Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Blighia sapida

Before Lindsay and I went to Jamaica this past June, Andrew Blackburn told us that while we were there we had to try the Akee and Saltfish, the national meal of Jamaica. While I did have the chance to try saltfish, akee was not in season when we were there. Akee is the fruit of Blighia sapida (Sapindaceae), an evergreen tree native to Africa but grown throughout the Caribbean islands and in tropical areas around the world. It is the national fruit of Jamaica.

These photos of flowers and maturing fruit were taken in Jamaica in June 2008. The photo below is of a nearly mature akee fruit that we saw in Costa Rica in November 2007.

If ever you come across an akee fruit at this stage, don't eat it! Akee is mature when it turns yellow-orange and splits to expose three shiny black seeds. The seeds are surrounded by fleshy, yellowish arils. Only the arils are edible, and only after being boiled. Eating an unripe akee or parts other than the arils leads to vomiting, seizures, and Japanese vomiting sickness (a fatal hypoglycemia). Apparently it is illegal to bring akee into the US because so many people have died from eating unripened akee.
On this date in 1932, Dorothy Popenoe, the wife of Frederick Wilson Popenoe (who was an agricultural explorer who specialized in South American crops and who was responsible for introducing avocados to American kitchens) died at the age of 33 from eating an unripe akee in Guatemala.
Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

This Date in Botanical History...

On December 29-30, 1940, the Germans firebombed London, leading to hundreds of fires around the city. Among other things, this devastation destroyed plates and text from Curtis's Botanical Magazine.

If you're ever doing research on Brazilian or French plants, be alert if you see collections by Auguste Francois Marie Glaziou. On December 30, 1970, John Wurdack noted that Glaziou had actually changed location, date, and morphology collection data on specimens collected by other botanists and considered them his own collections!

Is everyone else enjoying this mild, spring-like weather? Lindsay and I were on a bird count in Ohio on Saturday, and a honeybee flew past me and landed on the ground! Unfortunately, I didn't have a camera with me.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Correction: Lepidodendron sp. actually Sigillaria sp.

The post below was the result of a quiz of a fossil I put on GYBO quite a while back. Prem Subrahmanyam was kind enough to not only correct the identification but to also provide the reason (a very interesting one at that). I refer you to his comment below.
Keith nailed this one. It is Lepidodendron. A genus of vascular "trees" from the Carboniferous period (~300MYBP) that are closely related to quilworts (Isoetes) and club mosses (Lycopodium). This partiular specimen was found by a botanist friend in Arkansas. During the Carboniferous period, modern land masses were located along Earth's equator and the world was warmer and more humid. Plants like Lepidodendron lived in the lush swamps that formed the massive coal, oil and natural gas reserves that presently fuel our modern world. As we all know, by re-releasing the carbon of the Carboniferous we are warming the earth and thus altering the patterns of biotic distribution.

An Ancient Quiz

Here is the latest quiz plant. Given the inherent generalities of paleobotany, genus will be fine.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Toxicodendron radicans it is

Dana and Justin correctly identified the frozen branch as that of Toxicodendron radicans.

This is how it grows on the fence along the southern boundary of our property...

... and here are a few of the remaining, nutritious fruits that are eaten and then spread by a variety of birds...

This probably explains why the plant has this shrubby growth around all of our fence posts. The birds eat the fruit, sit on the post, and poop out the seeds; then the plant grows up along the post. Urushiol, the chemical that causes the itchy rash in people, is not poisonous to birds.

Toxicodendron means "poison tree," and radicans means "rooting along the stem." Can you believe that there is a cultivated variety of poison ivy with variegated leaves?

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Deep Freeze Plant Quiz

If you hadn't heard, we had a bit of freezing rain the other day. Cold, wet weather is certainly no reason to stay indoors! Knowing few boundaries, I have posted the next plant quiz.

Yeah, that's how I roll.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Would a Rosa by any other name smell as sweet?

The Psoralea/Orbexilum post raised a recurring debate I have with myself. At what point do you accept or reject changes in nomenclature? I strongly believe that science is one of the most democratic of endeavors in which one can be involved. I say this based on the notion that science is based on peer review and the general acceptance (or the failure of rejection) of ideas by a group of informed people. However, the inevitable slop that is inherent to ideas and proof easily, and often, muddy the waters.

Having become a student of botany and Midwestern flora in the late 1990's, I had to jump in and learn whatever names were given by my mentors and/or the current flora in use for the region. And I did so with little questioning simply because one doesn't realize how much grey area exists until one gains familiarity with the sticky issues.

Case in point; the Psoralea/Orbexilum situation. If you were a botanist before 1930 (prior to the switch from the American Code of Botanical Nomenclature to the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature) there were many names like Orbexilum that you are seeing come back into usage. Also, there are names that have changed more recently such as Aster/Symphyotrichum. So the question is, how do you (and by "you" i mean YOU specifically and not in the collective sense) know what name to use?

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Pre-Christmas Plant Quiz

Here is a quick plant quiz for those whose minds are already wandering to spring and green things. Unlike most quizes, this one has the gift of flowers.

This plant occurs from the Chicago Region south.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Love Affair of Gaura biennis and Schinia gaurae

I don't know if it was the cool temperatures, the abundant rainfall or some other stochastic influence, but Gaura biennis was extremely flamboyant in the Ozarks this summer. Everywhere I went, large, diffuse inflorescences of white turning to shades of pink were found.

Admittedly, I have mostly ignored Gaura biennis over the years; finding it gangly and somewhat weedy. But it really out-did itself this year and I took notice. Camera in hand, tripod in tow, I headed down my gravel driveway to a nice specimen for a quick photo. Knowing them to be nocturnal bloomers and having noticed that the flowers were at their peak in the morning when I left the house and mostly shriveled by my evening return, I got to them just after sunrise.

After taking some quick photos, the kind where you don't really see the subject for the equipment, while rushing to beat the light, wind or self-imposed time constraints, I began to study the flowers. In this conscious effort to slow-down and enjoy the moment, the flowers struck me as peculiar. The perianth was tilted about 45 degrees toward the sky, and the stamens where all lined up perpendicular to the ground with the style between the stamens but dropped below their line by a few millimeters. It was the arrangement of the stamens that most drew my attention. I couldn't help but notice that they formed a triangle in outline. Further study revealed a ring of nectaries encircling the base of the style and that the anthers split along the uppermost edge. This made me think about pollinators.
Returning to the house, I grabbed my copy of "Butterflies and Moths of Missouri" and looked for moths that feed on Gaura that might fit what has to be an interesting pollination syndrome. I found that Schinia gaurae (the Clouded Crimson)(picture below from feeds, nectars, rests and lays eggs on species of Gaura and primarily on Gaura biennis. Still curious, I googled for images of this fun little moth. Several of the images demonstrated that the moth is almost the identical size and shape of the stamen arrangement on the Gaura biennis flowers. I also noticed that the back end of its wings are somewhat fluffy, not unlike miniature feather dusters. To cap it off, the adult moth's peak emergence is well in line with the bloom dates of G. biennis.

So at this point I am thinking that Schinia gaurae obviously visits the flowers to get a little nectar and as it aligns itself to drink, the fluffy wing bases get dusted with pollen. It just makes too much sense. Unfortunately, the only references I can find says that G. biennis is pollinated by long-tongued bees. My dream of a "form meets function" world instantly goes up in a cloud of disappointment. After all, what do these Gene Simmons bees have to do with my elaborate Gaura stamens? Are there really nocturnal bees? I needed more info.

I decide to wait until the dead of night before I visit my little population of flowers. At 1am I just can't stand it any longer. I jump in the truck which has become nothing more than a mobile flashlight at this point, and head down the driveway. I get out and eye every flower....nothing. I look closer and find the nectaries, which were dry during the day, are now pumping huge luscious drops of nectar. I must taste one, and I do. It's sweet, but hardly a meal for a curious primate. I also notice that the style is now in line with the anthers and not below them as in the flowers from the day, or should I say night, before. In the anticlimax, I stand a moment, hoping to hear an owl or something to salvage the night, when I notice an erratic flash in the headlights. It's a moth. Surely it is just drawn to the light. It lands on a flower. It's Schinia gaurae!!!! It lights, aligns itself, and drinks. The stamens are covered, the wings are in contact with the anthers and I am ecstatic. I watch for a while, then jump in the truck and head home for a beer and some contemplation about how wonderfully cool life and life on earth is.
Of course, the scientist in me realizes that this merely constitutes circumstantial evidence and in no way proves that Gaura biennis is pollinated by Schinia gaurae. And since I still don't know what the interaction of the plant with long-tongued bees is, they cannot be ruled out. But the novice naturalist, the child, the innocent believer in me is satisfied. At least until next year.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Symphytum officinale

Common Comfrey it is, in the Boraginaceae. I saw this plant from the highway a couple years ago and there wasn't a good place to pull off. By the time I got turned around and back to the area it was pouring rain so I gave up, thinking I'd be back in a few days, but it was forgotten until last May. Strangely, its wetland rating is FACU and at this site it was thriving in a mucky lowland seep.

From a distance it looks like a giant Mertensia with flowers darker and only partially opened. It has leaf tissue decurrent along the stem, making it look strongly winged. It's a native of Europe, escaped from cultivation here and rather attractive. "Officinale" meaning "of the shops," a reference to some historic use in medicine, and hence its prevalence in apothecary shops.

Good call, Scott!

Easy Plant Quiz

This was growing in low, mucky ground in Hobart, Indiana. Photographed May 25, 2008. I'll have to admit I didn't know what it was at the time.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Hypericum punctatum

That's right, Ellery. The quiz plant was Hypericum punctatum. With flowers or even leaves, this would have been a much easier quiz, as H. punctatum and H. perforatum are very easy to tell apart during the growing season. Outside of the growing season, there aren't as many characters to use to distinguish the two. H. perforatum would have a more angled stem formed by decurrent leaf bases. Also, H. perforatum is more woody/shrubby than H. punctatum. This character isn't as obvious from the photo I posted, but in seeing the plant in person this is more obvious. Finally, the sepals of H. punctatum are blunt to acute, while those of H. perforatum are linear-lanceolate and attenuate.

The genus name Hypericum comes from the ancient Greek name Hypericon, which was derived from the word meaning "over a picture." Flowers were often collected and placed above pictures in the house to ward off evil spirits at Walpurgisnacht, the midsummer festival associated with the summer solstice that later became known as the feast of St. John. The specific epithet, punctatum, refers to the black and transparent dots on the leaves and petals.

Nice job, Ellery. And good guesses, Keith.