large-scale scientific studies start agreeing with each other, take all reported effects with a grain of salt.

Ginkgo extract does act as an anti-coagulant, so as with all medications (herbal or not), make sure you consult a doctor before taking them to make sure it won't interfere with anything you're already taking. This especially applies to those at high-risk of stroke who are already on blood-thinners like warfarin (yes, the rat poison warfarin is now a medication for humans!) or coumadin, since even a minor injury could lead to massive blood loss.

Monday, August 27, 2012

A speedy way to wellness

Species name: Veronica longiflora

Common name: long-leaved speedwell

Location: Ontario

This plant is a "nearly native" wildflower common in roadside ditches and disturbed open fields. Unfortunately, it is a poor competitor in southwestern Ontario so is rarely found in large abundance in natural habitats for long since it is out-competed by native and non-native goldenrods, thistles, and other asters like daisies (likely the non-native ones), black-eyed susans, and Queen Anne's lace. This plant is very attractive to bees and other insects, and are an important food source in Canada for the Grizzled Skipper, a butterfly that actually builds itself a shelter when still a caterpillar to use at night and when it's not feeding. Pretty smart caterpillar!

Like all good things in botanical nomenclature, the genus Veronica is being reanalyzed using DNA sequencing to determine relatedness between species. The morphological variation between species in the genus is quite drastic, as are the habitats of each species, and geographic location. Since there seem to be at least two distinct groups, one having its origins in North America and the other having its origins in Australasia, it wouldn't surprise me if genetically those were two distinct genera as well. It's actually estimated that the 500 or so species of Veronica might actually fit into as many as 7 other genera once analysis is complete.

Since so many people consider this plant species a "weed" (I personally think it's actually quite attractive...), there is one good thing about this plant existing in urban areas. The entire plant is edible! The leaves reportedly taste a lot like watercress, so a peppery spinach. The flowers are also edible, but just make sure there aren't any bugs hiding in them or else you might have a nasty surprise when you bite into your salad. The roots and leaves when dried have commonly been used in traditional North American medicine in a tea that is consumed to relieve chest congestion. If you are going to attempt to eat this plant, just make sure you're not confusing it with another common species that grows in the same type of environment, skullcap. Skullcap is in the mint family and has square stems, speedwell is in the snapdragon family and has round stems. As with all wild plants, if you aren't 100% sure of the identification of the plant, don't eat it!

Saturday, August 25, 2012

When is a Bergamot a Beebalm?

Species name: Mondarda didyma

Common name: Beebalm, Oswego tea

Location: Ontario

This species of Monarda is native to eastern North America, and has an over-lapping range with its closest relative, Monarda media (purple bergamot). Like its sister species, beebalm grows in habitats that are decreasing in frequency across North America. The status of the species is still good in its native range, but there is the threat of population decline in the coming years if something isn't done about habitat protection.

Beebalm, like its name suggests, is a great plant for attracting bees in the garden. Since the flowers are bright red (this plant is also referred to by the common name "scarlet bergamot"), they also serve to attract hummingbirds and butterflies. Hummingbirds especially love this plant since the flowers are shaped like their long beaks so they are some of the only animals that can reach the nectaries at the bottom of the flowers.

Like purple bergamot, the beebalm plant is of great importance in traditional Native North American medicine. In some areas, this caused the plant to be hunted to near extinction and the population has never been able to rebound. Thankfully, this plant has also taken off as a popular ornamental plant, especially in butterfly and hummingbird gardens, so the genetic diversity is being well preserved. Should a widespread recolonization effort be attempted, there are many sources of genetic material from which to obtain seeds.

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Northern Agave: the Yucca

Species name: Yucca filamentosa

Common name: Adam's needle, filament yucca

Location: Ontario

This is one of those rare plants that is not in my garden at home, that is native to eastern North America, and that I absolutely LOVE. In fact, I used to love this plant purely based on the fact that it reminds me of Agave (which you can read all about HERE; it's actually a close relative in the same family) and has such a tropical feel, yet is fully cold hardy. Not only are the flowers absolutely stunning and smell fantastic (they're all past their prime by the time I got around to photographing this plant on campus), they also open at night and are the most fragrant when it's dark out. This phenomenon is not uncommon in the plant world, and is referred to as being a "nyctinastic" plant. Since this is such a fantastic plant, the people of New Mexico have recognized it as their State flower. Way to go, New Mexico!

One of the main reasons why a plant would want to open its flowers at night and release most of the scent of the flower at night is to attract nocturnal pollinators. In this case, there is only one main pollinator of the Yucca, called the yucca moth. Due to habitat destruction (they prefer rocky deserts, sandy areas, dry prairies, and light woodlands, all habitats that are being lost in North America at an alarming rate) this plant is becoming more and more rare, which also means the yucca moth is becoming more and more rare. The yucca moth doesn't just get food from this plant, it also uses the plant to house its eggs and larvae until they are ready to moult into caterpillars. The moth lays its eggs at the base of the flower on the inside so that it is enveloped by the developing fruit. As the larvae hatch, they consume some of the nutrient-rich seeds before exiting the seed pod when it splits open naturally (when the plant is ready to release the seeds). So why would a plant "agree" (plants aren't capable of conscious thought, so to say they "agree" to do anything is inflicting a bit of a human-centric bias onto a plant) to have its seeds, its babies, consumed by an animal? Well, if all of the seeds produced developed into offspring, the young seedlings probably would not be able to compete for resources sufficiently with the already established parents, and there would be too much competition between them. So the parent Yucca allows the relationship between the moth and the seeds to occur to prune out the number of possible offspring and gaining the benefits of cross-pollination provided by the adult moth. A great system! The larvae in return ensure they do not eat all the seeds, and there are still plenty around to ensure population replacement at the very least, and population growth during good years. How the larvae "know" how many seeds to leave I don't think is fully understood, since larvae of any species are incredible eaters and can eat many hundreds of times their body weight in plant material before they moult into adults.

The uses of this plant are numerous, the least of which today being for textile use. The strikingly tall inflorescence stalks have long fibres in them that can be spun to make (incredibly uncomfortable) clothing, textiles, or rope. Yucca flowers are also edible, and are a deep-fried delicacy in some southern states in the US. Some species of the genus also have edible fruits, but this species isn't one of them since the fruit walls are made up of very tough plant tissue. The leaves of this plant are also sometimes referred to as "meat hangers" since they are so tough they can pierce meat and can be knotted together to make a ring that can be hung on a tree branch to dry cured meat.

The most important use of this plant even today is as a fish stun agent. This might sound a little strange, and why would you want to stun a fish, anyway? Well, it makes them a whole lot easier to catch! The traditional way to stun fish with this plant is to take either chopped up leaves or roots (or both, just to be sure) and boil them in water for an extended period. Then take rocks and macerate the tissue, extruding all of the juices that come with the macerated tissue. Those juices, along with the cooking water, are then dumped into streams and small ponds with high densities of fish. The juices contain fish toxins that either instantly paralyze (or kill if not collected immediately) the fish, and they are scooped up and either used as bait fish (if they're small) or cooked and eaten (if larger). The most interesting part of this story is that this is probably the method used to catch the original fish used in the first fish farming processes thousands of years ago! Once the stunned fish are put into fresh water (ideally, an isolated pond near the settlement), the effect gradually wears off and the fish return to normal. The effect of the fish stun, however, remains in the original body of water until it can be appropriately flushed out through natural processes (dilution, breakdown by other organisms like bacteria, flushing further down the watershed, absorption and depletion in the soil, etc.) so using this plant to stun fish for fun can be incredibly detrimental to an ecosystem not just immediately, but potentially for many months or years to come!

Thursday, August 23, 2012

This plant's so cool it's Ice!

Species name: Hylotelephium spectabile (formerly Sedum spectabile)

Common name: Ice plant

Location: Ontario

This species of succulent plant is native to Europe and is one of the few examples of succulent plants that can survive in Canada. This plant is technically a perennial, and there are select locations that the ice plant survives as a perennial, but in most locations it is grown as an annual (much like tomatoes and potatoes; technically those are perennial plants, too!). Once the flowers open they are pink to white depending on the cultivar, and the texture of the leaves is indicative of the health of the plant. The rubberier the leaves, the more water they contain, and the more healthy the plant. This is much the same as one of its houseplant relatives, the Jade plant; many indoor plant growers use the thickness of the leaves to determine when the plant needs water (which, surprisingly enough, is only once every two to four weeks depending on indoor humidity!).

This species of plant is another example of how DNA sequencing has shown that plants that are superficially similar to each other might not actually be related at all. Like it's close relative the showy stonecrop, which you can read all about HERE, this species of plant used to be in the genus Sedum because of the five petals in each flower, and ten stamens (stamens run along the mid-vein of each petal, and again perfectly between each petal). There was also that these are succulent plants, the general shape of the leaves and the colour of the flowers that both genera have in common which led botanists to believe all of these species were part of the same genus. This is just yet another example of the saying "morphology doesn't always predict phylogeny;" in other words just because two things look the same doesn't mean they're related to each other. In Biology, we call these traits "homologies" (also "analogies" depending on the circumstance) which are two different characteristics that have arisen separately but have converged on a similar morphology due to the characteristics' function. A great example of this in the animal kingdom are wings. Bird wings and bat wings are very different when you look at the bones of each structure, but they still look very similar because both bird and bat wings are used for flight.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The plant that's the Red Hot Poker in my side for the week

Species name: Kniphofia uvaria

Common name: Torch lily, Red Hot Poker Plant

Location: Ontario

I'm not going to lie on this one, I had a devil of a time coming up with a name for this plant. You'd think with something so unique-looking that it would be an easy ID, but such is not the case for me! I figured I'd give an explanation for how I identify new plants (new to me, at least) without the use of a microscope and technical identification keys. I'm sure I'm not the only amateur botanist that doesn't have access regularly to these tools!

First, there's nothing in my Peterson Field Guide of wildflowers that looks anything like this, so at least I could figure out that it's non-native, and non-invasive. Usually when a plant is non-native but has invasive tendencies, the plant makes it into their book. Second, this plant looks like it would have tropical origins to me; it just has "that feeling" to me. That doesn't make sense, however, since I live in Ontario and this plant has been in the same place two years in a row. There's the possibility it's been planted in the same spot for two straight years, but that seems like way too much effort than it's worth, so now we're down to it having to be at least somewhat temperate. Third, "red/orange bell-shaped flowers in a spike" returns so many hits on Google images it's mind-boggling so I needed to come up with something that returned fewer results and results that were more relevant to the plant I'm trying to identify.

When I was searching for a proper identification, I clued in that narrowing down how it grows is a helpful first step. Even without going back outside to dig one up, I know this plant grows from a bulb; it just has "that feel." If you look at the first picture and use your imagination, it looks like a small, thin-leaved Amaryllis with different flowers, and anyone who's ever planted an Amaryllis around Christmas knows they grow from bulbs. So there's a first clue. The first possibility that this generates according to Google image is a genus called Lachenalia, a group of about 120 species that grow from bulbs. The most common of these is Lachenalia bulbifera, but that's incredibly rarely grown as an outdoor plant in northern North America (if ever) and all of the rest of the species are either endemic to Namibia (and likely not grown far from there) or critically endangered. Like Occam's Razor dictates, the chance of this being one of the Lachenalia species I couldn't find a picture for is incredibly unlikely. This is Canada, not a tropical desert. So onto option two! The second option for a group of plants that this might fit into is the genus Velthemia, which is only composed of two species that are easily distinguished. Unfortunately, both species in this genus have much wider leaves that are much more leathery and have a wavy margin (compared to these almost grass-like leaves of this plant) so there's no way it could be a Velthemia. Again, there's a possibility that it could be a previously unrecognized species, but "when you hear hoofbeats, assume horses not zebras if living in North America." So off to find a horse! The last option that I stumbled across is the genus Kniphofia, a group of about 70 species of plants native to Africa. We have our "EUREKA!!!" moment!

As far as I can tell, Kniphofia as a genus has only become popular as an ornamental plant in northern North America recently. If this has anything to do with our (generally) warmer winters and drier summers I can't say. It had been introduced to Australia and New Zealand where it escaped and is now considered an environmental weed so we should all exert caution when choosing this plant as an ornamental in warmer locales. This particular species of K. uvaria is native to South Africa. The common name of this plant comes from the fact that when the inflorescence is young, the flowers within each inflorescence vary in colour from yellow to red based on how recently they've opened so giving a general look of fire. Interestingly enough, despite the flowers opening and being fertilized at different times the seeds all seem to develop and are released at the same time from the plant.

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Achilles flower: common yarrow

Species name: Achillea millefolium

Common name: Yarrow

Location: Ontario

The common yarrow plant (the real yarrow; not the plant masquerading around as a yarrow with the common name "golden yarrow") is native to the Northern Hemisphere, with most subspecies native to North America. Since I have no idea what subspecies this is, I'll just give the plant the benefit of the doubt and say it's native. Even if it wasn't truly native, it would be close enough! Most common yarrow plants have either white or pink flowers, and yellow flowers would be considered incredibly unusual (and traditionally would only be one or two flowers in a sea of either white or pink). Since we as human beings like variety in our flower gardens, we have exploited the natural mutations in the yarrow population for yellow flowers, and created varieties and cultivars with varying shades of yellow flowers. The ones found in nature, however, are always either white or pink; if you see a yellow yarrow you know it's a garden escape. This isn't necessarily a bad thing depending on the variety or cultivar; as long as there wasn't too much "modification" that was done in the breeding process, all of the genes in the native population that were for disease resistance, etc., would still be in the cultivated population. In general, the longer a plant has been in domestication the poorer the competitor it is back in its native range. If you think about the challenges domesticated corn must have in reproducing, or whether or not a Yorkie dog would survive in the wild on its own, you can see how this generally holds up with domesticated species. Due to the shape of the florets within each inflorescence, the shape of each inflorescence appears to be a 5-petaled flower. This actually isn't the case, and this plant is in the sunflower family or the Asteraceae. Each inflorescence contains 4 to 5 ray florets (the ones that look like petals), and many disc florets.

Yarrow has a long history of being used as a medicinal plant; in fact, the Latin name Achillea refers to Achilles who apparently carried it with him into battles to treat the wounds of his soldiers (where one of the common names of this plant comes from; soldier's woundwort). It has been used as a diaphoretic (a chemical or group of chemicals that cause sweating; this was a very popular treatment for various "blood disorders" in ancient times), an astringent (would be very effective against facial acne since it has a relatively concentrated amount of salicylic acid in the leaves and roots), a tonic, and a stimulant. The essential oils from the flowers were extracted using the steam distillation process and used as an anti-inflammatory agent. Depending on the expert herbalist and the disorder, it was also used to either prevent bleeding or promote it. The Navajo also used it to relieve the pain associated with toothache. These are only a few of the reported medical uses of yarrow; for a complete list you can read about it on the Wikipedia page HERE.

A word of caution if you have yarrow in your garden or come in contact with it in the wild: there are some people who experience a violent skin reaction to contact with the leaf juices from broken yarrow leaves, and sometimes with the unbroken leaves themselves. This skin rash is photosensitive so is made worse by the sun, if skin irritation wasn't enough for you. There is also the reported effect that it can cause impotence in male mice, although no evidence has shown this effect is translated in humans. It's probably better to be safe then sorry with this plant; unless you know you don't show sensitivity to the plant, it's probably best to wear gardening gloves when handling it.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

I hasta have this Shasta Daisy!

Species name: Leucanthemum x superbum

Common name: Shasta daisy

Location: Ontario

The Shasta daisy is a common garden plant that's a special hybrid cultivar (in this case, probably the most common cultivar which is 'Becky') created through traditional breeding for larger flowers. Most members of the Leucanthemum genus are native to Europe and northern Asia, and this hybrid is no exception. Where it has been planted in North America it has taken off, spreading readily into prairie habitats and becoming an invasive weed. You can find this species (and both of the plants from which the hybrid is created, L. lacustre and L. maxiumum, as well as the oxeye daisy or L. vulgare) on the noxious weed list of many provinces in Canada and many states in the USA. Each "flower" of the daisy isn't actually a flower at all; it's a group of flowers (an inflorescence). Each yellow dot of the disc part of the inflorescence is a flower itself, called a disc floret. Each white "petal" of the inflorescence is also a flower, called a ray floret.

Interestingly enough, this flower has a terrible odor. That fact in and of itself isn't all that interesting, since many plants have terrible odors. The interesting fact is that this flower is still so popular not just as a landscaping plant, but also as a plant used in flower arrangements. Most people wouldn't think of taking the odor at the bottom of a dirty garbage can and rubbing it all over carnations to make their arrangement smell nicer, so the fact that these flowers are used at all is somewhat mind-boggling. Also interesting is that some people seem not to be bothered by the smell. There's probably some sort of genetic basis to that, but I'm not sure if it has been investigated at any length.

Aside from its obvious ornamental use, this plant also has an interesting culinary use in some areas in Europe. When the flower bud appears on the plant but has not yet opened, they can be picked and pickled in a manner similar to capers (or cucumber pickles for that matter) and used in much the same way. Since I absolutely detest the smell of these flowers, I sure hope the pickling could cover the odor!

Friday, August 17, 2012

The Butterfly Bush

Species name: Buddleja davidii

Common name: Butterfly bush

Location: Ontario

The butterfly bush is native to the Sichuan and Hubei provinces in China and coastal Japan. The B. davidii species is the most easily distinguished amongst all of the other species in the genus Buddleja: it has the orange centre of the flowers. Incredibly, there are over 600 species in the genus in total, and almost 100 different cultivars of this species alone! This shrub is described as having a "vigorous" growth habit, which would lead to the suggestion it has an invasive habit. Fortunately, due to the landscaping habits of most North Americans with this shrub growing in their gardens (hard pruning in either the spring or the fall), it has yet to become a major problem in most areas. Many popular cultivars are also less fertile than their non-modified ancestors, so that helps contribute to their lack of invasiveness in North America. That being said, it has been declared a noxious weed in Oregon and Washington. Further north it has difficulty surviving the harsh Canadian winters.

Given the common name, it shouldn't be a surprise what the major use of this plant is in landscaping: to attract butterflies. The plants also attract bees, hummingbirds, and moths. Amazingly enough, this is one group of plants that exists on every hospitable continent on Earth (the only non-hospitable being Antarctica, which is significantly too cold during the winter to be hospitable to any large plant). The morphological variation in this genus is relatively little (considering there are 600 species in the group), with most variation in flower colour and size. In the tropics some species attain a very large size due to the incredibly high productivity there, while some other species in sub-arctic and sub-antarctic areas are 10 cm or less off the ground.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Russian sage from the Middle East

Species name: Perovskia atriplicifolia

Common name: Russian sage

Location: Ontario

Based on the common name of this plant, you would probably guess that it's a relative of the "cooking sage" and that it was native to Russia. Yet another example of terrible common names assigned to plants (and why you should never rely on a common name alone to identify a plant), because you'd be wrong on both fronts. This plant is actually native to the Middle East and southwest Asia (Afghanistan through to Tibet), and is only related to sage at the family level. It does have a very strong smell like sage when the leaves are crushed, and the flowers are somewhat similar so I see how the comparison is made. I have no idea where the "Russian" part of the name came from; perhaps it's a common plant now in Russia?

Despite the scent and common name of the plant, this should be used for ornamental purposes only! Traditional use of this plant (mostly in Pakistan, but also some other surrounding countries) is through smoking for its psychoactive properties; the main psychoactive compound in the plant is thujone, which is the same chemical responsible for the psychoactive properties of absinthe (as an aside: recently there has been some debate about the origins of the psychoactive effects of absinthe when consumed; it actually contains very little thujone in it). Research is relatively limited on the compounds stored in the leaves versus roots, flowers, fruit, etc. but what has been done suggests that all parts of the plant should equally be avoided for consumption. In Eurasia this plant was also quite popular as a medicinal plant, being used primarily in a tea-like beverage to take away headache pain. So far there's no evidence to support that this plant actually works in that way. Plants, like willow, that naturally contain antipyretics (the fancy name for chemicals that reduce fever) are called febrifuges.

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Biggest, Baddest Bull Thistle

Species name: Cirsium vulgare

Common name: Bull thistle

Location: Ontario

This plant, often deemed a "weed," is native to Europe and parts of northwestern Asia but has been naturalized throughout most of North America. It prefers to grow in recently disturbed areas (where many non-native asters thrive), and so often pops up in gardens or lawns if they have recently been re-landscaped. That's the virtue of the beast! Because of its preference for disturbed areas, it can become invasive in prairie-like habitats which are, by definition, constantly being disturbed (hopefully; a healthy prairie has wildfires that blaze through once every 7 to 10 years).

Bull thistles are clearly not for the faint at heart for weeding, especially when they get to be this size. They can cause some serious damage to anyone (or any animal) that accidentally brushes up against it, is pushed against it, or falls on it. I wouldn't go as far as saying there's a serious threat of being impaled by a bull thistle, but it's certainly not a plant I would want a close encounter with!

Like many members of its family, the Asteraceae, the bull thistle is actually 100% edible when  young (as in, before flowering) with the taproot being the tastiest. It can be boiled then eaten exactly like a carrot or boiled further and mashed like potatoes. There aren't many people that would mess with this plant long enough to figure out you could eat it, so hats off to whoever discovered this fact! That's one brave soul.

I figured this would be a good time to point out that quite a few of my pictures, seemingly mostly the pictures of the aster (or sunflower) family, have bees in them with giant yellow sacs on their back legs. Those aren't actually sacs, those are giant balls of pollen. Most people think that bees are excellent pollinators, and that lots of bees in your garden means that you have lots of cross-pollination that's occurring. In reality, bees are absolutely terrible pollinators, and the globs on their back legs shows you precisely why. Bees hate having pollen attached to any part of their body, which is completely understandable; would you like sand crusted all over your skin? Probably not too comfortable. So bees have actually perfected the art of grooming while in flight. They use their antennae and front legs to meticulously groom all of the pollen off of their legs, back, head and torso. This doesn't mean pollen is useless to a bee; it's actually incredibly useful. They pack it onto their legs to carry back to their hive, and store it as food. On a lucrative pollen day, a bee will only return to the hive when the back legs get so encrusted with pollen that it's difficult to fly.

So now you know!

As a non-blog side note: sincerest congratulations goes out to my lab-mate Jessie who just successfully defended her Master's degree! Proud of you!