Classic Orac on “CAM Natural”

Orac of Respectful Insolence points out the flaws and follies of Complementary and Alternative Medicine’s touting of  “natural” medicine. I like to spell it out because when I see “CAM” I think Crassulacean Acid Metabolism.

Oldest living plant clone

In a sense, this qualifies as “oldest living plant.” However, this grove of shrubs in Tasmania is really a colony of genetically identical, vegetatively propagated clones: “World’s oldest plant?

A team of Tasmanian botanists claims to have found the world’s oldest living plant–a vast, low-growing, one-of-a-kind shrub born more than 43,000 years ago. If their conclusions are accurate, this Lomatia tasmanica, a member of Proteaceae family otherwise known as King’s holly, would be more than three times as old as the previous record holder, a 13,000-year-old box huckleberry in Pennsylvania

The leader of the research team, Rene Vaillancourt, a plant geneticist at the University of Tasmania, says the plant ranges over an area of 1.2 km. Its age–about 43,600 years–was estimated using carbon-14 dating of charcoal found along with fossilized leaf fragments. The fragments themselves were too fragile to date, he says.

Vaillancourt admits that there is no direct evidence linking the plant fossil to the living representative. But he says the time it would take for the slow-growing organism, which scientists have been monitoring for several years, to spread so broadly in the nutrient-poor soil is consistent with the isotope dating. A report on the discovery is to appear next January in the Australian Journal of Botany.

Discovered in 1934, the plant is the only known example of its species. “We’re trying to keep the exact location secret,” says Vaillancourt, noting only that it lives in a rainforest in the protected World Heritage Area in southwest Tasmania. It has shiny green leaves, 10 to 20 centimeters in length, dissected like other hollies; red flowers that bloom off the leaf tips; and about 200 stems. This specimen is sterile, propagating itself by sending out rhizomes, or roots.

Botanical discoveries bloomed in 2009

Berlinia korupensis at Kew

The BBC news points out that many new plants were discovered in 2009. And about one-third of them are in danger.

The Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew sent people to 100 countries. According to the article, ‘Kew’s botanists have described 2009 as a “bumper year” in which they described 292 new species, compared with 200 in an average year.’

Berlinia korupensis is a giant relative of the pea, a tree with foot-long dehiscent pods. But the surveyors were able to find only 17 trees in a Cameroon rain forest preserve.

Other researchers found seven new species of coffee bush.

Genetic analysis of fruit trees

To ensure that breeding a new variety of fruit ends up with a disease-resistant plant, breeders can look for simple sequence repeats (SSRs) in the apple genome that indicate resistance.

What’s tormenting the cat?

My long-haired cat is coming in with “devil’s pitchforks” stuck deep in her fur and she doesn’t like anyone removing them. I have to catch her at a sleepy moment, hold her down, distract her, or some other stratagem. At least these I can pull out. A few weeks ago, she was finding little round burrs that I mostly had to cut out of her fur.

"Devil's pitchforks"

I’ve seen the “pitchfork” seeds before but didn’t know the plant. It’s an evolutionary strategy for burrs and hooked seeds to catch in an animal’s fur and be carried away from the parent plant. Wherever the animal grooms them out, or where they catch on something else, is the seeds’ new home.

Finally I got curious and looked them up. Surprise! I knew the plant. It’s a weedy-looking thing like a small sunflower or a daisy without the big petals around the edge. Now that I know them, I’ll pull them up before they go to seed.

Bidens frondosa
Bidens frondosa

The culprit is Bidens frondosa. The common name is Devil’s Beggarticks. But where I grew up, we called them Devil’s Pitchforks. The weed is also called stick-tight or largeleaf beggarticks. There are more pictures here. and here. It’s a plant native to North America. Keep an eye out for them next summer.

Bidens frondosa seed-heads
Bidens frondosa seed-heads

Dandelion inside

Dandelion Inside, originally uploaded by Irradiatus.

This is a lovely close-up view of a dandelion seed-head.

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Andy’s wildflower habitat

Take a look at some of the habitats in Ontario, photographed and described on Andy’s Northern Ontario Wildflowers.

Happy birthday, Beatrix Potter!

I’ve mentioned Beatrix Potter before. She was famous to earlier generations as the author and artist of the Peter Rabbit stories. But she was also a botanical illustrator and a perceptive amateur mycologist. See “The Secret Life of Beatrix Potter

The secret botanical life of Beatrix Potter

By Rudolf Schmid, Integrative Biology, University of California, Berkeley

The dual fungal-algal (or blue-green bacterial) organismal nature of lichens was discovered in 1867 by a Swiss botanist, Simon Schwendener, and quickly accepted as truth by German botanists. The British, however, for a long time denied this relationship, one botanist (J. M. Crombie) even dismissing it as an “unnatural union between a captive Algal damsel and a tyrant Fungal master” (Gilpatrick 1972).

Beatrix Potter (1866-1943), the famous illustrator and author of children’s books, notably The tale of Peter Rabbit (1901), during her childhood became deeply involved in painting fungi and lichens (see accompanying “bamboozled” article) and in this way started to make scientific observations on them. By 1894 she actually had good scientific evidence for the symbiotic nature of lichens. However, this idea and her other work on fungi was not readily accepted by the British botanists due to their prejudice against Schwendener’s theory and substantial anti-feminism with regard to women in science. Eventually, with the help of her uncle Sir Harry E. Roscoe, a chemist knighted for his scientific work, Potter managed to get her work on fungal spores read (not published) by the Linnean Society. However, even here there were two ironies: The paper was read by a man, because women were not allowed at meetings of the Society, and it was read on, of all dates, April 1st 1897. Potter withdrew her paper from publication because she wanted to do further research on fungi and lichens. However, frustrated with plant biology, Potter abandoned the infamous botany for her famous bunny.

For details, read “Bamboozled by botany, Beatrix bypasses bigoted biology, begins babying bountiful bunnies: OR Beatrix Potter [1866-1943] as a mycologist: The period before Peter Rabbit and friends. (From Rudi Schmidt’s page on “Women scientists.”

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