Category Archives: Botany

“Entangled Life: How Fungi Make our Worlds, Change our Minds & Shape our Futures”: A Review

Sheldrake, Melvin, “Entangled Life: How Fungi Make our Worlds, Change our Minds & Shape our Futures”, Random House, 2020.

I have spent most of my life outside amongst, growing, observing or studying plants and yet, every page here has caused me to take at least a moment to reconsider the life I’ve been so involved with. Everything here underscores what I’ve read and learned elsewhere, sometimes casting it in an entirely different ‘light’. While we learn to think of organisms as discrete individuals, fungi, a class of organism separate from the bacteria, plants, animals, even viruses which I’ve been examining, are impossible to consider on their own without looking into their vital relationships with the other forms of life.  While all organisms depend in many ways, great and small, upon other organisms for their support and sustenance, fungi are nearly impossible to imagine separately, their ‘bodies’ being literally intertwined in and around those of others.

Relatively early in the book, Sheldrake describes the difference between fungi and animals in this way, animals put food into their own bodies, fungi put their bodies in their food, digesting what they require by secreting acids and then drawing the broken down nutrients back into their mycelial bodies and transporting them to where needed. Continue reading

Sex, Evolution and Form: Clarifying the Relationship Between Dandelion and the European Honey Bee

With the artist’s, Sue Abonyi’s, permission.

The European Honeybee, EHB, and the Common Dandelion, are both ubiquitous in our modern urban lives though the one is portrayed as being both essential to our lives while its future is threatened and dependent upon our constant support. The Dandelion in contrast is a product of our disruption of the natural world and our very way of life and continues on as a pest species despite our efforts to ‘control’ it. They viability of the EHB is often linked to the continuation of a large population of Dandelion individuals. The EHB certainly benefits from the Common Dandelion finding ready individuals across our lawns and gardens, but the dandelion isn’t particularly dependent upon the EHB. The common dandelion, Taraxacum officinalis, is apomictic and doesn’t require pollinators at all. Apomixis isn’t a fancy word for ‘selfing’ or wind pollination either…what it means is that it, in lieu of an available pollinator, possess the capacity to skip over meiosis, the entire part of sexual reproduction in which an organism’s typical double, pair of chromosomes, which exist normally in all cells, and are known as diploid, ‘di’ for two sets of chromosomes, are reduced by half, to one set in ‘sexual’ cells, known as gametes, the sperm and egg cells, their chromosomes now ‘haploid’. Then, after pollination, the two haploid chromosomes are reunited uniquely through the process of fertilization. This is is the process skipped over in an apomictic plant. While it possess all of the ‘accoutrements’ of all flowering plants, stamen with their filaments and anthers, pistils with their stigma, style and fused carpels or ovaries, Dandelions are able to ‘short-circuit’ the process and produce viable seed on their own from their undivided, diploid, cells. Ever noticed how Dandelion seed heads always tend to be filled out? Perfectly spherical? Continue reading

On Life: An Annotated Reading List of Titles Exploring the Physics, Biology, Evolution, Natural Selection and the Generative Power of Far Out of Equilibrium Dissipative Structures (Organisms)

Nurse, Paul, “What is Life?: Five Great Ideas in Biology”, WW Norton and Co., 2021. I’m placing this book out of order here, its American edition just released this year and I’ve only just read it, because I concur that this is an excellent introduction to its topic and should be accessible to a broad audience, one without an academic background in biology. It does what Carlo Rovelli’s “Seven Brief Lessons on Physics”, does for its readers, presents in a compact and cogent way the central ideas for understanding the science of life. Nurse, is a Nobel Prize winning geneticist and cell biologist, who has dedicated his research life to the study of the cell and what sets this class of matter apart and unique, looking into its structure, chemistry/metabolism, reproduction, evolution and the relationships and communication which must occur within and between cells. He looks into what genetics is and isn’t capable of, what it seems to control, the genes for 20,000 some different proteins included within our DNA, while leaving open to question the instructions and detailed directions, how the growth and development of an organism is actually determined.

The reader will benefit from having some basic understanding of chemistry to fully grasp what he writes here, but this is an excellent starting point.  At 143 pages this book shouldn’t scare off the reader.  This is a window into life and should peek the readers interest as Nurse reveals what he still finds so fascinating about life and this world.

Al-Khalili, Jim and Johnjoe McFadden, “Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology”, Broadway Books, 2016. In the world of science, quantum biology is a toddler.  Quantum mechanics itself only began a hundred plus years ago and quickly began redefining the way that physicists look at the world.  Today most branches of science are transforming themselves, aligning themselves with this new reality of physics.  This may be impacting none of the sciences more than it is biology and the life sciences.  What was once limited to the quantum world of elementary particles so much smaller than we can see even with technology’s assistance, today we are finding quantum actions behind even the most simple processes up to and including the energy and origins of life.  Mass and energy lie at the heart of everything and life is a very particular case of highly complex ordering of that mass and energy, intricately linked in coherent relationships, borne out of seemingly random, chaotic, actions at a subatomic level.  In these systems/organisms life has evolved effective patterns that ‘feed’ on themselves, self-regulating, self-maintaining, able to reproduce with great ‘fidelity’ to one’s parent organisms, energy dissipating structures, dynamic, balanced between stasis or death and a runaway consumption of one’s self,, a conflagration.  Patterns built on more basic patterns, conformed into very particular resonant structures which are additive and transformative, never perfect, evolving towards greater complexity and capacity, structures that ‘live’ in relationship to one another in a supportive manner, dynamic, time limited and ‘stable’ in a self-reinforcing sense…existing in different states, simultaneously.  Follow Al-Khalili and McFadden down part of a ‘proven’ path. Continue reading

Why Bad Things Happen to Good Plants?: On Root Problems, Root Washing, Nursery Practices and Customers

“To be, or not to be? That is the question—Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, And, by opposing, end them?”  Hamlet.

Is the question we face as gardeners as simple as, To ‘root wash’ or not to ‘root wash’, before planting?  To some today it has become ‘heretical’ to suggest that it might not be just a necessary corrective, but an unmitigated good…and not doing so dooms a plant to failure.  The practice of ‘root washing’ in its present form, is relatively new to gardeners.  Horticulture, which is a system of techniques, traditions and science, that goes back to our own species’ first intentional involvement growing and selecting plants, has not always included it.  Practices develop over wide spans of time.  Many are retained, others pass away. Root washing has been around as a method to assess damage to root systems, to ease and make more efficient division, to study root growth or cleanse them of particular infestations.  ‘Bare-rooting’, during a plant’s winter dormancy in temperate regions, has historically been done in the field when harvesting or transplanting many deciduous trees and woody plants for shipping and ease of transport.  In some circles today root washing has become an almost literal flash point, pitting proponent against opponent, ‘science’ against ‘tradition’…yet another fracture line to divide society. The road of the absolutist, as with many other human practices, tends to create conflict as evidence of correctness is lobbed back and forth.  My own view is that, like so many other things today, the subject is somewhat ‘grayer’. Science can be on both ‘sides’, or neither, and reality is rarely so simplistic. Continue reading

Agapanthus for the Maritime Pacific Northwest: Not all of these are well suited for us…or are they?

A fellow gardener asked the question about whether there were a list of sure thing Agapanthus, plants that a beginner could confidently choose and have success with in most of the maritime PNW.  I’m going to say no.  All of these are South African natives and while many of us can grow these in our gardens, because our conditions overall are marginal, a gardener is going to have to possess a good understanding of their site in particular and some knowledge of the cultivars that they are choosing.  I’m going to borrow here from Manning and Goldblatt’s book, “The Color Encyclopedia of Cape Bulbs”, which discusses the bulbs of the Cape Floristic region and those adjacent areas spilling over into other parts of South Africa. Agapanthus species are native there, endemic in fact, occurring naturally no where else in the world.  I’m also relying here on the SANBI website, the South African Natural Biodiversity Institute which has put together an incredible national program, which all countries should be building for their own countries.  Being a South African plant aficionado I visit it frequently. To this I add my own observations and speculations, having grown several Agapanthus over the last 25+ years in Portland: These come from warm temperate and subtropical areas in South Africa, 10 species total, 3 limited to the Cape itself, all of which tend to occur in rocky grasslands.  Other botanists have downgraded 3 of Manning and Goldblatt’s species and given them subspecies status recognizing only 7 species. Continue reading

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

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.
Continue reading

Here Comes the Sun: Latitude and its Seasonal Effect on Life and Place

Read to the Beatles, “Here Comes the Sun.”

It’s a bright sunny morning here in Portland…in January, not a real common occurrence in a place where we typically have some kind of cloud cover due to our climate with its strong maritime influences…but today it is sunny, and I’m thinking about the annual cycle of changing day length as we move from our shortest day, on the winter solstice, toward our longest day, on the summer solstice.  The solstice result from the tilt of Earth’s axis, which remains more or less fixed, though there is a bit of a ‘wobble’, as the Earth follows its annual orbital path around the Sun, spinning like a top, effectively changing the surface it presents along the way. Continue reading

Passing the ‘Baton’: On Life, Seeds, Germination and Vegetative Propagation

dicot-seed

This diagram is of a typical bean seed here to illustrate some of the basic structures within all seeds. When germination begins water is taken in via the Micropyle. This picture is taken from a simple introductory page, https://byjus.com/biology/identification-of-the-different-parts-of-an-embryo-of-a-dicot-seed/

EVERY, let me say that again, every, single individual organism, plant, animal, fungi and bacteria…is directly linked, in an unbroken line, to previous organisms.  An organism is not created singularly and anew within a Frankensteinian lab, whether of our own hand or nature’s.  Life is an extremely rare occurrence.  Genesis did not happen, in the biblical sense, but on extremely rare occasions, arguably only once in Earth’s several billion years.  The conditions it requires are unique, precise and stable.  Just as individuals are linked directly to their parents, entire species are to their predecessors.  So called ‘spontaneous generation’ does not happen.  The idea that organic matter can be manipulated and ‘sparked’ into life is naive.  It can only be more or less manipulaed as we’ve demonstrated time and again in a heavy handed way.  Science, especially over the last one hundred years, has made great strides in understanding just what life is, what it requires and how it most likely evolved, but it still cannot ‘create’ it.  Even in its most simple forms, such as bacteria, life requires the ability to conduct thousands of biochemical processes within each cell in a very precise way, something that not even a series of highly coordinated human operated laboratories, using standard of the art equipment, can do in anywhere near the amounts and efficiencies that a single living cell can.  We are far too clumsy.  Doing this for a complex multicellular organism with highly specialized cells, tissues and organs would seem impossible.  As we continue to study organisms, their processes and growth, we are learning just how complex and astounding they are. Continue reading