It amazes me how little the human race desires to understand the world in which we live. Sure, we pay some attention to some things, but only on a superficial level and for the most part with what we humans deem “cute”. You know, mammals like koalas and giraffes. This is such a shame because there is an unfathomable amount going on below the surface!
While the animal life on this planet is certainly remarkable, I want to focus our attention on the amazing adaptations plant life has developed. In fact, if it wasn’t for plants, it is likely that humans would not exist, at least not for as long as we have. According to Tim Lenton, an earth system scientist at the University of Exeter, it was the first plants that “cooled the climate and increased the oxygen level in the Earth’s atmosphere”, supporting the expansions of terrestrial animal life. https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/02/land-plants-arose-earlier-thought-and-may-have-had-bigger-impact-evolution-animals
That being said, I love to explain what I know about plants to other people, and I love to see their reaction when they learn something totally unheard of to them, something that makes nature much more interesting. My goal with this blog is to maintain a record of all of these amazing things, in part for my own resource, but also to serve as a resource to others.
My fiance bought me a mini bonsai kit that includes everything you need to grow your own bonsai tree, which is essentially just seeds, a pot, and an instruction manual. In a few weeks I hope to have a mini tree in my kitchen. This got me wondering, “why is it that bonsai trees are so small”? I mean, you see bonsai trees in nurseries that are just mini trees. Is that because they are genetically altered? Spoiler alert, no.
Bonsai is a Japanese word that means ‘tray planting’, and is actually considered to be an art form. Nearly any tree or shrub can be grown as a bonsai tree, as long as it is properly maintained. To cultivate a bonsai tree, all you need to do is plant it in a small pot. Of course, close attention needs to be paid to it so that it survives (adequate watering etc). Bonsai trees require constant shaping in order to limit growth, maintain health, and to meet the artists design.
What Bonsai is Not
The practice of bonsai is not the same as dwarfing. Dwarfing involves genetic manipulation through selective breeding or genetic engineering. The result of dwarfing is a permanent miniature specimen.
Bonsai is not genetically dwarfed trees, but a carefully cultivated tree that is manipulated by pruning, root reduction, potting, defoliation and grafting in order to create a miniature version of a full sized tree.
The history of bonsai is long, with the earliest illustration of a potted tree dating back to 706 AD. It did not take long for this practice to be closely associated with zen Buddhism. After WW2 the western world gained access to this practice, causing it to eventually lead to what we have today. I know that there is a couple of years unaccounted for here, but to be honest it is all pretty boring stuff.
Practices of bonsai utilize a number of different techniques to reach the final product. Some of these techniques are as follows:
Leaf trimming. Removing certain leaves
Pruning the trunk, branches or roots.
Deadwood techniques to simulate age and maturity
Clamping to shape trunks and branches
There are a few defined styles of bonsai that are used to describe their form. The images for each style are in their sections, and all are from wikipedia.
Formal upright is characterized by a straight, upright, tapering trunk. This is pretty much how we picture the perfect tree, with branches gradually narrowing as you get higher.
Informal upright incorporates natural curves in the trunk and branches, but a straight line could be drawn from the apex to the bottom of the trunk.
Slant possesses straight trunks that grows at an angle from the base of the trunk.
Cascade is modeled after trees that grow over water or on mountainsides. The apex of the plant is at or beneath the top of the pot.
Traditionally, bonsai does not include indoor plants. According to this article, trees that are sold as bonsai trees are often from temperate regions, and require the same things that they would require in nature (full sunlight, good soil, and variations in temperature). Because the environment inside a home may be significantly different from the natural environment, the plant may suffer and die.
Bonsai trees are cool, and I would like to get into the hobby on a more involved level. If anyone reading this thinks they may also like to get involved, be sure that whatever species you get a hold of is going to thrive in the environment you will be growing it. If you want an indoor plant, you will need to be sure to get an indoor plant.
I found a pretty informative website and community called bonsai empire. I would recommend heading over there for any questions you have on cultivating your own bonsai plant.
Recently a video has been circulating the internet of a Mulberry tree gushing out gallons of water from about halfway up the trunk. If you have not seen this video, you can find a version of it below. At first glance, it seems like someone had attached a hose from a fire hydrant, hung it in the tree and let it flow.
While this phenomena is rare, it is not an unusual or unnatural occurrence. After heavy rainfall, this Mulberry tree gushes an incredible amount of water out of a hollow on the trunk. In a nutshell, the tremendous amount of water causes underground springs to overflow, forcing water out of the ground in some areas (you can see water flowing out of the ground in the video). The same thing can be observed in some wells after heavy rains, with often spewing water upwards similar to a geyser.
What causes this individual tree to transform into my dream fountain lies beneath the surface. It is likely that water forces its way through holes or cracks within the root system. The pressure caused by the overflowing springs forces the water up a hollow within the trunk, and out a hole several feet off of the ground.
It is not uncommon for the interior of a trunk to decay in a living tree. In fact, the outermost layers of a tree are the only parts that are alive. The innermost parts of the tree or composed of dead xylem, previously used to transport water to the top. The xylem in a tree only lives for roughly 3-5 years, at which point it becomes nothing more than structure. To make a long story short, the sapwood in the picture below is where the magic happens.
A casual search of this phenomena yields a number of explanations, most of which point to a similar phenomena that occurs in Estonia, where a local well shoots water up to half a meter high after heavy rainfall events, leading to a flow of more than 100 liters of water a second. Local legend states that witches gather in an underground sauna and beat each other “vigorously” with birch branches, causing water to flow the way that it does. Naturally, this well is called the witches well.
I have not gotten into hydrology as a study, but the more I observe some of the amazing things that water can do, the more I am tempted to immerse myself (pardon the pun).
I am curious to know if the chicken or the egg came first in this Mulberry tree scenario. Was the fountains path carved out by the immense pressure, forcing water through the oldest and rotting part of the tree, or did this phenomena only start occurring when a pathway was created through natural decay? I have a feeling it is the former.
Looks familiar right? If it does not, you are probably a normal person. To me, this flower looks like the one in “Little Shop of Horrors”, just a little bit smaller, and a little less **SPOILER ALERT** carnivorous. The Hydnora africana, otherwise known as Jackal Food, is native to Africa, and is unique in that it is one of the few plants that does not photosynthesize. Instead, the jackal food gets its energy from host plants.
The jackal food spends most of its life underground, only emerging in optimal conditions at maturity. This plant grows on the root systems of other species, sucking out nutrients from the host, eliminating its need to get nutrients through the process of photosynthesis.
The colors of the flower are not typical of flowers. Most flowering plants utilize brightly colored petals to attract pollinators, and green colored leaves to best photosynthesize. Because this plant does not get energy from photosynthesis, it does not need to develop green leaves. Additionally, this plant does not need to attract typical pollinators.
Not that dissimilar to the corpse flower, the jackal food has evolved to emit a putrid odor in order to attract pollinating carrion insects. Instead of smelling like rotten meat, this species chooses to smell like feces. Once insects enter into the flower, they are trapped for a couple of days, the plants way to make sure that a suitable amount of pollen is picked up.
I wonder if the insects that are trapped in this plant are as terrified as I would be.
According to this website, fresh cut grass is one of the best smells to us humans. Living in Maine, the smell of cut grass is one of the many things that signal the coming of the best week of the year, summer. But why is it that grass smells the way that it does when it is cut?
All green vegetation produces chemicals called green leaf volatiles (GLVs). GLVs are a major form of communication between individuals and even possess some level of antimicrobial properties used to prevent infection. I’m sure that you see where this is going.
When grass is mowed, the distinctive odor you smell is actually the extreme production of GLVs. These GLVs are sent out as a distress signal to neighboring plants, warning them of imminent danger. This allows the neighboring grasses to enter into a sort of state of defense, priming them for the attack. Some studies have shown that the GLVs also serve to alert and attract predators to ward of the herbivores. In a nutshell, what you are smelling is the tortured outcry of thousands of individuals (that sounds intense).
A study that was done by Northwestern University found that parasitic wasps were attracted to plants emitting GLVs in response to herbivorous insects, effectively scaring off the herbivores. Another study found that orchids released pheromones along with the GLVs, attracting wasps for both defense AND pollination. It really is cool what plants can do.
Perhaps the most beneficial trait of GLVs is the ability to prevent infection at the site of injury. Essentially, the GLVs are able to make the plant more resistant to bacterial or fungal infections. It isn’t that dissimilar to how our own bodies work in developing scabs. Actually, it is probably very different. But if it helps to picture a scab, go for it.
So the smell of cut grass is actually a warning signal to other plants, evidence of self healing, and a way to attract predators of the herbivores that dare attack them. Pretty intense stuff when you think about it. It is my belief that we have barely scratched the surface of what plants are capable of. If you think about it, it wasn’t until a few decades ago that we acknowledged that animals could possess any level of consciousness (shout out to Jane Goodall for her work), and it hasn’t been until very recently that substantial research has been done on plants. I have found papers suggesting the ability for plants to learn and hear, and the reality that trees work together in a forest to survive. The future is exciting in the world of plant biology.
What is the largest living organism? Some would say the elephant, weighing in around 13,000 pounds. Some would say the blue whale, easily weighing over 200,000 pounds. It is difficult to comprehend the immense size of some of the creatures on earth. Today, I want to look at the grove of Trembling aspen trees in Utah. Until recently, it was considered to be the largest living organism in the world (it was displaced by a pretty awesome fungus).
Taking up approximately 106 acres (43 hectares) and weighing nearly 6,000 metric tons, this grove of aspens is one of the largest living organisms discovered to date. To add to the enormity of it all, there are an estimated 47,000 stems within this 106 acres, all belonging to a singular root system. Estimates of the age of the root system are upwards of 80,000 years old, making it not only one of the largest but also one of the oldest known living organisms.
Populus tremuloides, or trembling aspen, is native to North America. It is one of the most aggressive pioneer species around, meaning it is one of the first tree species to colonize open areas (including burned areas). Because it is one of the first trees to grow after forest fires, repeated forest fires have allowed aspen to gradually increase their distribution. Left unchecked however, aspen is easily replaced by other species that are shade tolerant (shade tolerance is the ability for a species to thrive in shaded areas, and tend to replace trees that need direct sunlight by gradually choking them out). Due to regular fires and the substantial size of the root system, Pando has yet to be replaced.
Trembling aspen has the ability to reproduce asexually by sprouting new stems from the existing root system. Every stem that sprouts from the root system is an identical clone of the parent tree, meaning that it is an extent of the same organism. This allows the individual to take over more territory, giving it more nutrients and other resources.
If you are anything like me, the vast size of this is mind boggling. Moreover, the Earth itself is mind boggling. This organism has persisted for thousands of years, and in the last few decades, there has not been any notable new growth occurring. In 2018 a study found that this lack of growth is likely due to human interference. Not global warming or anything (although that probably doesn’t help), but the study specifically called people out on allowing deer and other ungulates to thrive. Lack of predators (due to the removal of them) have caused deer populations to skyrocket, leading to them chowing down on new aspen stems, resulting in fewer saplings.
Honestly, I am not sure if we can fix all of the things we as a species have done to the planet. It is arguable that Pando would eventually stop spreading without our help, but then again, maybe it wouldn’t. 80,000 years is a long time to persist, and we may have inadvertently stunted the growth of this trembling giant. Granted, there have been fences put up around parts of the forest, and there has been some success in these areas, but I feel that anything less than reintroduction of natural predators is a band-aid. Maybe we should build a wall around Pando instead of the southern border.
Plants and animals have developed mutualistic relationships with each other in order to survive, or at the least in order to be more efficient. Previously we looked at the corpse plant, and how it evolved to emit the odor of rotting meat in order to attract carnivorous insects to use as pollinators. If you have not read it, you can find it here. Today, I want to look at how one particular pitcher plant has evolved to gain nutrients by digesting bat feces.
What is a Pitcher Plant?
A pitcher plant is a carnivorous plant that has evolved to capture its pray using a type of pitfall trap, making it one of the more unique plants. Essentially, the leaves develop to form a hollow pitcher that contains water or nectar that drowns the insects lured in by pigmentation and nectar. Once trapped, the insects are dissolved either by bacteria or enzymes that are produced by the plant, and absorbed. Some pitcher plants have a mutualistic relationship with insect larvae and even tree shrews, the former feeding on trapped insects and the latter feeding on nectar, both of which defecate into the pitcher. Sounds gross, but the feces left in the pitcher is actually good for the plant, supplying it with easy to get nitrogen. Today I want to talk about a specific species that has developed a similar relationship, Nepenthes hemsleyana.
N. hemsleyana has developed a mutualistic relationship with the Hardwicke’s woolly bat, very similar to the previously mentioned relationships. The plant has adapted to provide a roost for the woolly bat, in return for the privilege of feasting on the bats feces. In order to more effectively do this, the plant produces less nectar and contains less liquid in the bottom of the ‘pitcher’. One study found that N. hemsleyana was able to get 95% of its nitrogen demand from the feces dropped by the woolly bat. By not putting energy into producing a ton of nectar or trying to attract insects, the plant is able to put more energy into the development of leaves and other structural components.
The Woolly Bat
In addition to the lower production of nectar, the plant has developed a parabolic rear side, providing more volume and a better roost for the bat than other plants. Interestingly, the bats that roost within this plant have the highest vocalizations of any known bat species, and some scientists have hypothesized that this trait allows the bats to better find these plants within the foliage (because of the parabolic rear wall). While I’m at it, I also want to throw in that bats that roost in N. hemsleyana plants have a higher body condition and fewer parasites than bats that roost in other species of pitcher plants.
I guess that the take away here is that plants are incredibly more complicated and dynamic than meets the eye. I mean, I think everyone has heard about venus flytraps (that is awesome in itself), but not many people know about plants actually digesting feces. If there is any sort of ecological niche in this world that can be filled, rest assured that something has evolved to fill it. Other plants taking all of the pollinating bees away? OK, I will just smell like rotting flesh and attract flies to pollinate for me. Neighboring plants taking up too much nitrogen? No problem, I will just turn into a bat house. The ability that plants have to just survive is incredible, and there are so many that have yet to be discovered, hidden deep in the rainforest or maybe even in some dark cave somewhere. The unfortunate thing is that there are species out there that we have not discovered yet that are already extinct, due to us. But that’s a topic for another day.
Schöner, C. R., M. G. Schöner, T. U. Grafe, C. M. Clarke, L. Dombrowski, M. C. Tan, and G. Kerth. 2017. Ecological outsourcing: a pitcher plant benefits from transferring pre-digestion of prey to a bat mutualist. Journal of Ecology 105: 400–411.
Not all flowers smell sweet. The Amorphophallus titanum, lovingly referred to as the corpse flower, is one of the most unique plants ever to be discovered. The corpse flower is one of the worlds largest flowers, and only blooms for a period of 24-36 hours. Perhaps more interesting, is that it can take up to seven years to bloom, and some individuals have been observed to bloom only once every few decades.
Every non-flowering year, the corpse flower grows a leaf the size of a small tree, to gather energy that is sent to and stored in the corm, located at the base of the stem. It takes years to store enough energy to bloom, and provides a unique experience to anyone that is lucky enough to experience it.
The corpse flower takes a different approach when it comes to attracting pollinators. Instead of using bees, the corpse flower evolved to attract flies, dung beetles, and other carnivorous insects. Because these insects eat dead flesh, the corpse flower has gone to extreme lengths to imitate both the smell and temperature of rotting meat. The idea is that the insects will fly down into the flower looking for food, and fly out with pollen on their legs when they realize there is none.
I find the ability of the corpse flower to generate its own heat to be fascinating. Temperatures have been recorded to be up to nine degrees Celsius higher on the surface of the plant than the ambient temperature surrounding the plant (Barthlott et al. 2008). It is incredible that this plant can generate enough heat to bring its temperature up to roughly 98 degrees Fahrenheit, especially when you consider that not only is this plant generating heat, but it is also generating odor.
Tim Pollak, the outdoor floriculturist at the Chicago Botanic Garden wrote on the Garden’s blog the results of a chemical analyses of the odor consisted of the following:
dimethyl trisulfide (also emitted by cooked onions and limburger cheese)
dimethyl disulfide (which has an odor like garlic)
trimethylamine (found in rotting fish or ammonia)
isovaleric acid (which also causes sweaty socks to stink)
benzyl alcohol (a sweet floral scent found in jasmine and hyacinth)
phenol (sweet and medicinal, as in Chloraseptic throat spray)
indole (like mothballs)
The Latin Name is What?!
I would not do myself justice if I did not talk about the Latin name. Amorphophallus titanum is derived from three Latin words, amorphos (without form, misshapen), phallos (penis) and titanum (giant). Every now and then you come across a Latin name that just makes you laugh. I am not sure exactly why it was named after a giant misshapen penis, but I can make a guess.
My Crackpot Theory
The plant was discovered in 1878 by the Italian botanist Odoardo Beccari in Sumatra. A quick google image search of “Sumatra rainforest” yielded some amazing photographs of beautiful, lush and dense vegetation (I think that I will add this place to my travel list). I would imagine that in 1878, exploring a distant rainforest would be, for lack of a better word, intimidating. Let’s say that the group of explorers camped out, and did not go home at the end of the day. I think that it is also safe to say that there were no women on this expedition, it was 1878. I think that maybe the Latin name for the corpse flower may have been a manifestation of what Beccari was surrounded by. Maybe they were all getting a little lonely. I will leave you to the rest. To be fair, 13 year old me would have said that it looked like a giant penis as well.
Personally, I have never witnessed the corpse plant in its moment of glory, and to be honest, I still want to. I don’t care if I need to take an air sickness bag with me from the airplane, it would be worth the experience. To be fair, the odor is not meant for me, but for its pollinators, and it is perfectly tuned to be effective at that.
Barthlott, W., J. Szarzynski, P. Vlek, W. Lobin, and N. Korotkova. 2009. A torch in the rain forest: thermogenesis of the Titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum). Plant Biology 11: 499–505.