Thursday, November 29, 2012

The (red) osier dogwood

Species name: Cornus sericea

Common name: red-stemmed dogwood, red osier dogwood

Location: Ontario

The red-stemmed dogwood is native to North America, from Alaska on south to Michigan and Nebraska. It thrives in very cold temperatures, and has a spectacular look during the winter due to its bright red stems. A hard prune of this shrub will keep it shrubby (it will absolutely grow into a small tree up to 4 meters tall if you leave it alone), but the flowers only appear on new growth so you likely won't get any of the pretty white berries. In cultivated areas this plant seems to get a little out of control, but this isn't indicative of how it grows in the wild; you rarely see a patch of osier dogwoods that have out-competed all other species. The shrub is shade-tolerant (one of the reasons why it is so successful as an understory shrub), but requires direct sunlight in order to have bright red branches.

One of the most attractive characters of this shrub is the underground root network that can survive under periods of intense flooding. For this reason, the osier dogwood is one of the most popular plants to plant along riverbanks to prevent erosion. The roots grow very quickly and very densely to hold the soil in, and since it's a native plant it works well with the other native flora.

The berries have a reported medical use in stopping bleeding, but that use hasn't ever been substantiated with clinical evidence. The Lakota use the inner bark of the shrub as a "traditional tobacco," mixing it with barberry leaves to improve the flavour. Other than creating smoke that can be inhaled, I'm not sure what kind of effects this traditional tobacco has; there aren't any reports of the plant being toxic, stimulating or hallucinogenic to humans in any way, so I can't imagine what kind of result inhaling the smoke would have. And if other leaves need to be added to improve taste, I can't imagine it being very pleasant, either!

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

One of the Austrian pines

Species name: Pinus nigra

Common name: Austrian pine, European black pine

Location: Ontario

The Austrian pine is native to Europe, in countries surrounding the Mediterranean and Baltic Seas. There are actually two subspecies of the Austrian pine which rarely interbreed (but are still capable of forming hybrids in a very small overlapping zone as well as when they are brought together under artificial conditions like a greenhouse): the western subspecies existing in southern Italy, southern Spain, southern France and North Africa and the eastern subspecies in Austria, central Italy and Turkey. The needles of the two subspecies are quite different and you can easily tell them apart when side-by-side; the needles of the eastern subspecies are much fatter and much more rigid than the western subspecies. They both have different liveable temperature ranges, too, with the eastern subspecies being able to tolerate much colder minimum temperatures (down to -40 degrees Celsius with no adverse effects) compared to the western subspecies (only about -25 degrees Celsius or so). I believe the subspecies on campus would be the eastern subspecies, P. nigra subsp. nigra.

One major attractive feature that probably led to its widespread planting across Europe and North America is that it is a very fast growing tree, relative to other needle-bearing trees. It was originally thought to be an excellent lumber tree, so it was planted in large numbers in North America. Unfortunately, the grain of the wood is very rough and quite variable across the height of the tree, so making long boards suitable for building is not feasible. It was turned to as a major source of pulp and fibres for making paper, as a fuel source, and is still used as a low-grade wood for some construction purposes.

Unfortunately, as with most plant species that have been transported out of their native range, the Austrian pine has a dirty secret. That secret is a fungus. The "red band needle blight disease", caused by the fungus Dothistroma septosporum, is especially toxic to North American Austrian pine trees because of their inability to breed properly here. Austrian pines have a hard time cross-breeding outside of their native ranges, and the seeds that are self-fertilized are much less likely to germinate. This causes something called "inbreeding depression," which can lead to a buildup of genes that make a tree (this happens in animals, too) more susceptible to a pathogen. The North American trees are very susceptible to this pathogen, and it is an almost certainty that every single Austrian pine tree in North America will succumb to this disease. There is no known treatment once a tree is infected other than cutting it down and burning the residues (especially the needles, where the pathogen is housed in the living tree). Planting this tree, even as an ornamental, is strongly discouraged and planting this tree in continuous stands is not only strongly discouraged, but carries quite a hefty fine if you're caught doing it in many states in the United States (but no provinces in Canada yet). You can see that the tree in the top picture is looking very unhealthy; it is likely showing the first signs of infection from the disease.

Friday, November 23, 2012

The noxious cow itch vine

Species name: Campsis radicans

Common name: cow itch vine, trumpet vine

Location: Ontario

The trumpet vine is native to the southeastern United States, reaching as far north as Kentucky. Despite this, it is incredibly cold-hardy, and can survive winter temperatures as cold as -30 degrees Celsius. For a subtropical species, that feat in itself is incredible. What's even more incredible is that it actually does better when transported to "strongly temperate" areas (locations that have a clear summer that is very warm, and a clear winter that is very cold) like New England and southwestern Ontario. There, the vine becomes incredibly invasive and can be very destructive. In fact, "radical pruning" is recommended in order to control its growth; it can grow up to 30 meters in one growing season!

This plant is one of the many vines that produce structures called tendrils that act almost like support beams that help keep the plant upright and attached to its substrate, whatever that might be. The plant that made tendrils famous is the garden pea plant, which has tendrils that react so quickly to touch you can almost watch them grow without a time lapse camera! The cow itch vine takes this to a whole new level. It can actually use its tendrils almost like hole borers, and can penetrate into mortar between bricks, and can split apart perfectly healthy trees. Nevermind what it can do to hydro or telephone poles! Outside its native range it truly is a menace, and should be avoided at all costs (despite its incredible beauty). The one good thing about this plant is its flowers; the bright red colour and the trumpet-like shape attracts every species of hummingbird to have ever come in contact with it, so if you'd like some great hummingbird viewings on warm winter days, go find some other poor gardener that planted this vine and camp out in their yard with a camera. The flowers are so prolific in nectar that the birds are very likely to "put on a show" for you while you just sit and snap pictures!

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Mom's Secret Recipe

Today I decided to do something completely different on my blog, because...well, because I can! It's my blog, I can do what I want :)

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. 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 Aniruddho, 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. Thanks, Ani!

I'm going to feature my absolute favourite part of Thanksgiving, and Christmas 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!)

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 clear 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. asarense from 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 (

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)

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Japanese can't make their own taxol from their yew

Species name: Taxus cuspidata

Common name: Japanese yew

Location: Ontario

You might be wondering why I'm featuring the same plant twice in the same week, but you would have made one vital assumption that is incorrect: just because two species look the same doesn't mean they are the same. The Japanese yew, featured here (native to Japan, as you might have guessed), is a very close relative to the Canada yew, featured in my blog post on Monday (read all about it HERE). In fact, by assuming that the photos above represented the same species as that of the Canada yew, you would be making the same error that many botanists have made in the past; it was only recently demonstrated that there are distinct species within the genus Taxus. The genus was originally thought to be monotypic, and instead having distinct geographic races or subspecies that are on their way to becoming their own species, but have not yet become distinct enough to warrant the title. The Sumatran and the Mexican yews are the most different from the type species, the European yew. These were the first to obtain their own species designation, with every other species following suit and being confirmed through DNA sequencing.

So if these species are so morphologically similar, how do you tell them apart? Well, the needles and their arrangement on the branches is the first clue. The needles of the Canada yew are arranged around the branches when young, but the development of the bark on the branches almost flattens out the arrangement of the needles as it matures. If you look at the branches that are brown in colour instead of green (showing that bark has been formed), the needles are in two rows on each side, but are flattened on the branch. It has almost become two-dimensional. The difference in the maturation of the Japanese yew branches is that the needles remain spirally-arranged on the branch; they never flatten out unless something has been grazing the branches. With age, the needles also turn upwards, so all of the oldest needles on the inside of the shrub or small tree are pointing upwards, even though their point of attachment on the branch is all the way around it.

The second hint that these are different species is their sheer size difference. The Canada yew barely reaches a height of 2 meters off the ground and completely lacks a central stem. While the Japanese yew pictured above doesn't really look like it has a central stem, it is clearly more "tree-like", and the branches have the ability to support their own weight as opposed to drooping onto the ground like the Canada yew branches do. The Japanese yew can also grow to a maximum height of 18 meters.

The last major differences are not visible to the eye, but rather "visible" to a machine called a gas chromatography mass spectrophotometer, or GCMS. These machines are also sometimes called the "mass spec," and if you watch CSI at all you will have heard of them! They really do exist, and they are used in much the same way as suggested on TV (but not nearly as quickly, and the results are a bit harder to interpret than what the shows make them out to be!). You dissolve a bit of an unknown substance into a solvent (usually some sort of alcohol, although other organic solutions are sometimes used like chloroform), and inject a very small quantity into the machine. The machine separates the individual components of the liquid mixture by molecular size, and displays a graph of molecular weight versus abundance. The shape of the peak tells you what types of chemical bonds are present, and the location along the size axis tell you how big the molecules are. The height of the peaks tell you how much of any given substance are present. So what does this have to do with the Japanese yew? Well, it's a rather unfortunate tale for the Japanese; if they want to make their own paclitaxel, they're going to have to start planting Canada yew. The Japanese yew doesn't contain the right combination of taxanes to have the desired medical effects. In fact, the Japanese yew is exponentially more toxic than the Canada yew; it has the distinction of being the "Japanese horse killer." Just five needles are enough to kill a small dog. If you choose to plant this ornamental tree in your garden, please keep animals and small children away from it! And don't EVER use it as a Christmas tree!

Monday, November 19, 2012

An orange crabapple bush?

Species name: Pyracantha angustifolia

Common name: Narrowleaf firethorn

Location: Ontario

This species of firethorn (there are recognized 7 species in the genus and many varieties) is native to China, but popular throughout Europe and North America as an ornamental plant. It can tolerate the cold just enough where I am in Ontario, but not much further north since it doesn't do well in harsh winter climates. It can tolerate quite hot and arid areas, so does well in more tropical climates. It has become so invasive in areas of Hawaii that it threatens to completely eliminate native diversity. The only plant that manages to out-compete firethorns for resources in Canada is Madagascar periwinkle (which you can read all about HERE); not even English ivy can match its vigor (which you can read all about HERE).

If you look at the berries of the firethorn plant, you might think you've seen them somewhere before but a different colour. You would be correct! Like the crabapple (read all about it HERE), the firethorn is also in the rose family and has very similar, but smaller, fruit. They have that characteristic star-shape at the bottom of the fruit, which is also visible in apple fruits (also in the rose family!). This is characteristic of the type of fruit called a pome, and mimics the same star-shape that you see when you cut an apple in half cross-wise. And who hasn't cut an apple in half to reveal the star for apple-stamp painting when they were in daycare?! If you've never had the chance to do this, you're seriously missing out. And while you're at it, cut a potato in half and make a shape, and use that as a stamp, too. I miss these kitchen crafts...

Firethorn bushes are very important to wildlife in their native range, but not the primary food source of any animal in North America. The fruits are very bitter, so even birds would rather find something else to eat. They do obviously eat them, though, since they are the main vector of dispersal of the seeds. In order for a plant to become invasive, it must be reproducing successfully! Unlike its relative the scarlet firethorn, the fruit should never be consumed by humans (even after cooking) because they contain high levels of hydrogen cyannide.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Taxol in plant form

Species name: Taxus canadensis

Common name: Canada Yew

Location: Ontario

The Canada yew is an incredibly important shrub to people all over the world, and most don't even realize it. While technically not a tree, most of its closest relatives can be up to 25 meters high. The Canada yew has no main trunk, and so just kind of flops onto the ground. It was originally thought to be a subspecies of the English yew, Taxus baccata, but was shown to be a distinct species through DNA sequencing and actually more closely related to the Western yew than the English yew! Just goes to show that plants that appear to be closely related based on morphology alone might be misleading you when it comes to their genetic relatedness.

The Pacific or Western yew has just recently been downgraded from threatened to nearly threatened on the IUCN's Red List of endangered and threatened species worldwide. Its eastern relative, the Canada yew, has now replaced the Western yew as a commercial shrub. So why the need to produce it commercially? Well, it is an incredibly attractive plant with its red arils and soft green needles. The arils of these plants, contrary to what they look like, are not fruits! Yes, they're soft and fleshy and contain a seed. But because conifers cannot produce fruits because they do not have flowers, the red arils can't possibly be fruits. Instead they're just highly modified seed coats, which have been modified to store sugars and other tasty things that are attractive to birds and small mammals. Unfortunately, these red arils are also attractive to children and lead to quite a few deaths or hospitalizations every year since the seeds are incredibly toxic. The animals that consume the yew arils only eat the fleshy outsides, and either swallow the seeds whole and pass them right through their digestive tract, or leave the black seeds behind.

Sure, the ornamental use of this plant is quite important in Canadian industry. But that's certainly not the most important use of this plant worldwide. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, this plant was discovered to have a unique set of chemicals called taxanes with an incredibly important role in human health: they kill cancer cells. The chemicals were first isolated in 1992, and lead to the widespread population decline of the Pacific yew in western Canada. The Canada yew in the east was then discovered to have just as high a concentration of taxanes that were just as easily purified from the bark, and this species is much more abundant. It can also be sustainably harvested every 5 or so years, and so the purification of taxanes was switched to the bark of the Canada yew. Once the process was perfected and clinical trials were completed, drugs were officially put into production; worldwide they're called paclitaxel (the generic name) or taxol (the brand name). These two drugs are now the most widely prescribed anti-cancer drugs around the world. The other reason why this is so significant? The research was done at the university that I currently attend, The University of Western Ontario in London. Hometown pride! While there are still some stands of the Canada yew being used for taxane production, some of these chemicals have been successfully synthesized in the lab. It's only a matter of time before the entire spectrum of taxanes can be artificially lab-created and so wild populations of both species can be left to their own devices.

The medicinal use of the Canada yew doesn't stop there, but any medicinal use of this plant is incredibly dangerous because it is deadly toxic. Native North Americans used the young tips of this plant in very small amounts steeped in tea and consumed to alleviate rheumatism. There is some clinical evidence that consumption of this plant is effective in this way for rheumatism, but it is a very fine line between an appropriate medical dose and a lethal or very toxic one. For this reason, most doctors (and even herbalists) prefer other routes of relief.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

The fern with the maiden's hair

Species name: Adiantum aleuticum

Common name: western maidenhair fern

Location: Ontario

Unlike many ferns popular to grow in North America, this one is actually native to most of Canada and Alaska. It is incredibly cold-hardy as far as ferns go, surviving much colder temperatures than any of its ferny relatives. There is another species, A. pedatum (the five-fingered fern), that is also native to North America that is equally cold hardy and was once thought to be part of the same species (they were shown to be different species through DNA sequencing in 1991). It has slightly different fronds that are darker green than this species, and is a bit shorter when full-grown. Both species are deciduous, meaning the fronds are shed during the winter, but a few of their relatives are evergreen species, even in colder climates.

Also unlike many of its ferny relatives, this species' conservation status is listed as "secure" in all areas of its native range. I find this somewhat hard to believe since we're destroying its native habitat at a rather unprecedented rate, but they're the experts so they know what they're talking about. Part of the success of the species is thanks to its attractiveness; this is also an incredibly popular fern to grow as a landscaping plant in gardens. There are some very similar Chinese and Australian species, though, so if you choose to grow this in your garden make sure you're choosing one of the two native species. Because ferns are so sensitive not just to habitat change but also to climate change, they are at greater risk of extinction than any other plant species. When the dinosaurs ruled the earth, ferns were the dominant plant species; the majority of the "trees" that flying dinosaurs would have made their nests in would have been ancient species of ferns! There are still a few "tree ferns" that exist today, but nothing nearly as majestic as a 75-100 foot tall fern tree. They're much smaller at only 6-10 feet at their maximum.

Maidenhair ferns have been used as a medicinal tea plant for hundreds of years by Native North Americans. It is said to help relieve mucous membrane irritation, and so was often consumed to help sore throats and colds. Since we now know that even just drinking warm water will soothe a sore throat, drinking a tea with maidenhair fern leaves should be surprising that it would help a sore throat. Whether it has any actual medicinal value other than the placebo effect has yet to be determined.

Friday, November 16, 2012

The birch with non-acuminate leaves

Species name: Betula pendula

Common name: Weeping birch, silver birch

Location: Ontario

The weeping birch, usually having typical birch-shaped leaves ("acuminate" shaped leaves), is a common species in Europe and Asia throughout its native range and is often called the silver birch because of the bright white or silverish bark of the trunk of the tree. This particular tree is a certain type of weeping birch called the "cutleaf weeping birch", named after its very pronounced toothy leaves. There was once the suggestion that they should be different species because they are so morphologically different (the only real thing they have in common is the general shape of the tree; if that was all that was needed to determine species we would only have about 6 species of trees!), but this idea has been abandoned now that we know how genetically similar they are. There isn't enough variation in the barcoding regions of their genomes to allow for a separate species designation.

The first thing that many Canadians think of (if you're born before 1990 and/or was a member of boy scouts or girl scouts) when they hear "silver birch" is the camp song called "Land of the Silver Birch." To this day, I can still remember every single word! Unfortunately, that song has nothing to do with this tree. The song actually refers to the paper birch, the one from which birch bark canoes are made (which you can read all about HERE).

There are very few modern uses of the silver birch, although historical use of this tree was wide reaching. Currently it is used to make the poles for horse jumps since the wood is heavy enough to stay in place, but not too heavy to injure the horse if it hits the jump. They are also commonly used in the making of wooden utensils because of the attractive grain of the wood and the fact that it doesn't give off a flavour in the food like maple or oak wood would. In Europe the silver birch is popular in the pulp and paper industry, but in Canada we use other species primarily for this purpose. Historically, wine was produced from the sap of the tree, and that same sap could be condensed down and used as a type of glue. The bark was also popular for tanning leathers, especially when a light colour was desired (other barks or plant products were used if a dark colour was desired).

Thursday, November 15, 2012


Species name: Larix laricina

Common name: Tamarack, American larch

Location: Ontario

The tamarack, or as I like to call it the "hackmatack" (is that not the coolest name for a plant you've ever heard?!), is native to Canada and is one of the only tree species that is present in every province and territory across the entire country. Tamaracks are so versatile because despite being conifers, they lose their needles during the winter. This decreases what's called "evapotranspiration stress" during the winter (the plant's conflict in the needles between wanting to open stomata, or breathing holes, to let in carbon dioxide and oxygen so it can make sugars and energy and wanting to close stomata to prevent water loss). This might seem like a given: open them during the spring, summer and fall when water is easy to come by via the roots, and keep them closed all winter. Easy peasy! Well, it's often not that simple. In order to maintain needles during the winter, there does have to be some amount of carbon fixation that occurs just to maintain basic metabolic processes. If a tree opts instead to shed needles like a flowering tree would shed its leaves, this problem is eliminated. It also makes for a stunning colour display during the fall months: tamaracks turn a bright yellow.

In the Algonquian language (the Algonquian language has given rise to about 30 different languages and dialects spoken by different groups of Native Americans), the word "tamarack" means "wood used for snowshoes" so I hope you can guess what the major use of tamarack wood is! Snowshoes are now rarely made of wood (there are much more "modern" metal varieties these days; I find them much less attractive than those made out of wood!), so the main use of tamarack trees is in the pulp and paper industry. The wood was also used to make a type of tea that could be consumed to help with aches and pains from arthritis. I doubt the proposed medicinal usage actually works to any degree, or else tamaracks would be staples of the supplement market. I'm guessing it's more the placebo effect than anything else. Tamaracks are also popular in Japan for bonsai.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Happy Diwali!

Species name: Tagetes sp. (probably T. patula)

Common name: marigold

Location: picture 1 is from Teaching College English (click HERE), picture 2 is from eHow (click HERE), and picture 3 is from the WikiJunior Flower Alphabet (click HERE)

First of all, I would just like to address the third image, and the fact that Wiki now has a flower alphabet meant to teach children not only how to identify flowers, but also teach them the alphabet and how to read. Are you kidding?! Way to go, Wikipedia! I am SO impressed. With that out of the way...!

Today is the first day of a five-day celebration by Hindus, Sikhs, and Jains in India and around the world. It is known as the "festival of lights" or Diwali (or Deepavali, depending on what part of India you're from). I tried following how the exact date of Diwali is determined for any given year, but got lost after the mention of lunar days. For us non-Indians, it's sometime between mid-October and mid-November. This year it happens to be on November 13th. So how does this relate to a blog about plants, when it's a celebration of lights? Well, read on...

With over a billion people of the world celebrating Diwali, and with it being the single most important holiday to Indians around the world, there is an enormous demand for decorations. Just like North Americans decorate for Christmas or Hanukkah (or whatever else you celebrate), Indians decorate for Diwali. And like any true Indian celebration, A LOT of flowers are involved. In fact, there are so many flowers involved in any Diwali household celebration that the demand for flowers in India skyrockets; a flower arrangement selling for 30-50 rupees on any non-Diwali day would sell for between 700-900 rupees today. I encourage you to name any other commodity in the world whose value increases that much over such a short time, just to fall right back down to what it was all within a week. There are people in India who make their entire year's salary in one week. It's an incredible phenomenon! So how does this relate to marigolds? Well, quite unusually, it turns out.

Normally, the celebration of Diwali involves decorating the ground in a specific pattern with rose petals. Because of the unfavourable weather earlier this year, roses are in short supply compared to what they usually are, and on a day like Diwali when there's a surge in demand, flower suppliers just can't keep up. They knew well in advance that there would be no way they could meet demands, and so substitutes needed to be made. Marigolds were always popular flowers around Diwali because of their colours, but this year they became extra valuable. The value of marigolds increased almost one hundred-fold for this year's celebration alone! Could there be a day that climate change causes a huge shift in how festivals like Diwali are celebrated? Perhaps. The flower supply market in Kenya, one of the leading producers of carnations, roses, gerbera daisies and baby's breath worldwide, has already started to suffer as a result of increased incidence of drought. While the temperature is not expected to change much (only 2-3 degrees Celcius by the year 2100; compare that to a projected 7-8 degree change for the Arctic), the incidence of severe weather patterns is expected to increase. Drought will be more widespread and worse than it is now, and when there is drought relief it is expected to be in the form of violent storms. Not exactly weather conducive for flower growing, in a greenhouse or not.

Marigolds themselves are some of the most highly praised garden plants worldwide. They are native to North and South America depending on species, but were spread worldwide for ornamental plant use by early world explorers. Marigold petals are added to a wide variety of food items for the golden colour they give off, especially when fed to chickens. It brightens the colour of the egg yolk and makes the egg appear (to humans; chickens don't care about the colour of their yolks) to be more nutritious even though the nutrition hasn't been changed at all. Marigold petals are also popular in herbal teas to balance out the bright pink colour of so many other herbal tea ingredients (like rosehips). The roots of marigold plants are full of antifungal and antibacterial chemicals called thiophenes, which are starting to be investigated as chemicals of possible medicinal value. The roots have been used for centuries by Native South Americans as treatment for fungal infections of their agricultural crops with moderate success. Unfortunately, North Americans and Europeans found out this antimicrobial effect the hard way; when planted near legumes, which rely very heavily on microbial activity in the soil, the yield of the crop decreases dramatically. The scent of marigold flowers is so pungent that it repels a wide variety of crop predators, and so can be useful when planted beside non-legume crops like tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant and peppers. The flowers of the marigold plant also attract pollinators, some of which will also eat insect parasites of crop plants like aphids. A great story of insect-plant mutualisms!

Happy Diwali to all of my blog readers in India, and Indians living around the world! Diwali ki Subhkamnayein! That's the best I can keyboard doesn't speak Hindi :)

Monday, November 12, 2012

Can The Cat Come Back?

Species name: Typha angustifolia

Common name: Narrowleaf Cattail

Location: Ontario

There is a bit of debate as to where this species originated, but I'm going to give it the benefit of the doubt and say it's a North American species that has been introduced to Europe. It's entirely likely it happened the other way around; the species is so broadly distributed across the Northern Hemisphere that it has become difficult to tell where it "has its roots," so to speak. All cattails are what are called "obligate wetland" species, meaning that they require the wetland environment in order to grow. This doesn't mean they need to have the base of the plants submerged; it just means that they require very loose, very wet soil to grow with poor drainage. They have adapted throughout the millennia to be able to survive having water-logged roots, where most plant species would essentially drown. Even though roots grow underground, they still require oxygen to survive!

Cattails have a long history of use in North America, from food to clothing and baskets. Almost every part of the cattail is edible, with the youngest parts being favoured. Even though the plant doesn't ever grow true wood, it still can get "woody" (like bamboo; that's not real wood, either) and difficult to chew. The underground rhizomes can be eaten like potatoes, and were once thought to be "the next great agricultural crop" when the whole world floods after the ice caps melt. This idea was rather quickly abandoned since, well, they're not all that tasty. But in a pinch they're actually quite nutritious, even more than a potato or sweet potato. If you're ever lost in a wetland and about to die of starvation, go dig up some cattail rhizomes! Just make sure you cook them; they're incredibly unpalatable when raw, and some even report they might be mildly poisonous. Best not to risk it.

I remember when I was a kid we used to go pick the green leaves to make grass skirts out of for "Hawaiian Day" at day camp. I thought we did that only because we don't have palm trees in Canada, but it turns out that they have been used for exactly that purpose for hundreds of years. Granted, they're not called "Hawaiian grass skirts" when you're not in Hawaii (or using grass...). The reeds are also fantastic for making baskets. Weave the green leaves while still fresh, then allow to completely dry. The basket will be lightweight, can get wet without falling apart, and floats. Great for collecting cattail rhizomes! The leaves can also be woven into a flat mat, laid on a flat rock then pounded flat with a smaller rock. Once all of the leaves have been split open and the fibres have all been mashed together, the sheet is let dry. The dried sheet can be written on exactly like paper would have been, but this material is much more durable. It's actually the exact same method that ancient Egyptians used to make papyrus, where we get the English word "paper". I'm not sure whether the method for making paper this way was independently discovered in North America, or whether word had spread from Europe during the early days of exploration.

Due to disappearing wetland habitat around the world, all cattails are at risk for population decline. To compound this fact, there are some "facultative wetland" species (species that don't require wetlands to survive, but can grow perfectly well there) that outcompete cattails for resources and habitat space. Unless we actively start ripping out invasive aquatic plants and conserve wetlands, this species is at a real threat of disappearing.