Wildflower Stories – the Hercules of Plants

ATwildflowers_umbelCow Parsnip (Heracleum maximum) has a fascinating relationship with war, GMOs and sunscreen.

The plant’s scientific name probably points to its size – it’s taller than me (but that’s not saying much). It takes two years to grow that big. If you’re going to put that much time into growing, you’ll want to make sure nobody eats you; which leads us to the other possible reason for Cow Parsnip’s scientific name. Some claim Hercules used this plant medicinally.

Many plants contain chemicals to protect them from predators. This plant makes “furocoumarin”. In humans, furocoumarin combines with sunlight to cause a rash. This is where war comes in. During World War II, military organizations recruited plant and insect experts to investigate the defensive (or offensive) properties of these chemicals. Mustard Gas is similar in its blistering effect to furocoumarin.

Most plant predators, though, are not humans; they’re insects. As you can imagine, Cow Parsnip is very effective at deterring insect herbivores. So, the genes that will ultimately produce furocoumarin are prized. If you could insert those genes into another plant (how GMOs are made), the same protection will occur.

Beware the inevitable evolutionary “arms race” that results though. A few insects can eat Cow Parsnip, either due to mutations that let them break down the furocoumarins or behavioral shifts (like eating that plant only at night or when rolled in one of the plant’s leaves. Remember, the chemical has to be combined with sunlight to produce an effect.

And we get to sunscreens. A related chemical was used as a “tanning accelerator” up until 1996. Unfortunately, it caused rashes (“sun poisoning”), skin loss and even cancer. Turns out, furocoumarins can mutate DNA.

umbel

Cow Parsnip belongs to the Carrot family of plants. They tend to have hollow stems and flowers in “umbels” (like umbrellas). Some relatives are frequently on our dinner table (carrots, celery, parsley, dill, etc.); some, like hemlock (not hemlock), are deadly.

Wildflower Stories: Part 4 (Minty-fresh poop?)

ATwildflowers_mintBee Balm (Monarda sp.) is a member of the Mint Family – a group of aromatic plants that includes basil, lavender, rosemary, salvia and oregano.

How can you identify a Mint? Of course, the smell is a dead giveaway. That odor is actually a deterrent for herbivores. If a mouse eats a bit of mint, that mint scent will overpower the rodent’s sense of smell. So the mouse won’t be able to pick up a cat’s scent later on.

Some beetles have evolved to resist the essential oils of Bee Balm. When they eat the plant, oils condense in the beetles’ poop. They form the poop into a “shield”, waving it at any potential predators.mint_flower

Appalachian Trail Overlook

travelsketch_frombarn800The most amazing aspect of the human species (Homo sapiens) is our power to change our environment. Using this capacity, we’ve created societies in almost every corner of the Earth. We construct islands, create inlets and waterways, and move dunes to secure a coastal view. We cut tremendous forests and construct remarkable dams. And we eliminate entire mountains in our search for ores and coal. We even change the temperature and weather patterns of our planet.

This may sound bleak, but I don’t see it that way. With so much influence and ingenuity, we can protect our planet. We have the power to reduce and repair environmental impacts. It all begins with awareness, resolve, creativity… and responsibility.

Mind the wisdom of Spiderman’s Uncle Ben: “with great power comes great responsibility.”

Oak Scale – Sitting There Like a Tiny Bump on a Log

OakScaleSee that tiny bump on the branch? You’re looking at a mom protecting hundreds of babies. Well, actually, the mama Oak Scale insect (Parthenolecanium quercifex) is dead now, but her exoskeleton is still harboring those little eggs underneath. When those baby Scales hatch around the end of May, the tiny darlings will move out to the oak leaves and begin to SUCK THAT POOR TREE DRY. They sniff out the precious sugar-water flowing through veins in leaves, insert their straw-like mouth parts and drink up. As the year progresses, Scales grow and mate. Mama lays her eggs beneath her and dies, making way for next May’s new generation.
scaleEggs(These are the eggs… um, on my kitchen table. Didn’t realize they’d pop out like that when I lifted the mama Scale off. Oops.)

In the insect’s defense, healthy trees can resist Scale infestations. Some leaves and twigs may fall off – that’s all. But trees that are weakened (by physical damage, drought, chemicals, etc.) can be killed by the insects.

Cool Climate Change research recently found that densities of Oak Scale are up to 13x higher in warm urban areas! (1) Since things are getting toastier here on Earth, we may want to get more familiar with the life & times of the Oak Scale.

1. Meineke EK, Dunn RR, Sexton JO, Frank SD (2013) Urban Warming Drives Insect Pest Abundance on Street Trees. PLoS ONE 8(3): e59687. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0059687