Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Debunking the Misuse of Terminology Part 1

Welcome back to another episode of lost in the farmer’s market. This will be the first episode of August and of course as you gardeners out there already know the month of august tends to bring some difficulty in maintenance and productivity. Normally the usually ample rain diminishes; the humidity level rises and we have some form of drought. Additionally all the biting insects we loathe are up and running and that makes maintaining our gardens and crops less than pleasurable. For those of you with rain catchment systems, this is the time of year in which you might have to force-fill the system with municipal water using the overflow valve but in reverse.

With that in mind I always recommend increasing the effort to irrigate, and the strength and frequency that you fertilize. Obviously certain fertilizers cannot be increased in frequency so it’s wiser to use more than one type to put back the nutrients that you have depleted in the last three months to keep your crops going. If you’re daring, in the third week of August you can start some of your less heat-sensitive cold season crops so that they get a head start when the temperatures drop off in mid-to late September. The rest can be started at the beginning of September. But the aforementioned isn’t the main topic of this post, instead today we will be discussing adaptation and artificial selection. It’s no secret that we live in a age of blind sensationalism. You often hear people condemning certain terms or misusing terms without having a keen understanding of what they mean and this leads to a financial windfall for those who make a living exploiting those who don’t dare do the research from fair and unbiased sources. This is a two-part discussion, and in this part I’m going to open the discussion with some direct agricultural examples and in part two I’m going to take aim at portions of the Holistic/supplement/panacea industry who are flat falsifying information.

In the business of agriculture I often hear people talk about what is and is not natural, often these conversations are spurred by personal agendas, beliefs or sometimes bad information. More often than not it comes from a serious misunderstanding of terminology, someone hears that say hybrids are the same as GMO, and either fails to verify that accepting it as a fact because a certain person said so. Or the same person poorly researches it and does not even consider the sources he or she uses to research might be biased or poorly researched themselves. Occasionally this cumulates in the form of what I like to call “Misguided Conservation” which is when an individual upon hearing something like the fact that there are no native stands of Aloe vera in the wild begins to get a bit sad and starts talking about how terrible the human race is. The problem is this is a knee-jerk reaction to a fact that while true does not tell the whole story. Using the same example, yes the true medicinal Aloe, is extinct in its native habitat, but because of human activity aloe has a worldwide distribution in climates and places it normally would have no chance of getting to or surviving in. It is safe to say that there are more Aloe vera plants in cultivation now then there ever were in nature. This is actually an example of mutually beneficial symbiosis, we cultivate and protect the Aloe and it provides us with health benefits from its gel and beauty from its blooms.

We both win in the above case and everyone’s happy. But sometimes mutual benefit isn’t so obvious when you start talking artificial selection for traits and asexual reproduction. In terms of agriculture you have the common fig which at some point in the past gained the ability to produce fruit without a pollinator which didn’t benefit the fig, but when humans noticed we started taking cuttings and spreading the fig’s range. It’s clear there are far more fig bushes in more places than at any time in prior history and all because we are helping the plants along to success and expansion while they feed us. But take the case of a flatly non-advantageous artificial section for a house plant. Below you will see an image of a ‘Marble Queen’ devils ivy plant.

Epipremnum aureum – Pothos, “Marble Queen”

If you know nothing about the houseplant commonly called devil’s Ivy, know that traditionally you will see it sold in its normal green-only foliage form. As a pure green plant it is vigorous and its vines can easily grow to be several feet long in a growing season. It is rare to see a bloom on a devil’s ivy plant but we grow it for its easy care, and air purifying ability. Marble queen is the least common variety seen in stores for sale because it is the exact opposite of the normal green form in that it is slow growing, seemingly not very vigorous and yet its foliage is almost pure white and quite striking. There is no doubt that marble queen likely purifies air too but it’s chief limitation is that the white foliage means a lack of chlorophyll, which means in nature it might have died out if someone hadn’t come along and taken a cutting. Here we have a species that only exists in cultivation and if put in the wild has a limited chance to survive assuming that it does not revert to some version of the pure green form. In this case it is not exactly mutual symbiosis because the plant needs up to exist in its current form than we need it. This is called benign symbiosis, where we are doing the work and receiving less benefit from the plant in question. Technically it’s not taking advantage of us and we aren’t of it but we are doing more to keep it alive. Below is an example of a middle ground plant, the variegated form of heart leaf philodendron in this case is mostly some shade of green with splotches of yellow. This mutation is at best a moderate to mild limitation to the plant, which is attractive to the eye, and yet it’s vigorous enough, and still cleans the air.

Philodendron hederaceum PPI12956 – Philodendron “Brazil”
The interesting part is that variegation in these shades isn’t a limiting factor to this house plant. It can still photosynthesize quite well and most of its vigor and speed of growth is retained. This plant ‘Brazil’ in this case has a 50-50 chance of surviving in an acceptable wild climate because it’s not radically out of place in form or shape. Its variegation is not a great hindrance like with Marble Queen, and it stands a chance to ‘revert’ to a green form. In the landscape we often see reversion in variegated shrubs such as euonymus where a previously variegated shrub suddenly has a more vigorous green-leafed branch or shoot appear in the middle or side of the shrub. In a cultivated setting the problem is that if we do not remove the shoot early, it will outgrow the rest of the plant, choke out the variegated parts and the shrub will become all-green in short order. Below we have a plain green Heart Leaf Philodendron, it along with the Swiss Cheese Plant are the two most vigorous vine forming house plants in my collection.

Philodendron hederaceum – Heart Leaf Philodendron
This again is because they are in a natural form with no impediments to worry about except if or if not I remember to water them. Interestingly Philodendrons have a unusual mechanism for protecting themselves from overwatering, as they can exude excess water from their leaf tips. I do not know if this is a surviving trait from the wild or something that was dormant and emerged to counter household cultivation and low humidity. However it is darn cool to see during the winter and the water droplets are potable amazingly, perhaps in the future someone will cultivate a philodendron water filtration plant, who knows? But I will close this post with two pictures from the field.

The toad is trying to bury itself in the soil in the pot which is just plain hilarious....epic amphibian FAIL!
I’ve said before that during the summer I encounter a large number of toads due to a nearby water feature in the neighborhood. This one got on the patio somehow and has been camping out in potted plants.

Cycas revoluta – King Sago Palm
This is a mature sago palm at my mother’s house. The strange brown structure is a male cone which indicates it is a male plant and mature. This means the palm is between 15 and 20 years old and unfortunately there is no way to tell which gender a sago palm is until they’re nearly two decades old or you have received a gender-verified cutting like they do with Ginko Biloba trees. Cycads are a largely extinct species of pseudo coniferous plants that had their heyday during the Jurassic period. Much like the ginko they are living fossils and due to cultivation at least the sago palm has a range that almost matches it’s prior one. If you’ve heard of Tulip mania, there once was a Cycad mania where specimens could fetch prices of several million, this lead to poaching of wild specimens and ecological decline of the species in the wild. Some of the rare specimens in their native habitats in parts of South Africa are protected by fences and armed guards. Which leads to a modern moral to this post; ‘Should there be another Plant Mania; we can be sure that the plants won’t be thrilled about it.’

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