Author Archives: gardenriots

About gardenriots

I'm a horticulturist with 35 years experience primarily in the maintenance and management of public landscapes and gardens, including, renovation, construction, planting design, doing horticultural reviews of capital projects and creating and implementing maintenance plans that recognize the dynamic nature of these places. I have a strong interest in sustainable/ xeric landscapes and view the landscape as an opportunity to create places of beauty in an all too often utilitarian urban world while at the same time using them as a teaching tool for the public and peers. I recently retired from Portland Parks and Recreation where I was responsible for many of our downtown landscapes for 16 years. I have a degree in ornamental horticulture and a life long interest in science, beginning when I was ten or eleven with astronomy. I became fascinated by physics and the paradoxes and conundrums theory left us with in the '60's. I moved on from this to an avid interest in nature, biology and the living world around me in Central Oregon. I did not find a mentor so instead spent many hours by myself exploring and wondering and became largely self-taught, a pattern that has continued through my adulthood. Some of my postings are a direct result of my curiosity and are a result of my learning style, submersing myself in a topic that interests me, generally related to a plant I have grown and then building a fuller understanding of what is going on. Topics as diverse as general evolution to quantum biology and learning the biogeography of regions from which my plants come are continuously fascinating to me. These interests can become consuming 'rabbit holes' for me taking me places my wife does not understand. The world to me is a beautiful, fascinating place filled with puzzles to be understood and thereby more fully appreciated.

Nature as a Model For Society and the Economy

For years now my real interest has been in plants and the life sciences.  This has lead me to better understand the physics and chemistry of life, of the organism, as I attempt to understand the truly awesome and fantastical phenomenon that is life itself.  I find it impossible to ignore the links between all of the sciences and it should not be too surprising that what one might learn in biology can have application for our own human species, including the social aspects of our lives, because whether we talk about art and beauty, economics or the institutions we share as humans, all are an outgrowth of our lives and the forces and cycles that govern us.  Primary among these is the phenomenon of relationship whether between the various ‘nested’ and interlinked cells in our own bodies or the countless organisms we share this world with, with which we in fact evolved, in both competitive and cooperative ways.  John Donne once pronounced in a poem that, ‘No man is an island’ and he meant that quite literally.  Our fate and health are all bound to one another whether we like it our not, in relationships which can be mutually beneficial, or, if we choose to ignore and deny them, in mutually destructive ways.  

Ecology is the study of a shared community of organisms, its description and how it all fits together, its relationships, ‘eco’ arising from the old greek word for household and logos, which speaks to order, purpose and form.  Economy, begins with that same concept of ‘household’ only its suffix comes from the greek word meaning management or distribution and refers to the function of the household, its processes and how it produces, distributes or apportions its resources and products…it refers to the actions whereby the ‘household’ lives, the actions, that characterize its many relationships.  In ancient Greece the economy revolved around the household.  In their world economic actions were not simply those by which a society achieves material ends, the Greeks also constrained it to those activities which resulted in ‘praiseworthy’ outcomes, those which provided a larger benefit to the household.  (Greek society, not perfect, was much like our own, placing women in a subservient role and was dependent upon slavery.  Like American democracy, it was exclusive, but capable of being expanded to include all peoples.) 

The two concepts remain closely linked though today our understanding of economy includes only those parts of the larger community’s operation, the money economy, that produces material benefit and wealth.  Any harm accrued or costs imposed on others is not directly relevant if such costs have been ‘outside’ of the transaction, beyond the responsibility of the buyer and seller’s deal.  Leaders have mutually decided to exclude all else.  We define our economy in a limited way that serves the production of wealth and its accumulation, making profit the purpose and most relevant factor in economic decision making, placing outside it that which we choose to, that which we under value and take for granted.  The two largest examples of this are our exclusion of domestic or women’s work, and the contribution of the environment.  To include them would radically change our economic calculations and the very concept of profit.

Profit is what remains after costs are considered.  To the degree that costs can be excluded then, profit is increased.  This ‘habit’ of exclusion extends throughout society and extends to whole sectors of the human population and beyond, distorting our decision making and the broader social and political structures that govern our lives….Our understanding of economics today exists outside of ethics.  Ethics and ethical behavior, if it is to factor into it, must be imposed.  That is the responsibility of a society through its political processes.  Such decisions lie within the realm of possibility though considerable power is aligned behind our current model and we behave as if they are fixed and unchangeable.   (See this PDF to understand how far our economic ideas have strayed from the thinking and goals of the ancient Greeks.)  The Greeks rightly recognized the economy as the engine of the ‘household’ and society, the system that, through nature’s largesse and human labor, creates that which sustains us.  It is necessary that an economy be regulated through rational decision making.  Such a system ‘freed’ of its responsibility to society to move it in a beneficial direction, is more likely to simultaneously squander its world and resources while failing to meet the needs of its people and the many species that comprise it.  The Greeks understood that by not limiting the pursuit of luxury the capacity of nature to fulfill its demands would be compromised.

This last year has driven this point home for me as the pandemic and our divisive politics, both plagues on this world, work to drive us apart.  These compound the ever increasing gap between the rich and poor, stranding ever more of the middle class on their own as well.  We’ve conflated what we want with what we need and released individual greed to pursue its ends freely.  I have been studying the topics of evolution, natural selection, random mutation and the role of energy in life, acting as a driving, creative, force behind evolution, increasing complexity and the self-organization of organisms, which in the world of physics are recognized as far out of equilibrium, dissipative structures, taking higher quality energy in, utilizing it in their growth and metabolism, before exhausting it outside of their ‘bodies’.  Organisms have the ability to self-catalyze, reproduce and maintain themselves as long as energy flows through them uninterrupted.  These phenomenon lend weight to our understanding that life is not a random occurrence, there is something inevitable about it, the underlying physics and chemistry of the universe pushing the process.  Organisms are living, self-reinforcing, complex ‘nested’ systems, each composed of successful, dynamic patterns, that repeat in innumerable forms, between very narrow limits.  Organisms exist in the ‘moment’ along the energetic cusp between life and death, that sweet spot within which our chemistry and metabolism remain, between sub-critical and supra-critical states, stasis and conflagration.  There are countless lessons for us to learn from biology that we can apply to our own lives, because life is not an accident, nor is it a singular miraculous event…it is rooted within and powered by the forces of nature.

We exist within a complex network of organisms, a network of self-sustaining systems, made possible and animated by the flow of energy as it moves from low to high entropy, from order to randomness, sunlight ‘becoming’ living tissue, feeding successive trophic levels, endlessly cycling.   All of life exists in this singular moment entirely dependent upon the health and vitality of the whole, the process of which each individual is a part, with a role to play, which effects every living thing and of what will follow.  Through our broader economic behavior we have set ourselves outside of this essential process of nature.  We cannot know ultimately where this will take life, but we do know, with some confidence, that if we interrupt or compromise it, we put everything at risk.

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The Flowering of Monte: Going ‘Viral’ During a Pandemic

 

When will it actually flower?  Once people got passed the, ‘What is ‘that’ question?’, this is what they wanted to know.  When would it actually flower? by which they meant the individual petalous flowers open.   More than a few times I responded snarkily…it’s flowering right now!  Agave are among a wide ranging group of plants whose flowering includes a relatively large inflorescence, a supporting structure, which can rival the rest of the plant in terms of size.  An Agave montana flowering here is foreign to our experience.  The idea that such a large structure  could arise so quickly, is to most people’s minds, strange, if not surreal…but for experienced gardens, who observe and strive to understand, there are links and connections, shared purpose and processes with all flowers.  Gardeners and botanists, horticulturists and evolutionary scientists, they see the wonder in it all.  When does flowering begin?  When a plant commits to its purpose.  Flowering should not be taken for granted.  It does not occur to meet our aesthetic need.  It is also much more than a simple result of a plant’s life.  It is a fulfillment of one well and fully lived, projecting oneself into the future.  Flowering and the production of one’s seed is a commitment to a future that will go on beyond oneself…and it begins from where every plant begins. Continue reading

What Do We Do When the Whole World Feels Like its Falling to Pieces?

In this blog I focus on plants.  Any gardener, botanist or horticulturist knows that plants, all living organisms, live in an incredibly complex, interwoven network of systems, each affecting the others, the health of anyone, in large part determined by the health of the ‘whole’.  Life does not and cannot exist in a vacuum.  We humans are also very much living organisms and subject to the same kind of limits as any species.  What we build and produce, including those more abstract things like our social and economic systems upon which we are very much dependent, are subject to the same natural laws and limits, whether we recognize them or not.  Very much a part of this is how we value other life collectively.  Just because many may say other people and species are of less value, does not make this fact.  The laws and ways of ‘man’ must remain within, and consistent with, the laws of nature.  We are not at liberty to treat other life as expendable.  We owe a debt and responsibility to all life.  Life permits and supports us so it is incumbent upon us to do the same for it.  Such is the natural law of reciprocity. Continue reading

Spreading the Wealth: Taking Advantage of Monte to Broaden a Teachable Moment

I’ve been taking advantage of people, striking when they are most sensitive, hungry for anything that is outside of their homes and families…I’ve been hanging informational signage amongst Monte’s floral neighbors as they come into bloom, not all of them.  Some will remain anonymous like my Aristolochia semperivirens, an unassuming Dutchman’s Pipe, that is only noticed by the more discriminating of visitors.  Others issue stronger ‘calls’ and so signage seems appropriate.  Many people are taking the time to read them or take pictures of them for later consumption or to make sure they don’t forget.  Many thank me for them.  Who thought ‘school’ could be so cool!  Anyway here is what I’ve hung out in the garden.  Some will come down as their season ends, like the Pacific Coast Iris, others are waiting in the wings.

Monte on May 17

Agave montana

My Agave is flowering. The ‘spike’ you see growing upwards is the ‘peduncle’, the main flowering stem. As it meets its maximum height ‘branches’ will form near the top, from beneath the ‘bracts’, the tightly adpressed leaves, on which will form the yellow flowers. It will form a panicle, a ‘candelabra’ like structure. Agave are monocarpic, meaning they only flower once and then die, after it produces seed. It is 20 year old. Many Agave produce ‘offsets’ or ‘pups’ that can be grown on into mature plants…not this one!

This is a mountain species from Mexico’s Sierra Madre Orientale, where it is found between 6,000’ and 10,000’…not from the desert. This species is relatively new to the trade and was only formally described in 1996, 24 years ago. I’ve been told that this might be the first one to flower in the NW. Its native range experiences a temperate climate and receives its heaviest rains late summer-early fall during the hurricane season. It can experience freezing temperatures and even some snow there in open Oak-Pine forest. It begins its flowering process in Fall, then ‘stops’ for a period during winter, finishing the process in Spring/Summer. Most Agave are tropical/sub-tropical plants from deserts and are grown here in pots. There are 200 or so species, 3/4 of which are endemic to Mexico, found only there, none are native outside the Americas. Only 22 species are found in the US, from California into Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. 3 are native to Florida.

Portland and the Maritime Pacific Northwest provide challenges to growing any Agave species and hybrid. Agave are native where climates tend to have most of their rainfall in summer. Here we have dry summers and wet cool/cold winters…this is the opposite of what most Agave need and will lead to rot and/or fungal foliar disease that can disfigure or kill most Agave species. Siting considerations are extremely important. They generally require full sun and excellent soil drainage. Here good air circulation helps foliage dry in winter. Sloping sites also help with soil drainage. Tilting the plant when planting is helpful as it helps the crowns stay dry. Some gardeners plant these under their eves or erect shelters over their plants to keep the crowns dry over winter. Agaves will require some summer water to grow well especially if they sit in dry soil all winter and spring….

Many Agave are becoming rare across their natural ranges in Mexico because of development and agriculture, a cause which threatens so much of our own natural flora in the US and around the world.

This species is not used to make Tequila! In its home range Agave are pollinated by hummingbirds, insects and nectarivorous bats, bats which are non-native here.


Beschorneria septentrionalis
(False Red Yucca)
There are seven species of Beschorneria, from forests of the higher mountains of Mexico down into Guatemala. This is the most northerly species occurring in NE Mexico, not far from the range of Agave montana. Unlike their cousins, the Agave, all but one of these are ‘polycarpic’, they can flower year after year. These form a substantial rhizome which spreads gradually when the plant is well sited, forming colonies. This one does so only slowly.
Another Asparagus family member, hardy through our zn8a, down to 10º for short periods, if you can keep the crown dry enough. This one struggles a bit and I have to remove a fair amount of rotting leaves every spring…I should move it and it would do better, but I haven’t…it wants better drainage. This particular site is a little wet close to our house which tends to concentrate rainfall a bit without any eave over hang to catch it.
As an open pine/oak forest dweller these are tolerant of relatively shady sites. Mine get some shade.
It’s inflorescence typically form these bright red stems with its sparse branching and hanging, narrow, bell shaped flowers. Part of their corolla is green.
At the top of my stone steps is a selection of another species, Beshorneria yuccoides ‘Flamingo Glow’, which has a buttery colored mid-rib on each leaf. from forests of the mountains of central/eastern Mexico.



Echium wildpretii
(Tower of Jewels)

There are 70 different species of Echium and several subspecies, in the same family as the commonly grown Borage. 27 species are endemic (occur no where else) to macronesia, the Canary, Madeira, and Cape Verde archipelagos lying in the eastern Atlantic close to Portugal, Morocco and west Africa. While the continental species are all herbaceous, dying to the ground over the winter, all but two of the island species are woody, with permanent stems. Echium wildpretii is one of these two.

Echium wildpretii can grow as high as 10’ in its home territory. It is generally a biennial, flowering in spring here, though sometimes, it can ‘wait’ and bloom the third spring. It is monocarpic, dying after producing seed. This plant is just under 9’ and is the tallest individual I’ve ever had in the 15 years of growing this. The plant grows in the ravines of Mount Teide, 12,198’, a volcano on Tenerife, 28ºN latitude, in the Canary Islands, so it has a very restricted range. It requires full sun and arid/dry conditions. With our much wetter winters it is best that you provide this with very good drainage as growing them in cold winter wet soil will decrease their cold hardiness and could lead to rot. Plant on south facing slopes and retaining walls with good air circulation. It is marginal, said to be hardy down to 23 °F.

The species E. pininana, the other Macronesian herbaceous grower, goes to 13’ having much the same form with blue flowers. E. candicans is a short lived woody shrub, which grows to 6’, both are grown here as well. In California these two and others are common some often escaping into the wild and crowding out native species. Here, these are marginal and survive only in protected areas killed by normal to colder winters.
Check my blog at Garden Riots. Annie’s Annuals sells several of these: https://www.anniesannuals.com/search/?q=echium

Grevillea x ‘Pink Pearl’



Grevillea x ‘Pink Pearl’

Grevillea is a genus of 360 species of flowering plants native to Australia and north and west to the Wallace Line. They vary from ground huggers to a tree over 100’ tall. They belong to the Protea family which includes many bizarre and large cut flowers used in the florist industry. They are pollinated by many Lepidoptera, butterflies and moths as well as by Honeyeaters, a group of nectar feeding birds native to their home range related to South African Sunbirds, but not at all to our Hummingbirds. Hummingbirds and bees visit these here.

Most Grevillea are not hardy here in the NW so choose judiciously. To find reliable plants check out the offerings of Xera Plants on SE 11th and or take the trip out Sauvie Island to Cistus Nursery, they have a section of Australian plants. There is a great review of NW hardy Grevillea at Desert Northewest’s site, https://www.desertnorthwest.com/articles/grevilleas_revisited.html

Grevillea readily hybridize. This is thought to be a hybrid of G. juniperina x G. rosmarinifolia. If you give it what it wants it is hardy down to 20ºF, maybe lower. I planted this one 6 years ago here. One winter, ’16/’17, I lost about 1/3 of the top. That was Portland’s fifth coldest winter ever in terms of number of days with freezing temperatures…so not typical. (https://weather.com/storms/winter/news/portland-oregon-worst-winter-city-2016-2017) I suspect another degree colder or with another day of sustained freezing, I would have lost the entire plant.

These are relatively fast growing and can take a hard pruning. In Australia these are often used as hedge plants causing them to grow densely with their pokey needles, quite a barrier! I prune mine regularly to limit its size while retaining its softer look with drooping branch tips.

These are sun lovers and require well drained soil here. They are drought tolerant in the Pacific NW requiring no water after establishment. It is essential that should you choose to fertilize that it include NO PHOSPHOROUS!!! Phosphorous is plentiful in our soil already and adding anymore can prove deadly to Grevillea and also to most all members of the larger plant family. These come from regions with phosphorous poor soils and are very well adapted to searching it out, so…don’t add any!

x Halimiocistus wintonensis ‘Merrist Wood Cream’



x Halimiocistus wintonensis ‘Merrist Wood Cream’

This Rock Rose is a hybrid between two different genera Halimium and Cistus, a relatively rare even as species from different genera aren’t generally capable of crossing successfully. The parents are both Mediterranean plants and this plant benefits from growing under like conditions, warm to hot, dry summers and cool/mild and relatively wet winters.

This plant has grown here for 10+ years on this south facing slope in unamended soil. It benefits from a light cutting back after flowering to help keep it compact and to keep it from falling/splaying open. All of the Rock Roses have a tendency to splay open with time here as our rich soil tends to push them to produce extensive soft growth. Don’t cut these hard, below healthy growth, if you do you are likely to end up with dead stubs unable to resprout. I’m planning to take cuttings of this, root them and replace this plant as it has gotten rather ‘leggy’ over time.

There are many fine Rock Roses available from these two genera that can be grown here.

Lobelia laxiflora ssp. angustifolia Heavy with bloom this Lobelia began flowering almost a month ago.



Lobelia laxiflora ssp. angustifolia
This Lobelia, with its narrow hot red tubular flowers, from Mexico, is reliably evergreen here except over our coldest winters, which can kill it to the ground, but from which it springs back. It often blooms for 7 months or more in the year. As you might guess it is attractive to hummingbirds. This plant is rhizomatous and in too good of conditions with summer water, has a tendency to spread, though it does so compactly. It is better ‘behaved’ under drier, more spare, conditions.

Lobelia are a large and varied genus with 415 species occurring primarily in tropical to warm temperate regions. I also grow the less commonly grown species type, sometimes called ‘Candy Corn Flower’ with broader leaves which is less robust for me here, but showy in its own way.

I grow Lobelia tupa on the east side of our house. It’s a large growing Lobelia from the Andes of Chile with hooking dark red large flowers. I have others on my list including the large pink flowering species, L. bridgesii, to acquire and am somewhat enamored with the ‘Tree Lobelias’ limited to the Hawaiian Islands.

Mimulus (a.a, Diplacus) aurantiacus ‘Jeff’s Tangerine’



Mimulus aurantiacus ‘Jeff’s Tangerine’

Sometimes known as “Sticky” or “Bush Monkey Flower” this plant is native from SW Oregon down through most of California into Baja. A ‘sub-shrub’ this has a somewhat woody base from which sprouts softer herbaceous stems that carry the leaves and flowers. Found from coastal bluffs east into the Siskiyou and Sierra Nevada mountains, these are ideally suited to our mediterranean climate with its summer dry/winter wet precipitation pattern.

Typically, where I’ve seen it growing in situ it is taller than my plant with a much more substantial woody base. At Point Lobos, on the central California coast, these can be over 4’ tall and form impenetrable thickets. Here with our rich soil it grows more lushly and flops. My plant is ten years old and will bloom all May through September in waves, almost never completely out of flower.
Place it in full sun. Mine receives only sporadic summer water. It grows in unamended soil on a south slope so it has good surface drainage. It benefits from free air movement and good soil drainage. There are several color forms available from specialty nurseries.

One of ten or so varieties I have, Iris x pacifica ‘Pacific Rim’



Pacific Coast Iris
(aka. pacifica)

There are 12 Iris species in the group native to our region stretching from southern California northward into Washington state, in a narrow band between the ocean and the Cascades and into California’s western Sierra Nevada. Most of these are limited to California and southern Oregon to areas that receive enough rain and are often limited to places closer to the coast. The Willamette Valley and Washington is mostly limited to one species, the deciduous, woodland edger, Iris tenax.

Hybridizers have taken advantage of their tendency to cross and are found in a wide range of jewel like colors, white, to yellow, red, russet, blue and purple. The hybrids are evergreen. These must generally be searched out as their production is relatively low because these Irises are difficult or impossible to grow anywhere else in the country because of soil and climate differences too far out of their ability to adapt.

The hybrids are drought tolerant in our western gardens. Plant them with plenty of sun, then water to establish. Don’t plant them anywhere where the soil remains soggy into the summer, they need to dry out. It is important to leave them undisturbed after planting. If you choose to move or divide them, wait until the fail rains, when they are producing new roots. They will likely die if messed with during the summer. See my blog: gardenriots.com.

Sphaeralcea x ‘Newleaze Coral’ The first two little flowers of the long season.



Sphaeralcea x ‘Newleaze Coral’
(Glog

The genus Sphaeralcea is native/endemic to the intermountain west of North America, occurring between the Rocky Mountains and the Cascades and east of the Coastal mountains of California. Some can be found in eastern Washington, Oregon and Idaho on south into northern Mexico. They like sun, heat and thrive in poorer mineral soils and are drought tolerant here once established.

‘Newleaze Coral’ earned its garden pedigree in the UK and is a stellar performer here in xeric beds. Sphaeralcea is a member of the large Mallow family which contains 244 genera with 4,225 known species. Well-known members of economic importance include okra, cotton, cacao and durian. There are also some genera containing familiar ornamentals, such as Alcea, Hibiscus, Malva and Lavatera, as well as the genus of trees, Tilia. Commonly called Globe Mallows, this Sphaeralcea will easily bloom for 5 months bookending the summer months.

The Flowering of Monte, Social Media and the Hordes

Where has the last month gone??? This is a brief, I promise, update to those of you who’ve been following the flowering of Monte, my Agave montana, this spring. Ever since Monte went viral on social media, life has been a little crazy here. On April 20th the bracts at the top of the inflorescence separated enough that I could see down inside to the tightly clustered buds below looking a lot like a bunch of chicks with their beaks upheld…then the changes became visible, changing noticeably on a daily basis…and everyone began to see it. Our regular walkers in the neighborhood, bicyclists, commuters and the many who’s regular workdays brought them by…and I swear everyone of them must have been posting!

It did not take long at all before Monte became a destination. Facebook, Instagram, Reddit, Next Door, Monte’s evolving visage was appearing everywhere and the number of visitors, which was at one time early on easy to handle, quickly began to approach sideshow numbers and atmosphere. Many seemed to have completely forgotten about the pandemic and sheltering in place. What was once a varying stream flow became a flood. I would go outside to take pictures, make notes and measure, ever earlier, as early as 5:30am, and people would be here, for Monte. At first I would ‘hold class’, answer their questions and try to educate them about the processes of plant growth, the thumbnail version, and people seemed genuinely curious. I tried to take advantage of what I saw as a ‘teaching moment’…but, the numbers quickly increased and many seemed more interested in snapping their IG pics and getting in on this event. But this event wasn’t like the one day happening of last year’s eclipse or the brief period of the blooming Corpse Flower up on the WSU campus…but people came like this would be their only chance. Continue reading

Gardening in Public, Charismatic Mega Flora and the Need for a Public Horticultural Intervention

We ‘need’ charismatic mega-flora today, plants that scream out to even the most plant blind of us to take notice, those that create such a sudden and uncontrollable ‘stir’ within us that our simple glimpse of them breaks our momentum, our chains of thought, interrupting whatever we’re doing in that moment bringing about a reflexive interjection, cause us to take notice, create an uncontrollable urge to stop what we’re doing and come back for a closer look!  To tell our parents, partners or friends, to drag them back, for a repeat performance or to see if what we saw is really there or merely a mistake of perception.  And they do come back.  I see them every day, sometimes dragging disinterested friends to see this unimaginable impossibility.  I hear them when I’m out working in the private part of the garden with excited voices, sometimes expletives, “Look at this ‘F@#$ing’ thing! Can you believe it?”  I love this. They’ve come for ‘Monte’!

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COVID-19, Pandemics and How They Will Change the World For the Better

I’m not a biological ‘fatalist’, but there are several reasons why epidemiologists were attempting to plan for a pandemic and why the Obama administration was empowering institutions, creating protocols and organizing resources that could be mobilized quickly, before the COViD-19 outbreak, not for this one specifically, but one of some kind. Viruses, bacteria, mycoplasma and other microbes fill the world at a microscopic level…they are everywhere, all of the time. Our own bodies contain far more of them than we do of our own some three trillion cells. Fortunately, most of them do not cause us disease, at least as long as we remain healthy. Many of them, in fact perform valuable functions in us, beneficial ones, without which our lives would be the poorer. Disease too is part of life’s ‘plan’. Its agents are dynamic. Today’s diseases are not those of the past. We evolved together. They mutate and sometimes ‘leap’ across species boundaries. A study of biology and disease reveals a function of disease or at least a consequence to the health and evolution of a species. It may sound heartless to put it this way, but disease is very much a part of living. With this new disease, COVID-19, as with others, it is selective, affecting those whose health is compromised in some way disproportionately, killing those most susceptible, the weak and those may include those surprising to us. As in most things concerning life, nothing is so simple as our concept of strong and weak. Disease is a part of the process of natural selection that has always been in effect in the world. Continue reading

Viruses in Plants: Life, Disease and Evolution

Gardening for most of us is more than just a distraction, but these days, in light of the coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, the disease it causes, COVID-19, the conflicted messaging we’re getting from our ‘leaders’ and the insecurity many or most of us are feeling around our own financial situations, we are likely more in need of one than we had been. This post will be a bit of that, while at the same time an attempt to shed a little light on the issue of viruses in the plant world. Yes, viruses plague plants as well, but they are also thought, by more than a few scientists, to have played other roles as well, such as in evolution, a process that continues to and beyond this day! In some ways they parallel those of bacteria. Both viruses and bacteria can cause disease. The disease that a virus can cause is generally very limited to a narrow range of species, even to one, with notable exceptions. Most, however, perform other tasks as they go about their ‘business’, within the bodies of bacteria and larger multi-celled organisms. In fact most viruses, like bacteria, play no direct roll in our health…and they are everywhere.

It is important to understand that science has its own biases and that our perspective as mortal human beings affects how we view things as well…viruses included. Science builds on experience. It requires that new science, and its theories, be consistent with what is ‘known’, but it must also be open enough to avail itself to new understandings when it better explains previously accepted theories. What do I mean? Viruses ‘cause’ disease, but might they also be something else? If our biases set us up to see them agents of disease, reservoirs for future disease or inconsequential, we will fail to see what they may also be…and there are some who would assign a much more important role to viruses and see them not just as disease agents, but as far more, as essential ‘elements’ and players to life today and the processes that made today’s form of it even possible! First, though, what do we ‘know’ of viruses. Continue reading

What is Life, Biology and the Non-equilibrium State: The Quantum World of the Organism

Sometimes art does a better job of conveying ‘reality’ than does our direct experience as it forces us to look through the eyes of others. The swirling, blurred edges of Van Gogh’s work begins to show us something of the immateriality of the world out there as images bleed over their edges into others with a visual energy that a photograph cannot provide.

[Dear reader, if this seems a bit rambling, I’m sorry, but my first purpose here is understanding the role of Quantum Physics in the life of the organism.  This is me trying to make sense of it and I do this by writing.  In writing our errors become most obvious.  I have read and reread this many times, rewriting and editing sections, throwing others out I later decided were just wrong.  I suspect I will come back to this over time as I continue on this quest to understand this post’s central question and that should be okay, because my understanding, like the science I am reading continues to evolve.  I read fairly widely across the several branches of science and rarely find those who can integrate these ideas.  Quantum Biology is a real thing, but the work of synthesis or joining the pertinent work and theories from the separate sciences has really just begun.  Quantum mechanics, biochemistry, cell biology, enzyme action, evolution, metabolic activity, the unique role of the water molecule in life and the study of life as an integrated, complex system, is not something done.  It is my belief that to understand the miracle of life, one must have a grasp of the related sciences and their various complimentary and competing theories.  The story they each tell individually is, unsurprisingly, incomplete.  We will never understand life if we continue to examine it only in its isolated parts and functions.  Life is quite the opposite.  If you reader are able to gain some clarity from my struggles here…then all the better!]

What, some of you are likely thinking, does quantum physics have to do with biology and living organisms?  Physics’ realm, after all, is that of apples falling, billiard balls ricocheting off of one another, a planet orbiting around its sun, the electricity that powers many of our devices and nuclear explosions.  Yes, it is that, and so much more.  It examines and seeks to explain the physical properties of matter and energy in all of its forms and at all of its scales…well, at their most basic, tiniest scale, organisms are composed of this same matter, the stuff of planets and stars.  Quantum physics looks at this ‘behavior’ at unimaginably tiny scales, that of quanta, those tiny bits that physicists, like Max Planck discovered cannot be further divided, that contain fixed and set amounts of energy, that when multiplied by billions, gain enough size that we can directly perceive them.  At the tiny scale of quanta, of sub-atomic particles, the laws of matter change, those used to calculate the trajectory of a much more massive rocket or explain the movement of heat in water, no longer hold.  Such tiny bits of matter behave differently and such tiny bits play key roles within living organisms. 

At that level, all of these particles exhibit what physicists describe as quantum motion and uncertainty; they are capable of ‘tunneling’ and ‘walking’; of being in two, binary, states, particle and wave, at the same time; of having the potential for what physicists call ‘super-position’ or having the capacity to possess different properties at the same moment until they are caused to ‘collapse’ into a single state, a single position; and they do this at a scale well beyond our ability to directly perceive, that of nanometers and time frames of nanoseconds, billionths of a meter, billionths of a second.  These are the scales at which we could examine single atoms.  At such scales quanta, the component bits of atoms, the smallest atoms, like hydrogen, common to virtually every ‘organic’ molecule, ‘behave’, can do these things, coherently, as if they were directly linked and coordinated.  This is a ‘world’ in which velocity and location become problematic, in which a particle/wave cannot have its velocity and location known at the same moment, a world in which quanta could be in more than one place, at the same time, no, ‘are’ in any of several possible positions at a given moment, a world of ‘probabilities’, where in a very real sense all things are possible.  Physicist’s speak of ‘wave forms’ which are predictive tools to help them determine the probability of one’s velocity and location….What?  Such ideas boggle the mind.  At such an unimaginable level, matter does not exist, not in the kind of solid, fixed, massive sense that most of us tend to think anyway.  At that level matter consists of energy, that is ‘informed’, structured in such a way that through its energized action, its ‘behavior’, ‘wave forms’ collapsing in and out of ‘fixed’ position, manifest at our scale as the ‘stuff’ we know and can perceive.  This is pretty bizarre and ‘weird’ stuff.  Some refer to this as the quantum weird.

….This might be a good place to take a break…then reread the above.  The reader might do well to take this approach as your ‘work’ your way through this, bit or bite by bite.
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Latitude and Energy: A Beginning Point

45º!  In my previous post I suggest, for reasons of solar gain and intensity, that we gardeners might have better luck choosing plants for our gardens if we chose them from our own latitude, north and south.  The intensity of the sun’s radiation varies with latitude, decreasing as we move away from the equator toward the poles.  Like all horticultural suggestions you should take this with a grain of salt…er, soil.  Follow that line around the Earth from Portland and you can run into a lot of difficulty.  Spin a globe and take a look.  Following the 45 parallel east takes us along the Columbia Gorge, across the Blue Mountains, Hell’s Canyon, the resort town of McCall, Idaho, elevation one mile, the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness and more of the Rockies, on across the northern Plains, through South Dakota, Minnesota, Michigan, our ‘frozen heartland’ and east through New York and just outside Portland, Maine.  These are highly varied landscapes with conditions almost always colder, different rain patterns, more extreme weather conditions than ours with corresponding plant communities.  In Europe 45º passes through northern Provence, with weather strongly influenced by the adjacent Mediterranean Sea and the massive Sahara Desert that lies beyond, the Piedmont region of Italy, Croatia, the Black Sea, the Steppe country including Uzbekistan, into northern mountainous China and southern Mongolia and finally, the Japanese island of Hokkaido, its capital, Sapporo, a couple degrees south, with its remarkable annual ice festival. 

The list of landmarks found along the southern 45th is very short, as the vast majority of its length is defined by open ocean.  Still it crosses New Zealand’s South Island, only again making landfall in the south of Argentina where it narrows down toward the continent’s southern tip and the Chonos Archipelago of small Chilean islands comprised of submerged mountain tops.  On the later the landscape is dominated by compact cushion plants.  These few places have strong maritime influences and are much effected by the unimpeded weather sweeping off of Antarctica.  Much of this sounds limited and extreme when I think of plants adapted for our region. Continue reading