Category Archives: Growth and Cell Division

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.
Continue reading

Agave montana: Monte’s Flowering Attempt…and What’s Behind It

It’s October in Portland and my Agave montana is in the process of flowering…I know, we’re heading toward winter, with its rain and average low down into the mid-30’s with potentially sudden damaging temperature swings from mid-November into March dropping below freezing to the low twenties, with extremes some years, generally limited to the upper teens, though historically, some areas have dropped into the single digits, those Arctic blasts from the interior….Winter temps here can be extremely unsupportive of Agave’s from ‘low desert’ and tropical regions.  Combined with these cool/cold temperatures are our seasonal reduction in daylight hours and its intensity (day length and angle of incidence varies much more widely here at 45º north) and the rain, ranging from 2.5″ to 6″+ each month here Nov.- Mar., resulting in a ‘trifecta’ of negative factors which can compromise an Agave, even when in its long rosette producing stage.  Any Agave here requires thoughtful siting with special consideration for drainage, exposure and aspect.  For an Agave, conditions common to the maritime Pacific Northwest are generally marginal, yet I am far from alone in my attempts to grow them here.  Previously, in April of 2016 I had an Agave x ‘Sharkskin’ flower, a process that spanned the summer months, taking 7 until mid-October to produce ripe seed.  I was initially a little pessimistic this time about A. montana’s prospects.  Why, I wonder, if plants are driven to reproduce themselves would this one be starting the process now? Continue reading

Life Inside the Cell – Waking Up to the Miracle, part 1a

[This is the first in an extended series of three posts, this one on life within the cell, the second, on the evolution of plants, and the third on the New Phylogeny and Eudicots.  Some time ago I began this ‘theme’ with an extensive post on Monocots. This first ‘installment’, concerning life within the cell, is divided into two parts, the first, with the ‘a’ in its title, covers the growth and function of the cell itself and, importantly, the role of water within it.  The second, with the ‘b’ in its title,, will examine the concept of quantum biology and its explanative necessity for life beyond the ‘simple’ construct of cells, tissues and organisms. While trying to understand the ongoing reorganization and classification of plants, I found it necessary to better understand these other topics, what it is that we are ‘messing’ with! ]


I begin here with the cell, what I’ve learned about what makes the cell, its existence and life within it, so amazing, something which should give us all pause, when we consider our own lives and what we do.  When scientists ‘split hairs’ in their arguments on which group to assign a species, when they attempt to link them to their ancestors, so many of which are now long extinct, to understand their relationships with other organisms, they have a purpose.  They are often looking much deeper into what a plant is, what constitutes life and how it evolved.  Phylogeny, the science that attempts to establish relationships between different organisms, different species, to link one to the other across time, is about both the history and the continuing journey of life on this planet.  It promises to tell us much about our own place as well as that of the hundred’s of thousands of other species with which we share it.  Ultimately, if we choose to understand this, it will change the way we garden and our relationship with the many landscapes that cover the Earth.  Our gardens are our own personal expressions, works of ‘art’, and must live within the parameters life has set for them on our little pieces of ground.  They reflect our understanding of the limits and possibilities at work here.  The better that we understand this the ‘better’ our gardens will be, the more in synch they will be with life.   Continue reading

Ginkgo biloba: on reproduction, evolution and anomalous existence

There are six Ginkgo trees here along Main St., on the north side Chapman Square, downtown, they are the most abundant species on the two blocks and the smelly not-a-fruits that drop in the fall demonstrate that many of them are female.. You can see the Elk fountain, one of several fountains once installed so locals could ‘water’ their horses. Only two the Ginkgos on the two blocks are male clones that I know of, the others are a mix of male and female seedlings. The male strobili are still in evidence on the trees. The female trees appear to hold their strobili on higher branches, as I could see nothing on the available lower branches with my bad eyes.

Mid-April and the Ginkgos are flowering….well, technically not ‘flowering’, because they aren’t angiosperms.  Botanically speaking, they are doing what they do instead, forming the little structures that contain their sex organs for what would most likely be failed attempts at reproduction.  Think about it, in a community filled with males no progeny will be produced.  We were on one of our walks down an inner section of Tri-Met’s Orange Line, approaching the Tilikum Bridge, when I noticed this event…I was a little surprised.

If you know much about Ginkgos you probably know about their fruit, which again is not technically a ‘fruit’ because they aren’t angiosperms and only angiosperms form ‘fruit’, but their ‘fruit like’ structures are notoriously stinky when they become ripe, smelling like what many describe as being similar to dog ‘poo’, others liken it more to ‘vomit’, either equally unpleasant, when they fall to the ground and splatter or are stepped on…one of the reasons why these trees are cloned, grafted, by the nursery industry….By cloning selected forms propagators allow us to remove the chance of purchasing a female tree…unless in their zeal to bring a particular form to market they select a tree that hasn’t flowered yet….Without looking at their chromosomes, it is nearly impossible to determine the sex of a juvenile tree.  Clones stay true to their sex, so if their scion wood, or buds, are taken from a male tree, the result will be a male clone.  Ginkgos are a dioecious species, ‘di’ meaning two, so any one individual plant produces only male or female structures, so it takes two trees, of opposite sex, to produce viable seed.  Monoecious means that an individual plant produces male and female structures.  In Ginkgo spp. and the non-flowering gymnosperms these sexual structures are called stobili or singularly, a strobilus. Continue reading

The Banana Industry and Panama Disease, the Ongoing Devastation Caused by Fusarium Wilt, Tropical Race 4

Developing fruits on a Cavendish banana, the remains of the female flowers still attached. Many banana cultivars are sterile and don’t require pollination. Their fruits contain very small and sterile seeds.

Our gardens connect us to the world through the plants that we grow.  Our choices have reverberations through the knowledge we gain, the demand we create through our purchases and even our decisions to grow and thus protect plants that are critically threatened or extinct in the wild.  Similarly, what we choose to eat impacts the wider earth shaping the landscape locally and across the planet.  Sometimes our choices create demand for exotic foods, other choices, demand for common foods…out of season, that must come from the opposite hemisphere.  All of these choices together can bring prosperity to others thousands of miles away and suffering to others while simultaneously creating a demand for more land and resources there to produce the bananas, grapes, beef, etc. we want, while putting wild species under threat, reducing the genetic diversity these same lands once effectively supported.  Other times, the consequences can flow more directly back at us, when the crisis we have added to there, comes back at us in the form of crop failures, price increases and the absence of these foods from our grocery stores, as does the increasing spread of disease currently threatening much of the world’s banana production.

I love bananas.  I probably eat more of them fresh than I do apples over a year, and, apparently, so do most Americans.  Statistics say we eat about 26lbs. of bananas a year per capitata here, none of which are grown in the US (Small amounts are grown in Hawaii and some local areas in the far south of the US, but those are consumed locally, not distributed elsewhere.)  If we think of the plants and the growing of them at all, many of us tend to assume that most bananas produce edible fruit, but they don’t…at least nothing we’re used to eating!  While gardening in the public sphere downtown I had many people ask me, as they looked at the occasional flowering on the Musa basjoo, one of the four bananas that had taken up semi-permanent residence in three of my large display beds, if they fruited and could be eaten…my usual response, yes, but you wouldn’t want to.  The temperate world’s experience of bananas is largely limited to the produce section at the grocery store.  Most of us would be surprised to learn that sweet bananas, which are typically eaten fresh, and cooking bananas known commonly as plantains, together, comprise the fourth most important food crop around the world, in terms of volume of production, after only Rice, Wheat and Corn…ahead of soybeans which go into tofu, soy sauce, which are consumed by much of the world and as a common component of livestock feed.  That’s an amazing statistic!  The banana is cultivated as food in 100 tropical and sub-tropical countries.  In some parts of the world the fiber from the pseudostems is harvested and used locally for making twine and sometimes a coarse cloth.  In Okinawa friends have told me that Musa basjoo was once a common source of fiber for a cloth.  Other bananas are utilized in other ways, the corm of the  African, Ensete ventricosum has traditionally been ‘processed’ by indigenous people as a ‘survival food’ for periods of drought when other sources have failed. Continue reading

Resurrection: My Butia and its Near Death Experience

We woke up the morning of Jan. 11th with this about ten hours after the snow began to fall. What may have been more damaging was the extended period of cold weather through much of the month. It included too many days in which our high temps did not move above freezing. With the fronds bent down so much it was easier for water to move down into the trunk and do its freeze/thaw/freeze thing. Had I been on top of it I would have put an informal tent over it to keep this area dry and protected.

Last summer was a sit, wait and worry, summer. The previous winter of ‘16-‘17 was a hard one here. Because my Butia capitata had been sailing through its previous nine winters, in this location, without damage, I assumed it would be OK this time, but it wasn’t. Our 12” snowfall weighted the fronds down splaying it open and no doubt allowing moisture, ice etc. to penetrate down into the trunk to the meristem, the critical tissue from which all growth in the plant begins. Last summer not one new frond emerged, an indicator that the meristem was damaged or killed. The good thing was that there was no sign of rot. The new ‘spear’ could not be pulled free….The same winter killed my Trachycarpus martianus darkening and shattering much of the fronds’ cell walls and structure in a way typical of many freeze damaged plants.  Its center spear, the newly emerging fronds, pulled free.  My Butia spent last summer in a kind of limbo. This last winter was much more mild. Now, finally, with the heat settling in around us, those old spears are growing again, their leaflets opening wide, while their long rachis/stems, fully extend and arch!  New spears are forming still pressed tightly against the most vertical and longest of these whose leaflets you can see below just beginning to fan open. This is slower growing than the Trachys, working on opening its third frond of the year! Typically my Trachycarpus fortuneii form 15-20 fronds in a year. I’m wondering now how this lost year of growth will effect the Butia’s trunk diameter. Because of how Palms as monocots grow, I suspect that it will result in a narrowing of its ‘waist’, with a swelling back to normal above when more normal winters prevail. Continue reading

On the Demise of my Ensete ventricosum ‘Maurelii’ (Red Abyssinian Banana

And how did your Red Banana, Ensete, do?  Mine didn’t make it having left it planted outside until after Christmas. In my part of SE, December was mild, until the 26th or so, with lows just below freezing a few times. Then we were out of town a few days and it dropped into the mid- and upper 20’s. I had thought it was okay for awhile, as it pushed out a leaf while sequestered in the basement where I had belatedly moved it, but that is all that it was able to do.  It’s meristem, at the base of the plant, was damaged. I did the finger test at the top of what I had left in place of the pseudostem, about 4′ of it, and the core, through which new growth should have been pushing was mushy and smelled of rot. I cut it down with my machete in a series of cuts, illustrated here, and you can see the soft brown center surrounded by what appears to be healthy tissue. It was still able to push out a few white new roots over its winter storage. Apparently, the meristem is less cold hardy than the rest of the plant. If you could smell it you’d smell strong rot!!! After 12 + years I have found this plant’s limit! The last pic shows its dismembered carcass, reminiscent of the Tibetan Sky burial ritual, to dry away its stink before I dump it in the bin!

IMG_0519A few days later….This was the business end of my Ensete, Red Abyssinian Banana. You can clearly see that the starch storing rhizome, modified stem tissue, 12″ in diameter, is crisp, white and healthy!  I’ve split it down the center, top to bottom, through the meristem. The meristem, the site of cell division and the initiation of all top growth, is black, dead and rotting.  Each leaf begins here.  As new leaves form at the center, the older leaves ‘migrate’ outward forming the tightly packed ‘pseudo-stem’.  This plant, my plant, was unable to initiate any new leaves and with last year’s leaf blades removed, was dead on its ’feet’.  The rot would have continued to spread from the center out.  New root growth is also compromised.  It shares this growth pattern with other monocots much like bulbs.  In others, like the woody Palms, the maturing layers of tissue around their meristems, provides some buffering from cold as they caliper up.  Obviously Ensete are very limited in their ability to do this!

See my other posts on growing this plant.
Planting out your ‘winterized’ banana
My initial winter assessment
A more in depth look at the growth of Monoctos as a group

Evolution, Speciation and What it Means to the New Phylogeny: A Primer for Gardeners, Part 2



Understanding the New Phylogeny of Angiosperms, part 2

We tend to think of evolution as a historical process, something that occurred in the past which has resulted in life today, with us at the pinnacle.  Humans with our opposable thumbs, our relatively high ratio of brain to body mass, our consciousness…our souls, we often argue, are the ultimate life form.  We have a hard time imagining that this is not the case, that we as a species, are a part of a continuing process, that some day will fade from the Earth, as other species, more evolved and complex, develop.  This is what happens to organisms over seemingly impossible long periods of time. It has happened and is still happening to plants.   It won’t happen today or tomorrow and this doesn’t mean that what we are or what we do doesn’t matter…because in evolution…’everything’ matters. Continue reading