Organism of the Month

Every month Plant Scientist features an interesting organism. To view the full post about each organism click on the links below:

image.pgen.v11.i10.g001November: Anther smut fungus (Silene latifolia)

Anther smut fungus can infect a small flowering plant called white campion (Silene latifolia). Its spores are displayed on the host’s flowers so that they can be carried to other plants by insect pollinators. Read more…

Field of onions in Ismaning, Germany. Image by Rainer Haessner (CC BY SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

October: Onion (Allium cepa L)

Onion is one of the oldest known cultivated plants and the earliest archaeological evidence of onions in human settlements dates back to around 5000 BC (Bronze age). Read more…

Image by regan76 (CC BY 2.0)

September: Tomato (Solanum lycopersicum)

For culinary purposes, we generally treat the tomato as a vegetable, but it is in fact a fruit. The tomato plant comes from the Andes in South America where it grows as a vine. Read more…

Corn-raw-boiled-and-dryAugust: Maize (Zea mays ssp. mays)

Maize is the second most important crop plant in the world behind rice and is widely used in many human foods, as well as for animal feed and to make biofuels. It has many characteristics that make it useful to humans. Read more…

J1024px-Vanilla_planifolia_01uly: Flat-leaved vanilla (Vanilla planifola)

Flat-leaved vanilla is cultivated to produce vanilla pods. The vanilla flowers are pollinated by hand and, since the production process is so labour-intensive, vanilla is the second most expensive spice in the world behind saffron. Read more…

The potatoes survived their move and are now thriving in the bags.

June: Potato (Solanum tuberosum)

Potato (Solanum tuberosum) is the world’s fourth most important food crop (behind rice, maize and wheat) and is grown across the globe in areas with temperate and sub-tropical climates. It belongs to the nightshade family of flowering plants, which also includes other crop species such as tomato… Read more…

1200px-Brunnenlebermoos_Marchantia_polymorpha sys-one (Franz Mattuschka) CC BY-SA 3.0May: Umbrella liverwort (Marchantia polymorpha)

The umbrella liverwort (Marchantiapolymorpha) is a noxious weed. It grows in most gardens, paths and glasshouses, and is found in almost all parts of the world – from tropical to arctic climates. Read more…


Image by H. Zell (CC BY-SA 3.0) via Wikimedia Commons

April – Common foxglove (Digitalis purpurea)

The common foxglove is a pretty flower native to Western Europe. It is commonly found in open spaces especially in recently cleared woodland and other places where the ground has been disturbed, but is also popular in gardens as an ornamental plant (1). Although the plant is poisonous to eat, it has been used in traditional medicines… Read more…

European ash in Burgwald, Hessen, Germany. Image by Willow (CC BY-SA 2.5)

March – European ash (Fraxinus excelsior)

As you may know, Europe’s ash trees are at war with a fungus that causes the disease ash dieback. But even as the European ash (Fraxinus excelsior) fights this enemy, there is another threat that is already decimating ash trees in North America – the emerald ash borer beetle. Read more…

Image by Gerste Ähren (CC BY-SA 3.0) February – Barley (Hordeum vulgare L.)

Barley is the fourth most important cereal crop in the world (behind rice, maize and wheat) and is grown in both temperate and tropical climates. It was one of the first grains to be domesticated and has a variety of uses including in alcoholic drinks… Read more…


January – Olives: A gift from the gods

Olives, a symbol of peace and victory, are a tasty treat and make an excellent oil that is used all over the world. I knew that olives originated along the Mediterranean, but whilst on honeymoon in Athens, Greece, I was shocked by how many olive trees I saw. Read more…


Oranges grown in The Gambia and other tropical countries have green skin. Image Credit: Louise Tutton

Image Credit: Louise Tutton

December – Orange (Citrus sinensis): Why is my orange green?

While in The Gambia I ate some oranges with green skins. I was surprised when I first saw them because I had always assumed that oranges are orange. In the English language, the colour orange was even named after the fruit. So why are the skins of some oranges green? Read more… sdkjhskjdah

Drawing of West African Tulip (Spathodea campanulata). Drawing by L. A. L. Constans - Paxton's Flower Garden, volume 3, (public domain)

L. A. L. Constans – (public domain)

November – West African tulip: a living water pistol

I recently visited The Gambia in West Africa. The purpose of my trip was to work on a GirlGuiding community project, but I did manage to spot some interesting plants along the way. The Organism of November is a tree I saw a lot around the urban area — near the capital Banjul –where I stayed.  It is known as the West African tulip tree and produces beautiful bright orange flowers all year round. Read more…


Peanut seeds surrounded by their pod. Image by Texnik (CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons).

Image by Texnik (CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons).

October – Peanuts are not nuts

On Saturday I will be travelling to The Gambia, West Africa to spend three weeks working on a Girlguiding community project. The Organism of October is one of The Gambia’s main exports: the peanut. The peanut or groundnut (Arachis hypogaea) belongs to the legume family of plants. The name hypogaea means “under the earth”, and is a reference to the development of the fruit — called peanuts — under ground. Read more…

US Department of Agriculture. Released into the public domain.

September – Soybean: producing protein on a massive scale

Soybean (Glyine max) is a globally important crop plant that originates from Asia. The seeds (called soybeans) are rich in protein (40% of dry weight) and contain a good mix of essential amino acids needed by humans (1). Not surprisingly, this makes soybeans and their products popular with vegetarians and vegans… Read more…


Image released into the public domain by the United States Department of Agriculture.

Image released into the public domain by the United States Department of Agriculture.

August – Sunflowers are turning heads

It is August and the sun is shining here in Norwich*, so what better plant to be the Organism of the Month than the sunflower? Sunflowers are the subjects of some of Vincent Van Gogh’s most famous paintings, but they are cultivated for more than just their beauty. Read more…



Papaver dubium in Norfolk, UK. Photo by the author.

July – Poppies: a blessing, a curse and a moment of reflection 

At this time of year poppies seem to spring out of anywhere and everywhere they can. In the last few weeks I have seen them in gardens, motorway central reservations and even poking out of Norwich’s medieval city wall. Read more… sdasda

Elderflowers in Norfolk, UK. Image by the S. Shailes. Licenced under CC BY-SA 4.0.


June – The food, magic and medicine of the elder tree

One of the advantages of living in a small, green city with easy access to the countryside is that there are quite a few opportunities to forage wild things to eat. As a relative newcomer to a small city (I grew up in London) I’m only just starting to explore these opportunities. This week I used some flowers from some local elder trees to make elderflower cordial. Read more… asdkashdjskah

Image by Andrew Smith ( (CC BY-SA 2.0

Image by Andrew Smith ( (CC BY-SA 2.0

May – Oil seed rape: the oil crop that turns the countryside yellow

England is sometimes referred to as a green and pleasant land, but if you travel around the country during April and May you are likely to see large areas where it has turned yellow. This is due to the flowering of the crop plant oil seed rape (Brassica napus). Read more…


Female flowers (hops) growing on Humulus lupulus. Image by Dr Dr. Hagen Graebner via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.5)


April – Humulus lupulus: the plant beer brewers are hopping mad for

If you are a beer drinker you owe a lot to April’s organism Humulus lupulus (hop), because it is widely used to flavour and preserve beer. Read more…


Cardiospermum halicacabum seeds

Image by H. Zell (CC BY-SA 3.0)

March – Cardiospermum halicacabum “Love in a puff”

My adopted seed is from Cardiospermum halicacabum, which originates from tropical America (1). A vine growing up to 3 m long, it has inflated seed capsules that give it the name “love in a puff”. The latin name comes from the Greek kardia (heart) and sperma (seed). Read more…


By Kristian Frisk (CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

By Kristian Frisk (CC-BY-SA-2.0

February –Camellia sinensis: the plant behind a comforting cup of tea

Camellia sinensis is a shrub native to East, South and Southeast Asia. It is now cultivated across the world in tropical and sub-tropical regions. In 2012 over 4.8 million tonnes of tea was produced. The plants are harvested by hand every few weeks with only the bud and the first 2-3 leaves removed. Read more…  

January – Cucumber Mosaic Virus strikes a balance between replication and travel

Viruses are typically made up of genetic material (DNA/RNA) and a protective protein coat. They can’t replicate on their own and must infect into living cells (e.g. in plants or animals) and trick them into producing more virus particles. As such they are not strictly living organisms but I’m bending the definition a bit for this month because I think it is fascinating how Cucumber Mosaic Virus (CMV) can modify both the defences of its host plants and the behaviour of the green peach aphid (Myzus persicae), which transports the virus from plant-to plant. Read more…


 Pollinating fig wasp (Ceratosolen sp.) collected on Ficus septica from South of Taiwan. Image credit: Anthony Bain (CC BY-SA 3.0) via Wikimedia Commons.

Image by Anthony Bain (CC BY-SA 3.0)

December – Fig Wasp

Fig trees are unusual in that their flowers are not on display. Instead the flowers are contained within fleshy tissue, the fig. The only access point to the flowers within the fig is a narrow tube called the ostiole. Female fig wasps enter the figs via the ostiole to lay their eggs within some of the flowers. It’s a tight squeeze for the wasps and they get stripped of their wings on the way in. While they are laying their eggs they leave pollen (carried from the fig they were born in) on the flowers. Afterwards, the female wasps will die, usually still within the fig. Read more…

Neurospora crassa growing on some burnt wood at the Eden project, Cornwall, UK. The orange conidia spores are vivid against the dark charcoal. (Photos taken by the author)

Images my K. Jackson

November – Neurospora crassa: The laboratory mouse of the fungal world

Every field of study has, what we call, a model organism. Scientists carry out experiments using the model organism and use it as a base for assumptions about other related organisms. Model organisms tend to be small, grow and reproduce quickly, have small genomes and are easily manipulated in the lab. In the animal world the mouse is a commonly used model, in plants we have Arabidopsis thaliana, and the fungal world has Neurospora crassaRead more…

Slime mould (Physarum polycephalum). Image by frankenstoen distributed under a CC BY 2.5 licence

Image by frankenstoen (CC BY 2.5)

October – Slime Moulds

Slime moulds are clearly not plants (or even fungi, or animals, for that matter), and as such are perhaps out of place appearing on this blog. However, the complex behaviour of these bizarre organisms is nevertheless remarkable. Read more…

Striga_hermonthicaSeptember – Striga hermonthica: a pretty plant and a nasty parasite

This month’s organism is Striga hermonthica, commonly known as purple witchweed. It is a good example of how looks can be deceiving. From above ground S. hermonthica looks fairly harmless with dainty purple flowers. Read more… dasdsakjdha

The archetypal poisonous mushroom Amanita muscaria or

By Anemone Projectors (CC BY-SA 2.0)

August – Fly Agaric: the most iconic fungus in the world

Fly agaric, Amantia muscaria, is arguably one of the most iconic members of the fungal kingdom. Its bright red cap with white spots has featured in many fairy tales and stories including Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Read more…


July – Agrobacterium tumefaciens: a pathogen that genetically modifies plants

Agrobacterium tumefaciens is able to infect and cause crown gall disease in about 60% of Eudicot species species including trees such as cherry, apple and willow and vegetables such as sugar beet and courgette (1, 2). Infected plants produce develop tumours (galls) on stems and roots (see below) as a result of uncontrolled cell division. Generally most plants with crown gall disease survive and continue to grow but it can lead to yield losses in some crop plants. Read more…

oak processionary caterpillars have long white hairs but it is the many smaller hairs that contain the toxin.

Image by Christian Fischer (CC BY-SA 3.0)

June – The oak processionary moth: a new pest to UK oak trees

Oak trees are widespread across the UK  but the health of the two native oak species the English oak (Quercus robur) and the sessile oak (Quercus petraea) face a new threat in the form of the oak processionary moth (Thaumetopoea processionea)Read more…


10 thoughts on “Organism of the Month

  1. Pingback: The food, magic and medicine of the elder tree | Plant Scientist

  2. Pingback: Making waves at the Plant Calcium Signalling meeting | Plant Scientist

  3. Pingback: Peanuts are not nuts | Plant Scientist

  4. Pingback: West African tulip: a living water pistol | Plant Scientist

  5. Pingback: Why is my orange green? | Plant Scientist

  6. Pingback: The next threat to ash trees in Europe | Plant Scientist

  7. Pingback: Treating heart disease with foxgloves | Plant Scientist

  8. Pingback: Guest post. The private life of a common garden weed | Plant Scientist

  9. Pingback: The surprise potatoes | Plant Scientist

  10. Pingback: The precious pods of the vanilla orchid | Plant Scientist

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