Book review: What a Plant Knows

Hello again!

Travel had gotten the better of me, I fear, and I’ve fallen quite behind over here.  But in the meantime, I got a great opportunity from American Scientist to review my new favorite book: “What a Plant Knows, A field guide to the senses” by Daniel Chamovitz at Tel Aviv university.  The review is here:

(and here: http://www.americanscientist.org/bookshelf/pub/fortean-flora)

And if you don’t want to click over and see it formatted prettily with pictures, here’s the whole story… Continue reading

Toxic and toothsome: a tale of two wild Asteraceae

Toxic Interloper:

Not long ago, I planted a bunch of coriander/cilantro seeds in my back yard.  When the seedlings emerged, I found not only cilantro, but also this:

Not cilantro as it should have been, but common groundsel. Don’t try to fool me with your toothed leaves–I can totally see you’re sending up flower buds already.

Senecio vulgaris, known as common groundsel to me, but also as Old-man-of-the-spring. It’s just about everywhere right now–I’m seeing it along roadsides, in gardens, at the park and clawing its way through sidewalk tiles.  It starts off with lobed leaves and an emerging crown of flower buds that’s visible really early, and ends up with nearly-closed yellow flowers, and fuzzy gray seed heads like tiny dandelions (whence the “Old man” name–it looks a bit like a tousled gray head of hair). Continue reading

Of wild carrots and the death of Socrates

There is a plant I keep encountering, both on foraging trips and while out running, and for a long time I had been entertaining the hope that it was wild carrot (Daucus carota), while secretly suspecting that it was actually poison hemlock (Conium maculatum).  These two members of the Apiaceae/Umbelliferae family look very similar as young plants (and both are sometimes called Queen Anne’s lace), but armed with Samuel Thayer’s “Nature’s Garden” on our recent Redwood Park foraging trip, I was able to pin down once and for all that…dammit, yes: it’s hemlock.

Poison hemlock, Conium maculatum. Not the wild carrot I was hoping for. Photo courtesy of Jen at willblogforfood.

The Apiaceae are a fickle lot of plants: some are friendly foodstuffs (carrot, fennel, celery, parsley, caraway), some are vicious poisons (poison hemlock, water hemlock, fool’s parsley), and some are something in between (like cow parsnip, which is edible but whose sap can be a strong irritant).  Several of them look similar as young plants, too, with rosettes of feathery leaves and umbels of delicate white flowers.

Caraway, Carum carvi. If I hadn’t read the title, I might have thought it was fennel, because all these darn Apiaceae look similar. From Koehler’s Medizinal Pflanzen.

Over the centuries, many people have been poisoned by mixing them up.  A handful of case studies from the last decade of folks who ate a variety of toxic Apiaceae can be found  here, here, here, and here.  For those who forage, wild wood survival offers a sturdy guide to telling tasty wild carrot from its toxic doppleganger.  (Quick and dirty version: hemlock has smooth stems, sometimes speckled purple or with a chalky residue.  It doesn’t smell very good, and its flowers are loosely packed in umbels, like caraway, above.  Wild carrot has fuzzy stems, smells strongly of carrot, and has tightly-packed umbels of flowers with one dark purple flower in the middle.  And if you’re in doubt, don’t eat it!)

Wild carrot, Daucus carota. Similar enough to C. maculatum to give you pause, and make you wish you’d brought some store-bought carrot leaves along for comparison. Photo from Gunther Blaich’s website.

And then, of course, there are the more sinister, deliberate poisonings. Continue reading

These pink elephants are caused by what part of the absinthe, exactly?

Back in 2002 I went to Prague, where I was able to legally sample that storied vice of brooding 19th-century artists, absinthe.  The preferred method of preparation was to pour some of the liquor into a large spoon, add a pinch of sugar, and heat it over a candle flame until the sugar dissolved.  It was a ritual that added to the sense of participating in a dangerous, clandestine tradition, and coupled with the pre-Industrial-era architecture and cobblestone streets, I would leave the pub fully expecting to run into a Van Gogh-like figure, or at least hallucinate one.

"The absinthe drinker" being visited by the green fairy. By Czech painter Viktor Oliva, 1901.

Somewhat disappointingly, I never hallucinated any depressive one-eared artists.  Or anything else for that matter.  In fact, despite the 120-proof alcohol content, I only got modestly tipsy, thanks to the absinthe’s bitter, anise-y flavor (the origin for the word “absinthe” is likely the Greek apsinthion, which means “undrinkable”).  The one time I followed the absinthe up with a couple glasses of red wine, I did end up with a headache that might have inspired some gruesomely morbid poetry, but I wasn’t feeling moved by a creative impulse so much as by the impulse to find out what had happened to my Advil over the course of 3 flights and two layovers.

Fast forward to this past St. Patrick’s Day, when my friends brought over a bottle of appropriately green absinthe made and sold just a few miles away at our local distillery, St. George’s.  While the mystique was not so pronounced in my living room as it had been in a Czech pub, the product was definitely the same: the bottle confidently proclaimed that it contained extracts from wormwood (Artemisia absinthium, the plant that gives absinthe its distinctive flavor and color).  Ten years ago, I had to go to Europe for this stuff.  Why is it legal here now? Continue reading

How to Build a Giant.

After last week’s perusal of 4-winged dinosaurs, my labmates and I got into a bit of a competition to find the most outlandish prehistoric animal, which led us to meter-long millipedes, 2-foot mayflies, and something called Hallucigenia.  What most captured our attention was that arthropods in the Carboniferous period were terrifyingly enormous.  50lb scorpions? GAAAAHH!!

Pulmonoscorpius was 70cm long, and makes me feel a tad bit better about sharing the world with the puny little several-inch scorpions we get now. Artist's rendition by Nobu Tamura, via Wikipedia.

But then we realized the Carboniferous (about 350-300 million years ago) was the same period that gave us 50-foot horsetails and house-sized ferns, and we paused long enough to ask ourselves: “Wait, hang on.  Why was EVERYTHING so darned big back then?” Continue reading

Steel magnolias: using magnolol to combat arthritis

The gorgeous display of magnolia flowers around campus has been capturing my attention over the last few weeks, but it turns out they’re just as noteworthy for their therapeutic potential as for their aesthetics. A new article in press for PLoS One (open access for everyone!) describes a novel activity for the Magnolia officinalis derivative magnolol in repressing inflammation, which is a pretty tantalizing topic for a runner like me who’s always a little bit neurotic about the health of her joints.

Flowers of Magnolia x soulangiana, a cross between M. lilliflora and M. deundata.

Continue reading

Alliums: giving the immune system a smelly leg up

By February I am generally fed up with the cold and flu season, and this year is no exception.  Our household has been hit hard by a cold/bronchitis 1-2 punch, and we’ve been single-handedly keeping the makers of Ricola and our local Pho (Vietnamese chicken soup) shop financially solvent for the last few weeks.

It’s about this time that I start musing about zinc, antivirals, ICAM-1 inhibitors, VP4 protein based vaccines…in short, why the heck haven’t we found a way to beat the common cold?  Continue reading