Friday, June 25, 2010

Vanishing Veterinarians

I shouldn't have been so surprised to learn that the same trends I've seen in plant ag research are going on over in the veterinary buildings.

I hear that the famous vet schools are all replacing their large animal vets with medical mouse scientists as rapidly as they can get the old dudes to retire. We still have a big chicken research center here in Upstate NY, thanks to the influence of the professor who invented the nugget, but apparently the only other remaining U.S. poultry programs are in Arkansas and Delaware. I guess all the ag schools are fighting to climb aboard the NIH's cancer train. And I suppose no sensible student is willing to spend one or two hundred thousand dollars to learn how to birth calves in the middle of the night...

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Modern Ag Links

Organic pesticides are often less green than synthetics, and industrial ag may save us from climate change.

The new face of modern ag - technological AND sustainable.

Pick your own damn oranges then!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Best Atrium Ever

The entrance to the research institute I work at has a really nice integration of work space and the natural world.

They rotate different flowers and trees between indoor soil beds and a greenhouse to keep them fresh. Occasionally they have to cut down trees when they get big enough for their roots to damage the foundation. There's a bubbling fountain under the cement steps and some kind of vine covers all four walls up to the second story skylights.

The orchids are my favorite (though this may change if they replace that palm with a banana!). The greenhouse is packed with bark-mounted orchids of all sizes, which are continually rotated when blooming to various hooks dangling from ceilings and mounted on walls. The more fragrant species manage to perfume the entire first floor of the building.

It's pretty awesome.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Is Sunberry Poisonous?

Sunberry (aka Wonderberry) is a little purple berry in the nightshade family (Solanaceae), bred by Luther Burbank himself 100 years ago (Solanum guinense x villosum). I grew it last year both on my deck and in my research plot alongside another novelty purple-berried Solanum, Garden Huckleberry (S. melanocerasum or scabrum?).

The taxonomy of this family is far from figured out. Tomato (which you'd think we'd understand pretty well!) was removed from the genus "Lycopersicon" to join its potato and eggplant sisters in "Solanum" just a few years ago. The various species of "nightshade" are a total mess - no less because it's one of those names that Europeans threw around pretty loosely as they discovered new plants.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Rooftop Harvest

Eagle Street Rooftop Farms in Brooklyn seems to be off to a great start.

Check out the links to their articles in The Atlantic.

Short Corn on the Field Edge

You may have noticed how corn plants growing on the edge of a field always seem to be shorter than their neighbors. One of our local grad students proposed a particularly clever hypothesis today to explain it.*

Which got me thinking. I'd always assumed corn plants on a field's edge were shorter because they had greater access to light. Recently one of the blogs I follow proposed it was due to thigmotropism.** Thigmotropism is basically a plant's sense of touch. The physical push of wind makes many plants grow stouter than they otherwise would and is why the same type of tree gets shorter and craggier the farther up a mountainside it's found (not, as one hack "scientist" used to propose at forestry meetings, due to historic pruning acorn cultivation by Amerindians).

Monday, June 7, 2010

Spring vs. Winter Wheat

For a crop that looks so homogeneous, there's an awful lot of diversity in wheat.

Two major species are grown in the U.S. - common bread wheat (Triticum aestivum) and durum wheat (T. durum) - with little to no cultivation of more primitive einkorn, emmer and spelt species.

Durum wheat is used to make semolina flour (for pasta), and (in the U.S.) is pretty much just grown in North Dakota. In the past, this crop was intentionally exposed to radiation (mutation breeding) in order produce novel genetic variation. The resulting mutation improved pasta quality.

Common bread wheat is commonly classified as hard or soft, red or white and winter or spring. As with all crops, the quality of the final product is heavily influenced by the genetics and the environment responsible for a given harvest. Accordingly, mills commonly choose their varieties carefully and mix batches grown in different fields to balance out the chemistry of the final product.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Gardening a Forest

I grew up (mostly) in an old farmhouse in Delaware. The three foot thick stone walls that make up the core of the house are probably 200+ years old, and from the basement, you can see that the main floor is supported by whole, rough-hewn tree trunks. The farmland was bought up and developed before I was born, but field stone walls and small building foundations are still present, scattered in the surrounding acres of private and state land.

Mirroring a century-long trend that has occurred throughout the Eastern U.S., the original farm was abandoned and now-maturing secondary forests grew up in its place. The U.S. now has more forest than anytime since European colonies were established.

The forest on and around my parents' property is in decline. The suburbanites have been neatening up the woodlots that snake between all their plots, cutting down ugly and dangerous trees and preventing the re-establishment of many seedlings. Many of the largest trees are falling now. The pro arborists say the giant boulders half-hidden in the soil compromise the trees' hold, and I imagine the loss of their neighbors increases windthrow.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010


Anthesis = flowering.

This term is used a lot with grasses (e.g. grains) to denote when the anthers poke out of the bracts to release pollen. I grabbed this example at the end of a run. A bunch of the anthers fell off already, but their bright yellowness was striking - especially en mass on the roadside. I've seen few grasses with such dramatic flowers.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

New running route, New plants to learn

I just went for a walk along the country road I now live off of (this one's paved). It'll make for a nice running route. It's lined by active ag fields (some run by the University) instead of fallow pastures and has a number of wildflowers and weeds that I already don't recognize. There are also at least 4 grasses, which I won't even attempt to ID unless I'm given reason to.

I was captivated by the tall, rippling roadside grasslands I saw in southern Virginia this past weekend (they reminded me of my childhood Plains - there were even some clumps of prickly pear!). I was all ready to post a rant blasting PA for their ugly, ragged mowed highway corridors when I climbed north into Harrisonburg and the tall grasses gave way to short ones and scrubyness - so I guess it's not just obnoxious landscaping's fault. I don't know if the soil/climate changed or the southern end of 81 is heavily seeded by the local pasture grasses (the ecoregion map provided few clues) but I'll hopefully have the presence of mind next time I'm down there to grab some flowers to ID.

I have the means: a 1935 copy of Manual of the Grasses of the United States.


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