While I was gardening

The art of gardening and the science of life.

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Of Plants and Politics

I woke to an unusually beautiful spring morning on a day almost free of commitments.  Filled with energy and with efficiency not normally practiced with such skill, I was ready early to get outside.  I decided to take a short hike through a forested park filled with Trilliums, Ribes, and spring green shoots.  Bird song filled my ears and dogs barked with enthusiasm at the laughing children on the playground some distance away.  A water view sparkled with drops of sunlight, new leaves shined through transparent shadows, and blue sky poured into the spaces between the trees.  Even the water brushing the beach sounded fresh.

The walk home was warm and easy, surrounded by yellows and purples and pinks and white.  Soft fragrance, quiet breezes – the sounds of spring followed me home.  Gardening called, and I answered.  A friend and her dog stopped for a short visit.  Nothing more could be asked of such a sweet day.

Back inside, I made a cup of hot chocolate and sat down to relax.  I turned on the t.v. with the intent of hearing the weather report for the following day.  Instead, I heard insults, name calling, threats, and accusations.  Spouses demeaned, old quotes misrepresented, exaggerations and lies traded like the only currency of value.  Oh yes, the political season is here like a dark, low cloud full of thunder and sleet.

Here’s a thought – if our candidates can fill one day with kindness and realize that it doesn’t hurt, then one more day, and another, could follow.  Maybe we could have one week of something nice.  And one week could be followed by another, and maybe this could lead to one month of being nice.  One month could lead to another, and on and on.  And before the candidates realize it, they are talking about issues – only issues.  No insults, no lies, no rude comments about spouses.  Possible?

In this season of regeneration, rejuvenation, and love, let’s all mimic the best of the natural world and see how we feel.


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“. . .why should that impress us? They can eat light, isn’t that enough?”*

Stripes, spots, and swirls make up the patterns of the plant world.  Patterns in an array of color, shape, and size make their world richer than anything humans have yet imagined.  Upon seeing a plant with variegated foliage, the first question that usually arises is ‘Why?  Wouldn’t plain green be more useful?’.  That plants respond to their environment is not much debated, or shouldn’t be, at this point in our understanding of botany.  A plant with variegated foliage is better camouflaged in a setting of low or dappled light.  Difficult to identify and munch upon a leaf that blends into the shadows; a very beneficial adaptation for something that can’t get away from a threat.  Sometimes, variegation is a response to very specific light levels, and as a result, those plants may survive only in those specific conditions, but those conditions also support the plants’ coevolved predators.  This is most often seen in tropical, understory plants.  Variegation is sometimes the result of a virus the plant has contracted, and is attractive to the human viewer who propagates that plant.  But the stripes of Canna, the spots on a Trillium’s leaves, and the swirls on Calathea foliage are proof that plants do much more than just grow and ‘hope for the best’.  They outsmart predators by hiding in plain sight – and this is just one example of their ingenuity.

Many plants offer decorated landing pads and runways, tunnels and tubes, enticing aromas, and of course, a wide variety of color to make their flowers irresistible to the creatures they depend upon for reproduction.  Does this mean that flowers compete with each other to attract the most pollinators?   Appearances tell us so.  For example, some flowers are shaped to conform to the body of the insect that pollinates it.  Tube flowers with nectar far down at the base require the pollinator to enter the tube as deep as possible, therefore, ensuring that the most pollen attaches to the body of the insect as it exits the flower.  Some plants have developed flowers that look or smell like a female of the species of insect required for pollination.  A big tease, but it works.  More primitive plants, those pollinated by wind, haven’t developed such showy flowers.  Conifers and many hardwood trees, as well as grasses, sedges, and a few other plants, save energy by allowing wind to do the work of pollination.  No need to entice insects with color, shape, or fragrance.  These are ancient plant families, but by no means are they inefficient.  They produce vast amounts of pollen – much more than needed for the job at hand.  Their flowers tend to follow an easy pattern – long catkins or inflorescence that move easily and proficiently on the wind.  No unnecessary color, aroma, shape, or timing.  These plants compete by the simple process of mass-production.  That plants compete shouldn’t surprise us.  After all, we see competition throughout the biological world for many reasons – food, mates, and shelter top the list.  We all do it.  Why would plants be different?  Resources are limited but need is not.

Some plants have pared down reproduction to such an extent that they self-pollinate.  Most of these plants are annuals or short-lived ephemerals.  Some plants that self-pollinate have flowers that don’t completely open, thereby, not releasing pollen to the environment.  Other plants have developed flowers that are smaller and less showy than other plants, and their pollen is released near their stigmas.  No need to wait for a pollinator or a windy day.

All methods of reproduction that plants have developed contain disadvantages, but considering the enormous scope of hazards that plants face, these adaptations have proven creative, cunning, and highly successful.  And remarkable.  But the most astonishing aspect of plant life is their ability to photosynthesize – and we all know the by-product of photosynthesis.   So, we should be impressed; after all, plants hold the life of our planet in their leaves.

*Tim Plowman, Ph.D.


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Does a Tree know its Age?

Galaxies are the biggest units of material (that we know of) in the universe.  They are the nurseries and graveyards of stars.  Contained within them are nebulae and black holes, planets and moons – all grouped within countless solar systems.  Stars are composed of hydrogen and helium under enormous pressure and heat, with smaller amounts of heavy metals such as carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen.  From these basic elements life on our planet developed – through these basic elements all biological life is kin.

From the smallest basic building block of life – a cell – to the largest organism known – a fungus in the Blue Mountains of Oregon, we have observed a symmetry of structure and function within the biological world that has astounded, confounded, and amazed our species.  It should humble us.

For instance, we now know that our species is far from the only group that uses tools.  Other primates use and make tools; some species of birds, insects, fish, mammals, and cephalopods use tools for problem-solving with ease.  I have observed my resident crow use small sticks to empty a seed feeder with hardly the ruffle of a feather.  I’ve watched as he and his mate use a tag-team approach to empty the feeders and to trick the squirrels who travel through my garden into dropping the peanuts they find.  The discovery that other animals use tools caught scientists by surprise; some still refuse to acknowledge this discovery, attributing it instead to mimicry or to misinterpretation by the researcher.

Recent studies done by behavioral researchers have shown that animals other than humans have a highly developed sense of self – something any pet owner already senses.  These demonstrable results, also controversial among some scientists, have caused many people in a variety of fields to reassess their definition of consciousness, cognition, and communication.

But what of plants?  Within the past 2 decades, botanists, ecologists, and foresters have discovered and are proving that plants communicate with each other using a variety of methods; via chemicals, via fungal life in the soil, or through emissions from their roots.  How do they do this?  For example, when plants are being attacked by insects they will alert their neighbors of the threat by emitting chemical signals into the surrounding air.  Plants ‘know’ they are being attacked because they sense the vibrations from the chewing of insects.  How?  Plants don’t have central nervous systems; they can’t hear; they can’t see.  But, they know when they are in danger.  They sense a problem.  Plants defend themselves by flooding their tissues with toxic, foul tasting chemicals that discourage the pest.  Insects sometimes respond to the toxins by developing an immunity to the substance.  They adapt, and the process starts anew.

We now know that many shrubs leaf out earlier than others of their species in different locations if those shrubs are planted below trees.  When the trees leaf out, this prevents the shrubs from obtaining adequate energy (sunlight), so the shrubs respond with early budburst.  This enables the shrubs to obtain as much energy as possible before the trees leaf out.*  What triggers the shrub to leaf out earlier than others in its species in different locations?  Shrubs sense the amount of time needed for early budburst, but how?

Research by Suzanne Simard, Ph.D., has shown that Pseudotsuga menziesii, Douglas Fir mother trees, share nutrients via their root system and fungi network with their seedlings.  This connects one tree with another.  Dr. Simard uses the term communication to describe these interactions.  The fungus works in concert with the trees.  How does the mother tree know to do this?  What does it sense that allows it to work with the fungi to create this beneficial network among its kin?

I’ve often wondered if the most ancient of plants on our planet sense the passage of time.  Do these plants, trapped in place, have a sense of their longevity?  These ancient pines, sequoias, junipers, yews, aspen groves, figs, cypress, oaks, and so many others interact with their surroundings with such success that they have outlived countless other species.  If nothing else, do they sense the passing of others of their genus?  Do they sense the movement of seasons through the availability of nutrients and water?  Of lean times?  Of storms, fire, insect infestation or disease, of threats from animals?  If so, what would they tell us?  What would they communicate to us?

And most of all, would we listen?



*American Scientist, March-April 2016