Cycad specialist, Charles Chamberlain

Today we celebrate the birthday of Charles Joseph Chamberlain (23 Feb 1863 – 5 Feb 1943), an American botanist who did groundbreaking research into cycads.

A young cycad plant.(© All Rights Reserved)
A young cycad plant.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Before Chamberlain, little was known about these weird plants that look like something of a cross between tree ferns and plants. Chamberlain’s unique contribution was to apply techniques from zoology – microscopic studies of cells and plant tissue in particular – to the study of plants. He was not only a laboratory scientist, however – between 1904 and 1922 he undertook several studies into wilderness areas in Mexico, Fiji, New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa and Cuba  to study the cycad in its natural surroundings. He collected a wide variety of specimens, which allowed him to investigate the generic stages of a cycad’s development.

In 1919 he published ‘The Living Cycads’, a comprehensive summary of his research on the taxonomy, morphology and reproductive biology of cycads, which is still a key reference work today.

By the time of his death, Chamberlain was close to finishing a monograph on the complete morphology and phylogeny of the cycad family, which would have been a most impressive culmination of his seminal work in the area. Sadly, because of his death, this monograph was never published.

Carolus Clusius, father of the Dutch tulip industry

Today is the birthday of Charles de L’Écluse (19 Feb 1526 – 4 Apr 1609), also known as Carolus Clusius. A Flemish doctor and botanist of French descent, he introduced the tulip to Holland, and effectively shaped the image of an entire nation.

Clusius worked throughout Europe as a collector of botanical information and material and also introduced various new plants from outside Europe. In 1593 he became the Chair of Botany at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands. Here he established one of the earliest botanical gardens, where he introduced and grew a wide variety of flowering bulbs, including the tulip. He planted the first tulip bulbs in 1593, and hence 1594 is considered the official date of the first tulip flowering in the Netherlands.

The tulip, one of the main export products of the Netherlands.(© All Rights Reserved)
The tulip, one of the main export products of the Netherlands.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Interest in the lovely tulip flowers quickly blossomed (excuse the pun!), to such an extent that it resulted in a frenzy that came to be known as the ‘tulip mania’. Tulip prices spiraled out of control, and they were even treated as currency by speculators. Tulips became the fourth largest export product of the Netherlands (behind gin, herring and cheese) and many traders became very rich very quickly. It is said that at the height of tulip mania, sought-after tulip bulbs were sold for prices 10 times the annual income of a skilled worker. Of course the economic bubble couldn’t be sustained, and as quickly as fortunes were made, fortunes were lost. Subsequent to this manic period the bulb industry stabilised, eventually growing again to become a huge international trade. Holland currently produces approximately 3 billion tulip bulbs annually, of which the majority is exported.

Clusius’ work laid the foundations of Dutch tulip breeding and their bulb industry, including the tulip industry in particular – a flower that to this day forms an integral component of the visual identity of the Netherlands. The country is popular for its tulip festivals, and it plays host to the world’s largest permanent display of tulips, at Keukenhof.

Everything is coming up roses

Today, 7 February, is Rose Day, apparently conceived to mark the start of Valentine week*.

Valentine week!? As if Valentine’s Day isn’t already more than enough! It seems some clever marketer has decided there’s yet more money to be squeezed out of the poor consumer, who is scarcely back on his feet after the Christmas marketing onslaught.

'First Love' hybrid tea rose. (© All Rights Reserved)
The ‘First Love’ hybrid tea rose from New Zealand – a rose of classic beauty.
(© All Rights Reserved)

While Rose Day may have seen the light as part of an extended Valentine’s sales pitch, that does not mean we shouldn’t use the occasion to celebrate roses for what they are – really interesting, and rather lovely, flowers.

Roses are nothing if not diverse. In total there’s more than 100 species of roses, including bush roses, climbers, erect schrubs and miniature roses. While most are used as ornamental plants or as a favourite among cut flowers, roses are also used in the making of perfume, as well as in cooking and medicine. Rose hip (the berry-like ‘fruit’ at the base of the flowers of certain rose species), which is a rich source of Vitamin C, can be made into jams and jellies, while rose syrup can be made from an extract of rose flowers. Rose water (obtained as a by-product from distilling rose petals) is used in cooking and natural medicines. The Rosa chinensis species is used in traditional Chinese medicine for stomach problems and, linking back to World Cancer Day, this species is also being investigated as a substance for the control of cancer growth.

Not bad for a flower often taken for little more than a rather cheesy ‘symbol of love’.

The 'Chinensis Mutabilis' Chinese heirloom rose (© All Rights Reserved)
The ‘Chinensis Mutabilis’ Chinese heirloom rose – a picture of elegance and simplicity.
(© All Rights Reserved)

On a rather unrelated note, I’ve discovered that ROSE also happens to be an acronym for the Relevance of Science Education project. According to the site, “ROSE, The Relevance of Science Education, is an international comparative project meant to shed light on affective factors of importance to the learning of science and technology. Key international research institutions and individuals work jointly on the development of theoretical perspectives, research instruments, data collection and analysis.”

Now surely science education is something worthy of celebration, so there’s another angle to ROSE Day allowing you to celebrate the day while steering clear of the Valentine’s Day connection.

So, whether you’re a lover, a cook, a poet, an artist or a scientist, surely there’s more than enough reason to join me in celebrating Rose Day.

* If you really need to know, Valentine Week’ consists of the following days:

  • 7th Rose Day
  • 8th Propose Day
  • 9th Chocolate Day
  • 10th Teddy Day
  • 11th Promise Day
  • 12th Kiss Day
  • 13th Hug Day
  • 14th Valentine’s Day

Frederick Bowen and the fascinating ferns

Today we celebrate the birthday of one Frederick Orpen Bower, born 4 November 1855. Bower, an English botanist, was famous for his studies of the origins and evolution of primitive land plants such as ferns and mosses. In his research, published in books like Origin of a Land Flora (1908), Ferns (1923-28), and Primitive Land Plants (1935), Bower concluded that these plants had evolved from algal ancestors.

Ferns, the subject of much of Bower’s research, is a fascinating plant in many ways. Unlike mosses, ferns are vascular plants with stems, leaves and roots. Unlike other vascular plants, however, they reproduce via spores rather than flowers and seeds.

The shape and structure of young fern fronds can provide endless visual fascination.
(© All Rights Reserved)

While we typically associate ferns with moist, shady areas, they can be found in a wide variety of habitats, from desert rocks to mountains to water bodies. They can prosper in marginal areas where many flowering plants fail to grow. This tenacity make certain fern species serious weeds, such as the Bracken Fern in Scotland, and the giant water fern, one of the world’s worst aquatic weeds.

From a biochemical point of view, ferns can be particularly useful in fixing nitrogen from the air into compounds usable by other plants, and for removing heavy metals from the soil.

Another beautiful young frond, appearing almost animal-like.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Patterns and motives based on fern shapes are popular in traditional art and culture. In New Zealand, for example, the silver fern is a very prominent cultural symbol, featured often in traditional art. The leaf of the silver fern is also the proud emblem of many of the country’s top sporting teams such as All Blacks (rugby) and Silver Ferns (netball).

On a more esoteric level, ferns are a wonderful embodiment of mathematics in nature, with young fern fronds unrolling in stunning Fibonacci spirals. The patterns and structure of fern leaves can also be simulated by means of iterative mathematical functions.

Definitely a plant that fascinates on many levels. No wonder Frederick Bowen committed his life to studying these wonderful plants!

Chasing away the winter blues with a roisterous “Hoodie-Hoo!”

Today us folk in the Southern Hemisphere get our turn to celebrate ‘Hoodie-Hoo Day’ (about 6 months after the Northern Hemisphere version). So what is Hoodie-Hoo? Well, in a nutshell it’s the day where we should all go outside at noon, drink in the (hopefully) warming weather and at the top of our lungs yell “Hoodie-Hoo!!” to chase away the winter blues and to celebrate the fact that spring is on it’s way.

According to some sources, you can celebrate the day in even more authentic style by donning a funny or unusual hat while performing your celebratory shouting.

‘Southern Hemisphere Hoodie-Hoo Day’, and its companion ‘Northern Hemisphere Hoodie-Hoo-Day’ are two of 80-odd holidays dreamt up by the folks over at Wellcat.com, a herbal company who felt the world simply didn’t have enough holidays, and came up with a bunch of new ones under the moniker of “Wellcat Holidays”.

The reason I decided to feature this day is that it got me thinking about this amazing time of year, when the seasons almost imperceptibly start changing. It is more often than not still cold and miserable, but everyone knows it’s not quite winter anymore – animals stir from hibernation, trees start budding all over the place, flowers appear as if by magic and there really is a sense of anticipation in the air.

The fruit trees in our garden, including this plum, are all doing their blossomy version of the Hoodie-Hoo.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Ever wondered how plants know spring is approaching? In a New Yorker article I found, Dr Susan Pell from the Brooklyn Botanical Garden explains things very nicely. According to Dr Pell, “Why and how plants flower when they do is something that has puzzled botanists for centuries. We’ve come a long way, but there is still quite a bit about the signalling details that we don’t know. There are many factors involved, but given the right growing conditions (soil nutrients, water and sun exposure), day length and ambient temperature are the key factors.”

Various proteins in the plant (such as phytochrome and cryptochrome) can actually sense the relative lengths of the light and dark parts of the day. (This is an example of photoperiodism.) Furthermore plants also sense ambient temperature, with some plants requiring a cold snap before they will start flowering. Once the nights become short enough and the temperature reaches the right level, growth, and specifically flowering, is triggered in the plants. As far as temperature is concerned, plants tend to not be fooled by a single unexpected warm day, but rather react to a sustained warm period. If such a period occurs too early, it can trick the plant into flowering earlier than it is supposed to, which could expose the fresh growth to frost damage in a subsequent cold spell. The plant’s light and dark sensing abilities should keep this from happening, but particularly in cities with lots of artificial light, these sensors may be too confused to function correctly.

Dr Pell furthermore says, “The hypothetical protein that signals plants to bloom once the ideal conditions have arrived has long been called ‘florigen‘, but it is uncertain whether or not it has actually been identified.” Claims to its identification has been made in various research papers, but no conclusive evidence have been presented.

I sometimes wonder whether us humans also have our own florigen-like trigger telling us that spring is on its way? One definitely gets a sense that the seasons are changing – this sense of new life stirring – even before you see spring flowers appearing. The world not only looks different (subtle changes in the colours of the sky and the land), but it also feels different – an early morning jog is still nippy as hell, but the cold somehow starts to feel refreshing, rather than depressing.

I don’t know – perhaps its merely the fact that my diary tells me spring is on its way that makes me see and feel things.  Whatever the case may be, and whether it’s florigen induced or not, I am definitely going to let rip with a loud ‘Hoodie-Hoo’ holler today!

(And to all my Northern Hemisphere friends – hang in there, and mark 20 February in next year’s diary. It may still be six months off, but your chance to ‘Hoodie-Hoo!’ is coming – better start practicing!)