Emerging from the cloud

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Spring lunchtime in Cambridge Botanic Garden

Regular readers of this blog will have noticed that I’ve been rather quiet this year. The main reason for this is that 2016 has not been kind to me. Following the loss of my oldest friend in January, several other things have hit my personal life this year including ill health (both to myself and members of my family) and the loss of my grandmother. These things have left my mental health in a more fragile state than normal so, to look after myself while keeping up with my day job and other responsibilities, the blog has had to take a back seat.

I don’t want to give you the impression that 2016 has been a complete disaster for me. I still enjoy my job at eLife and have taken on some new responsibilities this year, including managing the eLife podcast. In January I set up a new Girl Guide unit, which meets regularly to provide 10-14 year old girls in my local area with opportunities to have fun and learn new skills. We have a lot of fun at our meetings and the numbers of girls in the unit has gradually grown over the year. My friends and I have made good progress with the work on the run-down allotment plot we took on earlier this year. Most importantly, this year has highlighted how wonderful my friends and family are and how lucky I am to have them in my life.

The other reason that I have had less time to blog this year is that I’m currently taking a distance-learning course in proofreading. I decided to take this course to get some more formal training in proofreading and also to learn more about the publishing industry as a whole. Excluding my PhD – which felt more like working than studying – this is the first course of study I’ve taken since I finished my undergraduate degree in 2009. It does feel a bit strange to be working on “exercises” and “assignments” again, but I’m really enjoying it so far.

I’m starting to emerge from the cloud that seems to have followed me around this year so I’m hoping to be able to blog more often. Watch this space.

Bramble: friend or foe?

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Blackberries change colour from red to black as they ripen. Image by Thomas’ pics (CC BY 2.0 via Flickr)

In England at this time of year, the hedgerows along country lanes are full of delicious fruits called blackberries. Just last week I spent an enjoyable afternoon with friends gorging on blackberries along the route of an old railway line in Norwich (now a footpath and cycleway). The berries are a good source of vitamin C and antioxidants, and are commonly used in desserts and preserves. Although I love collecting and eating blackberries, I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with the plant that produces them, the bramble (Rubus fruticosus agg.).

Rubus fruticosus agg. isn’t a single species, but instead is a group (or aggregate; agg) of around 200-300 very similar species of shrub in the rose family that are very hard to tell apart (1). Like roses, brambles are covered in sharp thorns that help to protect the plant from herbivores (and humans). The thorns also help to make brambles a safe haven for many small birds and other wildlife.

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Brambles are pollinated by insects. Image by Roger Bunting (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 via Flickr)

Brambles grow wild across most of Europe and in the UK they can thrive in most environments (1). The white or pinkish flowers are self-fertile and can still produce seeds even in the absence of fertilization (a process called apomixis) to produce an army of clone plants (2). Furthermore, brambles can produce suckers – new shoots from buds in the roots – which helps them rapidly cover an area of ground. As a result, brambles are often among the first plants to colonise abandoned plots of land. This is great for wildlife and the casual blackberry picker, but it’s not so helpful if you are trying to work on said piece of abandoned land…

When some friends and I took on an allotment this year, our plot had been neglected for a while and contained quite a lot of brambles. We removed a lot of the plants but have left some to be our own personal blackberry patch. Removing brambles is not a fun business as the thorns can cut through clothes (and gardening gloves). For several weeks in the spring my arms and legs were covered in scratches and I often found bramble thorns impaled in my fingers. If you don’t manage to completely remove the whole root, the bramble is quite capable of growing a fresh shoot so we’ve had a few cheeky brambles reappearing in the vegetable beds.

Despite my moaning about brambles I must say that the blackberry crop from the allotment has been great. It is kind of ironic that our most successful crop this year is something we weren’t deliberately growing. All in all, if I had to summarize my relationship with the bramble at the moment, I would say: “it’s complicated”.

 

References:

1) Wikipedia: Blackberry https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blackberry

2) Brambles (Rubus fruticosus) http://www.woodlands.co.uk/blog/flora-and-fauna/brambles-rubus-fructicosus

Image links:

Bramble by Thomas’ pics

Canal: Morse to town 7 June ’11 by Roger Bunting

Poison in the garden

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The gates of Alnwick Poison Garden, north-east England. Image by Jacqui (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) via Flickr

While giving my undergraduate class a tour of a botanic garden, a university professor said that “we should only eat the parts of a plant that the plant wants us to eat”. He was referring to the fruit, which many plants encourage animals to eat in order to spread their seeds in the environment (though not all fruits are edible). I don’t think he meant us to take his advice literally, but it is sensible to eat plants with caution. Alongside famous poisons including belladonna and hemlock, plants produce a variety of other molecules that aim to deter animals from eating them. Some of these molecules – such as ricin, which is produced by the castor oil plant – are so poisonous that tiny quantities can kill you. Others, like caffeine or the anti-malaria drug quinine, have less dramatic effects on the human body that we may find desirable or useful.

I recently visited The Alnwick Garden in north-east England, which has a special garden dedicated to educating visitors about the potential dangers of plants. In fact, some of the plants on display in the Poison Garden are so dangerous that visitors can only enter as part of a guided tour. I really enjoyed the tour and if you are ever in the area I recommend you pay the garden a visit.

The tour included some well-known poisonous plants, but the main message I took home from the tour was that many common garden plants are also potentially dangerous if they touch your skin or you accidently eat them. Below are a few examples of common plants that aren’t as benign as they might first seem:

Rhubarb (Rheum x hybridium)

While the pink fleshy stalks of the rhubarb plant are safe to eat and are commonly used in desserts, the leaves are highly toxic (1). This is thought to be due to the presence of high levels of oxalic acid, which can interfere with chemical reactions in the body by combining with calcium and other metals.

Common ivy (Hedera helix)

This rapidly growing vine is a haven for wildlife and attracts at least 70 species of nectar-feeding insects in its native range of Europe and Western Asia (2). Contact with ivy can cause an allergic skin reaction in some people, due to a natural pesticide in the leaves called falcarinol (3). Regardless of whether you are allergic to ivy or not, you should avoid eating this plant because its leaves contain saponins, which can cause vomiting, convulsions and even death.

Common nettle (Urtica dioica)

Children quickly learn that contact with common nettles results in a painful stinging sensation and skin inflammation. This is due to a cocktail of molecules including histamine, serotonin and oxalic acid, which is released from hairs on the surface of the leaves. For more information check out this cool infographic by Compound Interest.

Common laburnum (Laburnum anagyroides)

All parts of this small tree are poisonous, due to the presence of a molecule called cytisine, which has a similar structure to nicotine and has similar effects on the body. Laburnam is a member of the pea family and cases of laburnam poisoning are often caused by individuals mistaking laburnum seeds for peas and eating them (4). Mild cases may cause nausea and vomiting, but laburnum poisoning can also lead to insomnia, convulsions and coma.

These are just a few examples of common garden plants that can be harmful to humans and other animals. Fortunately, you can protect yourself against these and other poisonous plants by taking simple precautions, such as wearing gloves while gardening and carefully identifying edible plants when foraging.

Author’s note: Sorry for the long silence on this blog. My life has been quite chaotic in the last few months due to several events (expected/not expected, good/bad) and so the blog has had to take a back seat. Things are calming down a bit now so I’m hoping to get back into posting regularly, probably about twice a month. As ever, I’m always keen to receive guest posts so if you are interested in writing for Plant Scientist, please do get in touch.

References:

  1. The Poison Garden blog: Rheum x hybridium http://www.thepoisongarden.co.uk/atoz/rheum_x_hybridum.htm
  2. Wikipedia: Hedora helix https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hedera_helix
  3. Compound interest advent calendar http://www.compoundchem.com/2014advent2/
  4. The Poison Garden blog: Laburnam anagyroides http://www.thepoisongarden.co.uk/atoz/laburnum_anagyroides.htm

From plant science to gardening

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Spring in my garden

Last week this blog celebrated its third birthday. In that time I have gone from being a research scientist to working as an editor for a scientific journal and so the involvement of plants in my life has changed somewhat. Working with plants was one of my favourite parts of my old role in research and so its perhaps not surprising that I now do quite a bit of gardening in my spare time.

Until about a year ago, the extent of my gardening experience was a few herbs in pots outside and a bunch of low-maintenance houseplants. I wasn’t always very good at looking after these plants, so branching out to a whole, albeit small, garden has all been a bit of an experiment!

I’m happy to say that my gardening experiment has overall been pretty successful so far. I’ve managed to grow some edible vegetables and my garden looks much tidier and more colourful than it did when I moved in. Most importantly, now that I have an office job, I’ve really enjoyed having a good excuse to spend lots of my leisure time outside. However, my first year in the garden hasn’t been completely plain sailing as I ran into a few problems and disasters along the way. Here are the most useful lessons I have learnt along the way:

Be on the alert for pests – they WILL find your favourite plants. Last year, slugs and snails attacked my salad leaves and destroyed the marigolds I was growing. I tried out a few different methods to deter them from eating the rest of my crops and eventually settled on copper tape. Slugs and snails don’t like crawling over copper and so I could use the tape to make a pretty good barrier to defend a lot of my vegetable crops. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for my nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus), which became infested with hundreds of blackflies (a type of aphid) and withered and died soon after.

That plant support or structure might look tidy, but will it withstand the weather? I must admit that the first few structures I built to support plants were not all as robust as they should have been because I didn’t really appreciate how windy it would be in my garden. The canes holding up my tomatoes were blown over on several occasions, and the netting structure protecting my cabbages nearly flew away in a winter gale.

When digging in an overgrown patch of ground, keep an eye out for plants you might want to keep. Last year, I got a good crop of potatoes from the handful of tubers left in the vegetable patch by the previous occupants of the house. And just this week I discovered some parsnips growing amongst the grass of the overgrown allotment I’ve recently taken on with some friends. Being fairly hopeless at plant identification, I didn’t know what potato or parsnip plants looked like until I stumbled into them.

Work out what types of plants you like to grow and then grow them. I like to feel “productive” when I’m gardening, so I can spend hours tending to my vegetable patch and then forget to water my houseplants. As a result, I’ve tried to fill as much of my garden with fruit and vegetables as possible, and then used low-maintenance decorative plants to fill in the gaps and really shaded areas.

My main gardening project for this year is to work on an allotment with my friends. The plot hasn’t been cultivated in a few years so was pretty overgrown, but since we took on the tenancy a couple of months ago, we have managed to clear some parts of it and plant some soft fruit crops. Watch this space.

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The new project…

Thank you

As you may know, my year did not get off to the best start and I’ve been having a bit of a break from blogging.

Thank you to everyone who volunteered to write guest posts during my break. My plea for help with the blog got a much bigger response than I had anticipated and this brightened what was otherwise a very tough time for me. It has been a real treat for me to host articles written by such a variety of different people and covering such different topics. Most of the guest articles are now up but there should be a couple more to come in the next few weeks.

I also want to thank the many other people who spread the word about my hunt for guest bloggers and sent me supportive messages. I feel really lucky to belong to such a supportive online community.

I’m starting to feel the urge to write again so I hope to be able to publish a science post on here in the next week or so. I always enjoy receiving guest posts so please do get in touch if there is something you would like to write about.

An unsustainable trade

Guest post by Isabella Whitworth (@Orchella49).

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Roccella gracilis on wool yarn that has been dyed with orchil made from Lasallia pustulata. Image credit: Isabella Whitworth .

Lichens are complex plant-like organisms made up of a fungus and an alga or cyanobacterium that live together in a mutually beneficial relationship (symbiosis). They are often found attached to rocks or trees and species can vary hugely in appearance, from flat, crusty forms to leaf-like growths. Certain species have been used as dyestuffs for millennia, although not all lichens produce dye.

My research into dye lichens was triggered by a chance mention of ‘an archive in the attic’ by local friends. Their forebears were dye manufacturers in nineteenth century Leeds in the UK and the company archive had been passed down three generations. The company’s initial fortunes came from the successful processing of orchil, a dye made from lichens. Continue reading

Peer mentoring & why you should, too

Guest post by Liz Haswell (@ehaswell)

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Image licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 NY via Google (author not known).

Mentoring programs are believed to be essential to a successful career in science and are considered a critical step in improving the retention of women and under-represented minorities in science, engineering and technology fields*. Traditional mentoring matches a junior or inexperienced person—the mentee—with someone senior or more experienced—the mentor. The topic of today’s post is a different kind of mentoring, which I am calling “peer mentoring**”. In this case, each participant is both a mentor and a mentee. Over the last 15 years, I have been involved in several different peer-mentoring groups, and in every case they have been a powerful source of personal and professional growth. Here, I explain what I mean by peer mentoring, describe my own experiences, and list some suggestions for starting your own group.

One possible format for a peer-mentoring group is laid out in the book Every Other Thursday: Stories and Strategies from Successful Women Scientists. Ellen Daniell describes her experience as part of a group of women faculty—including beloved University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) professors Carol Gross and Christine Guthrie—as they meet every two weeks to set goals and troubleshoot challenges. Though this book is more memoir than instruction manual, it explains in detail how the group members established a rigorous yet supportive framework that helped them to be as productive as possible during their meetings, and how the work they did in “group” improved their personal and professional lives.  Continue reading