Category Archives: botany

This new flag is even better than you think

This November, there are a lot of very consequential elections and referenda in the United States. Most of them I won’t comment on here (although it wouldn’t be hard to infer my thoughts about the highest-stakes one). But one referendum, in one state, is – perhaps surprisingly – right up Scientist Sees Squirrel’s alley.  The people of the state of Mississippi will vote, I hope, to approve the new state flag pictured above.

The proposed flag won a design competition and will be on the ballot for approval in November.  It will replace an older flag that included an inset Confederate battle emblem, and I hope everyone knows why its time is (more than) up.* Continue reading

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Why on Earth are flowers beautiful?

Image: Flowers, by Alvegaspar CC BY-SA 3.0 via wikimedia.org

If you watch science documentaries like Nova or The Nature of Things, you might get the feeling that what’s most exciting about science is all the questions scientists have answers to – all the things we’ve learned about how our universe ticks.  (It’s built right into the title of The Nature of Things.)  But what I love most about science, and especially biology, is how easy it is to ask a question that we don’t have the answer to.  Why are there so many species of beetles*, but so few of snakeflies?  Why does life use a basic set of 20 amino acids, not 18 or 26?  And one that has me completely stumped: why on Earth are flowers beautiful?

“Why are flowers beautiful” might sound like a trivial question, but I don’t think it is.  Continue reading

My latest paper is a garden

Image: Addressing visitors at the official opening of the New Brunswick Literature Garden; photo courtesy of Holly Abbandonato.

As a scientist, I’m really a writer, in the important sense that my research doesn’t matter until it’s published.  As a result, I’ve come to celebrate completion of a project not when I collect the last sample, enter the last bit of data, or conduct the last analysis.  Instead, I celebrate completion when the paper is published and available for the world to see*.

But my most recent paper isn’t a paper; it’s a garden.  And just a couple of weeks ago we had its official opening, and I’m counting that as “my” garden’s publication date.  I’ve just published my garden!

About that garden: Continue reading

Plants in ecological webs

Images: spider web © Kenneth Allen, CC BY-SA 2.0; ants tending aphids © Judy Gallagher CC BY 2.0

Note: This is a science outreach piece belonging to a series I wrote for the newsletter of the Fredericton Botanic Garden.  I’d be happy to see it modified for use elsewhere and so am posting the text here under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license. If you use it, though, I’d appreciate hearing where and how.

A visit to any Botanic Garden surely means attention paid to plants – that’s what “Botanic” means, after all.  When you visit our Fredericton Botanic Garden, for example, your attention will probably first be drawn to our flowerbeds and forests; to the primulas in the Hal Hinds Garden and the daylilies in our newly expanded Daylily Bed; to the reeds by our ponds and the ferns along our Woodland Fern Trail.  All these beautiful plants are worth your time – but we hope you’ll look beyond them, too.  That’s because each of our plants is also part of a larger ecological web. Continue reading

Entrepreneurship in Victorian botany: did you know that was a thing?

Image: Richard Spruce late in life. Frontispiece to Notes of a Botanist on the Amazon and Andes (1908), public domain.

Last week, I did a little ranting about what I consider the fetishization of entrepreneurship in our society.  In the Replies, a couple of readers pushed back, pointing out ways in which entrepreneurship serves economic and societal purposes.  I’m glad to have the pushback (especially because so far, nobody has gotten incoherently angry about the post).  I’m even going to add a little pushback myself*.  Did you know that entrepreneurship underwrote one of the most amazing botanical expeditions in history? Continue reading

Three witches in the woods

Photos: witches’ butter © Daniel Neil CC BY 2.0; witch-hazel © Mike Peel CC BY-SA 4.0; witches’ broom © Scot Nelson CC BY 2.0.

Happy Hallowe’en!

Tonight, you’ll no doubt see neighbourhood children traipsing door-to-door in costume, shrieking and laughing along the way.  You’ll see superheroes and scarecrows, pirates and police officers, wizards and witches. Some costumes go in and out of fashion; but there are witches every year.

There are witches in the woods, too. Continue reading

The botany of henna

Photos: Henna body art NYHENNA via flickr.com CC BY-NC-SA 2.0; Henna flowers and leaves J.M. Garg via wikipedia.org CC BY-SA 4.0

Note: This is a science outreach piece belonging to a series I wrote for the newsletter of the Fredericton Botanic Garden.  I’d be happy to see it modified for use elsewhere and so am posting the text here under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license. If you use it, though, I’d appreciate hearing where and how.

 

Henna-based body art has thousands of years of history in India, Africa, and the Middle East, and it’s an increasingly common sight in the Western world too.  The intricate designs are beautiful, and many traditional designs are packed with symbolism and story.  But the henna itself has a story, too – a botanical one.  For those of us who love plants, history, and naming, there’s a lot to like about henna. Continue reading

Spring, light, and strategy on the forest floor

Image: Trout lily, Erythronium americanum, dw_ross via flickr.com, CC-BY-2.0

Note: This is a science outreach piece belonging to a series I write for the newsletter of the Fredericton Botanic Garden. I’d be happy to see it modified for use elsewhere and so am posting the text here under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license . If you use it, though, I’d appreciate hearing where and how.


Spring is upon us, and it’s a great time for a walk in the woods that are part of our Botanic Garden.  In a deciduous forest, spring finds the forest floor sprinkled with green and with flashes of colour from blooming “spring ephemerals”.  The trout lily pictured above is an example, as are wood anemone, trillium, bloodroot, and a bunch of my other favourites.  But if you walk the same trail in July, you’d be hard pressed to know some of these spring bloomers were ever there – not only is their flowering finished, but their green leaves and stems have withered and gone.  Why? Continue reading

What’s in a (Latin) name?

Photos: Magnolia blossoms CC0 via pixabay.com; bust of Pierre Magnol CC BY-SA 3.0 by Albertvillanovadelmoral via wikimedia.org

Note: This is a science outreach piece belonging to a series I write for the newsletter of the Fredericton Botanic Garden. I’d be happy to see it modified for use elsewhere and so am posting the text here under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license . If you use it, though, I’d appreciate hearing where and how.

Our Garden has hundreds of plant species – many planted, and many more growing wild. That’s just the tip of the botanical iceberg, though – there are about 400,000 plant species on Earth. Keeping track of these is a big challenge, and of course the first step is to give them all names. Continue reading

Wonderful Latin Names, Part 6: Syzygium aromaticum

Photos: S. aromaticum flowers by Hafiz Issadeen CC BY-ND 2.0 via flickr.com; S. aromaticum leaves by Forest & Kim Starr CC BY 3.0 via wikimedia.org.

A couple of weeks ago I described the evolutionary history in each jar of my mango chutney. My chutney has 19 botanical ingredients, and I looked up the Latin name of each one to locate it on the angiosperm phylogeny. I was delighted, in doing so, to discover that cloves are Syzygium aromaticum*.

The species name aromaticum is certainly appropriate to cloves, which have one of the loveliest aromas to grace my kitchen. We can thank Linnaeus for aromanticum, but that’s not what makes the clove tree the 6th installment in my series on Wonderful Latin Names. Instead, it’s the genus name Syzygium that made my day. That’s because it shares roots with one of my very favourite English words, syzygy. Who wouldn’t love a word that flies off the tongue like a feather-fletched arrow leaving a bow? A word with three vowels, all of them y’s? A word with meanings in poetry, biology, and astronomy? Continue reading