Horse Chestnuts

I love conkers. As a little girl, I’d hoard the shiny brown seeds in autumn, hiding them away somewhere only to be dismayed upon coming back to them that they’d lost their beautiful lustre, fading and shrivelling into sad, dull balls. The idea of drilling holes in them and using them to crack other conkers open was mildly horrifying (although maybe I was just an odd child). They still fascinate me, rolling about on the pavement as if a mahogany sideboard had melted into a thousand perfect droplets, and I always have to stop myself from picking them up and carrying them about with me all day, because people tend to give you funny looks if you do that sort of thing as a grown-up (alas).

Beautiful conkers via daily-norm.com

The plant which produces them, the Horse Chestnut tree (Aesculus hippocastanum) is also a beautiful piece of work. It’s not a species that is native to the UK, coming originally from south-east Europe and introduced in the 1600’s. One of my favourite things about the tree, besides its incredible stature, extravagant flowers and huge bright green leaves, is its ‘sticky buds’- as soon as the year’s foliage is shed, the following year’s developing leaves are wrapped up in a sort of botanical fly-paper, super-sticky to touch and designed to repel anything that fancies a munch (imagine chewing sellotape).

Note also that the leaf-scar, visible in the picture below, looks a bit like the outline of a horse’s hoof, which could be the reason behind the tree’s name.  One Eugene A. Connell noted this in a letter to Nature in 1870, where he states that ‘All over its branches, at every bud, can be seen what at a glance  will be taken for an exact conformation of the foot of a horse […] in marvellous miniature’.

‘Sticky bud’ image via edubuzz.org

Sadly, the Horse Chestnut has been suffering a little in recent years. It is afflicted by a leaf miner moth, which lays its eggs in the leaves and whose larvae eat them from the inside out. Although this is bad news for the tree, it can be quite fun to dissect a stricken leaf and find the wiggly little caterpillar inside (not recommended for the squeamish, heartily recommended for toddlers and people with child-like curiosity). You can also help scientists track the leaf miner’s progress across the UK using this cool app.

Essentially, the Horse Chestnut tree is much more than  conker-producing factory, and offers a range of botanical curios all year round- take a closer look!

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Spore does suspiciously good impression of YMCA.

In my PhD interview, an (unofficial) question was asked of me; ‘What is your favourite plant?’ It’s a question I always struggle to find an answer for, partially because I’m chronically indecisive, but mainly because there are just too many exciting plants to choose from. I ended up blurting out that I liked Equisetum, because I had recently observed its spores. I did an impression. Of a spore. In an interview. (It worked, by the way).

Equisetum telmateia (Riesen-Schachtelhalm)

Here’s a picture of an Equisetum, or Horsetail. You might recognise it as it is a common garden weed. It’s fun to play with. Image from WikiCommons.

So what was it about impersonating the reproductive unit of a fern-relative that got me the job? Well, Equisetum plants produce spores that have four little arms, called ‘elators’. When the spores are in dry conditions, the little arms are unfurled, like the spore is asking for a hug. When, however, they encounter wet conditions, they curl right up. And no, it doesn’t happen so slowly that we can only see it with fancy sped-up film footage, it happens so fast that you can induce it just by huffing on the spores. As you can hear from this video, when I first observed this during a practical class I thought it was The Best Thing In The World. In fact, I still do.

Why do they do this? The science points to dispersal- it can help them get off the ground into the wind, or fall back to the ground, or get away from their spore-y brethren, but I reckon that really, they just like to dance.

If you’re interested, there’s a pretty cool paper written on the subject.

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The Anthropocene Review – reviewed

Ecology of the past

AnthropoceneReview The Anthropocene Review is a new journal focusing on the impact of humans on planet Earth through time; information on the latest publications can be found on the associated blog .

Given that much of the research we are interested in relates human-environment interactions in the past we decided to take a closer look at the range of articles being covered by this journal. Our thoughts on seven articles published in the first issue of The Anthropocene Review will appear in a series of blog posts soon. To get started here are a list of the papers we will be covering:

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Go home, berries, you’re drunk.

What is a fruit?

Botanically, this could lead you down a never ending pathway of obscure, highly specific yet often ill-defined and little used lingo, most of which boils down to ‘Well, err, fruit is complicated’. Frankly, fruit doesn’t know what fruit is.

Basically, plants are an inventive bunch and don’t really like doing things in a consistent fashion. Animals are fairly boring when it comes to reproduction; egg meets sperm, baby grows in a nice little egg or warm womb and then pops out (ok, ok, I’m simplifying but I gave up Animals at GCSE). As plants have to worry about all this dispersal business, they need to make sure their offspring get out into the world in a way which maximises their chances of finding somewhere suitable to grow.  Different parts of flowers and inflorescences (groups of flowers) have been recruited to make the fruit tasty, or poisonous, or sticky, or explosive or able to fly or float or resist fire etc etc. As you can imagine, with this range of functions, fruits are very diverse, and to make things even more confusing, the terminology is all mixed up too, particularly when it comes to berries.

I couldn't eat it I was that amazed.

The grape on the left (which is a berry) got so confusd by the whole fruit debacle she decided to go for the pumpkin look.

Botanically a berry is, in the words of the esteemed Kew Plant Glossay (and non-botanists might want to look away here while the botany nerds get their smelling salts out): ‘an indehiscent (so, not cracking open) simple fruit with one to many seeds immersed in a fleshy pulp, supported by an endocarp (bit immediately around the seed) less than 2mm thick, the pericarp (old ovary wall, most of the fruit) not differentiated internally by a hardened endocarp (the seed wall isn’t hard, like a plum or cherry stone)’

This definition means that lots of things we call ‘berries’, aren’t. Including:

Strawberries, Raspberries, Blackberries, Loganberries, Mulberries and Juniper berries.

And lots of things we don’t call berries are, in fact, berries. Step forward:

Oranges, Bananas, Watermelons and Pumpkins (to name but a few).

And here, because I don’t have many pictures of berries, is my lunch banana, navigating his way around the new, confusing emotions of this life changing revelation.

Shh, my supervisor’s away at the moment. This is totally PhD relevant work.

This Wikipedia page goes into a lot more detail than I care to here (because I am ultimately a lazy botanist) so if you want to know the formal definitions of things you previously called ‘berries’, you can look them up there. This may result in some odd looks if you decide to ask for ‘Straw-enlarged-receptacles-with-multiple-embedded-achenes and cream’ at Wimbledon this summer, but at least you’d be botanically correct.

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Ghanaian fieldwork; we survived, and so did our samples (just about).

Fieldwork is always an exhausting combination of hard work, exciting places, new experiences and (often) mind boggling amounts of organisational and logistical slog. Ghana did not disappoint on any of these fronts.

Luckily, Phil had done a brilliant job of organising much of what we would be doing prior to leaving and so our timetable ran incredibly smoothly, with the climate also playing along and only writing off one afternoon with a tropical storm. Although our traps were infested by a variety of invertebrates (spiders, slugs, termites and caterpillars to name but a few) they were largely present and correct, only one had disappeared completely and a few seemed to have mysteriously lost their cotton wool.

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One of our traps had this healthy fellow growing in it.

We’ve managed to set up three more sites, with plots representing habitats along a Forest-Savannah transition zone, meaning that we should get a really interesting set of samples this time next year, helping us to pick apart how vegetation changes are reflected in the modern pollen record. We also collected some modern grass samples to do some potentially exciting pollen taxonomy work on (watch this space!).

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Our forest-savannah transition zone site at Kogyae

On the outreach side of things, I was lucky enough to spend a morning with the Lightyear Foundation in a school near Kumasi, seeing them carry out their brilliant work bringing practical science to Ghanaian kids. It was great to see how engaging their classes were, and I’m hoping to be able to work more with them in the future, teaching about both pollen and wider science topics.

We saw the progress that has been made at the FORIG herbarium and made sure that the equipment we took over was properly set up. This will aid in the identification and processing of many more specimens for this important Ghanaian resource.

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The beautiful Lake Bosumtwi.

On a day off, we went to the beautiful Lake Bosumtwi, the meteorite crater lake surrounded by lush green hills which was the starting point of the whole project and where our sediment samples are taken from. We decided to go pony trekking to get a feel of the lake, something that was particularly brave on Phil’s part, as he had never been riding before!

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Phil and I, mid pony-trek. Not looking at all nervous, Phil.

Overall, it was a fantastic, successful trip and now it’s noses to the grindstone to get all the pollen analysed. We also did a lot of filming, too, so will be editing the footage over the next few weeks and bringing you exciting things like a video diary and an instructional pollen trap making video, for all you DIY enthusiasts.

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Polly the plushy pollen grain trapped by pollen traps.

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Is it a grass? Is it a plane?

I will admit it has been a while, but I’m back! Oh no! And I have tales of botanical adventure most shocking.

I’ve just started on a PhD in the department of Environment, Earth and Ecosystems at the Open University. I’m in the Palaeoenvironmental Change Research Group  group (who blog here) and will be looking at pollen-vegetation relationships in Ghana.

Due to the fact that I’m in what is at least partially a geology department, I get to join RocSoc and mix with real geologists. This meant that last weekend, I went on a trip to Wales to get to know this motley crew of volcanologists, environmental scientists and ecologists. There was geeking out over plants, there was geeking out over rocks and it was all marvellous.

This brings me to my main and most plant related point. We climbed Cadair Idris and on our way up stopped off at a lake, Llyn Cau.

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This lake, in fact.

Whilst admiring it, we noticed that there was what looked like grass growing in the shallows. Being my usual pessimistic self I reasoned that it had likely just grown next to the lake during the dry summer and now found itself drowned in the rising autumnal waters. My friend Matt, however, was less pessimistic and investigated more closely (obviously the water was fairly shallow and the plant in question abundant, botany may be exciting, but it’s not worth hypothermia and you don’t want to go wantonly destroying populations).

He found this:

Isoetes lacustris

Isoetes lacustris

These fabulous little fellows are called Isoëtes and they are FAR more interesting than grass (sorry, Poaceae enthusiasts). Isoëtes is the closest remaining relative of the Lepidodendrons, the giant (up to 30m in height!) trees which populated the coal swamps of the Carboniferous, around 300 million years ago. If you dissect these little plants, you can actually see what looks like a tiny trunk, which is a characteristic it shares with its illustrious ancestor.

The Carboniferous coal swamps were incredibly important as they effectively stored away huge amounts of carbon, not only reducing atmospheric CO­­2, but also laying down much of the fossil fuel we use today. This makes this little Isoëtes an important reminder of how plants can control our atmosphere and leave impressive legacies for millions of years after their extinction.

So next time you see what looks like some grass, look a bit harder. You might be surprised.

Page on interesting habitats on Cadair Idris: http://jncc.defra.gov.uk/protectedsites/sacselection/sac.asp?EUcode=UK0030104

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THIS IS NOT A FLOWER.

Daisies are not flowers. Neither are Dandelions, Thistles, Marigolds, Sunflowers, Dahlias and a whole host of other well-known plants with the archetypal ‘flower’ structure, as illustrated here with a glorious paint job by yours truly.

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No, my friends, I am sorry to have to break it to you that these delightful little chappies, many of them in the Asteraceae, are not, in fact, flowers. No, they are inflorescences.

This basically means that each thing that looks like a flower is actually MANY TINY FLOWERS, all huddled together.

If you dissect a Daisy (go on, you know you want to) and get your hand lens on it (you should have one of these. If you don’t, go out and buy one immediately) you will see that each small yellow blob in the middle of the flower is a little tube with 5 lobes, kind of resembling some bigger flowers, like Campanulas. These tubes have pretty much the standard ‘flower’ structure: they consist of a female bit in the middle, surrounded by male bits which produce pollen, surrounded by petals (in this case, largely fused into a tube). There are lots of them all crammed together to make the middle bit of the Daisy.

The outer bits of the Daisy, the big white flaps which look like petals are, you’ll be pleased to know, petals. But each one comes from a DIFFERENT FLOWER. Yes, around the edge of the yellow blobby bit, there are what botanists like to call ‘ray florets’ (as opposed to the yellow ‘disc florets’ of the middle). These ray florets are asymmetrical flowers with one massive petal, sticking out and contributing to the overall deceitful effect of one big flower. The more ray florets a daisy-like inflorescence has, the scruffier/fluffier/fuller it will appear, hence Dandelions.

Here’s a picture illustrating that.

LOOK A FLOW- WAIT, NO, INFLORESCENCE.

Ray florets vs Disc florets

So there you go. Next time you see anyone making a daisy chain, you can gleefully run up to them and inform them that ‘DAISIES AREN’T REAL FLOWERS’ before disappearing behind a tree. You don’t have to put it in context. You can just feel smug.

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