December 13 – Point It Out

Today’s factismal: The poinsettia and the Chinese tallow tree come from the same plant family.

For some folks, nothing says Christmas like a big, leafy poinsettia plant. These red and green bush has been a symbol of the season almost since the day that Joel Poinsett brought the first one back from his stay as ambassador to Mexico in 1825. Though the ones sold at the stores are typically only about a foot tall, under the right conditions (warm, fertile soil, plenty of sun and rain) they can grow to be more than 13 feet high! Interestingly, the bright red showy part of the plant isn’t the actual flower; they are leaves that respond to longer nights by turning color. The real flowers are the tiny yellow cyathia located in the center of the red leaves. They share this adaptation with the other members of their plant family, the Euphorbia (named after a Greek physician who described the laxative properties of the family back in 12 BCE). Though many in the family have bright colors and showy leaves like the poinsettia, others appear dull and drab.

The poinsettia, a non-invasive member of the family (Image courtesy USDA)

The poinsettia, a non-invasive member of the family
(Image courtesy USDA)

And, as is true in many families, the showiest ones are the least interesting and the most intriguing are the ones that don’t make a big entrance. For example, though the poinsettia is beautiful and popular across the world at this time of the year, the Chinese tallow plant may be both more valuable and more troublesome. That’s because the Chinese tallow plant acts as a valuable source of nectar for honeybees and other pollinating insects; in addition, the leaves and nuts of the plant are so rich in oil that they are used to make candles and soap. Some people are even exploring turning the Chinese tallow plant into biodiesel. However, the plant is also an aggressive invasive throughout much of America’s South. It is currently against state law to buy, sell, transport, or plant one in Texas, Georgia, and Florida. Despite this, some nurseries in the Northern United States still sell it as an ornamental plant!

The Chinese tallow is found across the South (Image courtesy USDA)

The Chinese tallow is found across the South
(Image courtesy USDA)

The Chinese tallow isn't pretty, but it is pretty obnoxious (Image courtesy USDA)

The Chinese tallow isn’t pretty, but it is pretty obnoxious
(Image courtesy USDA)

If you come across a Chinese tallow plant (or any other invasive plant), please report it to your state agricultural office. And if you’d like to do more to help keep invasives from ruining our beautiful land, then why not join the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Volunteers against invasives program? For more details, go to:
http://www.fws.gov/invasives/volunteersTrainingModule/index.html

December 17 – Pointers and settias

Today’s factismal: The poinsettia and the Chinese tallow tree come from the same plant family.

For some folks, nothing says Christmas like a big, leafy poinsettia plant. These red and green bush has been a symbol of the season almost since the day that Joel Poinsett brought the first one back from his stay as ambassador to Mexico in 1825. Though the ones sold at the stores are typically only about a foot tall, under the right conditions (warm, fertile soil, plenty of sun and rain) they can grow to be more than 13 feet high! Interestingly, the bright red showy part of the plant isn’t the actual flower; they are leaves that respond to longer nights by turning color. The real flowers are the tiny yellow cyathia located in the center of the red leaves. They share this adaptation with the other members of their plant family, the Euphorbia (named after a Greek physician who described the laxative properties of the family back in 12 BCE). Though many in the family have bright colors and showy leaves like the poinsettia, others appear dull and drab.

The poinsettia, a non-invasive member of the family (Image courtesy USDA)

The poinsettia, a non-invasive member of the family
(Image courtesy USDA)

And, as is true in many families, the showiest ones are the least interesting and the most intriguing are the ones that don’t make a big entrance. For example, though the poinsettia is beautiful and popular across the world at this time of the year, the Chinese tallow plant may be both more valuable and more troublesome. That’s because the Chinese tallow plant acts as a valuable source of nectar for honeybees and other pollinating insects; in addition, the leaves and nuts of the plant are so rich in oil that they are used to make candles and soap. Some people are even exploring turning the Chinese tallow plant into biodiesel. However, the plant is also an aggressive invasive throughout much of America’s South. It is currently against state law to buy, sell, transport, or plant one in Texas, Georgia, and Florida. Despite this, some nurseries in the Northern United States still sell it as an ornamental plant!

The Chinese tallow is found across the South (Image courtesy USDA)

The Chinese tallow is found across the South
(Image courtesy USDA)

The Chinese tallow isn't pretty, but it is pretty obnoxious (Image courtesy USDA)

The Chinese tallow isn’t pretty, but it is pretty obnoxious
(Image courtesy USDA)

If you come across a Chinese tallow plant (or any other invasive plant), please report it to your state agricultural office. And if you’d like to do more to help keep invasives from ruining our beautiful land, then why not join the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Volunteers against invasives program? For more details, go to:
http://www.fws.gov/invasives/volunteersTrainingModule/index.html

December 1 – All The Way Down

Today’s factismal: Sea grass responds to grazing by forming new runners.

Seagrass is wonderful stuff. It provides a nursery for young sea life, it stabilizes the shoreline, and it helps clarify the water. But seagrass does have one bad habit; if it isn’t challenged, it stays put and vegetates. (Call it the nerd of the plant world.) In order for seagrass to spread quickly, it needs to be challenged; it needs animals to graze on it. When that happens, the seagrass responds by sending out new runners to avoid the grazing animals. This makes the seagrass patch spread over a larger area, making everyone happy.

And though seagrass is the preferred diet of dugongs and manatees, it is the sea turtles that really make it grow. Every species of sea turtle feeds on seagrass as part of its diet, but it is the green sea turtle that acts as the lawnmower of the seas. This little turtle (they are only 5 ft long and 200 lbs in weight) grazes on seagrass beds the world over. They’ll swim up to 1,600 miles for a tasty mouthful of seagrass (and back again to lay their eggs). They eat more seagrass than dugongs and manatees simplely because there are more of them.

But that doesn’t mean that they are safe. Indeed, all sea turtles are endangered and face threats from poachers and changes in land use. The biggest threat to sea turtles today is poachers who steal their eggs (considered a delicacy in some places). That’s why the turtles need folks to tell the scientists and rangers where the turtles are so that they can be protected. If you see a sea turtle, please report it at the International Sea Turtle Observation Registry:
http://www.seaturtle.org/istor/

October 8 – City of Trees

Today’s factismal: Washington DC has lost nearly one third of its trees since 1950.

What with all of the news coverage of the various disfunctions, malfunctions, and malefactions in our nation’s capitol, you might think that there wasn’t any room for more. Unfortunately, you’d be wrong. There is another problem in Washington, DC, and it is one that you can do something about! But to understand it, we have to set our “wayback machine” to 1790 when George Washington and his fellow Founding Fathers decided to place the capitol on land donated by Virginia and Maryland.

As part of the planning for the city, Washington decided that there should be impressive buildings and even more impressive tree-lined boulevards and tree-filled parks. Falsehoods about cherry trees aside, Washington was an ardent arborist who enjoyed trying to get new and different types of trees to grow. (Franklin beats him on that score, though – Franklin actually has a species of tree named after him!) And so he worked with L’Enfant (the architect of the city) to ensure that there were plenty of places to put trees. Their plan worked so well that DC was known as “the city of trees” during the 1800s.

The Washington Monument, peeking out from the cherry trees

The Washington Monument, peeking out from the cherry trees

But as Washington became more a place to live and less a place to just work, the trees started getting crowded out by new buildings and new roads. Throughout the last century places that had harbored arbors turned into apartment complexes and shopping malls. As a result, the amount of DC covered by a tree canopy declined from 50% in 1950 to less than 35% in 2011; one-third of the trees and all of the animals and other plants that they harbored had gone!

That inspired one citizen scientist to start a project to replant DC and restore it to its former green glory. She began the eponymous Casey Trees, a citizen science project that helps locals and visitors alike take part in the effort. To learn more, head over to their website:
http://caseytrees.org/

September 24 – The Vine That Ate The South

Today’s factismal: Kudzu vines in the US now cover an area larger than Connecticut, New Jersey, and Delaware combined!

When they started, it seemed like a great idea. Many farms in the South were failing, thanks to poor soil conditions caused by decades of cotton and tobacco production. Unless something was done, the economy of the entire are was going to collapse. At the 1876 Centennial Exposition, the Japanese had shown a vine that added nitrogen and minerals to the topsoil, making it fertile once more. Even better, the vine that they called kudzu had nearly unlimited uses: as an animal feed, as a fiber source for ropes and basket-weaving, as a soap, and even as food for people! Before long, no Southern farm was complete without its kudzu vines, draped elegantly across the porch to provide shade or creeping over the old fields to rejuvenate them. The vine was considered to be such a boon that the US government paid farmers to plant it!

Kudzu "the vine that ate the South" (Image courtesy USDA)

Kudzu “the vine that ate the South”
(Image courtesy USDA)

But farms still failed, thanks to boll weevils and changing politics. An as the farmers trudged to the city to find a new life, they left behind untended fields of kudzu. Kudzu that liked the southern sunlight and had no native enemies. Kudzu that had nothing better to do than spread and grow. Which it did, relentlessly. By 1953, there was so much kudzu that the federal government took it off of the list of suggested plants; by 1970, it was officially a weed and it was moved up to “noxious weed” by 1997. Kudzu had worn out its welcome.

Unfortunately, the damage has been done. Right now, farmers and just about everyone else in the South is trying to get rid of kudzu any way that they can. They’ve got goats grazing on it, weevils boring into it, and people running over it with lawnmowers. And still the kudzu spreads.

Of course, kudzu isn’t the first invasive species that we’ve created by taking a good idea and making it bad (Shakespeare’s birds, anyone?) and it probably won’t be the last. But one thing that we can do as citizen scientists is help to track these invasive species using a tool such as EDDMaps. The data you enter goes to scientists and agricultural control officers who can use it to help keep track of what is invading where, and decide the best way to stop them from eating the South (again). To participate, head over to:
http://www.eddmaps.org/about/

August 25 – All Natural

Today’s factismal: The berries of some species of viburnum are highly prized for jams and jellies but the berries of other viburnum species can kill you.

One of the prettiest plants in many a Northeasterner’s garden is the viburnum. This fast-growing shrub has showy flowers with an enchanting fragrance and berries that, while always colorful, range from delicious to deadly. But if you leave the berries to the birds, you’ll still appreciate the plant for its plentiful shade and the gentle arcs of color its leaves and flowers make. Or at least, you will until the viburnum leaf beetle gets to it!

Viburnum in flower (My camera)

Viburnum in flower
(My camera)

As with so many other pests, the viburnum leaf beetle is an invasive species. It was accidentally introduced into North America in 1947, and has slowly been munching its way across the country. The viburnum leaf beetle is an ugly little critter and leaves tell-tale scars on the plants it attacks. While the adults eat the leaves of the viburnum, the larvae feed on the plant from the inside. That’s because the female viburnum leaf beetle plants the eggs into the plant by chewing a series of small round holes on the bottom of twigs before placing the eggs inside and sealing them up with her poop mixed with sawdust to wait out the winter. The larvae emerge in the spring and begin gnawing on leaves before dropping to the ground to pupate after which they emerge and once more begin eating their fill of viburnum.

An infestation can denude a viburnum plant fairly quickly, and repeated infestations can kill it entirely. Because the pest is spreading, both entomologists and botanists are seeking help form concerned citizen scientists like you. If you’d like to help track the spread of the viburnum leaf beetle, head over to Cornell’s Viburnum Leaf Beetle website:
http://www.hort.cornell.edu/vlb/

July 29 – Auto-trophy Room

Today’s factismal: Autotrophs don’t drool.

If you’ve seen “The Big Bang Theory”, odds are that you’ve heard the catchy little song that goes before it. But what you may not have caught is the fact that there are several errors in the song. The most notable of these is the line “the autotrophs began to drool”. The problem with it is that autotrophs don’t drool.

“Hold on, Bucky!” I hear you cry; “how can you know that?” I’m glad you asked. It all has to do with the special word autotroph (geek Greek for “self feeder”). Autotrophs are critters that don’t rely on other critters for their food; instead, they rely on light (phototrophs, like plants) or chemicals (chemotrophs, like the rust-eating bacteria on the Titanic). Because autotrophs don’t need to eat other critters, they don’t really have mouths. And without mouths, there is no drool. (They may have a phagocytic organelle, but that’s too pedantic even for me.)

A variety of autotrophs (My camera)

A variety of autotrophs
(My camera)

But what they do have is specialized parts of their cells that work to turn the light or chemicals into energy. For the phototrophs, that specialized part is known as a chloroplast because it is where the green (“chlor”) goo (“plast”) is stored. That green goo is known as chlorophyl (“green lover”) and it turns sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide into sugar, which then gets used as energy elsewhere in the autotroph. And the neat thing about that is that it makes autotrophs the basis for the food web here on Earth; if they didn’t turn sunlight or rust or whatever into food, then we’d all starve. So while they may not drool, we certainly do thanks to them!

Of course, they don’t take kindly to being turned into food.Whenever an autotroph-eating bacteria comes near one, the chloroplasts in an autotroph can clump. And that’s the idea behind today’s citizen science project. In the Clumpy project (clever name, no?), you’ll look at images of plants and try to identify where the chloroplasts have clumped together. Knowing that will help the biologists determine how to make autotrophs happier, which will mean more food for us, which will make us happier. Want to take part? Go to:
http://clumpy.ex.ac.uk/