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

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

A collection of sham-shamrocks

I spent a lot of my weekend looking at clusters of three heart-shaped leaves.  You may have done the same, possibly (just possibly) in the company of a Guiness or something similar.  And in the course of all that shamrock-ogling, I became slightly vexed that the shamrock’s  officially recognized botanical representative is Trifolium dubium, the common suckling clover.  Dubium, indeed.  Its leaves are dinky, and they’re not even consistently heart-shaped.  So for your consideration, I hereby nominate the various species of Oxalis (wood sorrel) that are overtaking my yard as shamrock alternatives.

White Oxalis purpurea (this guy was planted, the rest are wild). The leaves are perfect hearts, but kinda small.

Oxalis pes-capre, or Bermuda buttercup. You might remember these from "Roadside edibles on my run." They're really more notable for their fluorescent-yellow flowers.

Oxalis stricta, yellow-flowered oxalis, sometimes sports reddish leaves like these, bringing a little variety to all that green.


And finally, Oxalis oregana, redwood sorrel, whose leaves are the size of a silver dollar. Go ahead and tell me this isn't more like what comes to mind when you think "shamrock" than some dopey little clover.

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

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

Why “Natural” isn’t always better: almond extract and cyanide

Right now the various species of Prunus are in flower all over northern California; the ornamental plums that are so popular as sidewalk decor are shedding petals everywhere, apricot blossoms are peeking out from yards, and the almond trees that crop up as renegades from the big orchards near Davis and in the central valley are covered in popcorn-y pinkish white flowers.  With constant reminders of stone fruit everywhere but none actually in season to eat, I’ve been doing a lot of baking with almonds and almond extract.

A sprinkling of wild plum blossoms (Prunus americana) on my way to lab.

Continue reading