Tag Archives: plants

Stranglehold

Ficus. Its name is synonymous with low-maintenance, unobtrusive office plants. But in the wide Ficus genus, there are a few species of fig trees that are anything but tame. In fact, they have a predilection for death and domination. This story is about two distinctly different creatures whose lives are inextricably linked: the strangler fig and the fig wasp. It is a story about sex and murder in Florida. Mostly, it is a story about the mentality and biology of control. One of these partners-in-crime kills by slowly choking the life from its victims, and the other is its accomplice, furthering its domination of the forest with rape and incest. To be sure, you’ll never look at Fig Newtons the same way again.

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Power Plant

Lace up your boots and follow me on a nature hike through these low Berkshire mountains of Western New England in early March. The air is thick with sunlight, as the red oak trees and alders haven’t yet leafed out, and their branches are just the latticework of a window on the sky. The ground still has a cover of snow, but you can smell the melting water beneath it as last Autumn’s leaves exhale a musty yet bread-like scent. Except for a few cedars, nothing is green yet. Nothing, except for some ugly, purple-green spikes sticking out of the snow. Come to think of it, they’re not so much sticking out as they are simply uncovered, as if the snow was too repulsed to touch them. And come to think of it, it’s not just fresh snowmelt you’re smelling. The woods have taken on the distinctive smell of buttcheese. You approach the ugly, stinky butt flowers.

Now, stick your finger in it.

And wiggle it around on my spadix while you're at it.

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Resurrection Fern

I have a resurrection plant. I sometimes call it a resurrection fern, even though I know that’s a different plant entirely; mine is Selaginella lepidophylla, a club-moss native to the American Southwest, while true resurrection ferns are Polypoidium polypolioides, native to the American South. But both the moss and the fern, as well as a few other plants in the world, perform the same incredible feat: they return to life from the brink of death.

Both resurrection moss and fern live with little to begin with. The moss is a desert plant, sometimes called flor de piedra, the stone flower. During periods of drought, the resurrection plant curls up into a tight little fist, brown and nearly desiccated, for all appearances dead. It becomes a tumbleweed, rolling with the desert wind in search of the next patch of mud. Finding something to drink, a remarkable change takes place: its cells rehydrate in a mere hour or two, and the fist opens into a hand. A few hours later, it becomes green again. The dormant machinery that powers it, all the organelles of its chloroplasts, revive and whir into action. Sunlight becomes sunlight again. Just a kiss of moisture, and it walks out of its own grave. The resurrection plant may tumble around the desert lifelessly for a century waiting for such a blessing.

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Tumbleweeds on Mars

Quick, pilgrim! Think of a Western movie!

What do you see? A gunfight at high noon? Perhaps a tall saguaro cactus, inexplicably growing in Texas? I’ll bet you picked a moment of breath-holding suspense, taut as a pulled rope, as the white hat and black hat share an intimate gaze from fifty paces. And in the background of this nauseating tension, like crickets in a bad joke, is a rolling tumbleweed.

I've seen them do it. It's creepy.

Little-known fact: Tumbleweeds can levitate.

Tumbleweeds: the rolling punctuation marks of awkward silences. They are the harmonica’s dog, the cough in the crowd in the pause before the gallows trapdoor drops. And out here in the day-to-day life of the American West, they’re practically an animal of their own. You swerve to avoid hitting them on the highway. They nuzzle the barbed-wire fences, sniffing out an opening. They show up mysteriously like stray cats in your yard overnight. Though native Westerners give them scant notice, transplants like me still have a starstruck fondness for them, as if they were some B-list actor from a John Ford movie that we’d discovered, lost and drunk, making a cameo in the alley behind our house. But despite their scruffy aimlessness, tumbleweeds are one of the great success stories of the American West, and may someday follow us to even wild, wilder Wests and further frontiers.

I'm pretty sure I've sat next to this guy on an interstate Greyhound.

Like most modern drifters, many of them will take the bus.

The first thing you must understand about tumbleweeds is that they’re not a plant, but a habit of plants. (Like a “tree.”) Plants, as you know, rarely travel themselves; they leave that to their seeds. But a tumbleweed, or rather, a plant that tumbleweeds, uses its own dead and desiccated body as the seed disperser, and so gets to see a little bit of the world. There are tumbleweed forms among the asters, the plantains, the ferns, the mustards, the nightshades, and a dozen other families across Eurasia, Africa, Australia and the Americas.

THIS post. THIS is the one you will point to as the one where The Quantum Biologist really hit its stride.

Tumbleweeds are also transported over land masses by establishing a symbiotic relationship with a vector.

But the one you’re probably thinking of is Salsola tragus, also known as Russian Thistle. As the name implies, this weed is like most of us here in the West: not from ’round these parts. Most sources trace its arrival from the windy steppes of Russia to 1870, when a contaminated shipment of flax seed was planted in South Dakota. (For you botany-minded Western movie nerds, note that this makes tumbleweed in most Westerns set before 1900 an historical anachronism.)

I love Las Cruces in the Springtime.

Salsola tragus in bloom.

Evolution has endowed the ambling Salsola with two gifts: drought tolerance and locomotion. Both were perfectly suited to the American West, where hardiness and nomadism are the parents of survival. There is a third key to the tumbleweed’s success: a Taoist-like desirelessness, the willingness to wander with the wind. After the pretty white or pink flowers have been pollinated, Salsola gives up any desire to live, drying out while its seeds form and then cutting its own stalk. Its spherical shape lets it spread between 20,000 and 50,000 tiny seeds as it bounces along. The fences that smothered the migrations of the buffalo have little effect on them; planting the remainder of their seeds on both sides of the barbed wire, the tumbleweed’s children pick up where their parents left off, rolling to the next fence or, hopefully, an irrigated cotton field. So tumbleweeds are the plant kingdom’s high plains drifters, or as one species is called, their tumbling oracles.

Clever girl.

"But they never attack the same place twice. They were testing the fences for weaknesses. Systematically. They remembered."

From Russia to America, then to the Australian outback. Another tumbleweed species, also in the Amaranth family, traveled from Central America to Europe. Another, from Africa to America. There are many ways to define a “weed,” but my favorite has generally been a non-native and aggressively invasive species out of balance with the local ecosystem. By this definition, most of us are weeds. And we bring our weeds with us. (Especially our tumbleweeds, if we are flax farmers or hot naked women.) The tumbleweed is perhaps one of the greatest of colonizers: highly mobile, thirsty yet motiveless, and best of all, ready to roll. So of course, NASA is studying them to learn how better to colonize the New American West: the outback of Mars.

Rollin', rollin', rollin', though the streams are swollen, keep those doggies rollin', Rawhide!

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The Dark Side of Nutmeg

It is Yuletide Plants Week on The Quantum Biologist! This week, we’ll take a closer look at three plants that make the Christmas season special — both the fascinating social histories of them, and the biology behind the myth.

Eggnog rarely inspires ambivalence. You either hate it for its freaky thickness, or, if you’re like me, love it for the same reason. Most enjoy it with bourbon, a few swear it is only purified by brandy, and fewer still, again like me, prefer it with rum. But if you are a true eggnog fan, you never pass up a dusting of fresh-grated nutmeg.

Nutmeg.

Yuletide is the only time of year that most of us ever really sample the mysterious spice called nutmeg. You might apply some to an apple pie, or even a few roasts, but otherwise, nutmeg stays in the cabinet until December like tangled Christmas lights in the attic. It is almost too powerful a flavor for everyday use: pungent and musty, a strange and rough alloy of basil and mahogany. And with a history of war, piracy, drug abuse and riddles behind it, the nutmeg is truly imbued with curses and black magic.

Ebony & Ivory

Seriously, this thing is trouble.

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The Mistletoe Rant

It is Yuletide Plants Week on The Quantum Biologist! This week, we’ll take a closer look at three plants that make the Christmas season special — both the fascinating social histories of them, and the biology behind the myth.

Christmas has its cultural traditions, and its private ones. I’m sure your family has its own peculiar private traditions. Perhaps your Uncle Frank hits the eggnog too hard and reenacts the Siege of Khe Sanh in the living room every year. Or maybe you annually try to recreate Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Falling Water” in gingerbread. If you hew closely to old cultural traditions, you might tack up a sprig of mistletoe. But since you probably don’t, you are then a potential victim of one of my personal private traditions, which is ranting to anyone who will listen about what a shame it is that mistletoe isn’t a cultural tradition anymore.

Pucker up, Poindexter.

It must have been phased out so gradually that few noticed its disappearance. But somehow, mistletoe has gone the way of sugar plums and other grand old British Christmas traditions that now exist mainly in carols and poems, perennially perplexing small children. (I still don’t know what “figgy pudding” is. I just know I want some.) Perhaps mistletoe was used once too often by sad, goofy bachelors at holiday parties, a sprig of it dangling from a hat like a an anglerfish’s unlucky lure. Perhaps it fell prey to our cultural ignorance and mistrust of wild plants; nevermind how many deadly poisons we willingly invite under our sinks, mistletoe has the reputation as the thing that can kill your dog. Or maybe, despite the Free Love revolution of the ’60s and ’70s, we’ve actually become more prudish about kissing strangers. Whatever the reason, the decline of mistletoe, to me, speaks volumes about its dangerous power. Like an ancient god of Love and Thunder, its deadly and erotic potential is simply too overwhelming for today’s passive society, and its shrines have been abandoned in the woods. Let’s examine how the mistletoe tradition started, and how the biology of the plant created the legend surrounding it.

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The Wide Sargasso Sea

There is a sea with no shores. It is bound on all sides by a gyre of ocean currents, and inside the sea it is as calm as a hurricane’s eye. So stagnant is the water that sargassum kelp chokes the surface of the ocean, giving it the appearance of a great, flat, unweeded garden. That sargassum gives it its name, the Sargasso Sea, though stories of ships becoming caught in tendrils of seaweed was pure myth. The tendency of ships to disappear in the Sargasso Sea had nothing to do with the seaweed and everything to do with the fact that there is no current and no wind, and so it earned the sort of superstitious infamy only sailors can invent: The Bermuda Triangle. The Horse Latitudes, so called because Spanish ships mired in its dead spot would jettison their war horses overboard to conserve water. The Doldrums.

Here are a few animals that thrive in The Doldrums.

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