Tendrils: Shark's fin melon shoot

And so we come to the last Tendrils of July, a rich smörgasbord of tantilising plant-related material. My science-writing alter ego works with Diamond Light Source, the UK’s national synchrotron facility. Diamond accelerates electrons to near light speeds, producing a light 10 billion times brighter than the Sun, which can be used – like a giant microscope – to study everything from viruses and vaccines to fossils and jet engines. Sometimes it’s used for plant science, too. Sadly I didn’t get to work on this particular story, but researchers have used Diamond to measure the thickness of the seed coat on seeds found in an archaeological site. Their results shed new light on the domestication of the legume horsegram (Macrotyloma uniflorum), a bean commonly eaten in southern India.

More conventional microscopy has produced some wonderfully illuminating photos of the common teasel, a plant currently in flower in my local area. I am enjoying watching its development as the season progresses.

When farmers expand their fields, they can fill in small ponds and cover them over. Seeds can be preserved in these ‘ghost ponds’, and scientists have been able to germinate seeds that have lain dormant in them for up to 150 years. It’s estimated that 8,000 ghost ponds may be harbouring these zombie plants in Norfolk alone, with up to 600,000 more ponds buried across England’s agricultural landscape. The results so far have been published in Biological Conservation.

In modern times it’s increasingly likely that biofuel crops are being grown in those fields, but a new report from the Royal Academy of Engineering suggests that it’s better to make biofuel from waste products such as used cooking oil, forest and sawmill residues, the dregs from whisky manufacture, and even the “fatbergs” cleared from sewers. The report comes just as the first car powered by biobutanol made from kernels of barley called draff, and pot ale (the yeasty liquid left over from fermentation) – waste products from whisky production – made its first successful test drive.

The ‘evils’ of sugar are everywhere at the moment, so if you want to indulge your sweet tooth in a guilt-free manner, check out this article on Homegrown natural sweeteners you’ll never regret by Barbara Damrosch.

Spendid Table has an interview with Jekka McVicar on memorable rosemary, whilst Alys Fowler reminds us that it’s time to prune our woody herbs.

Apparently breeding UK-specific varieties of blueberry is the ‘holy grail of soft fruit production’, and Scottish blaeberries bring hope to the quest. Blaeberries have a symbiotic relationship with soil fungi that means they thrive without fertilizer, and are drought-tolerant. They also have coloured flesh, which could add more health benefits to these blue-skinned fruit.

Speaking of healthy fruit, I have been blogging about blackberries for Lubera UK. I’m a bit nostalgic about childhood blackberry picking, wax lyrical about the joys of growing your own, and have a bit of a warning about leaving your harvest too late…. Oh, and a recipe for bramble brandy, if you’re in the mood for that.

That’s it for Tendrils this week. We’ll be back next week with more exciting plant-science stories!