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
[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
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
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
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
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!
A 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
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