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Updated: Jul 26, 2019

by Becky Barak

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.

Ohio spiderwort seeds

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 pushes up on the seed cap, and emerges like it’s opening up a door. That’s germination and I will never get tired of seeing it.

Anyway, to get to the point, I love seeds, and I study their germination. I did a study (with collaborators) of germination of 32 species typically used in restoration of the tallgrass prairie. We wanted to see whether we could predict how quickly a seed would germinate given measurements of the seed. To do this, Taran Lichtenberger, amazing research intern, measured over 3,000 seeds in total. For each seed in the experiment we knew it’s weight, shape, and even the measurement of it’s seed embryo from x-ray photos. We followed each seed to determine what day it germinated. We found that narrow, pointy seeds germinate faster than round ones.

When it came time to publish the paper, the journal asked for an organism photo to go along with it. “An organism photo?!” I thought. How could I supply an organism photo when there are 32 different species in my experiment!!!??? I didn’t have photos of every species I had used in my experiment, and I didn’t think photos would capture the detail of each species of seed. I posted a note to twitter asking if anyone had photos of prairie seeds that I could use as my organism photo (with full credit of course). I got a response from Julia Ferguson, who posted a drawing she had made of seeds of 9 prairie species arranged into a flower shape, with a dime in the center to show scale.

A drawing would be the perfect way to show the diversity of seeds of 32 different species. A scale drawing would tell the story of the the differences in size and shape of these seeds that we used a balance and microscope and ruler and x-ray to measure in the scientific study! And Julia - a skilled scientific illustrator that was in my mentions was the perfect person to do it! AND, even though it seems like she really likes to illustrate birds, fish and mussels and stuff, she does amazing work with plants too. We went through a few drafts. With each one Julia took my suggestions, and made something even more beautiful. I also know I’m so lucky to be in a fellowship that supports (and funds!) collaboration and science communication of all types.

The stars and the seeds were aligned. Julia captured each species and created a beautiful piece of art that I am so thrilled to have alongside my paper, and that I’ll cherish forever. She also helped start me off on a path of science and art collaboration. Maybe someday I’ll tell you about the time I did science slam poetry.

Becky "Rudbeckia" Barak is a plant community and restoration ecologist, a founder of Plant Love Stories, and a 2017 Smith Fellow studying biodiversity and restoration in the midwestern tallgrass prairie. Becky tweets about plants (and a few other things) at @BeckSamBar and still occasionally misidentifies plants.

Julia Ferguson is a scientific illustrator who regularly paints, draws and designs all sorts of natural subjects. Julia works with birders, bird-lovers, plant lovers (!) nature enthusiasts, scientists and researchers to create paintings, drawings, illustrations, diagrams, and logos.

Both drawings above are by Julia Ferguson. The spiderwort seed photo is from Prairie Restoration, a digital aid featuring seeds, seedlings and fruit.

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Updated: Jan 30, 2019

by Buddhini Samarasinghe

Jake vine at Kew

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 painstakingly hand-pollinated by humans using paintbrushes!

Buddhini Samarasinghe is a science communicator living in London with a penchant for unusual plants and flowers. Buddhini may love plants, but she hates jargon, and uses her website to attempt to break down the "jargon wall" that serves as a barrier to understanding science.

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Updated: Jul 26, 2019

by Thomas Oberbauer

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 (Constancea 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 slopes to retrieve plants growing beyond the reach of the hungry goats. Our searches were sometimes successful. We found a new location of the bushmallow, Malocothamnus,when at the time, the trash dump was the only known location.

My holy grail species was the endemic yellow-flowered San Clemente Island Indian paintbrush, Castilleja grisea, an extremely rare and striking plant. On one search, while walking down a deep canyon, we spotted a flowering Castilleja grisea on a cliff above us. I very much wanted to photograph the flower. I carefully picked my way up the 60-foot slope, grabbing on to rocks to avoid the prickly Opuntia, Cylindropuntia and Bergerocactus growing in scattered locations. I got the photo and successfully climbed down with only a few cactus needles on my chest and in my armpits as my toll for the photograph. My efforts had other benfits when Marge Hayakawa, editor of Fremontia, the journal of the California Native Plant Society, put out a call for rare plant photographs. I sent a copy of the Castilleja grisea slide with a long note describing the difficulty of obtaining the photo. My photo and note were published in volume 6, 1978 of the journal.

Thirty years passed before I revisited San Clemente Island. During my absence, ecologist Jonathan Dunn and others had been busy collecting native seeds, replanting native plants, and restoring the island. Additionally, the Navy had removed all of the feral goats, pigs, and deer from the island. Although Jonathan described how the sage scrub vegetation on the island was recovering, I had a difficult time believing him. Then in 2012, when I finally revisited the island, I was absolutely shocked by what I saw. Areas that were barren like a moonscape were now covered with a scrub habitat. What was most shocking, however, was the new distribution of the Castilleja grisea. I did not believe Jonathan’s assurance that it was a major component of the vegetation until I saw the upper third of the island. The sight of a continuous cover of these shrubs with pale yellow flowers was eye opening and demonstrated the ability of the natural habitats to recover. It also illustrated the importance of the Navy’s great effort—even overcoming lawsuits by animal rights groups—to persevere in the removal of the destructive feral goats.

Thomas Oberbauer is a third generation San Diegan and rare plant enthusiast. He loves the vegetation and plant diversity of Baja California and its adjacent islands. He graduated from high school in 1970 east of El Cajon, California and posts documentaries about the natural wonders of Baja California on You Tube.

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