Category Archives: botany

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

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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

1.8 billion years in a jar

Photo (and chutney) by Stephen Heard.

Jim Croce would like to save time in a bottle, but I can save time in a jar. I mentioned recently that I make a mean mango chutney (with a connection, and I swear there was one, to public belief in vaccinations and global warming). Not long before that, I’d posted about the Plant Gastrodiversity Game. Putting the two ideas together made me think about the evolutionary history in every jar in my chutney. It’s easy to calculate such things these days, and I’m a world-class nerd, so of course I didn’t waste much time getting started. I’ll share my chutney recipe, and some things I learned from my analysis. Continue reading

The Plant Gastrodiversity Game

Photo: Mangosteens (Garcinia mangostana, Clusiaceae) CC0 via Pixabay.com

The diversity of life on Earth is astonishing – which for an ecologist, is both exciting (new species everywhere I turn!) and frustrating (how can I possibly know all these species?). The temptation to have some fun with this is irresistible, and a while back my wife and I set up a nerdstravaganza game that let us learn a little more about plant diversity. In brief: we (and some friends) gave ourselves two weeks to eat members of as many plant families as possible. If you think that sounds fun, well, you’re right (and also, you’re just about as big a science nerd as me).

So in case you’d like to try your hand at it, here are the rules. Continue reading

Science fiction, stone plants, and the certainty of improbable things

Image: Lithops stone plant, UNB greenhouse, © Stephen Heard

I love used-book sales. A little while ago I went to one at a local church, where I was amused to find all the science fiction on the children’s table*. I didn’t ask why they’d sorted it there, but I can guess, because I’ve always read a lot of science fiction and I’ve gotten used to it being routinely dismissed as beneath the dignity of serious readers. The knock is frequently that it’s just not believable: methane-breathing aliens, intelligent gas clouds, galactic civilizations, and planet-sized toroidal starships are all so improbable that they’re for childish play, not adult attention.

But I’m a biologist, and that means I know a bit about improbability. Let me tell you, as improbability goes, science fiction has nothing on nature. Continue reading