Category Archives: Plant Metabolism & Photosynthesis

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



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


Life Inside the Cell: Waking Up to the Miracle, part 1

Understanding the New Phylogeny of Angiosperms, part 1

[This is the first in a 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.  While trying to understand the later, I found it necessary to better understand the others, what was behind this reorganization of how we look at plants.  To do that requires going back in time and scale to see what we are really taking about when we consider plants and the life within them.]


I begin here with the cell.  I will not spend time discussing its structure and various parts, the differences between those of plants, animals, fungi and bacteria.  That has been done by many others, elsewhere.  Instead I want to present here what I’ve learned about what makes the cell, its existence and life within it, so amazing, something that 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, many of which are now long extinct, to understand their relationships with other organisms, they have a purpose.  They are 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 of life in effect on our little pieces of ground and the Earth.  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

The Opposite of Freezing: Plants Have Upper Limits Too

It’s Sunday, July 30, and 87º outside, our forecasted high.  We’re at the front end of a forecast that is calling for two days over our record highest temperature ever recorded in Portland.  I’m looking at it now, Monday, the 31st calls for 92º, August 1 for 99º, 108º, a record, on the 2nd, 110º, another record, on the 3rd, before ‘cooling’ to 105º on the 4th and 95º the next day.  Our average high for this time of year is 82º.  The current record is 107º set on Aug. 8, ’81 and matched on Aug. 10, ’81.  That may not seem that high to people in the SW, but it is here and here is what matters.  Temperature is a local phenomenon.  It’s okay if we whine about it.  It’s hotter than we’re used to.  Hotter than what the local native flora and fauna are ‘used’ to.  For native species it’s not just about preferences, though we may use that word when we talk about their requirements and limits.   Continue reading

This Life: A Memoir, Gambol and Botananomical Tale

Sharpless 249 and the Jellyfish Nebula Image Credit & Copyright: Eric Coles

Sharpless 249 and the Jellyfish Nebula, Image Credit & Copyright: Eric Coles


I hope that you will forgive me this departure into verse, prose, whatever this is…another thread in my life.  I don’t think it is too far amiss, because, after all, horticulture is the ‘art’ and science of growing plants.  Originally I began this as an idea for a children’s story, yes I did, the life of a particular Dandelion, but, probably due to my more recent reading on topics like photosynthesis, cellular metabolism and a biophysics response to the question of, ‘What is life?’…it has morphed…considerably.  When you read this, keep in mind that my intention was to write from the perspective of the Dandelion, a concept pretty incomprehensible to a modern American. 

The Taraxacum Cycle

Stories all begin with a single word, a seed, around which they grow, nurtured over time by the things we all share in common, family, history and experience.  They contain ‘truth’, but are not themselves true, because they must be told in such a way that they lure the reader in and are ‘believable’.  They are organic and grow within us and to the extent that they reflect our own ‘story’, that they meet our expectations, we stay with them and them with us, because there is no story if it is forgotten.  So, the author must manipulate what he knows, he must ‘lie’, to bring you in and keep you, weave truth and lie into a whole.  We take the stories you already know and introduce our own characters, set them in exotic though familiar settings, and, if a writer is good, introduce enough, but not too much, that is ‘new’, different from your cultural experience, your expectation, that you are affected by its unfolding, that you become a part of the story and look at your world in a different way, even if only a little bit.  The word here is Taraxacum. Continue reading

Fiona’s Carrot: Gardening in a Fantastical World


The two Fiona’s of Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children, the wilder, organic version of Riggs’ book and the cute Hollywood version of the movie.

[This is a departure from my ‘normal’ posting.  It is an attempt to get to the ‘heart’ of gardening, closer to the spark within us that drives us, the connection we share with the world we live in that has variously drawn us in to the ‘way’ that we have made for ourselves.]

We’re all familiar with the myth of the ‘green thumb’, those individuals magically endowed with the ability to mysteriously grow anything, but as gardeners we see this as the ‘lie’ that it is.  I’ve told people that those of us with a ‘green thumb’ are simply people with the patience and interest to pay closer attention to the natural world and what is happening in it, that we are better observers.  In Ransom Riggs’ fictional world of Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children, Peculiars possess powers beyond those of the rest of us, the non-peculiars, normal people.  Some of these might strike us simply as bizarre abnormalities, e.g., an extra mouth on the back of one’s head, the power to command bees some of which live within your stomach??? while others put Peculiars more firmly in the realm of comic book super heroes, such as great strength, invisibility, the ability to create and control fire at will, or its opposite cold and ice…without the tights.  In their world of such possibilities these ‘peculiarities’ elicit fear and, quite often, violence from the normals and worse from those who would take it all for themselves, hence the protective action of the Ymbryne’s.  This is a fantasy story, which places it in a more magical world than stories of science fiction that tend to project our knowledge and capabilities into some future, utopian or dystopian world.  In fantasy worlds the author creates a world and mythology where this is simply true rather than explaining such abilities in scientific terms, and knowing something of magic we accept it at face value.  Such are the abilities of the character Fiona, who is gifted with the ability to powerfully direct the growth of plants, not unlike the character Poison Ivy from the DC world of Batman, though in her case her motivation is to help or protect her friends and others rather than Poison Ivy’s much more self-serving ends. Continue reading

Chilling, Freezing & Surviving: Understanding Hardiness & Preparing Your Plants for Winter


Parrotia persica, Persian Ironwood, has long been among my favorite trees, for its leaf shape, substance, fall color, the overall plant form and for its exfoliating puzzled bark. Hardy to zn4 this plant is tough as nails here requiring no protective effort at all.

[A note to the reader. This is not a scholarly treatment of all of the peer reviewed material on this topic.  There are no footnotes or listed sources.  This is a product of my more than 35 years of horticultural field experience and gardening along with what I’ve gleaned from reading several technical peer reviewed articles on the subject.  Such material is difficult to read and can be off putting and intimidating to even the educated layperson.  This posting is my attempt at interpreting the research and reviews that I read in a way I think is understandable without overwhelming the reader with bi0-chemistry and the technical esoterica scientists must consider in their pursuit of understanding.  Any faults are mine.]

I’ve been thinking about plants and their response to cold having watched the deciduous trees drop their leaves, dug tender plants out of the garden and moved pots around to where they would be adequately protected from freezing temperatures.  We all know what happens to water when it freezes, going from a liquid state to a solid one, its molecules forming crystalline structures, expanded and rigid, responsible for burst water pipes and snowflakes.  Water possesses some amazing qualities, as a solid, kind of counter-intuitively, it becomes less dense floating rather than sinking even taking on some insulative qualities and stopping the convective flow of heat that is normal in liquid water.  At the instant of freezing water releases a small but measurable amount of heat. What happens inside plants when temperatures drop below freezing? How does the plant keep from bursting its own cell walls like the water in pipes within an unheated crawl space or wall cavity of a building?  You’ve seen what happens to plants like Coleus and the sodden black heaps they become upon thawing out. Continue reading

The Subterranean Dance: Plants, Nutrients, Water and Their Relationship in Soil Health

The western coast of North America is home to an amazing array of landscapes each with its particular climate and range of soils.  This is in the California coastal range looking southerly towards the distant Bay area across meadow, native Coast Live Oak, Doug Fir and the Coast Redwood of the Armstrong Grove in the lower creek bottom land.

The western coast of North America is home to an amazing array of landscapes each with its particular climate and range of soils. This is in the California coastal range looking southerly towards the distant Bay area across meadow, native Coast Live Oak, Doug Fir and the Coast Redwood of the Armstrong Grove in the lower creek bottom land.

Third in the Water Series

As I seem to keep repeating, water, makes life possible. Plants and animals, with too little, die. Soil, in a very real sense is alive as well, and requires water to animate it. Without water the teeming organisms that occupy and comprise it, die or lie dormant until they are rehydrated. Topsoil, that thin layer upon which all terrestrial plants rely, is a swarming, largely invisible, community. Its effect on all life are essential and intimate. Topsoil is where all of terrestrial life is grounded. It’s health and vitality reflects that of the life on the surface including our own. As humans we are essentially consumers and, if we are to survive, stewards of the life upon which we depend. Plants are the creators. That is perhaps a bit simplistic because the relationship between plant, animal and earth is considerably more complicated. Life has evolved together, each species, each element, and, because of this, is part of an integrated whole. Continue reading