It’s raining in the #Tendrils garden this morning, and the Head Gardener couldn’t be more pleased. You can keep your hot sunny days and your moisture-leaching breezes; I’m glad that autumn is on its way! It will soon be time to buy alliums for autumn planting. I saw second-cropping potatoes on the shelves in my local garden centre this week – the idea being that, planted now and kept frost-free, you’ll have new potatoes for Christmas. They’ve been a ‘thing’ from mail order companies for a while now; I’d never seen them on shelves before. Possibly a bit risky having them as plants already, as the blight season isn’t over! Duke of York has very low blight resistance, however it does feature in my hilariously funny potato joke, which deserves a fresh outing during the Olympics as it has a sports connection.
Not that blight resistance is the only worth characteristic in a potato, of course, and we need to be preserving our agricultural/horticultural diversity as best we can. In fact, adopting the Andean strategy of growing numerous potato varieties instead of just one could have avoided the Irish potato famine, and preventing similar catastrophes in future is just one of the reasons why we should protect out-of-the-ordinary fruits and veggies.
I was having a conversation on Twitter yesterday with some people who have been growing their own tea plants in the UK, and are just embarking on their first few harvested leaves. Gardening advice doesn’t abound for amateurs as – until very recently – this just wasn’t a crop that was grown in the UK. We didn’t even try it during the war years, as far as I know, when tea was rationed (a nightmare scenario for the British!). James Wong refers to fresh tea leaves as “a common regional vegetable in southeast Asia that is almost impossible to buy in the UK” in a cuppa from your own backyard from earlier this year. I had a little tea plant once (from Suttons, but it died during the Interregnum, and has yet to be replaced.) I blogged an entire tea-themed Tendrils edition back in January, but where I was going when I started this paragraph was a different kind of tea party, which is about farmers learning to grow tea plants in America.
According to The Telegraph, a good old cup of tea could help colonise Mars:
“the discovery of how to use DNA “tools” to control and engineer a strain of bacteria found in kombucha tea now enables scientists to customise cellulose production and control the shape and size of the material as it grows.
(This story is from May 2016, and was brought to my attention on Twitter this week by the lovely GwenfarsGarden.) One of my bugbears with scientific reporting in mainstream media is that it rarely gives a link to (or indeed many details about) the research that prompted it. In this case the Telegraph mentions that the researchers came from Imperial College (as it turns out, some of them did, but not all). That was enough to get me to the original Imperial College press release, which – horror of horrors – doesn’t have a link or the title of the research paper either, just a mention of PNAS. It’s a good job I like a challenge, because it turns out that they’re referring to Engineering control of bacterial cellulose production using a genetic toolkit and a new cellulose-producing strain, which contains no references to Mars at all.
Moving on from tea, but sticking with science, Botanical Accuracy asks Lichen or Moss? – that is the hard question as a New Scientist picture editor gets it all wrong. We might expect better from a scientifically-minded publication, but getting the pictures wrong is a common problem, as we discovered in 12 surprising vegetable parts you can eat earlier this month. It’s good to note that, in this case, the Guardian has updated their image to correctly show broad beans 🙂
I think even the most overworked and plant-blind picture editor would get the Butterfly Bush right, and Jeremy Bartlett has been discussing Buddleja (a.k.a. Buddleia), noting its invasiveness and its potential for damaging buildings, together with some possible butterfly-magnet alternatives. Personally I stick to Buddleja Buzz varieties, which give you all the flower power without the pesky management issues.
Butterflies aren’t the only thing that love Buddleja – bees have been known to find it attractive as well. But the traditional flower-pollinator relationship can be subverted. Smithsonian Magazine has an intriguing article on a deadly plant virus that attracts bees, ensuring that virus-susceptible plants successfully reproduce. It’s positively Machiavellian.
That’s just one example of how all plants exist within an ecosystem – and we’re only just beginning to delve into the links. The New Yorker seeks enlightenment on the Secrets of the Wood Wide Web, meeting with a researcher who “eavesdrops on trees’ underground conversations” in Epping Forest. That’s not all he gets up to – there’s some dubious spore-snorting behaviour going on in there!
And since we’re discussing ecosystems and their interlinks, we’ll end with some inconvenient truths. Gardeners are still resting on their laurels when it comes to using peat in the garden – a situation that simply isn’t sustainable. Neither is my lacklustre attempt to publish The Peat-Free Diet in paperback, but I will get there, I promise! In the meantime, have you read Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs? My exploration of unusual edible plants and the people who grow them is on offer until the end of the month.