Category Archive 'Botany'

13 Sep 2017

Silphium, the Lost Roman Herb

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Coin from Cyrene bearing the image of Silphium.

The BBC reported recently on the greatest botanical mystery of Antiquity: what was Silphium exactly, and what happened to it?

Long ago, in the ancient city of Cyrene, there was a herb called silphium. It didn’t look like much – with stout roots, stumpy leaves and bunches of small yellow flowers – but it oozed with an odiferous sap that was so delicious and useful, the plant was eventually worth its weight in gold.

To list its uses would be an endless task. Its crunchable stalks were roasted, sauteed or boiled and eaten as a vegetable. Its roots were eaten fresh, dipped in vinegar. It was an excellent preservative for lentils and when it was fed to sheep, their flesh became delectably tender.

Perfume was coaxed from its delicate blooms, while its sap was dried and grated liberally over dishes from brains to braised flamingo. Known as “laser”, the condiment was as fundamental to Roman haute cuisine as eating your food horizontally in a toga.

Then there were the medical applications. Silphium was a veritable wonder herb, a panacea for all manner of ailments, including growths of the anus (the Roman author Pliny the Elder recommends repeated fumigations with the root) and the bites of feral dogs (simply rub into the affected area, though Pliny warns his readers never, ever to try this with a tooth cavity, after a man who did so threw himself off a house).

Finally, silphium was required in the bedroom, where its juice was drunk as an aphrodisiac or applied “to purge the uterus”. It may have been the first genuinely effective birth control; its heart-shaped seeds are thought to be the reason we associate the symbol with romance to this day.

Indeed, the Romans loved it so much, they referenced their darling herb in poems and songs, and wrote it into great works of literature. For centuries, local kings held a monopoly on the plant, which made the city of Cyrene, at modern Shahhat, Libya, the richest in Africa. Before they gave it away to the Romans, the Greek inhabitants even put it on their money. Julius Caesar went so far as to store a cache (1,500lbs or 680kg) in the official treasury.

But today, silphium has vanished – possibly just from the region, possibly from our planet altogether. Pliny wrote that within his lifetime, only a single stalk was discovered. It was plucked and sent to the emperor Nero as a curiosity sometime around 54-68AD.

With just a handful of stylised images and the accounts of ancient naturalists to go on, the true identity of the Romans’ favourite herb is a mystery. Some think it was driven to extinction, others that it’s still hiding in plain sight as a Mediterranean weed. How did this happen? And could we bring it back?

RTWT

08 Oct 2013

Extinct Tree Grown From 2000 Year Old Seeds

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Judean date palm seeds

Treehugger had a very cool item:

For thousands of years, Judean date palm trees were one of the most recognizable and welcome sights for people living in the Middle East — widely cultivated throughout the region for their sweet fruit, and for the cool shade they offered from the blazing desert sun.

From its founding some 3,000 years ago, to the dawn of the Common Era, the trees became a staple crop in the Kingdom of Judea, even garnering several shout-outs in the Old Testament. Judean palm trees would come to serve as one of the kingdom’s chief symbols of good fortune; King David named his daughter, Tamar, after the plant’s name in Hebrew.

By the time the Roman Empire sought to usurp control of the kingdom in 70 AD, broad forests of these trees flourished as a staple crop to the Judean economy — a fact that made them a prime resource for the invading army to destroy. Sadly, around the year 500 AD, the once plentiful palm had been completely wiped out, driven to extinction for the sake of conquest.

In the centuries that followed, first-hand knowledge of the tree slipped from memory to legend. Up until recently, that is.

During excavations at the site of Herod the Great’s palace in Israel in the early 1960’s, archeologists unearthed a small stockpile of seeds stowed in a clay jar dating back 2,000 years. For the next four decades, the ancient seeds were kept in a drawer at Tel Aviv’s Bar-Ilan University. But then, in 2005, botanical researcher Elaine Solowey decided to plant one and see what, if anything, would sprout.

“I assumed the food in the seed would be no good after all that time. How could it be?” said Solowey. She was soon proven wrong.

Amazingly, the multi-millennial seed did indeed sprout — producing a sapling no one had seen in centuries, becoming the oldest known tree seed to germinate.

Today, the living archeological treasure continues to grow and thrive; In 2011, it even produced its first flower — a heartening sign that the ancient survivor was eager to reproduce.

18 Apr 2012

Government Spent $205,075 Relocating a Bush in SF

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CNS:

The government spent at least $205,075 in 2010 to “translocate” a single bush in San Francisco that stood in the path of a $1.045-billion highway-renovation project that was partially funded by the economic stimulus legislation President Barack Obama signed in 2009.

“In October 2009, an ecologist identified a plant growing in a concrete-bound median strip along Doyle Drive in the Presidio as Arctostaphylos franciscana,” the U.S. Department of Interior reported in the Aug. 10, 2010 edition of the Federal Register. “The plant’s location was directly in the footprint of a roadway improvement project designed to upgrade the seismic and structural integrity of the south access to the Golden Gate Bridge.

“The translocation of the Arctostaphylos franciscana plant to an active native plant management area of the Presidio was accomplished, apparently successfully and according to plan, on January 23, 2010,” the Interior Department reported.

The bush—a Franciscan manzanita—was a specimen of a commercially cultivated species of shrub that can be purchased from nurseries for as little as $15.98 per plant. The particular plant in question, however, was discovered in the midst of the City of San Francisco, in the median strip of a highway, and was deemed to be the last example of the species in the “wild.”

Prior to the discovery of this “wild” Franciscan manzanita, the plant had been considered extinct for as long as 62 years–extinct, that is, outside of people’s yards and botanical gardens. …

While the MOA did not detail all the costs for moving the bush, it did state that in addition to funding removal and transportation of the Franciscan manzanita, Caltrans agreed to transfer $79,470 to the Presidio Trust “to fund the establishment, nurturing, and monitoring of the Mother Plant in its new location for a period not to exceed ten (10) years following relocation and two (2) years for salvaged rooted layers and cuttings according to the activities outlined in the Conservation Plan.”

Furthermore, Presidio Parkway Project spokesperson Molly Graham told CNSNews.com that the “hard removal”—n.b. actually digging up the plant, putting it on a truck, driving it somewhere else and replanting it–cost $100,000.

The MOA also stated that Caltrans agreed to “Transfer $25,605.00 to the Trust to fund the costs of reporting requirements of the initial 10-year period as outlined in the Conservation Plan.”

The $100,000 to pay for the “hard removal,” the $79,470 to pay for the “establishment, nurturing and monitoring” of the plant for a decade after its “hard removal,” and the $25,605 to cover the “reporting requirements” for the decade after the “hard removal,” equaled a total cost of $205,075 for “translocating” this manzanita bush.

But those were not the only costs incurred by taxpayers on behalf of the bush. According to the MOA, other costs included:

–“Contract for and provide funding not to exceed $7,025.00 for initial genetic or chromosomal testing of the Mother Plant by a qualified expert to be selected at Caltrans’ sole discretion.” (MOA – Fran Man – 2009.pdf)

–“Contract for and fund the input, guidance, and advice of a qualified Manzanita expert on an as-needed basis to support the tending of the Mother Plant for a period not to exceed five (5) years, provided that said expert selection, retention and replacement at any point after hiring rests in the sole discretion of Caltrans.”

“Provide funding not to exceed $5,000.00 to each of 3 botanical gardens (Strybing, UC, and Tilden) to nurture salvaged rooted layers and to monitor and report findings as outlined in the Conservation Plan.”

–“Provide funding not to exceed $1,500.00 for the long-term seed storage of 300 seeds collected around the Mother Plant in November 2009 as outlined in the Conservation Plan.”

The plant is now protected by a fence and its location is kept secret, in part because the Presidio Trust and the National Park Service fear that nature-lovers seeking to see the rare wild Manzanita might trample it to death.

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This nursery normally sells Franciscan manzanita.

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It is a bit complicated. Hooker’s manzanita is a shrub indigenous to the San Franciso Bay Area with several subspecies. One of these subspecies, Franciscan manzanita, was thought to be “extinct in the wild.”

It, nonetheless, survived in cultivation in yards and gardens, and could be purchased from nurseries at modest prices.

Doubtless, the extinction “in the wild” of the subspecies specifically associated with San Francisco has a lot to do with the reduction of the extent of “the wild” in an intensely developed, densely populated urban center.

So, having found an example flourishing in what the authorities choose to define as the wild, those same authorities with the characteristic wisdom and fiscal responsibility concluded that pompous, heroic (and very costly) measures had to be taken to save the contextually-precious plant.

No one in authority noticed that all this was complete madness.

22 Mar 2012

Osage Oranges Were Made For Megafauna

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Since arriving in Virginia, Karen and I have frequently marveled at the Osage orange, a fruit-producing tree not encountered in my native Pennsylvania or in New England where we attended college and resided for decades.

The Osage orange was evidently ill-advisedly imported into Virginia as a decorative tree, and it responds to that hospitality by covering the ground every Fall with enormous bumpy fruits that nothing eats and which simply lie on the ground and rot.

I wondered out loud recently why a tree would bother to produce enormous fruits in great quantity that were inedible. Fruit production, after all, constitutes a system of bribery by members of the botanical kingdom. The tree or bush produces a tasty fruit or berry, and birds and animals consume them and consequently carry away and redistribute the plant’s seeds.

There are all those Osage orange trees busily producing gigantic, but inedible, citrus fruits that nobody wants. Why is this? I wondered. It just seemed very strange.

Happily, Karen found the answer just a few days later, in American Forests.

It turns out the Osage orange fruits, like certain others, used to have customers who liked eating them. Unfortunately, their natural Pleistocene megafauna audience went extinct.

[L]et’s return to the forlorn fruit of the Osage orange. Nothing today eats it. Once it drops from the tree, all of them on a given tree practically in unison, the only way it moves is to roll downhill or float in flood waters. Why would you evolve such an over-engineered, energetically expensive fruit if gravity and water are your only dispersers, and you like to grow on higher ground? You wouldn’t. Unless you expected it to be eaten by mammoths or ground-sloths.

According to my field guide, Osage-orange has a limited natural range in the Red River region of east-central Texas, southeastern Oklahoma, and adjacent Arkansas. Indians used to travel hundreds of miles for the wood, prized as the finest for making bows. Then European settlers planted it widely as living fences, taking advantage of the tree’s ability to spread via shoots from lateral roots. But Osage-orange persisted, and became widely naturalized long after the invention of barbed wire rendered them useless to farmers. The tree can now be found in 39 states and Ontario. If Osage-orange does so well elsewhere, why was it restricted to such a small area?

The answer likely lies in the disappearance of its primary disperser. Without mammoths, groundsloths, and other megafauna to transport its seeds uphill, the range of the species gradually shrank to the Red River region. In fact, fossils tell us that Osage-orange was much more widespread and diverse before the megafaunal extinctions. Back then, Osage-oranges could be found north up to Ontario, and there were seven, not just one, species in the Osage-orange genus, Maclura.

Another anachronistic tree is the Kentucky coffeetree, so named because early Kentucky settlers used its beans as a coffee substitute. Coffeetrees have tough, leathery pods with large, toxic seeds surrounded by a sweet pulp. Water cannot penetrate the thick seed coat to begin germination unless it is abraded or cut. Sounds like mammoth food to me. The natural range of coffeetrees is concentrated in the Midwest, but without its megafauna disperser, it is generally rare and mostly limited to floodplains.

Much the same can be said about the honeylocust, with its sweet seedpods up to 18 inches long. It is more common than coffeetrees, and is found in upland areas because cattle have filled in for the mastodons, camels, or some other dearly departed megamammal with a sweet tooth. The big-fruited pawpaws, persimmons, desert gourds, and wild squash may also have been dispersed more efficiently by recently extinct mammals.

Now when you see an Osage-orange, coffeetree, or honeylocust, you might sense the ghosts of megafauna munching on treats made just for them.

08 Jul 2011

Toxic Weed Invading Northeast US

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Giant hogweed aka giant cow parsley (Heracleum mantegazzianum)

Giant hogweed, a species native to the Caucausus and Central Asia, was introduced in Britain in the 19th century as an ornamental. It has spread subsequently to Continental Europe, Canada, and the United States.

Giant hogweed can grow to a height of 23 feet (7 m.). It is invasive and its sap is highly toxic producing phytophotodermatitis, a chemical reaction causing skin cells to become hypersensitive to ultraviolet light, resulting in blisters, long-lasting scarring, and even blindness.

Giant hogweed has been found to date in Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, New Hampshire, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Washington and Vermont.

06 Sep 2010

13,000 Year Old Huckleberry Bushes Flourish in Pennsylvania

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I find the Sussman photograph of Box Huckleberry disappointing. It was made in the wrong season to show the plant at best advantage.

Rachel Sussman has spent five years on a personal project photographing living organisms more than 2000 years old.

Sussman photos

14:09 video

Her list surprised me by containing a representative from my home state of Pennsylvania, the Box Huckleberry, Gaylussacia brachycera. It is a surviving relic of the Ice Age, like the brook trout, and something on the order of 100 colonies have been identified in seven mostly Appalachian states, running from from Pennsylvania to Tennessee.

Wikipedia article

The community at Losh Run, Perry County, Pennsylvania, near the Juniata River, has been estimated to be as much as 13,000 years old, making it the oldest living organism in the United States, second oldest in the world. Only King’s Lomatia, Lomatia tasmanica, a bizarre archaic angiosperm found in 1937 in southwest Tasmania is older. But you don’t get delicious edible berries from a Tasmanian angiosperm.

Perry County, PA site article

Lancaster News article from 1999

Duke article on North Carolina colony

Hat tip to Zoe Pollock.

15 Jun 2008

2000-Year-Old Palm Seed From Masada Grows into Tree

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Israeli scientists have been able to germinate a seed found at Masada, carbon-dated to be 2000 years old, thus dating from the period when Masada was one of King Herod‘s vacation homes.

The resulting tree is a specimen of the Judean date palm, Phoenix dactylifera, commonly mentioned in the Bible, and prized in Antiquity as a source of food and shade, as well as for its beauty and medicinal qualities, is thought to have become extinct around 500 A.D.

The tree’s sex is as yet unknown, and cannot be determined until the tree is mature. It is hoped that another seed of the opposite sex can also be germinated, and the species revived.

The oldest seed previously germinsted was a 1300 year old Chinese lotus.

Haaretz.com

LA Times


The palm is now 5′ tall


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