Category Archives: What is Life?

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.]

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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

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What is a Species?

Specious (?) Speculations on Species 

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Iris x pacifica ‘Tanus’.  This is a hybrid Iris of species know collectively as series ‘californicae’, a group of Iris endemic to the Pacific coast of the US, primarily California, some very localized, with several occurring north through Oregon, and one, I. tenax, all of the way to the Puget Sound area of Washington.  These species obviously can be crossed.  Their form shows the distinctive tri-partite structure of a classic Monocot, in Genus Iris taking this particular form with 3 ‘falls’, 3 stamen and stigma structures angling out from the ovary at center, across the brightly colored ‘signal’ on each fall and the 3 more upright ‘standards’.

I do not recall from high school biology how an individual species was defined to us in our text or class, nor do I in my college Zoology 200 series.  All that I have is a general understanding that it is a select population with a shared, narrow, range of physical characteristics, in the case of plants, best determined by their floral or reproductive parts, that is able to reproduce stable offspring with the same range of characteristics.  Webster’s defines species as:

“a category of biological classification ranking immediately below the genus or subgenus, comprising related organisms or populations potentially capable of interbreeding, and being designated by a binomial that consists of the name of a genus followed by a Latin or latinized uncapitalized noun or adjective agreeing grammatically with the genus name” 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

The Strength to Stand: Surviving the Load of Ice and Snow in Portland

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The morning after the big snow along the front of my house. To the left, splayed out and weighted down, is my Butia capitata. This one, from Argentina and not used to snow, had me worried, but it sprung back. The Oleander to the right, next to the sign, was bent down to the ground from its 8’+. Further back is one of my Chinese Windmill Palms, Trachycarpus fortuneii, bent under a snow load it is used to from high in the mountains of southern China.

Many of us who garden in the Pacific Northwest, and especially those of us in Portland this year, will be visiting our garden centers and favorite nurseries this spring and summer with a little more anxiety and need as we look for plants to replace those that have succumbed to this winter’s cold, ice and snow loads, all of which were more severe than what we have come to expect here.  But before we pull on our boots and don our rain gear to head off for shopping there are several questions that we need to consider before we make our purchases.  Not all of us draw up plant lists, but most of us at least carry in our heads a wish list of plants we have seen in other gardens, in magazine spreads and while on vacations, but if we want to avoid some major mistakes and move our gardens toward the kind of landscapes that we really want, we are going to have to put on our reality goggles and critically assess our choices…that is, if we want to avoid unnecessary losses in the future. Continue reading