June 27, 2018

My plant love story starts in 2010. At the young age of 60 years old, I decided to take on a monster gardening project. After retiring to the beautiful Oregon coast and having more time to spend in the yard, I decided to transform a very weedy and ugly hillside into a native garden. I walked the hillside for months, thinking about what I could possibly be done to improve it. More importantly, however, I thought about how to prevent the hill from eroding away during a long rainy winter. Eight years later, I am amazed at how much change has occurred and how much fun I had along the way.

In 2006, when we purchased the house, the hillside was covered in ugly grasses, annoying weeds, and invasive plants that my daughter continually informed me needed to be removed after each visit! By 2010, I finally determined that the only way to begin this project was to tackle small plots--about 3x3 feet at a time. The tedious process allowed me to research plants native to Oregon and then try...

June 20, 2018

I spent years fighting with alder trees. They grow in dense thickets that form tangled and terrible walls of vegetation on the banks of streams. As an invasive species biologist, I study sea lamprey, an invasive fish in the Great Lakes region. I had always seen alders as one of the hurdles, literally and figuratively, in getting my field work done — until one day they became my savior.

The “uniform” for fish biologists working in streams takes some getting used to. Waders are the base layer, onto which our equipment, backup batteries, and replacement parts for the electronic equipment we ask to work in water, are a necessity. As is a lunch. All of which are clipped on our person with an assortment of clanking carabiners before walking, climbing and wading into the stream. Like a kangaroo, we also use  our waders as a waterproof pouch, stuffing data sheets down our front and we always have lots of fun small things tucked  away in pockets, like measuring tape, electrical tape, and  - ever...

June 13, 2018

​​Growing up in San Diego County in Southern California, I was exposed to a wide variety of habitats during weekend drives with my parents. Early on, I began to appreciate the diversity of California’s vegetation, from coastal scrub and chaparral to the forests and deserts. One summer in high school, I took a biology class that had an assignment to create a botany booklet. The booklet had to contain 20 species of plants with photographs and descriptions. Prior to that assignment, I was mostly interested in birds, but that class raised my awareness and started my life-long fascination with plants. From this early Biology class, I continued studying plants. While in college at San Diego State, I took a botany and taxonomy class with Dr. Lee Wedberg that included field trips all around San Diego County. On those trips,we saw many endemic plant species that could only be found in the County, including San Diego mesa mint, Pogogyne abramsii,and Parish’s meadowfoam, Limnanthes alba var. pari...

June 6, 2018

I was working at a pharmaceutical company for the longest time, saving lives and making a happy living for myself... Well, until I met "carnivorous plants" at the Boston Flower Show. They were weird, wild and wonderful! They come in different shapes and colors. Venus flytraps, pitcher plants, sundews, bladderworts, and corkscrew plants. Each has developed a unique way of attracting, capturing, and digesting insects. I was completely awed by their singularity and beauty. After joining the New England Carnivorous Plant Society who displayed the carnivorous plants at the Boston Flower Show, the size of my collection increased exponentially. The more I learned about them, the more I got pulled into the sinister and mysterious world of carnivorous plants. Next thing you know, I quit my job, and started painting botanical art as one of ways to express my passion for carnivorous plants. As I studied each plant more carefully with the accuracy required for botanical art, my curiosity about the...

May 30, 2018

I don’t hate plants, though I do sometimes hate looking at them for too long. For that reason trees are among my favorite plants. They are large and easy to identify from a distance. They are easy to identify while hiking, or even driving, so they don’t require frequent, extended, stops; crouching, squinting, and thumbing through field guides. That tedious behavior is mercifully reserved for identifying spring ephemerals, for instance, or maybe a shrub here and there in a region we haven’t visited before.

I would gladly walk by the unidentified plants and save my energy for birds, maybe mountains, definitely lunch. The plants are part of the wallpaper. My wife, on the other hand, puts plants first. She puts plants first in part because its her job. Known to some readers of this blog, my wife, Sara Kuebbing, is an ecologist who studies invasive plants. In trying to teach me to love plants, she has pushed me precariously close to hating them.

I can learn to hate the plants she loves becaus...

May 23, 2018

Growing up in Barbados, "summer" was my favourite time of year. Mostly because school was out (I hated school!) but also because it was a special time of year for other species as well, (mango season!).

We had ~11 varieties of mangoes from 13 trees (example mangoes, Figure 1). Not all trees bore mangoes at the same time, so some days we had 2-3 trees to choose from, but other times we had around 6-8 trees. I remember one summer we collected ~ 35 lb of mangoes in one run (header photo).

Unfortunately, we were not the only foragers, but competed fiercely with another non-native species: Chlorocebus pygerythrus, the vervet monkey (Figure 2). Brought over from Africa by the Europeans over 350 year ago, these monkeys would sample various trees and fruit, taking one bite of a mango and leaving it behind to try another few. As a boy I knew that I was outnumbered by these agile competitors, so I attempted a variety of strategies to balance the odds: from standing guard under the trees, bagging c...

May 11, 2018

Seed germination is like magic. Seeds seem like nothing. Small, brown, and dry, it’s easy to forget that they’re alive. When I study germination in the lab, I carefully place each seed on a bed of agar to keep it moist, and check on them, usually three times a week, to see which ones have germinated. One day, it’s just a seed. Often, for many days, it’s just a seed. Then, sometimes, I come back and look at it, and there is a tiny structure - the radicle, which will become the root - breaking through the seed coat.

When I study seeds under the microscope, I see all kinds of amazing things. The textures of the seed coat and the emerging radicle. The way the radicle bursts through the seed coat, and how depending on the species, that can happen in different ways. One of my favorite prairie species, the Ohio spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis), has a seed that looks like a little cap, or a fossilized insect (see the photo, or it's number 2 in the drawing above). As it grows, the radicle push...

I am a regular visitor to Kew Gardens in London and I was shocked one day when I was in the Princess of Wales Conservatory to see a fluorescent green flower-like thing dangling from the roof.

The colour was a bluish-green with purple bits, and I initially thought some pesky kids had hung it up there as a prank. It was only when I got closer to it that I realised it wasn't plastic or fake, it was actually a real flower attached to a real plant called the Jade Vine.

Cameras cannot do this flower justice, I don't think the sensors can capture the correct shade of the flower - every photo I tried to take was a poor imitation of the real thing. It defies the senses because I have never ever seen this shade of greenish blue in nature, there is no reference point.

I later learned that the plant (Strongylodon macrobotrys) evolved this beautiful flower colour which almost seems to glow in dim light in order to attract bat pollinators. In a Kew glasshouse there are no bats so the flowers are painst...

May 8, 2018

For a number of years during the mid 1970’s, I searched for rare plants on San Clemente Island in southern California. At this time, feral goats ranged over the island. The canyon bottoms were covered with goat droppings, the lower slopes on the island were nearly barren from goat grazing and browsing, and the scent of goats was ever present owing to the droppings and the occasional rotting carcass of a goat that died of natural causes. During those visits, I could only find many of the endemic species on the island—Blair’s wirelettuce (Munzothamnus blairii), Nevin’s wooly sunflower (Constancia nevinii), and San Clemente Island bushmallow (Malacothamnus clementinus)—growing in the trash dump where the goats did not tread. There were others that I did not see.

I explored the island with Mitch Beauchamp of the California Native Plant Society and Dr. Reid Moran of the San Diego Natural History Museum herbarium. They utilized me, at the time a graduate student, to climb the steep cliff slop...

April 25, 2018

I chose Vassar College in part for its stunning library. With stained-glass windows, long wooden tables lit by little lamps, and secret passageways, it reminded me a little bit of Hogwarts. Whether camping out with coffee and snacks to study for exams or just curling up with a book on a rainy day, it became my favorite place to study.

So it was to my great surprise that I found an even better study spot toward the end of my time at Vassar: the college’s greenhouse. Complete with patio table and chairs, the whisper of misting machines, and the chattering of insects, it gave the library a run for its money. Covering every bench were hundreds of unique and sometimes rare plants, from succulents with their thick, fleshy leaves to orchids that filled the air with amazing smells.

But my one true love was the banana tree, which sat right beside the patio table. It towered over everything else in the greenhouse, spanning from floor to ceiling and sprawling left and right. It provided the best ba...

April 18, 2018

My mom is an incredible plant caretaker—she just knows how to make things grow. She has the ability to pick plants from the wilds of the forest and somehow tame them to flourish as house plants. When my parents divorced, I was five years old. The sudden shift from two parents to one was jolting. I lived with my dad and only saw my mom once every weekend. That shift made me cherish the moments I could spend with my mother. Typically, when we saw each other we would visit the plant nursery together. My mom, being alone, an immigrant, and not speaking much English, found solace and security amongst the docile plants. So, despite not having any interest in plants myself, I tolerated going to the nursery as an opportunity to hang out with my mom and try to understand why she loved plants so much. On one of our many weekend trips, I noticed a batch of baby Venus fly traps near the cash register. I thought they looked more like an animal than a boring house plant and was instantly fascinated....

April 11, 2018

"And so, when his prescribed devotion to boyish beauties has carried our candidate so far that the universal beauty dawns upon his inward sight, he is almost within reach of the final revelation. And this is the way, the only way, he must approach, or be led toward, the sanctuary of Love. Starting from individual beauties, the quest for the universal beauty must find him ever mounting the heavenly ladder, stepping from rung to rung--that is, from one to two, and from two to every lovely body, from bodily beauty to the beauty of institutions, from institutions to learning, and from learning in general to the special lore that pertains to nothing but the beautiful itself--until at last he comes to know what beauty is." -- Diotima, in Plato's Symposium 211b-c, translation by Michael Joyce

I don't really have a love story about plants. There are, however, many moments I cherish that are connected with plants. The first, I think, are prowls I took by the Menominee River in Wauwatosa when I w...

April 4, 2018

Like many of us, I once thought that plants were just the backdrop for observing wildlife. There were times where I would stop and observe the plants around me (outside of botany classes) but I really only focused on a few types of plants - flowers, pines, and ferns.

My plant story that changed my mind happened in Peru, catching frogs, for my Master’s degree research. We were always told to look out for pit vipers (Bothrops) because they love to eat frogs, and as such, would be found in the areas we were looking for frogs. I saw an amazing little frog sitting on a leaf and when I went to grab it, I felt a sharp shooting pain in my hand. I screamed, thinking I had been bitten by a snake. Soon I realized it was actually the plant I had grabbed, and I noticed the cute little stinging hairs on the leaves. It only hurt for a few minutes, but the memory will last a while.

It was a huge relief that I hadn’t been bitten by a pit viper. You think plants are passive, just swaying in the breeze, an...

March 28, 2018

When I was a new dad and living in Louisiana, I was working hard and trying to figure out how I was going to do this thing called life.

I was newly married and had a new job at a big USGS facility working on population genetics and restoration. I was learning about the the city, Lafayette, and decided to go try frisbee golf just to be outside and see the area. I wasn't very good at frisbee golf mind you and only had 3 disks (a driver, a mid-range, and a putter), which I had left over from my college days. On hole two, my mid range went directly into an island of trees that was around a seep or low area of the course.

Having little recourse, I adventured through the shrubs and brush guarding the inner sanctum, only to come face to face with two stems of beautiful red flowers. I had no idea what they were, and no way to find out, since this was before cell phone cameras were ubiquitous. I sat there amazed. It was Louisiana, but it was getting pretty late in the year (October I think). I re...

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