Stories tagged plants

Before the next time you feel like saying someone is as smart as a potted plant, you might want to watch this MinuteEarth video.

Tomato: Not as sexy as you thought
Tomato: Not as sexy as you thoughtCourtesy David Besa
Just in time for Valentine's Day, a new book outlines the aphrodisiac properties of different fruits and vegetables. Author Helen Yoest shares insights from her book Plants with Benefits in this interview. After reading this, head to the nearest produce section and select just the right ingredients to make a memorable Valentine's Day.

Mar
07
2011

You probably know that plants "inhale" carbon dioxide and "exhale" oxygen, but did you know that plants also release water into the air when they exhale? This process is called transpiration, and it plays an important part in our planet's water cycle. I mean, just think of all the billions of plants out there, all of them transpiring 24/7--that really adds up.

Unfortunately, increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has yet another impact on our ecosystems--it reduces transpiration. You see, plants have these tiny pores on the undersides of their leaves called stomata. The stomata open and close depending on the amount of carbon dioxide available in the air and how much they need of it.

It's kind of like your eye's iris--your eye needs an ideal amount of light to see, so when it's bright outside, the iris closes in. This shrinks the pupil so that it only takes in a small amount of light. In lower light, the iris opens, making the pupil larger so that it takes in more light. Like your iris, the stomata open and close to let in the right amount of carbon dioxide.

Stomata: These stomata are from an Arabidopsis plant. The top one is open, and the lower one is closed.
Stomata: These stomata are from an Arabidopsis plant. The top one is open, and the lower one is closed.Courtesy KuriPop

Unfortunately, a recent study showed that with carbon dioxide concentrations increasing quickly, plant stomata are closed longer than they were 150 years ago. There are also simply fewer stomata in leaves. While this controls the amount of carbon dioxide they're absorbing, it has the added outcome of limiting the amount of water released into the air from plants. Over time, this could add up to some significant change--but it's a little early to tell for sure what the impacts will be.

It's kind of amazing to see how changes in carbon dioxide emissions have such far-reaching impacts beyond the one we hear about every day--global warming. Luckily, we have plenty of ways to work on global warming and curtail carbon dioxide emissions, such as cement that absorbs carbon dioxide as it hardens, castles that scrub CO2 from the air, and solar power concentrators that generate 1500 times as much energy as regular solar cells, reducing our dependence on fossil fuels.

What's your favorite way to ditch carbon dioxide?

Nov
05
2010

Aiding and abetting science: Prison inmates have been enlisted to help forest ecologist Nalini Nadkarni in her research.
Aiding and abetting science: Prison inmates have been enlisted to help forest ecologist Nalini Nadkarni in her research.Courtesy Nalini Nadkarni
Since 2004, scientist Nalini Nadkarni has enlisted prisoners to aid in her scientific research.

Don’t worry, it’s not cruel and usual punishment. The inmates aren’t being used as guinea pigs to test new drugs or try out some new method of electroshock therapy. Instead, the incarcerated offenders are part of Nadkarni’s research team. Nadkarni holds a PhD in Forest Ecology and is on the faculty at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. The National Science Foundation (NSF) has funded some of her inmate-aided research.

For one of Dr. Nadkarni'sDr. Nalini Nadkarni
Dr. Nalini NadkarniCourtesy Nalini Nadkarni
research projects, offenders at the Stafford Creek Corrections Center in Aberdeen, Washington, helped plant seeds of rare prairie plants then recorded data during the plants growth stages. The prisoners actually enjoyed helping out with the research. Not only did it give them a sense of doing something worthwhile, it connects them to something that’s sorely lacking in the old Graybar Hotel: nature.

For another project called Moss-in-Prisons (no Thor, your hero Randy has been picked up by the Tennessee Titans), Nadkarni recruited inmates at the Cedar Creek Corrections Center in Littlerock, Washington, to help discover improved ways of cultivating slow-growing mosses.

"I need help from people who have long periods of time available to observe and measure the growing mosses; access to extensive space to lay out flats of plants; and fresh minds to put forward innovative solutions," Nadkarni said.

If successful, the research could help replace ecologically important mosses that have been stripped from old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest, a sometimes illegal tactic that seems to be a favorite among some horticulturists.

In many cases, helping with the research isn’t just a way for inmates to pass time behind the brick walls and barbed wire of their confinement. It’s also a way to inspire them. One former inmate, who had worked with Nadkarni, enrolled in a Ph.D. program in microbiology after his release from Cedar Creek, and went on to give a presentation of the research he had done there at the annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America.

Apparently, Dr. Nadkarni is on to something, and its importance is not lost on those still behind bars.

"It teaches me something," said one prisoner involved with Nadkarni’s prairie plant study. "It makes me work with people and it's just a new skill that I've learned."

Both science and prisoners benefit from this natural symbiosis taking place in such an unnatural setting. And other prisons have expressed interest in getting their inmates involved in Nadkarni’s research programs,

"Everyone can be a scientist,” Nadkarni says. “Everyone can relate to nature, everyone can contribute to the scientific enterprise, even those who are shut away from nature.”

SOURCES
NSF story and video
NSF press release

Aug
13
2010
It's Friday, so it's time for a new Science Friday video. Science Friday
Science Friday
Courtesy Science Friday
Today:
"Plants have a reputation for staying put. But some plants are moving so quickly, we can't see their motions. Biologist Joan Edwards and physicist Dwight Whitaker broke out the high-speed cameras to capture the story of exploding peat moss. The research was published in the journal Science."
May
19
2010

Kudzu: A kudzu infestation of a wooded area near Port Gibson, Mississippi. Note that the kudzu has completely overgrown several of the trees in this picture.
Kudzu: A kudzu infestation of a wooded area near Port Gibson, Mississippi. Note that the kudzu has completely overgrown several of the trees in this picture.Courtesy Gsmith
Chances are good that if you're reading this post from North of Kentucky or West of Louisiana, you've never heard of kudzu. Down here in Charlotte and the rest of the Southeast, we're very, very familiar with this plant.

Kudzu is an invasive species of vine indigenous to Japan and parts of China. As with many invasive species, kudzu was brought to America as a problem solver. Kudzu grows exceptionally fast, does a great job preventing erosion, and can be used as a feed for animals like goats and sheep. Humans can even eat kudzu flowers in the form of jelly.

Unfortunately, the growth of Kudzu soon spun out of control. With no natural consumer or pest to keep population in check, the fast growing plant began to spread, strangling trees and entire fields of low lying plants in its way. Today, the entire Southeast United States is effected, with no real solution available.

Well, a recent study by scientists from The Earth Institute at Columbia University just added another entry to the list of reasons to pull out the industrial sized weed-whacker: air pollution.

Another reason kudzu was so sought after is its ability to take nitrogen from the air and introduce or "fix" it into the soil. There, microbes turn the nitrogen into fertilizer for other plants. Huge mats of kudzu are so good at fixing nitrogen that they're upsetting the chemical balance of the ecosystem, which in turn results in increased levels of hazardous ozone gas.

Using the data they collected near areas of dense kudzu growth, the team of scientists were able to predict that in an extreme scenario, kudzu growth could contribute heavily to ozone warning days in the vicinity.

For lots more information about kudzu infestation and control, check here.

Jul
26
2009

What have I done: I've killed him, KILLED HIM!! **insert sobbing noises here**
What have I done: I've killed him, KILLED HIM!! **insert sobbing noises here**Courtesy Women's Day
A few weeks ago I received the cutest little basil plant as a gift. I made sure to quench his thirst everyday as he sat on my windowsill enjoying the sun. But, silly me, I left town for a weekend and forgot to get someone to water him. Arriving home, I saw that his leaves were shriveled and he was inches from death. What was I to do to bring my lil’ guy back to life?

Well, according to a new experiment by the Royal Horticultural Society, women’s voices make plants grow faster. Over the course of one month, scientists at RHS found that tomato plants group up to two inches taller if women chatted them up verses men.

After a round of open auditions, ten voices were chosen to play to ten tomato plants. Every plant heard their respective voice through a set of headphones that was connected to the plant pot. There were also two control plants that grew in silence. The results showed that on average, women’s plants grew an inch higher than their male counterparts. Some men’s plants grew less than the plants that were left alone.

“We just don’t know why,” Colin Grosbie from RHS said of the results. “It could be that they have a greater range of pitch and tone that affects the sound waves that hit the plant. Sound waves are an environmental effect just like rain or light."

Interestingly, the great-great granddaughter of Charles Darwin (you remember this guy, right?) had the most effective “discussions” with her plants. Sarah Darwin read passages from the On the Origin of Species, to which her plant grew two inches taller than the best performing male and half an inch higher than the nearest female competitor.

She responds, "I'm not sure if it's my dulcet tones or the text that I read from On the Origin of Species that made the plant sit up and listen, but either way I think it is great fun and I'm proud of my new title."

So maybe reading my physical chemistry book won’t necessarily bring my basil plant back from the dead, but I’m sure it couldn’t hurt.

Morning ritual

by Gene on Nov. 12th, 2008

Fire up the computer.
Pour a hot cup of coffee.
Sit down at desk.
Read secret, innermost thoughts of a houseplant.

Sep
11
2008

Illinois landscape, 300 million years ago: Late 19th Century illustration portraying a Carboniferous rainforest
Illinois landscape, 300 million years ago: Late 19th Century illustration portraying a Carboniferous rainforestCourtesy Mark Ryan
Last year, news came out about the discovery of a large fossil forest dating from 300 million years ago in a coal mine located in eastern Illinois. Now, five more prehistoric forests have been identified in the same region.

Central Illinois above the coal mine: The terrain and vegetation today is a far cry from how it looked 300 million years ago.
Central Illinois above the coal mine: The terrain and vegetation today is a far cry from how it looked 300 million years ago.Courtesy Illinois State Geological Survey
The remains of the ancient tropical rainforests cover a tremendous area – 36 square miles – and have been under study by scientists from the Smithsonian, the UK, and the Illinois State Geological Survey. A presentation given at the British Association Science Festival held in Liverpool this week detailed some of the highlights of this incredible find.

"Theses are the largest fossil forests found anywhere in the world at any point in geological time,” said Dr Howard Falcon-Lang a paleobotanist at the University of Bristol.

The prehistoric landscapes existed within only a few million years of each other – a short span geologically speaking – and are found stacked one upon the other. Segments of the forest fossilized in their original vertical position. At places, scientists can trace the original ground cover in well-preserved fossils.

Donning cap lamps, battery packs, and rock hammers Falcon-Lang and his colleagues rode an armored vehicle 250 feet beneath the Herrin coal seam in the Riola and Vermillion Grove coal mine. Once underground, the scientists took an incredible hike through a long-gone prehistoric fossil forest, illuminated only by lights on their caps.

Ancient tree trunk protruding from coal mine ceiling
Ancient tree trunk protruding from coal mine ceilingCourtesy Illinois State Geological Survey
“We walked for miles and miles along pitch-black passages with the fossil forest just above our heads,” Falcon-Lang said. "It's kind of an odd view looking at a forest bottom-up. You can actually see upright tree stumps that are pointed vertically up above your head with the roots coming down; and adjacent to those tree stumps you see all the litter.”

Fallen fossil tree in coal mine: Howard Falcon-Lang (University of Bristol) and John Nelson (Illinois State Geological Survey) mark off the width of a large fossil tree trunk lying just above the contact of the coal bed.
Fallen fossil tree in coal mine: Howard Falcon-Lang (University of Bristol) and John Nelson (Illinois State Geological Survey) mark off the width of a large fossil tree trunk lying just above the contact of the coal bed.Courtesy Illinois State Geological Survey
In some cases toppled trees – complete with crowns – and over 100 feet long were measured lying stretched out in the shale across the ceiling. For paleobotanists it presents a remarkable opportunity to actually stroll through a 300 million year-old ecological system as if taking a walk in the local woods today.

The reason for this unusual preservation is thought to be due to the prehistoric rain forest growing in an estuary near the Royal Center fault in Indiana, which caused the terrain to subside below sea level making it vulnerable to incidents of flooding and abrupt drowning. Geologists suspect earthquakes along the fault are the reason for the subsidence.

The soil that once supported these rainforests was later transformed into coal. Once this coal seam was mined from underground, the base of the fossilized forest was revealed encased in a shale matrix.

These tropical rain forests originally flourished during the Pennsylvania period (known as the Upper Carboniferous in Britain), back when the US Midwest was located near the equator. Forests of giant club moss trees and tree-sized horsetails came and went over a geologically short span of time. At the same time, major shifts in climate were taking place, alternating from cooler temperatures with large planetary ice caps to periods of extreme warming.

The episodes of climatic change coincide with changes in the forest ecology. Close study of the fossil vegetation show that several times the climatic stress pushed the rain forests into extinction, making way for skimpier fern growths to replace them.

Over the next five years Dr. Falcon-Lang’s team will search for reasons why this rainforest extinction took place. Understanding how the first rainforests responded to global warming could help shed light on how climatic change may affect present day rainforests.

Additional photos of the amazing fossil forest can be found here. But if you want to see some of the real thing, visit the coal-mining exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago where an actual slab of the gray roof shale is on display.

LINKS
Illinois State Geological Survey story
University of Bristol story
BBC website story
Coal-mining info
More about the Carboniferous period