Category Archives: plants

More Forest Numbers and Tree-Planting Drones

Here’s a new idea under the sun… tree-planting drones.

Drone

Take a minute and think about all of the forest products you use in a day. I’m sitting on one right now as is my laptop. Anyone who’s bought school supplies in the last weeks has also consumed a fair amount. As an avid list-maker, I use my fair share of small pieces of paper for reminders and tasks to be done. Of course, let’s not forget the oxygen. The U.S. Forest Service estimates that forest products account for 4.5% of the total U.S. manufacturing gross domestic product at $190 billion in products annually and employing >900,000 people. There’s little room for doubt, forests are valuable both as they stand and as they fall.

I’ve mentioned before that numbers are important. In this context, numbers about forests can be extremely valuable. New research in Nature this week gives a new estimate of our global tree density. The good news… The earth has nearly an order of magnitude more trees than previously estimated by satellite imagery. The research team puts the total number of trees on the planet at 3.04 trillion. That’s more than 400 trees per person. To you, these numbers are likely just interesting statistics to impress your friends, but to scientists, conservationists and the forestry industry the new estimates of tree density are important for guiding management policies.

The new estimate is based on more than 400,000 ‘ground-sourced measurements of tree density from every continent except Antarctica.’ Translation: A lot of man-hours were spent by humans in a forest collecting tree density data. Of course, the team wasn’t able to count each and every tree, but this is more accurate data than estimating tree numbers from space. Check out the video below for a great data visualization of the world’s forests based on this new research.

If you were paying attention, forest numbers are not static. For various reasons around the globe forests are declining. Current estimates give a net loss of 10 billion trees a year. Some of this loss is due to forest fires, but for decades the forestry industry has become increasingly mechanized to efficiently harvest trees for all of those useful forest products. On the other side of the equation, replanting new trees has not experienced the same industrialization and relies heavily on meticulous man hours and dirty hands. The company BioCarbon Engineering seeks to change this and offers a new scalable model for planting trees using drones. Yes, drones for a noble purpose. The drones are engineered to shoot bullets wrapped in a biodegradable casing and containing soil with pre-germinated seeds into the ground. This could be used for replanting after forest fires or in other areas where forests need help with recovery.

From BioCarbon Engineering

From BioCarbon Engineering

They estimate that they can scale up to 1 billion trees per year. It greatly decreases the amount of human hours involved compared to hand-planting. It’s also more efficient relative to mass seeding because the seeds are pre-germinated, which will eliminate the loss due to bad seeds. The numbers are still not yet in the trees’ favor, but closing the gap with deforestation is a step in the right direction and the Lorax would be proud.

Johnna

*Of course, BioCarbon Engineering could always enter into a relationship with that BIOS Urn company that uses your cremated ashes as the germination medium for tree seeds. Then you and your loved ones could have your ashes with tree seedlings shot almost anywhere to make a stand of trees somewhere in the wilderness rather than just one tree at a time with a single urn. But as I’ve mentioned before, that’s not exactly how photosynthesis and the carbon cycle works.

//The blog has been dark for a record length of time. Only for lack of time and not material. Regularly scheduled posts coming soon.

References and Links:

http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/nature14967.html

http://www.nature.com/news/global-count-reaches-3-trillion-trees-1.18287

For more on the tree-counting research, check out this post over at The Quiet Branches blog.

http://www.biocarbonengineering.com/

http://www.biocarbonengineering.com/blog/deforestation

http://www.biocarbonengineering.com/blog/deforestation-data

http://www.biocarbonengineering.com/blog/what-is-the-social-value-of-a-tree

http://www.msnbc.com/greenhouse/watch/using-drones-to-improve-reforestation-445645891970

http://www.fao.org/docrep/014/am859e/am859e08.pdf

http://www.fs.fed.us/

Superphotosynthesizer: Cat Island Baldcypress

Today May 18, 2015 is ‘Fascination of Plants Day,’ an initiative organized by the European Plant Science Organisation with other events organized by the American Society of Plant Biology. On this blog, there’s no shortage of reasons why plants are fascinating, but to most they are still just the scenery. Take some time today to consider all that these primary producers do for you. Here are just a few things plants do for us- food, forestry products, paper, pharmaceuticals, energy, and beauty.

Of course, I am partial to the oxygen that they provide for us. In that spirit, today’s post will feature another superphotosynthesizer: the Cat Island Baldcypress located on the Cat Island National Wildlife Refuge in West Feliciana Parish, LA. This tree is the national champion of its species and also noted as the largest tree of any species east of the Sierra Nevada range.

It is located at the end of an easy walking trail (0.75 mile round-trip), but it only accessible for part of the year. Access to portions of the Cat Island NWR is prevented by levels of the Mississippi River since at least a couple of low bridges must be traversed to get you from the main road to the trailhead. If the river stage at Baton Rouge is greater than 20 feet, which is usually between February and June, there is no vehicle access to the trail. I was able to make a trip there in early February just before the river restricted access. It’s not quite clear whether the base of the tree itself is submerged at any point during the spring flooding because there is a really nice decking just before the tree at the end of the trail. As of today, the river stage at Baton Rouge is 27.8 feet, so it may still be another month before access is regained.

038

The tree is impressive. At 96 feet it is taller than all the other trees around, but it’s certainly not the tallest tree east of the Sierra Nevada. However, its girth is undeniably impressive. It has the characteristic buttressed-base of all baldcypress trees, which measures 17 feet in diameter and 56 feet in circumference.  It has knees as tall as me. Well, for those of you who know me in real life maybe that’s not so impressive, but for a random root outgrowth that is still significant.

037

This brings me to one of the real secrets of the swamp- cypress knees. These strange growths at the base of cypress trees have been puzzling botanists and plant biologists for centuries since Francois Andre Michaux wrote in 1819, “No cause can be assigned for their existence.” Many people have had theories as to how they contribute to cypress biology- increased aeration capability for growing in inundated swamps, methane (swamp gas) emission conduits, vegetative reproduction, mechanical support, nutrient acquisition, and carbohydrate storage. None of these hypotheses have really held up to analysis and the biological function* of these root outgrowths are still fascinating plant biologists today.

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This is just one local fascinating plant example. Check out the links below for more information about Fascination of Plants Day or follow #FOPD on social media.

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Johnna

*These expendable appendages are painted and carved for folk art projects. They are also fairly proficient at disemboweling lawnmowers of homeowners with cypress trees in their yards and capsizing careless motorboat operators in the swamps. Perhaps this is a plant defense mechanism ahead of its time.

References and Links:

http://www.plantday.org/

http://fascinationofplantsday.org/home.htm

http://blog.aspb.org/fascination-of-plants-day/about-fascination-of-plants-day/

http://blog.aspb.org/fascination-of-plants-day/

http://www.fws.gov/refuges/profiles/index.cfm?id=43697

http://www.fws.gov/refuge/Cat_Island/visit/plan_your_visit.html

http://www.monumentaltrees.com/en/trees/baldcypress/deep_south/

http://www.na.fs.fed.us/pubs/silvics_manual/Volume_1/taxodium/distichum.htm

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cypress_knee

http://www.venerabletrees.org/good-knees-said-baldcypress/

http://arnoldia.arboretum.harvard.edu/pdf/articles/2000-60-4-cypress-knees-an-enduring-enigma.pdf

On becoming a tree…

“As long as you keep getting born, it’s all right to die sometimes”

Orson Scott Card, The Speaker for the Dead.

I’ve written many times about the differences between autotrophs and heterotrophs on this blog. Loyal readers will know I have a hard-line stance that humans fall decidedly into the heterotroph camp. Nevertheless, some art projects blur the lines between person and plant. So I was more than a little intrigued when a link for the Bios Urn came across my Facebook feed.

BiosUrn

The product offers an alternative to the traditional cemetery as your eternal destination. It’s a special biodegradable urn in which your ashes (or a loved one’s or a pet’s ashes) can be placed along with a tree seed. The whole thing is planted in the ground at a cemetery or other special location. The recycled carbon atoms of your body become the growth medium for a tree that will grow and live on after your death.

biosurn2

It’s beautiful. I get it and as someone who often quotes the Lorax, I’m all for any excuse to plant trees. But honestly, the first thing it made me think of was my all-time favorite book The Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card.* Within the world of this book, humans live on a colony planet that happens to have another species of sentient beings called the Pequeninos. These organisms spend the majority of their life cycle as mammal-like beings, but can pass on into a third life as a tree provided they have been vivisected. It’s pretty gruesome and obviously humans don’t work this way, so cultural misunderstandings ensue.

However, because I’m a stickler for scientific accuracy when it comes to plant science (Hey, someone’s gotta be.), I have one problem with the overly simplistic marketing scheme of the Bios Urn. You don’t actually become the tree. For those of you saying, “I know, I know I won’t be a tree, but in the circle of life my molecules will become part of this tree.” I’ll still be over here at my blog shaking my head, “No, that’s not really how that works.” Here’s a reminder of the photosynthetic equation:

6 CO2 + 6 H2O (+ light) → C6H12O6 + 6 O2

Plants accumulate carbon and mass from atmospheric CO2, not carbon ash or even organic carbon compounds in the soil. The truth is that if you planted your ashes with your tree seed, your carbon would still remain locked in the soil for many years until eventually it is metabolized by microorganisms in the soil and released as CO2 as part of their respiration. This is not a very quick way to turn over your carbon molecules, and your molecules have millennia before they ever become a part of any tree. If you truly wanted your carbon molecules to incorporate into some kind of plant matter, then you need to find a way to carbonate your deceased body. Human carbonated essence could be stored in canisters and then used to supply CO2 to your plant of choice. You could be part of that camellia bush in your front yard, your favorite LSU Oak tree, the General Sherman etc. Scientifically accurate, but good luck marketing that compared to cremation.**

All of this highlights a common misconception about photosynthesis- it’s hard to comprehend how mass can accumulate into living things from air. Our gut tells us mass must come from something more substantial. We memorize the photosynthetic equation in elementary school, but few of us grasp its consequences and really believe it.

“This is how humans are: We question all our beliefs, except for the ones that we really believe in, and those we never think to question.”

Orson Scott Card, The Speaker for the Dead

So, when you die, ask someone to plant a tree or something in your memory. Do it for someone else you’d like to remember, but ashes not really required. Or buy a BiosUrn or put the ashes in a degradable coir starter pot from your local garden center, but you’ll probably want to supplement them with some form of NPK fertilizer. It will help the seed more than your carbon atoms.

Johnna

*It’s a sequel to Ender’s Game for those of you that may not be SciFi freaks.

**Although, in-home soda fountains are a thing now, so if there is a way to carbonate deceased relatives and store them in the handy canisters… well, you get the idea.

Links and References:

https://urnabios.com/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Speaker_for_the_Dead

The Twelve Days of Christmas Plants

If you’re looking for a holiday related diversion, here’s a linkfest of my posts from last year on the Twelve Days of Christmas plants. Understand the plant science behind the traditions. Use these random facts to quickly change the subject when nosy but well meaning friends and family ask you uncomfortable questions.

The Twelve Days of Christmas Plants

TwelveDays

1. The Christmas Tree

2. Chestnuts

3. Poinsettias

4. Holly

5. Peppermint

6. Mistletoe

7. Grapes

8. Greens and Black-eyed Peas

9. Sugarcane

10. Oranges

11. Pomegranates

12. Boswellia sacra and Commiphora myrrha

 

If you’re craving even more holiday nerdery or you’ve already used my random facts as diversion tactics last year, check out The 2014 Chemistry Advent Calendar over at the Compound Interest blog. Or check out these Yuletide plants gone global you’ve probably never heard of from the John Innes SVC blog.

 

Johnna

A Green Deal for Black Friday

It’s Black Friday. The blog may have been dark for the last couple of weeks while I’ve been busy with my day job, but today I have a special deal for all my readers. I’ve been writing about the holiday plants we use in our celebrations for the past year and now you can have all of those posts to yourself in convenient downloadable PDF format*. All this plant science for the low, low price of absolutely free! How’s that for a green Black Friday Deal?

Here is the link to download:

Holiday Plants: An Autotrophic Almanac

 

Johnna

*Sorry, the Youtube video links don’t work any more, but the rest of the links are still hot.

Plant Skulls

snapgdragon seed pod skull dragons skullIf you didn’t know this was a plant science blog, you might think these were macbre trophies of some ancient tribe. This isn’t so much an appropriate plant costume for Halloween as it is an interesting confluence of floral anatomy and human propensity for recognizing facial forms.

Snapdragons or Antirrhinum sp. are a colorful staple of summer gardens. We’re more used to seeing them look like this image with tall inflorescences boasting clusters of ruffled flowers in a variety of color schemes.

Antirrhinum majus Credit: Michael Apel via Wikimedia Commons

What’s responsible for this spooky transition from delicate flowers to haunting faces? It all comes down to the snapdragon’s flower structure and its bilateral symmetry. The skulls are really the seed pods of the plant after the flowers have been pollinated and the petals have withered away. Dissecting the flowers in their prime shows the ovary at the base of the bloom. The pollen-containing stamens and the style emerge from the orifices in the ovary. These structures leave behind gaping holes that look like a mouth and eye sockets.

Snapdragon flower anatomy

Snapdragon flower anatomy

The striking resemblance of these seed pods to human skulls has led to their association with supernatural powers. They were purported to help women stay young and beautiful as well as protect humans of all ages from witchcraft and evil spirits. I don’t have any scientific evidence of that, but if you’re looking for new ideas for botanical Halloween decorations that go beyond cucurbits and mums, dried snapdragon stems with seed pods make a wicked wreath.

Johnna

Links and References:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antirrhinum_majus

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antirrhinum

http://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/PlantFinder/PlantFinderDetails.aspx?kempercode=a561

http://www.kuriositas.com/2013/07/the-dragons-skull-macabre-appearance-of.html

http://www.waitwow.com/snapdragons-make-cute-flowers-die-turn-skulls/

http://gardenofeaden.blogspot.com/2014/02/the-dragons-skull-seed-pod.html

http://weirdworldwonders.com/the-dragons-skull-snapdragon-seed-pods/

https://s10.lite.msu.edu/res/msu/botonl/b_online/library/snapdragon/flower.html

http://www.flowersplans.com/snapdragon-flower-dry/

http://www.gardenguides.com/126335-history-snapdragons.html

Flying Duck Orchid

Caleana major off the Elvina Track, Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park, Australia Credit: Peter Woodard via Wikipedia

Today’s featured floral form is Caleana major, an orchid from Australia. It looks like a duck. It flies like a duck when the wind blows, but it’s just a flower. Why would an orchid develop such an elaborate costume? The answer is again pollination.

While this may look like yet another case of autotroph posing as heterotroph, it’s not the one you think. Caleana major’s flowers are designed to attract male sawflies. When the flies enter the larger ‘body’ portion of the flower, the ‘neck and head’ portion of the flower snaps closed behind them. For about a minute or so, the sawflies buzz around in a slight frenzy and become coated in pollen. This ensures that flower pollinates itself and any pollen remaining on the fly travels with it to the next flower.

Closed Flying Duck Orchid Credit: Peter Woodard via Wikipedia

The secret to this strategy is the sensitive ‘neck’ strap of the flower. This portion can sense when a fly has landed within the bottom part of the flower and trigger a response to have the ‘head’ snap closed. This trigger must also be reversed on a relatively short timescale to release the captive fly. He just needs enough time to be coated in pollen but none the worse for wear (unlike other carnivorous plants that intend on killing their insect victims with triggered mechanical responses).

This is an painting of Caleana major by Ferdinand Bauer, based on a drawing by him of material collected at Sydney in September 1803. It first appeared as Plate 8 in Stephan Endlicher’s 1838 Iconographia. It was scanned from Plate 13 of Mabberley, D. J. (1984) Jupiter Botanicus. via Wikipedia

There must be some interesting biochemistry underneath that response, not to mention the developmental gymnastics that must occur to make flowers that look like flying ducks. I’m not sure scientists will figure out these tricks because Caleana major cannot be cultivated outside its native environment. Because of its novel form and potential popularity with orchid enthusiasts, experienced growers have tried to grow it under greenhouse conditions, but with little success. It is speculated that a symbiosis with another microorganism in the soil of its native habitat is necessary for growth.

 

Johnna

References and Links:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caleana_major

http://www.odditycentral.com/pics/what-the-quack-australias-amazing-flying-duck-orchid.html

http://gardenofeaden.blogspot.com/2013/11/the-flying-duck-orchid.html

http://www.friendsoflanecovenationalpark.org.au/Flowering/Flowers/Caleana_major.htm

http://nossa.org.au/tag/caleana-major/

http://plantnet.rbgsyd.nsw.gov.au/cgi-bin/NSWfl.pl?page=nswfl&lvl=sp&name=Caleana~major

http://books.google.com/books?id=kUGL1TAaEtEC&pg=PA203&lpg=PA203&dq=Caleana+Major+pollination&source=bl&ots=bV-qtKkB8T&sig=-RSeg-ieBXJS428M6HdXHMuOOCY&hl=en&sa=X&ei=IehIVOWJBIi2yQT24IC4Cg&ved=0CF0Q6AEwDQ#v=onepage&q=Caleana%20Major%20pollination&f=false

http://books.google.com/books?id=SYvGAQAAQBAJ&pg=PA36&lpg=PA36&dq=Caleana+Major+pollination&source=bl&ots=fz35wIjm6P&sig=C-XAlmqySg2u2zznI5KzYcaCSa8&hl=en&sa=X&ei=U-hIVPi6N5epyASv_IHACA&ved=0CCYQ6AEwAjgK#v=onepage&q=Caleana%20Major%20pollination&f=false