Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Road-Trip Biology

After successfully defending my PhD thesis in early December of last year, I took some time off and drove down to Austin, Texas to spend the winter break with my parents. I stopped for gas and food a few times along the way to a hotel in Wichita, Kansas for my first night.

The second day, I took a more relaxed approach to my travel and stopped a few times to walk at roadside rest-stops. I planned to stop in Oklahoma to get some photos and a sample of the state soil, the Port Silt Loam. I found the soil at a small roadside stop about 50 miles north of Oklahoma City.

Whenever I've passed through the region, I noted that some of the dried grasses seemed to carry the color from the soil, while others did not. On other trips through the region, I noticed that in other areas where a grey soil is found, the same sort of grasses seemed to pick up the color of that soil too. I was hoping to get a sample of the grey soil as well, for comparison, but I didn't happen to encounter any.

At the same stop where I found the clay, I also found a nice juniper tree. As I was looking for a photogenic cluster of cones to photograph, I found what looked like the broken end of a branch hanging down.
On closer examination, I realized it was instead the pupal case of some insect. Once I saw one, I realized the tree was covered in them. I took one home with me to dissect. Inside I found the expected pupa.

After a little searching, I found the insect is called the "Evergreen Bagworm" (Thyridopteryx ephemeraeformis). They're considered a destructive parasite of the Juniper, with infestations eventually killing the trees.

Once I was in Austin, Texas, I spent most of my time with family. I did spend some time walking around the neighborhood, where I found a nice Mistletoe plant with fruit. Phoradendron coryae is the local Mistletoe species which grows on oak trees like the live oak (Quercus virginiana) I found this one growing on.

Individuals of this group are either male or female and live for many years. I've pondered on the idea of how one might grow mistletoe in an artificial media, but I've never heard of anyone actually working on such a project.

One of the common plants of south-central Texas is the Ball Moss (Tillandsia recurvata). Though called a moss, it is really a flowering plant related to Spanish Moss (Tillandsia usneoides) and Pineapple (Ananas comosus). It commonly grows on the interior branches of Texas Live Oak (Quercus virginiana), though I have in the past found it growing on old wooden fence posts and other man-made structures.

During my freshman year at the University of Texas, I noted one growing on the side of a building outside a tenth-story window. I wonder if it is still there.

I hadn't visited the Gateway Arch in many years, so I decided to route my trip home through Saint Louis, Missouri to have a walk around.

I didn't find much of biological interest while wandering the city, but I did get a nice photo of this birthday-cake statue on the grounds of the Arch celebrating the 250th year of Saint Louis.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Novel Vegetable: Scarlet Eggplant

S. integrifolium "Pumpkin Tree".
Solanum integrifolium (or S. aethiopictum, the nomenclature is a bit confused) goes by a few common names depending on what variety you're working with. A type that is grown primarily for decorative use in the USA is referred to as the "Pumpkin Tree" (or "Pumpkin-On-a-Stick") because of the ripe fruit have the color and shape (if not size) of pumpkins. The orange-red color of the fruit is characteristic for the species. Many other red/orange eggplants you will find are varieties of the same species.

Most photos of "Pumpkin Tree" plants that you find online have lovely deep purple-black stems, which provide nice contrast to its bright orange-red fruit when dried and used in a floral display. My plant has the green stems typical of your everyday eggplant, marking it as somewhat distinct from most of the photos I come across. My seeds were saved from a dried fruit that I found in a bouquet a friend had brought over from her florist employer. I didn't note the color of the stems, but I'm assuming they were light in color.

Sautéed "Pumpkin Tree".
The fruit are widely reported as edible, though they're more bitter than the usual cohort of American vegetables. There are references to the vegetable tasting better before it has turned orange, so I decided to prepare a pair of simple dishes to compare them. The ripe and unripe fruit from the top photo were diced and then sautéed separately with olive oil and a dash of salt and ground long-pepper. The ripe fruit was squishier and made more of a mess on my cutting board than the unripe fruit. As the diced eggplant was cooking, I was surprised to find many of the seeds were popping like popcorn, leaping out of the skillet in the process. (They didn't gain much in size like popcorn, however.)

After each dish was done, I sampled a small bite. Between trying one and the other, I rinsed out my mouth with some milk. The mature fruit might have been slightly more bitter than the immature fruit, but both were far more restrained than either had been when tasted raw. The bigger issue for me was the grainy texture of all the popped seeds. I may try preparing a batch of them into a stir-fry or some other dish that would prevent the popped seeds from being so prominent in the final meal.

The fruit are a bit too small for easy preparation. A larger-fruited variety, like several sold at www.rareseeds.com, would be a better place to start if you're interested in this plant as a vegetable. [I have no association with www.rareseeds.com, but I do think they're a cool company.]

I have seeds for another variety of scarlet eggplant that I found at a Hmong farmer's market stand near the University of Minnesota. The fruit were small, round berries that were connected in chains (like how cherry tomatoes often are). I chatted up the salesperson about the fruit, as I had never seen them before and was curious about them. He said the elders' name for the plant was [Hmong]"Iab Lws" (I had to have him spell it out, as I don't speak the language.) and that it is culturally considered the ideal pairing with squirrel. The name translates roughly to "Bitter Berry", which is a perfectly descriptive name because the berry is rather bitter. I wasn't planning to buy any, but in appreciation for my interest in his crop and culture, he insisted I take a large bundle as a gift. I don't typically enjoy bitter vegetables, but I've started to appreciate their place in cuisine.

It isn't yet clear to me if "Iab Lws" is another example of S. integrifolium (or S. aethiopictum) or if it represents the ancestral species S. anguivi. I planted several seeds early in the spring, but the plants that came up got lost along the way. I do have a single plant of "Iab Lws" that was started roughly mid-way through the summer. Though small, it has been growing well and is now flowering. Hopefully it will develop fruit before the first fall frost. Even if it doesn't fruit, I should be able to at least get some nice photos of the plant.

Since "Iab Lws" and "Pumpkin Tree" are very closely related, they should cross very easily. Though many gardeners take great pains to ensure their different varieties don't cross, so they can preserve the varieties as historical artifacts, I tend to be a bit more flexible. It doesn't bother me if my varieties cross. In fact, my varieties crossing helps to ensure that what I grow every year will remain interesting. My "Iab Lws" has started flowering and I've moved it to be directly adjacent to my "Pumpkin Tree" plant in hopes of that a cross might happen. I could perform the cross manually, but right now it is more convenient for me to simply setup situations where insects will do the work of crossing for me.

"Iab Lws" and "Pumpkin Tree" are distinct enough (as mature plants) and there is no reason to expect that all alleles responsible for visible traits in one variety would be dominant over the alleles from the other variety. It should be relatively simple to identify any resulting hybrids early enough to isolate them and ensure self-pollination (of at least the later fruit). I'm really interested in what recombinations of the traits from the two varieties would turn up in the F2 population and in subsequent generations. Large fruit developing in elongated chains would be really cool (as well as useful).

S. integrifolium "Korean Red".
I recently came across a fruit for yet another S. integrifolium variety, "Korean Red". This variety has been bred primarily as a vegetable and the fruit are much less bitter as a result. The fruit is definitely denser than those of "Pumpkin Tree", suggesting to me that it would be much more useful as a kitchen ingredient. I'm holding off from cutting into this one because I want to let it mature its seeds for me to grow next year.

When the fruit had become very shrunken, I cut it open and extracted the seeds for final drying. The fruit residue smelled very sweet, without any of the bitterness I was expecting. I didn't actually taste the residue, so I'll have to wait for next year to tell if the scent was telling the truth about the fruit.


Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Botanizing in Alaska: Fireweed

Fireweed (Chamerion angustifolium) is a stereotypically Alaskan wildflower, though it does grow widely in the northern regions of North America, Europe, and Asia. It grows luxuriantly in newly-opened areas the year after a wildflower, hence its name.

The plant usually flowers in dark pink. I found the light pink form at an incidence of roughly 1:100,000 plants during my Fairbanks trip. (Very rough estimation from observed density in an open field where this photo was taken.) I saw one small patch of just the lighter shade, but it was along the highway where I was not able to stop and take photos.

I had hoped to gather seeds for my garden, but none were to be found during my trip. The seeds mature well after all the flowers have withered away, so I would have to plan a trip later in the season if I want to find any. Since the light-colored form of the plant would look no different from all the others, I'd have only the slightest chance of getting seeds for this novel form.

My research indicates Fireweed can also be found in my home state of Minnesota. I'd never noticed it before, but since I've seen it up close recently...  I've now noticed a few isolated patches of what looks like a smaller version of the Fireweed I saw in Fairbanks. Unfortunately, the patches were along highway margins, so I didn't have the opportunity to examine the plants in detail.


Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Botanizing in Alaska: Peonies

Herbaceous Peonies
Peonies are a well-known early spring flower here in Minnesota. They jump out of the ground early and set about producing a wonderful, but short, bloom display. If you're lucky, the foliage will stick around for the rest of the year, but no later blooms will ever form. They don't grow in the South because the plants need a deep winter cold to trigger development of flower buds.

Herbaceous Peony
What isn't so well-known around here is that they represent the first agricultural export industry in Alaska. Peonies can survive dramatic cold. They shrug off the -60F winters of central Alaska as if it was a balmy -20F. The cold and long winters do delay when the plants start blooming, so they're blooming in mid-to-late summer - a time when no other grower can produce peony blooms. Pair the timing advantage with the huge flowers produced by the plants when growing in near 24-hour sunlight and you have the start of a great business model. If you want peony flowers in July through September, you will have to get them from Alaska... for upwards of $4 a stem because of the dramatic demand for them.

While we were in town, we decided to visit the small Georgeson Botanical Garden at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. It was here where the initial research about how to grow peonies in Alaska took place, thus it was here where the entire Alaskan peony industry... took root.  (Sorry, I couldn't help it.)

The common peonies are called herbaceous peonies because they don't grow woody stems and die down to the ground each winter. There are so-called "tree peonies" that grow into long-lived medium-sized shrubs, but they're not so cold-hardy and can be expensive to get.

Intersectional Peony #1
Intersectional Peony #2
There are also the intersectional peonies, derived from hybrids of  the herbaceous and tree peonies. They have a herbaceous style of growth, but produce stronger stems that are better able to hold the heavy flowers upright. They also introduce some yellow and orange shades into the more typical whites and pinks of herbaceous peonies. Unfortunately, the intersectional peonies are strongly sterile, so it is difficult to do breeding work with them. New intersectional hybrids have to be created, rather than simply breeding among the ones we already have.

I wonder if the sterility could be resolved by a genome duplication step (the-biologist-is-in.blogspot.com/2015/01/hybrid-sterility-and-speciation.html). The resulting plants would still remain reproductively isolated from the more common herbaceous peonies, but then active breeding work could be performed by more typical means. With the ability to recombine traits in these plants, I could imagine the yellow and pink pigments being blended into a lovely bright orange someday.


Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Botanizing in Alaska: Crowberry

This little plant was growing all over the place along the tree-line at one mountain we drove up. It grows as a low-creeper, through and over the mosses and other low-growing plants in its habitat.

The few green berries I saw will eventually ripen to a shiny black which lends them their name of Crowberry (Empetrum nigrum). Though some books I've read indicate the berry is barely edible, much of the information available online suggests the berries are a prime edible. I suspect personal differences in taste may explain the differences in reporting about the berry, though I wonder if some cultural baggage (the-biologist-is-in.blogspot.com/2014/12/black-nightshade.html) may also be involved. I'll have to arrange for one of my next trips to central Alaska to be during berry season so I can find out (at least for my tastes).