Monday, March 26, 2012

The rarest plant on Earth

Encephalartos Woodii
Encephalartos woodi (Wood's cycad) in the
Amsterdam Botanical Gardens
Wood's cycad is easily the rarest plant on Earth.  Only one plant was ever found in a small area of Ngoya Forest in South Africa in 1895 by John Wood (hence the name). Parts of this plant were removed and propagated by rooting and all specimens of Encephalartos woodii in different botanical gardens around the world are actually continuations of this one original tree. The original specimen was reomved from the wild in 1916, and died in 1964. As this tree was male, all of its clones are also male.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Guest Blog: Michael Malice - The Plant As Celebrity: Whitesloanea crassa

Michael Malice is the subject of Harvey Pekar's graphic novel "Ego & Hubris" and co-author of five other books. He has over 200 succulent species in his Brooklyn apartment.

If horticulture can be considered a form of entertainment, it is no surprise that the secondary elements of entertainment culture come with it. Take the case of Whitesloanea crassa, a monospecific Asclepiad / Stapeliad indigenous Somalia. In succulent circles, the species was treated as a celebrity. Old message boards contain cached references to "sightings" of the obscure and highly collectible species. There is Whitesloanea "trivia", as when pedantic horticulturists insist, incorrectly, that the genus is properly hyphenated since it named after White and Sloane. "Gossip" abounds about the plant: the Somali people, it is claimed, will kill you if you take it from the ground. The plant was notoriously "promiscuous"; for years the only material to be had was a cross with Huerniopsis decepiens. (Breeding across genera? Scandal!)

Much like many other "celebs" Whitesloanea's career has followed a familiar trajectory. Even five years ago, seedlings were impossible to find and sold quickly for $100 per. Thanks to the geometric growth of breeding populations, they can now be had for as little as $8--a drop of over 90%!--and are offered on eBay constantly. When it comes to plant collecting, Whitesloanea has become nothing more than a has-been.

Danny: This succulent is so rare that is has been basically unstudied by scientists. Over the past century there are only a handful of publications on Whitesloanea crassa. Most recently was a phylogenetic study published in 2000 that showed that Whitesloanea crassa is related to two other African succulents, Duvalia and Huernia.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

"I'll take 15 instant coffee trees please"

Coffea canephora berries
Berries from Coffea canephora (Robusta coffee)
If you drink two cups of coffee a day, then somewhere in the world there are 15 coffee trees growing just to supply your annual fix! Ok, so that you learned last month in my blog about the Arabica coffee tree. Coffee from the the Robusta coffee tree  is often considered lower quality than coffee from other species and so is used primarily in cheaper blends and in instant coffee. The upside of robusta coffee is that it has twice the caffeine of Arabica used in higher quality coffee! So you get more pop for the buck!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The cannonball fruit

Crescentia cujete fruit
Crescentia cujete fruit (Calabash tree)
The Calabash tree is found in tropical jungles of Central and South America. This tree produces a huge fruit that resembles (and weighs like) a cannonball. When fresh, the fruit is eaten. When dried and smoked, the fruit covering is used by native peoples as a container for food and liquids, as a cup, as a ladle, and even as a musical instrument (called the maraca). The fruit seeds contain an oil that's used as a medicine against colds.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Big and smelly

Aristolochia grandiflora 1
Aristolochia grandiflora (Pelican flower)
The Pelican flower plant makes huge heart-shaped flowers which are over a foot long. But the gargantuan size also comes with a gargantuan smell that's been compared to the smell of a dead rodent. Native to Central America, this vine is a favorite of botanical gardens. 

Friday, March 9, 2012

Food Security - A Multidisciplinary Endeavour

I want to use The Daily Plant today to talk about the workshop that I organized last week entitled "Food Security in the 21st Century: Agricultural, health, economic, judicial and political perspectives".

Ensuring a constant supply of nutritious food for the world is probably the largest and most important challenge for the 21st century. Most models have the world's population topping out at 9 billion by 2050. This is three times the population when I was born, and almost nine times that from when my grandparents were born. This enormous increase in population then of course urbanizes land once used for agriculture, and puts enormous strains on our already endangered sources of fresh water.

So how can we provide more food for the world, with less land, less water and less fertilizer?

This is such a critical challenge, that I dare say that with all do respect to the importance of finding solutions to cancer and Alzheimer's disease, that our efforts have to go first and foremost to ensuring the problems of food security. While cancer and Alzheimer's are diseases of the west, food security effects the entire world, and not only Africa.

Lets look at some statistics.  According to the different presentations at the workshop, over 1 billion people, primarily in Africa, suffer from food deficiencies. Another 3 billion have enough food in terms of volume, but sufferer from nutrient deficiencies such as lack of vitamin A, iron, folic acid, and other micro nutrients. These people are found on all continents. Then another 1 billion, especially in North America and Europe, suffer from a new type of food security problem - over consumption. So all in all, about half of the world's population is affected by food security issues.

The take-home message from the workshop was four fold:

  1. Food security problems are not new, and actually have shaped world history. Prof. Gadi Algazi  presented a fascinating talk surveying how food availability has sculpted human interactions from ancient times up to the time of World War 1. As he pointed out, even in the Bible, manna from heaven is an example of food substitution for needs of hunger, and not actually the desired food! So following this thesis, we have to understand that solving problems of food security on a global level is essential for political and social stability. In this vein its important to recognize that the more than millions illegal immigrants reaching the West from Africa should not be considered "work immigrants", but rather"food immigrants".
  2. Food security solutions must take into account the local cultural, legal and economic practices. Policy decisions relating to food security must be formulated together with the local stake holders, and not benevolently, but often mistakenly, imposed. Macro-economic factors can trump issues such as production so that hunger results not from a lack of production, but rather a lack of supply. For example Yuv√© Guluma, who has worked form many agencies in Arica, pointed out while Niger actually produces a fair amount of crops, most of these are sold to neighboring Nigeria, which has the economic power to buy them. This then leads to a lack of food availability and famine in Niger. Speculating forward, what would happen if a powerful country such as China would buy and divert Brazil's produce normally marketed to Europe?
  3. Research and development in plant genetics must begin today. The economic models presented by Prof. Phil Pardey showed quite clearly that money invested into basic R&D in plant genetics provides a massive return, but this is only felt decades forward. Adoption of new technologies, such as in the past hybrid corn, or now GMO crops, usually takes about 15 years once marketing begins. This coupled with the lag between R&D and the beginning of marketing means that any research started today will only be felt decades from now, which is unfortunately beyond the thinking ability if most politicians.
  4. GMO technology must be improved and  adopted by the world. Prof. Wilhelm Gruissem clearly stated that the adoption of GMO crops may be considered a moral imperative, as the gains, such as reduced pesticides, reduced water contamination and increased yields, greatly outstrip any perceived danger, which until now is primarily emotional (and this will be the subject of an additional blog piece). As production yields have plateaued for most of the world's major crops, any further advances which will allow higher yield on less space will need to juxtapose two approaches. One the one hand we have to explore and utilize the vast genetic biodiversity that has been ignored by monoculture. On the other hand, GMO technology will able us to pinpoint and adopt the critical genes identified through the study of diversity, while minimizing the introduction of deleterious traits, which often results in classic breeding programs. This will also greatly increase the research to market timeline.
The concerted interdisciplinary collaboration between plant scientists, policy experts, economists and legal experts has the potential to provide long-term solutions to the problems of food security. The president of Tel Aviv University called for the founding of such an interdisciplinary food security center at Tel Aviv University.

(All lectures from the conference ware on line on YouTube.)

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Guest Blog: Yuval Sapir and Iris SROs

Dr. Yuval Sapir is Director of the Tel Aviv University Botanical Gardens

Royal Irises are among the most prominent flowers to bloom in the Israeli Spring. This group of species includes the largest flowers in the Middle East, with some as large as Mike Tyson's boxing gloves. Not only large, these flowers are oddly dark-colored. For example, the Gilboa Iris (Iris haynei [picture]) is purple, and other species can be as dark as black. How did this conspicuous dark color evolve?

These huge flowers double as SROs (single room occupancy units) for solitary male bees that sleep overnight in the flowers. These poor males are not allowed in the safe borrows of the females, who nest in the ground. Instead, they are banished for the night to look for a safe refuge from their predators. Iris flowers provide the perfect hospice. Following sunrise, rays from the morning sun heat the dark-colored flowers.  The inside of the flower quickly heats up, and with it, the resident sleeping bee. The warmed-up bee can then start its daily activities earlier than colder bees which slept outside. On its way out of the Iris, the bee picks up some pollen, which it carries around with him in its search for food (nectar) and sex (female bees).

The following evening, tired from his day and still carrying the Iris pollen, the male remembers to go back to his safe and warm Iris-shelter. Upon entering the flower, the pollen-carrying male brushes against the flower's stigma, pollinating the flower.

So here we have the answer to the evolution of the dark-colored irises - the dark color was selected for by the pollinators who preferred a night shelter that promise them a warm place to wake-up in.

Friday, March 2, 2012

The grain of civilization

Triticum dicoccoides (wild emmer wheat) growing in an Israeli field

Emmer wheat was first cultivated at least 10,000 years ago in the area of the Fertile Crescent, and enabled the establishment of the first agricultural communities. While emmer grains have been found in numerous archaeological sites, it was discovered still growing in the wild in Israel in 1906. Subsequent studies have shown that this wild wheat is the progenitor of modern cultivated wheat, and is thus a great resource for breeding heartier strains.