Sunday, September 30, 2012

Miscanthus for fuel?

Species name: Miscanthus sinensis

Common name: Chinese silver grass, Eulalia grass, Suzuki grass

Location: Ontario

As you can probably guess, this species of ornamental grass is native to Asia (China, Korea, Japan and Taiwan). It is a very popular ornamental grass species in North America, if not the most popular. There are about 15 different varieties that are widely grown with varying selected characteristics; this variety (along with a couple of others) has purple flower bracts. Another variety that I've previously blogged about is the infamous zebra grass, which you can read all about HERE.

I'm actually surprised at how many people believe that grasses don't have flowers, just because they don't have a structure that you would traditionally believe to be a flower. Any plant that produces a fruit must have a flower (but not every plant that produces a seed; pine trees, for example, produce seeds but no flowers. Instead the seeds are produced in a cone), and the fruit of a grass has a special name called a caryopsis. The caryopsis of any edible grass species is what we eat: the oatmeal you have for breakfast is the oat caryopsis, the grain that is ground to make flour for your morning toast is the wheat caryopsis, and the rice that you cook for your stir-fry is the rice caryopsis. As a general rule, any flower that's not overly flashy is probably pollinated by wind, since they make no effort to attract insects (through scent, colour, mimicry, etc.).

Miscanthus grasses are very successful reproducers in temperate ecosystems. They produce a huge number of seeds, and can spread through the soil via underground rhizomes. Recently, the suggestion has been made that perhaps they would make a good biofuel alternative compared to corn, since we eat corn and we don't eat Miscanthus. Instead, we could use corn for food (both for us and for livestock), and make fuel out of Miscanthus. A good idea in theory, but the problem is that we make bioethanol currently out of actual corn fruit (the corn caryopsis!) which is full of sugar and easily fermentable by yeast. We do not make bioethanol from corn husks or the green parts of the plant. This would involve turning plant cellulose into sugar, then the sugar into ethanol. Completely possible, but incredibly expensive and slow. The same would have to happen with Miscanthus; this makes the process currently economically a moot point. Any benefit we would get from growing Miscanthus instead of corn would be outweighed by the obscene price it would cost to build cellulose reactors. Until we can find an economically viable way to turn cellulose into sugar, producing bioethanol will always be a very expensive process. Expensive because corn is expensive to grow (unlike Miscanthus which grows like a weed with no chemical or labor inputs) but also because we're diverting perfectly edible food out of the food production chain.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

The binder of wood: European honeysuckle

Species name: Lonicera periclymenum

Common name: European honeysuckle, woodbine

Location: Ontario

Right away the common name of this species should strike you as a non-native species, and you would be correct. I still haven't quite figured out why, but any species in the genus Lonicera, no matter where it's native to, seems to become a very popular garden plant in both North America and Europe. It's probably because of the intoxicating smell, especially towards nightfall (I'll be one of the first to admit that I absolutely love the smell of honeysuckles and lilacs). Unfortunately, almost every species of honeysuckle, including most species native to North America, are incredibly invasive except under very specific conditions. Most honeysuckles require their roots to be in the shade (they grow very shallowly under the surface of the ground), while their leaf tips in full sun. This makes them incredibly effective climbers, and spread out on top of plants to completely engulf them and use them as a support to grow. Honeysuckles that are more shrub-like instead of vine-like usually only contain leaves on the very outside of the shrub for this very reason (but it's very difficult to tell upon first glance since they have such dense growth). The most impressive invasive honeysuckle in North America is the trumpet honeysuckle which I'll profile in a blog post next month.

Because of the intense smell and the unusual shape of the flowers, it should suggest to you that honeysuckle flowers are pollinated by very specific pollinators. In fact, one of the reasons why the European honeysuckle is so successful as a plant species is because its native pollinator, a moth, has been an invasive moth species in North America longer than the plant has been here! Before the arrival of the European honeysuckle, the moth would feed on native honeysuckles and often out-compete native moths for nectar. It's amazing how one small change to an ecosystem can completely throw things out of balance. Now that the plant is here the moth is happy, and our native moths can go back to pollinating our native honeysuckles, for better or for worse! Watching a nocturnal moth unfurl its "tongue" (called a proboscis) to reach a nectary is fascinating. If you haven't yet observed the phenomenon (and don't mind getting eaten alive by mosquitos; wearing bug spray can deter some moth species), you should go find a honeysuckle and camp out beside it close to sunset during the summer months. If you'd rather just watch a youtube video, here is a good one (best viewing of the proboscis is around 0:30).

Friday, September 28, 2012

The story of the Champlain rose hybrid

Species name: Rosa "Champlain" (see hybrid discussion below)

Common name: the Champlain landscape rose

Location: Ontario

At the beginning of June I blogged about a rose that we have in our garden, the pink Damask rose. I discussed the modern uses of roses aside from their ornamental use, which you can read all about HERE. One aspect of ornamental roses that I wanted to discuss, is the point that humans go to great lengths to achieve what we consider beauty in nature. This unsuspecting hybrid cultivar, which my neighbours have planted in their garden, is a perfect example of this never-ending pursuit of beauty. In the genus Rosa, there are somewhere between 100 and 150 different species depending on what expert you consult, with each one having drastically different characteristics. If we could find a way to select characteristics from each species to display in different hybrids, we could (in a way) "create" hybrids that would be very successful garden plants. Which we did. Approximately 5000 different times. Yes, there are an estimated 5000 different cultivars of roses of varying hybrid origins. Isn't that incredible?! That's a boatload of determination. So what went into making this hybrid?

To make the Champlain landscape rose, the series of steps to get from beginning to the end product that's planted in my neighbour's garden is no less complicated from start to finish or finish to start. So to be different, let's start with the end product: to create a Champlain hybrid, you must hybridize a Hybrid Tea rose with a Floribunda rose. Seems easy enough.

But, of course, it's not that easy. Because each of those are hybrids within themselves. The Floribunda rose is a hybrid between two different rose species, Rosa chinensis (China rose) and Rosa multiflora (multiflora rose). Easy enough! To get a Hybrid Tea rose, you need to cross a Hybrid Perpetual with a Tea rose. Interesting.

How do you get a Tea rose? This is a hybrid of two rose species, Rosa chinensis and Rosa odorata (scented rose). Again, easy enough. To get a Hybrid Perpetual rose, this is where things start to get a bit muddy. Making a Hybrid Perpetual, an incredibly popular garden rose because of its continuous flowering during the spring, summer and early fall, is incredibly complicated because it's made up entirely of recessive genes. Since most of these genes also carry disease susceptibility depending on species, you need to pick and choose what genes you get from which species. The easiest way to do this? Cross more hybrids to make second-generation hybrids! Yay! So a Hybrid Perpetual rose is created by crossing, in some seemingly random order, Hybrid China roses, Hybrid Bourbon roses, and Hybrid Noisette roses.

Alright, this is starting to get ridiculous. Because now we've got three more hybrids that we need to figure out how to make before we can even begin. To get a Hybrid Noisette, you have to cross Rosa moschata (Musk rose) with Rosa chinensis. To get a Hybrid China, you have to cross various cultivars of Rosa chinensis (can you see why I'm not a rose breeder now? This is giving me a headache). And last but not least, to get a Hybrid Bourbon you have to cross a Damask rose with one very specific cultivar, the "Old Blush" China rose (Rosa chinensis).

This brings us to our last hybrid cross, getting that Damask rose back that I first blogged about: a hybrid between Rosa moschata and Rosa gallica (French rose). Oh, what fun!

So to sum up, the species that go into making the genetic background of one cultivar of Hybrid Landscape rose are: Rosa chinensis, R. multiflora, R. odorata, R. moschata, and R. gallica in what seems like no less than one hundred steps. This doesn't even include the number of times a rose breeder had to cross different Hybrid Landscape roses together to get this specific flower colour, leaf colour, glossy leaves, red border around the leaf edge, red twig coloration, disease resistance, cold tolerance, and odor level. If this sounds like fun to you, perhaps you should strongly consider a career in rose breeding! There are about 5 companies that are giants worldwide for hybrid rose production, and I'm sure they're constantly looking for new staff. I'm not sure what would happen first: a new marketable rose cultivar or insanity...

Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Cornus Conundrum

Species name: Cornus capitata

Common name: Himalayan dogwood

Location: Ontario

Despite this looking a whole lot like the Japanese Dogwood in a previous blog post (also called the Chinese dogwood; read all about it HERE), I believe very strongly that this is a different species; at least, that this individual tree would be classified as a different species according to currently recognized species. Whether or not a DNA analysis would confirm or deny that these are, in fact, two separate species is probably up for debate. I think the key here lies in the fruit and in the leaves.

The fruit of the Japanese dogwood is quite dense. Once you get through the tough outer rind there is a a sweet flesh on the inside, but not much of it because the seeds are quite large in comparison to the size of the fruit. In the Himalayan dogwood (native to, you guessed it, the Himalayas where it is not overly common), the fruit is much larger, much juicier, but also much less sweet. This series of photographs is actually of my neighbour's tree (I'm glad they don't question me sneaking around the front of their property, taking pictures of their plants!), and I'll be the first to admit that I tried one of the fruits. It was bad. Really bad. The Wikipedia page of the Himalayan dogwood doesn't say anything about the fruit being tasty (it does say edible but bitter, which would be spot-on based on my experience; read the entire paragraph worth of information about it HERE), but I figured at the time it was worth a shot. I don't recommend it.

The leaves of the Japanese dogwood have rather non-descript borders, exactly as you would imagine from a dogwood. Smooth leaves on the top and the bottom, a prominent primary vein down the centre of the leaf with equally prominent secondary veins coming off of that running almost to the leaf edge, and very few easily visible tertiary veins. The Himalayan dogwood is quite similar, except that the leaf edge is a much lighter colour than the rest of the leaf and almost provides a border around the outside. When felt, the leaves of the Himalayan dogwood are also much hairier than the Japanese dogwood (which have very glossy, green leaves).

The Himalayan dogwood, whether on purpose or by accident, is gaining popularity as an ornamental plant in North America. It is much more cold-tolerant than its Japanese relative so is more favourable for slightly more northern climates. Don't expect it to survive in Alaska, however; it's not quite that cold-tolerant! The fruit of the Himalayan dogwood are also much showier than the Japanese dogwood, providing a spectacular show in the fall, and have very similar showy inflorescences in the spring. Because the fruit is so much more bitter, it doesn't have the sugar content required to be of great use in the winemaking industry (like in which the Japanese dogwood is sometimes used) and for the same reason is much less edible. The flip side of this is that it is much less appealing to herbivores and so the fruit remain on the tree until they rot (and provide an equally spectacular odor; picture the smell of fermenting, rotting apples in an orchard on warm days in the fall...). There are some species of insect that will consume the fruit, but these are relatively few.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The elusive Earthstars

Species name: Geastrum fimbriatum

Common name: fringed earthstar

Location: Ontario

Since very little is known about the actual abundance of fungal species in the wild, assigning a rarity level or species status to a species of fungi is incredibly difficult. To date there are officially only three globally recognized fungal species as endangered, one of which is located in North America. This is not it, but in general earthstars are deemed to be "not common". This doesn't, however, mean that they're not actually incredibly common! I challenge you to look at the first picture and find it right away. Unless you are of very keen eye and are really looking out for a fungus, you see a tree stump and a bunch of pine needles on the ground and some dirt. Perhaps you notice the sap of the pine tree that used to be there caked around the outside of the stump, but that just would be one more tiny characteristic that would make you think you're looking at a pine stump and nothing else. Such is the case for most species of fungi; they are so non-descript, that unless you're specifically looking for them and documenting every time you find them, they are determined to be "rare" or "uncommon". This is a central theme of my thesis, in fact, since globally the group I work with are considered "rare," but I firmly believe it's only because they are so small (~0.1-0.5 mm across) and grow in a location not many people would be willing to look (underside of well-rotted logs). You know what else grows where my fungi grow? Spiders. Snakes. Salamanders. Frogs. Bugs. And in the tropics, most of these things will kill you if you let them get close enough. So I can see why one might be a little less than excited to go looking for them...

The earthstars in general are very difficult to tell apart, but there are some characteristics to look for in particular. If you find them fresh (I unfortunately didn't) and the body of the fungus is white and the "arms" are pure black, you've actually found a remarkable species called Astraeus hygrometricus. For those of you that are proficient in Latin, you should be able to discern that the second word of this species name implies that it responds to barometric pressure. Pretty silly, right? What fungus can do that?! Well, this one can. It responds to the amount of moisture in the air, opening the arms of the star under times of high humidity (or lots of ground moisture), and closing the arms to different degrees depending on dryness. The clue that I had that what I found was definitely not the barometric false earthstar is that even though these are bone-dry, the arms of the star are still open. If this was truly Astraeus hygrometricus, the arms would be completely closed around the rest of the fruiting body. So this narrows it down to having to be a true earthstar, or in the genus Geastrum.

Within Geastrum, there are only about 5 known species in North America (more in Europe and the tropics; there are about 50 known species in the genus). The key is in the opening of the pore, from which the spores escape (a mechanism like a puffball). I looked closely at the pore (but unfortunately didn't think to take a picture of just the pore opening), and saw that it had the fringe around the opening, meaning that it has to be the fringed earthstar. Easy as pie! I'm sure there are actually significantly more species of Geastrum in North America (and maybe even the genus should be divided into many parts) than just five, but five makes it easy to figure out which is which! Once someone starts to take on the daunting task of sequencing the DNA of every Geastrum ever collected around the world, we might start to get a better picture of how many species there are, and just how they're distributed around the world.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Welcome to Fall!

UPDATE: I have added a "Follow Prickly and Bitter by Email!" widget to enable easy reading and following by my devout blog readers. This widget is run by a second party called FeedBurner, and they are the ones that organize and run the service. I have tested the service, and confirmed that I do not have access to your e-mail address, should you choose to use the service. You would enter your e-mail address into the box, verify your e-mail submission by the captcha code in the pop-up window, then you will received a confirmation e-mail. This e-mail, from FeedBurner, will have a verification link which you click on to verify your e-mail. After that, every time I post a new blog you will have it sent directly to your e-mail inbox. I have also added RSS feed subscription buttons for both posts and comments, if that's your thing.

I figured as a welcome to fall, I should change my blog colours to reflect the season. So here we are back to orange and brown, the typical colours of fall harvest. It makes me think of pumpkins for Halloween and Thanksgiving, two of my favourite holidays!

I was going to do a series on local agricultural species, but decided to save that until next year when I'm theoretically going to be running out of common local species to photograph and blog about. This is one of the downsides of living in a temperate climate and not a tropical one: fewer species, and a much shorter growing season in which to photograph! Something to look forward to for next fall.


Painting the fields gold: goldenrods

Species name: Solidago canadensis

Common name: Canada goldenrod

Location: Ontario

Canada goldenrod is one of the few plants to be accidentally exported to other countries around the world that has since caused enormous economical and ecological damage. Most of our native species, it turns out, are little more than "mildly" invasive once they reach foreign habitats. This plant, however, is one of the few, shameful, exceptions. Goldenrods in general get a lot of bad press in the fall. A lot of people seem to think that goldenrods are the source of their seasonal allergies, but this is far from the case. Goldenrod pollen is ENORMOUS as far as pollen is concerned, and based on the number of bees swarming around goldenrods in September it should lead you to believe they are insect-pollinated (which they are). Goldenrod pollen is also sticky and has large spikes to stick onto the tiny hairs of the legs of bees to be carried to the next flower. Ambrosia, or ragweed, is flowering at much the same time as most goldenrods and is the source of hayfever. Its pollen is much smaller (about half the size of a goldenrod's pollen), and the flowers are wind-pollinated. The pollen swirls around in the air currents, often being inhaled by various vertebrates. Because the pollen is so small, it causes irritation in the nasal and respiratory passages and causes sneezing and congestion in those that are sensitive. So if you're miserable with a runny nose in the fall, make sure you're blaming the right plant for your pain and suffering!

Goldenrods were accidentally introduced to many countries in Europe and Asia, and purposely introduced to Britain where it has taken off as an ornamental garden plant. In fact, there are some areas of Britain that have "goldenrod collections" and actively breed new species. Us Canadians find that hard to believe since it's a common weed here, but I guess to each their own. In fact, it has been gaining slight popularity in North America as an ornamental species where the planting of native species is promoted. Unfortunately, it's also a wonderful example of exactly how invasive species work. Since its accidental introduction to China, especially the province of Shanghai, the plant has reached epidemic levels. It is estimated that it has directly caused the extinction of at least 30 different native species due to its strangling effects. It has also reduced orange yields due to its ability to compete for resources. The sightings of various species of goldenrods is even taken as seriously as terrorism threats in some highly sensitive areas of China! It has also caused widespread concern in Germany, where it has started displacing some native species in sensitive areas.

Believe it or not, most parts of the goldenrod plant are edible. The flowers, while not overly appetizing, are considered edible, as are the leaves and young shoots. I've never tried eating them (OK, I've tried the flowers...I don't recommend them!), but they were once heavily relied on by native North American people during years of low yield of agricultural species. This year would be a prime example of a goldenrod eating year: corn fields are rather sad looking, yet roadside ditches are absolutely full of goldenrods! Some species have also been used medicinally as a treatment for pain and infection associated with kidney stones. As far as I know, no scientific studies have ever been conducted to determine if this effect is real, or if the warm tea acts as a placebo effect (as most warm tea does!).

I learned recently from a friend who owns two beehives that goldenrods are sometimes planted on purpose near apiaries to make "goldenrod honey". I didn't realize this would be any different than any other kind of honey made in the fall, but perhaps that's because I wasn't thinking about why I didn't like goldenrod flowers. The honey made from goldenrod flowers actually tastes like it has had black pepper infused in it, and has a very spicy aftertaste! It's amazing how bees can use different species of pollen and nectar in the same way and end up with entirely different products. Nature is a fascinating thing!

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Lovely Lavender

Species name: Lavandula angustifolia (formerly L. occidentalis)

Common name: English Lavender

Location: Ontario

You might think this plant is native to England or the surrounding area, but you would of course be incorrect (don't you love it when that happens?!). This plant is actually native to the western Mediterranean near the Pyrenees mountains in Spain. It is an incredibly popular ornamental, medicinal and culinary plant which first gained popularity amongst the British, hence the common name. In fact, the British are the biggest users of lavender products in the world.

This species of plant is considered to be evergreen in most areas of the world, meaning that it doesn't lose its leaves during the winter. It is cold-tolerant and drought-tolerant, but quite sensitive to continuously wet soils. If you wanted to plant this in your garden, it would do best in high-lying areas to ensure well-draining soil. Due to the incredibly aromatic leaves and flowers, the plants suffer from very little herbivory, and the essential oil is so potent that it prevents most types of microbial growth on the plant. The chances of it being eliminated from a garden (or agricultural plantation) due to disease is quite slim. The flowers contain a large amount of nectar for their size and are great attractants of pollinators. In fact, the lavender essential oil remains intact after nectar processing by bees to make honey, so lavender honey is one of the few honeys that naturally have a flowery taste. There are a few other "specialty" honeys for sale out there, but many of them are artificially spiked with flavouring during the processing (by humans) from honeycomb to jar.

Aside from ornamental use, lavender flowers have been used in culinary applications for many centuries. The French use it in a special herb blend called "Herbes de Provence" which was made popular in the 1970s in North America. The British also use lavender flowers in tea and in making pastries and creams.

Medicinally, lavender oil is often mixed with some other sort of carrier oil (it is very difficult to obtain large amounts of lavender essential oil and it also has a very potent smell, so it must be diluted) and used in aromatherapy. During World War I, lavender oil was a popular anti-infection oil used to treat open wounds. It does have quite powerful antimicrobial properties, and is still sometimes used for that purpose today (in "herbal medicine").

A word of caution: lavender oil is a VERY powerful allergen. Some people are allergic to it in concentrations as little as 0.25%, and most people will show some sort of reaction at as little as 1% solution. For this reason, it is strongly suggested from all medical professionals that you refrain from using lavender oil in any form on children under the age of 2. The type of reaction it causes is photosensitivity, and applying it on sensitive skin can cause reactions as severe as second degree burns which can leave permanent scarring. ALWAYS read the label before you purchase lavender oil, and make sure that the concentration of oil is less than 1%. If you can't tell, don't buy it or don't use it on your skin. The leaves and flowers of lavender when used in traditional amounts in cooking are never enough to produce 0.25% of essential oil so not to worry if you enjoy using them in cooking (or eating lavender honey or lavender jelly). Just don't make a meal out of lavender leaves!

As another word of caution, there was evidence in 2007 that stated lavender oil (as well as tea tree oil) can cause gynaecomastia, or breast development in young boys, due to its estrogenic activity. This was refuted in 2008, but be cautious. Just yet another reason to avoid using lavender oil as any form of medical treatment on young children!

Friday, September 21, 2012

Impatient Impatiens

Species name: Impatiens walleriana

Common name: impatiens

Location: Ontario

This plant is one of those convenient species that the common name is the same as the Latin name, and is another that is native to eastern Africa (Mozambique to Kenya). The unfortunate part is that there are over 200 species in the genus, and the morphological variation in the flowers alone of the group are tremendous. Other common names for this genus are the jewelweeds, touch-me-nots, and balsams. I have no idea where that last common name comes from, since these plants are in no way related to the balsam tree. Strange.

One of the most remarkable characteristics of this group of plants is the mechanism by which the plants disperse their seeds. The seed pods have an explosive mechanism that when touched, launch the seeds at remarkable speeds away from the plant. This is a great adaptation, since the idea of reproducing is that you want your offspring to spread your genes around the environment, not reproduce directly at your feet. Plus, it makes the plants fun to play with!

This species is one of the most popular ornamental bedding plants in North America. There isn't much of a risk of this plant becoming invasive since it is relatively tropical in its native habitat and has very little chance of reproducing where there's a cold winter. But there are so many other species of attractive native plants that plants like this shouldn't be needed in a garden. Maybe one day native species will be more widely available in nurseries and so more gardeners will be exposed to the beauty of native plants.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

When is a Pelargonium actually a geranium?

Species name: Pelargonium x hortorum

Common name: Geranium

Location: Ontario

The geranium is one of the few ornamental plants in North America that is native to southern Africa. There are about 200 different species in the genus Pelargonium, and about 500 different cultivars of P. x hortorum alone. There is an enormous amount of variation in this one group of plants, thanks to the ongoing need for humans to have "pretty gardens." Ironically, this need for personal garden beauty has put almost every species in the genus at risk of becoming threatened in the wild, while the ornamental cultivars are at risk of becoming invasive in some areas!

This group of plants is a fantastic example of why you should never rely on common names alone to identify plants. There is actually a genus of plants called Geranium (which I have previously blogged about HERE). To further complicate things, North Americans sometimes refer to the Pelargonium geranium is "storksbills", while Europeans refer to the Geranium geranium as "storksbills." And just to make it even more fun, there is yet another group of plants in Europe referred to as "cranesbills" since they look like the beak of a crane when in flower--and Europeans refer to storks as cranes and cranes as storks. I feel a headache coming on. Does anyone else?!

There are about 20 species of Pelargonium that have very unusual scented leaves, and this property of the leaves has been exploited in cultivars around the world. You can probably tell from the second photo, the petioles of the leaves, the underside of the blade of the leaf, and the stems of the geranium plant are all very hairy. They're completely covered in small plant hairs called trichomes, and the role of these trichomes is mainly for plant defence. They're like microscopic daggers that the plant can use to deter herbivores. Sometimes some plants take this one step further and make modified trichomes that have oil glands at the ends. This oil usually has some sort of very potent smell, which helps deter herbivores when they brush up against the plant. If a plant smells very strongly of any odour, it usually means to stay away. If the herbivore doesn't get it, the oil is usually toxic and kills (or severely damages) the herbivore. Some plant essential oils in concentrated form are so potent that they can paralyze a deer if it consumes only a single leaf! In the geranium, the essential oils smell like other very common scents; everything from oranges to roses and everything in between (there are recognized species that have leaves that smell like almond, apple, coconut, lemon, nutmeg, allspice, old spice, peppermint, rose, southernwood, strawberry, and "fire"). This has been used in various ways to create cultivars with flowers that smell like one scent, and leaves that smell like another. We humans can do some marvellous things when it comes to plant breeding!

Aside from ornamental use, the essential oils of the geranium plant are used quite frequently in the perfume industry, often as a cheap substitute for rose oil. If you buy expensive rose oil perfume, make sure you're getting the right stuff! Also, the common geranium is edible, although I have tried it and it's not very tasty. I would recommend you stick to spinach if you want something green and leafy. If it's edible flowers you want (to decorate a cake or cupcakes), geraniums are a good choice.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The healing powers of wild mint

Species name: Mentha arvensis

Common name: wild mint

Location: Ontario

Imagine my surprise when I find out that not only does this look like mint, it actually is mint! All this time, my mom and I had been buying mint in small pots from the gardening centre to put in planters on our back patio for the summer to make beverages (usually ending up in a Mojito; a traditional drink from Cuba involving mint and lime muddled with sugar, a dash of bitters, then topped up with soda water. If you want to feel "truly Cuban" you an add a good dash of aged rum). Little did we know that we could just raid the neighbour's garden without paying a cent. Perhaps we might even ask to use it first, but it's not like they'd notice it was even gone. The genus Mentha in general is incredibly invasive no matter what habitat it's in; it doesn't have to be a non-native habitat to become a weed (as evidenced by this species: native to southeastern Canada and northeastern United States, and invasive across all of its native range and in Europe, Asia and Australia where it has been introduced). The same invasive habit can be found with spearmint (M. spicata; native to Europe), water mint (M. aquatica; native to Europe, northwest Africa and southwest Asia), European horsemint (M. longifolia; native to Europe and western and central Asia), curled mint (M. crispa; native to Europe and northern Africa) and peppermint (M. piperita; native to Europe). Imagine my second round of surprise to learn that the species in my neighbour's back yard is the native wild mint! Now I can drink mojitos knowing I'm helping clear the weeds from mine and my neighbours' gardens (it feels like the plants grow back as fast as I can use them) and consuming locally-grown, native crops while I'm at it. Now if only I can find a way to domesticate a new species of cold-tolerant limes in Canada, I'll be all set.

Since this species of mint actually has what we call a "circumboreal distribution," meaning it's native range is in Asia, Europe and North America, the traditional use of this plant is spread across many different cultures around the world. The wild mint plant, most important by far to Hindus in India (they refer to it as "Podina"), is most notably used as a medicinal plant after its important culinary use. The menthol in the leaves, a kind of plant-based alcohol, has reported healing powers for many different ailments including headaches, nausea, vomiting, stomach upset, diarrhea, muscle pain, rhinitis, sore throat, and colic in babies. It also has reported effects with decreasing inflammation and acting as an antibiotic when applied on the skin. It can also relieve the itch associated with rashes and insect bites and stings, as well as treat swollen gums and mouth ulcers. That's a whole lot of use for one little plant!

Do any of these reported treatments actually work? Certainly it provides some relief for any kind of ache or pain, due to the cooling sensation of the menthol. Can it actually reduce swelling? I've never noticed pure menthol extract (either suspended in a gel or a cream) to be particularly effective at reducing swelling associated with muscle or bone injury but the feeling associated with the cooling menthol at the very least acts as an excellent placebo. It also absolutely does relieve itching due to that same cooling feeling. When menthol enters the digestive tract it helps the body with digesting food, so it can play a role in relieving indigestion and helping with other digestive issues. In fact, there was a study in 2007 published in the journal "Digestive and Liver Disease" that noted that in people with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), ingesting mint oil (usually in the form of peppermint oil, but could be any oil with high levels of menthol and menthone) three times a day can have a major reduction in symptoms associated with IBS in as many as 75% of all people tested! The results were confirmed in another study in 2008, and this is currently being worked on by a lab in Italy as a viable treatment option for those suffering from IBS.

Monday, September 17, 2012

The creepy, sneaky bellflower

Species name: Campanula rapunculoides

Common name: Creeping bellflower

Location: Ontario

The creeping bellflower is a species of herbaceous plant native to Europe and western Siberia. It was introduced to North America about a century ago, and it has become highly invasive since then. It is a ground cover plant (or growing upwards to a maximum height of about 12 inches) until it encounters something upright (either living or an inanimate object, although it prefers other plants), and then it climbs upwards to grow on top of the surface of the other plant (or up a fencepost, etc.). The leaves and flowers can become so dense that it will completely strangle out the next nearest plant, so is a huge threat in prairie ecosystems. The plant spreads during the growing season via underground rhizomes, and overwinters just under the soil surface. Any piece of the underground stems and roots can grow into new plants, so it becomes incredibly difficult to eradicate; if you have it in your garden, as soon as you till the ground in the spring you make hundreds of potential plants from one former rootstock.

This species was probably accidentally introduced to North America due to confusion with one of its very close relatives, and the species from which the creeping bellflower gets its name, Campanula rapunculus. This second species has been used for many centuries as a food source in Europe, as the leaves can be used in much the same way as spinach. They taste roughly the same, and cook down to a wilted leaf in much the same way as well. To my knowledge, the creeping flower is not edible.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Chinese Japanese anemone

Species name: Anemone hupehensis

Common name: Japanese anemone

Location: Ontario

This species of Anemone is native to China (the common name is a bit tricky!), naturalized in Japan for the last few hundred years, and an incredibly popular ornamental plant in North America. It thrives in a variety of locations, but prefers areas that are at least partially protected by larger plants but still have a period of direct sunlight, and in well-drained soil. The plant is sensitive to conditions that are both too dry and too wet, and most gardeners end up killing their first-year anemonies by watering them too often. Once established, this plant species is very hardy, to the point of completely overtaking an area in a few years. Eradication of this plant is nearly impossible due to its tough rhizomes that spread much further underground than the plant does aboveground. This plant even manages to give Madagascar periwinkle (which you can read all about HERE) a run for its money!

The Chinese anemone, sometimes mistaken for this species although rarely planted outside of China, is a very important herb in Traditional Chinese Medicine. It is used as, amongst other things, a sedative, a hypnotic, an anti-inflammatory, and an anti-spasmodic. To my knowledge there is no scientific evidence that actually shows it is effective against any medical condition, but it is widely available on the internet in an encapsulated form (one website I found was prepared to sell it 25 kg per order; that's a lot of anemone!).