Plants

Wineberry: An Edible Invasive

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Ripe wineberry (Photo: K. McDonald)

Eat the Aliens!

Sometimes there's an irony to being a blog writer. When I was researching primary sources for information about wineberry vines (Rubus phoenicolasius, pronounced Rue-bus foe-knee-col-ass-e-us), I found out that the majority of the field research has been done by researchers from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC), where I work. To be fair, there are 16-19 research laboratories at any given time and over 200 on staff, so individual projects and research is hard to keep up with.  Being at SERC is what has inspired my interest in the wineberry, because it is a widespread plant that produces fruit in July and has become a significant symbol of summer for me and the staff and volunteers I work with.

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What is Mistletoe?

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Mistletoe berries from the UK (Photo: Wiki Commons).

The Irony of Mistletoe As the "Kissing Plant"

Evergreens have long been a symbol of winter and holiday celebrations around the new year. Evergreen boughs are brought inside, holly trees and their red berries seem festive, and even Christmas ferns are used for decorations. There's one evergreen that has especially stood out over the years, and that's mistletoe. Today's post is all about this unique plant, and why it's ironic that this particular evergreen is associated with lovers and "kissing under the mistletoe" traditions.

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Thigmomorphogenesis...Say What?

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Seedlings growing in a tray (Photo: Wiki Commons).

What Exactly is Thigmomorphogenesis?

I've always been one of those educators that hates big "sciencey" words that scare students and visitors when they come to my programs. Long words with complex Latin roots can lose attention and seem overwhelming to the average  reader too. However, as a philosophy major and scientist I have a deep love of the break-down of words and their etymology. Today's word is just too good to pass up. It's an important ecological concept critical to those who own gardens and grow plants.

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How to Cook Pumpkin Seeds

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Roasted pumpkin seeds (Photo: Wiki Commons).

Roasting Pumpkin Seeds

It's fall again, and time for pumpkins. When you're carving up that fleshy orange fruit consider not wasting the left over seeds and rind. Reducing food waste can be good for you, your wallet, and the environment. First, a few things you should know about pumpkins. The pumpkins that you buy for carving are NOT for cooking. These big pumpkins are specifically grown as ornamentation. If you're planning on making pumpkin pie then buy the smaller, less mealy, and sweater baking pumpkins in your grocers produce section. The big pumpkins that you carve are for just that, carving. However, the carving pumpkin's big seeds still make for a healthy fall treat. This leads to today's post, how to roast pumpkin seeds.

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Japanese Honeysuckle: Why There are Two Flower Colors

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Japanese honeysuckle (Photo: Karen McDonald)

What Gives with Japanese Honeysuckle Flowers?

Here in the Eastern US there are many different native vines, along with a cadre of introduced or invasive vines as well. Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicrea japonica) is one of them. If you're like me, as a kid I loved plucking the yellow and white flowers, nipping off end and sucking the base of the flower to get the sticky sweet drop of nectar from inside. As an adult I occasionally do the same thing, while cursing the rapid growth of the vine as it takes over my backyard fence. I'm not going to go into the whole life cycle of Japanese honeysuckle here, but if you want to know more check out this great dissertation about its life history and ecology by Anna D. Letherman and her PhD thesis from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Mostly what I'm interested in is a very basic question:   Why does the Japanese honeysuckle have two different flower colors?

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What is Catnip? Cat's Love It, But Why?

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Cat enjoying catnip plants (Photo: Wiki Commons)

 

What Am I Giving My Cat?

As an indoor cat lover (yes I firmly believe in keeping cats ONLY indoors), I find it nearly impossible to go to any pet store without seeing catnip this or buying catnip laced that. Catnip is one of those plants everyone hears about, or sees in garden shops, but what is catnip?

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Orchid Flowers: Beauty and Biodiversity

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Orchid Flower Pictures

Sometimes I get lucky enough to be able to travel to some very interesting places and meet amazing new folks. One such example was a recent visit to the Smithsonian Gardens support center. We were filming for a project, and during the filming breaks I couldn't help but marvel at the biodiversity of orchids which they cultivate. But it wasn't just orchids that they offered. Smithsonian Gardens is a series of many gardens around the National Mall, in Washington DC. But, they are much more than just gardens, they are also a hub of orchid conservation and biodiversity.

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Tannic Acid to Harden Blisters and Calluses

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A small mound of extracted tannic acid (Photo: Wiki Commons).

Tannic Acid Natural History and Blister Care

Hikers and rowers share a common affliction, namely blisters. As a rower on an 8 person crew I have to contend with blisters all the time. They can form while using rowing machines or while using oars on the water (it's a mark of pride to compare cheese-grater like hands). Hikers often get blisters on their feet from ill fitting shoes and socks (first thing to do is make sure you never we new hiking shoes long distances and get good socks, yes, pay $15 for a good pair of wicking socks). I've had people complain of blisters from riding horses, high heels, and more. One of the solutions I use, which I want to share with you, is the use of natural plant tannins or tanic acid.

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The Cranberry: Natural History and Home Made Cranberry Sauce Recipe

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Cranberries (Photo: Wiki Commons).

What's the story of cranberries?

Cranberries are a common side for holiday dishes in North America, especially around Thanksgiving and Christmas. The red berries are tart and appropriately colored for the season with a bright red color. For many the only thing they may think of when they prepare cranberries is that sucking sound that the solid mass of cranberry makes as it slides out of the can. But, If you're like me, you might like to make home made cranberry sauce, or know a bit more about where those berries came from. I firmly believe in knowing about what you eat, how it grows, and how it is produced. So, in this light, much like the Turkey Snood post, we'll start this one with a short natural history of the cranberry and follow up with a  homemade cranberry sauce recipe that has been in our family for a long time. At the end of the post I'll also provide you with some neat resources for teaching about cranberries in the classroom or on an interpretive hike.

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Three Sisters Gardening: Nutrition and Culture

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An example of a Three Sister's garden (Photo: Sarah Braun Flicker Sharing).

The cultural and nutritional qualities of the Three Sisters

Guest Post: Anne Little Wolf with Karen McDonald

You may never have heard of the Three Sisters, but they are a part of most of our everyday lives, and as we enter the fall season you see them everywhere. The "sisters"  consist of maize (Zea mays), beans (Phaseolus vulgaris) and squash (Cucurbita pepo). These three plants were staple crops of many of the Northeast Native American tribes in the late prehistoric and historic periods.  Evidence for these crops dates back to Central and South America, with histories in the more recent North American Southwest, Plains, and Eastern North America. They were transported to Europe, and Africa, where they are eaten and grown together, much as Native Americans still do in this country.

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Teaching Climate Change through Prehistoric Leaves

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Leaves Tell the Story of Climate Change

In a previous post I provided a list of climate change resources for those interested in knowing more about climate change, and for those who may be needing resources for teaching about it. In today's post I want to share with you another great resource.

One of my favorite types of lessons, in and out of the classroom, involves real world applied science, which integrates fields that might once have seemed diametrically opposed. The folks in Smithsonian Education have created a wonderful lesson plan all about the research of Scott Wing, an SI paleontologist, whose work focuses on paleobotany, climate change, and leaf-margin analysis of fossil leaves from about 55 million years ago. This is a free curriculum, complete with lessons and background materials, that can be found online. It's aimed at middle school students, though it could be adapted for high school.

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The Natural History of Sunflowers and A Sunflower Seed Cookie Recipe

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Sunflower (Photo: Karen McDonald)

Enjoy The Delights of Sunflowers

Today's guest post is from Anne Littlewolf, our very own helpful author (when I give her enough lead time), with a touch of tag teaming from yours truly!

With wealth untold in my pocket, I'd gotten permission from Mom to go play with the rest of the kids.  We had bikes, we had energy, we had imagination, and with the vast sum of 25 whole cents in my pocket, the world was mine!   Dashing across the street to the little Mom & Pop grocery store, I roamed up and down the aisles, trying to choose between a Chunky candy bar, a candy necklace or at least a handful of Pixie Stix, but when it all came down to a final choice, a ten-cent bag of sunflower seeds (roasted and salted in the shell!) won out.  I'd learned the fine art of cracking them, extracting the seed and spitting out the shell in one swift move, never once losing a single pedal stroke on my bike.  Oh, the things that give you status when you're ten!!

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Sunflower seed and kernel (Photo: Wiki Commons).

It was, as we later learned, a wonderful snack choice.  Sunflowers are amazing plants, they're the type of flower that always makes you smile whether they're in the yard, on an apron, on wallpaper or even on a notepad, and they produce some of the best munchies ever.  The little seeds that come in the familiar black and white striped shell offer all sorts of benefits, beyond just yummy-ness!  Sunflower seeds are used in most countries as a source of cooking oil, while in America we tend to shove them into the snack food category or probably at least as commonly, bird food. I would suggest considering them for human food, and as a great addition for native pollinators and butterflies. The asters that don't make large heads are also an important part of ecosystems, and food for insects, and other native creatures. Let's learn more.

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Why Corn is Such a Miracle Food

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Kernels of corn are each a unique miracle of flowering plants (Photo: Pixabay sharing).

The Magic of Ears of Corn: Appreciating Your Food

Corn, or maize, is a common staple of picnics and cookouts during the summer, but I was amazed to find out how little people knew about the biological "magic" that is corn.

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Corn is the product of a delicate balance of flowering and ovary development (Photo: Wiki commons).

In the US we use the word "corn" to refer to a very particular type of plant, specifically maize, or the tall plant with yellow compound fruits. Corn is in the family of Poaceae and with the monocots or grasses.  Outside of North America "corn" can mean any grain crop. The fruit of corn is called a caryopsis or grain, and all corn plants have male and female parts. The male part (or inflorescence) is called the tassel, and it emerges at the top of the plant after all of the leaves have developed.

 

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The male flowers, or tassel, emerges from the top of the stalk of corn (Photo: Wiki commons).

This tassel has many small branches, and along these branches you can see the male flowers and anthers, which produce pollen. The pollen is wind dispersed, and because it is relatively heavy it doesn't fall far from the plant, usually just on its neighbors and not itself.

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This is the female inflorescence of the corn, with the tassels each attached to one ovule of corn inside the husk (Photo: Wiki commons).

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