Lilac locomotion: Humanity’s bizarre love affair with lilacs

Humans have admired lilacs like these for centuries. Photo by RichardBH. CC.

Humans have admired lilacs like these for centuries. Photo by RichardBH. CC.

Lilacs were part of my childhood. We had a lilac bush in my front yard, and the week that it was in bloom I would rush outside and bury my face in its light purple flowers. In Calgary, where the growing season starts quite late, the lilacs always bloomed around exam time in mid-June. For me they were a symbol that spring had finally arrived and that school would soon be over.

I’m a biology nerd and I love how plants work. However, I’m also fascinated by how plants interact with humans. For this post, I’m going to examine lilacs from the biological, and then a cultural perspective, just to see what happens. Here we go.


Lilacs are part of the olive family. There are 21 species of lilac. Most of them come from China, and 2 come from Eastern Europe. They do well in Canada because they are good at surviving in cold climates. In fact, they need a cold dormant period to trigger blooming!

A newly planted lilac won’t bloom for a few years, because it’s getting used to the new environment. Once it is well established and comfortable, then it will start flowering.

Human interactions:

Just like the dandelion, in North America the lilac is an alien invader. They are native to China and Eastern Europe, so how on earth did they get to Canada?

Well, it’s a VERY long story.

A bizarre story about humanity’s obsession with pretty purple flowers.

Which when you think about it, is a pretty strange obsession.

Okay, lilacs do have some practical uses. Green dye can be extracted from the flowers and leaves, and oils from the flowers are used in perfumes. They have also been used as treatments for sore mouth, stomach ache and paralysis.

But mostly, people like them because they look and smell nice.

Our story begins in the European Baltic states, the native stomping grounds of the European lilac. Shepherds, entranced by the beauty and aroma of the wild plant, brought lilac bushes back to their homesteads. These lilac flowers were light purple. The word lilac comes from Persian, and means ‘blueish’.

Eventually lilacs made their way to Instanbul via the silk trade routes. Apparently someone thought they were valuable enough to trade.

In 1563, and Austrian ambassador visiting Instanbul fell in love with lilacs and brought them back to Austria and then later to Paris.

Once introduced to the people of France, lilacs spread around Europe like a fluffy purple disease. They moved from garden to garden as people shared cuttings with their neighbors.

Around 1650, European immigrants brought lilacs to North America in their personal luggage. Lilacs quickly adapted to the cold, temperate climate and soon become a common sight in North American colonies. Even Thomas Jefferson and George Washington planted lilacs in their gardens.Eventually, lilacs in North America escaped from cultivation and became a part of the natural environment.

Remember how I said that most lilac species come from China? Well, prior to 1860 most Europeans had never seen them because China had a closed-door policy on trade. However, when China lost the Opium wars and was forced to trade with Europe, lots of Chinese lilac species were ‘discovered’ by Europeans. Enraptured European plant explorers sent home thousands of ‘new’ species, including lilacs.

Compared to this influx of Chinese lilacs, the wild European lilac was staring to look positively drab. In the 1770s people in Europe, wanting flashier colours, started breeding deep purple and white lilacs.

In 1871 in Nancy, France, Victor Lemoine decided that the wild lilacs were simply not interesting enough. He and his family created 200 different lilac cultivars of all different colours and shapes. A cultivar is a variety of plant made artificially by humans. Think of cultivars like dog breeds. A poodle and a bull dog belong to the same species, but they are different forms that humans have created through breeding. Thanks to Lemoine, France became the hub of fine lilac cultivars.

Today there are over 1500 lilac varieties! Compare that to the original 21 species.

Back in North America, people started breeding their own cultivars. In 1874 John Dougall of Windsor Ontario created the first North American cultivar called ‘White Princess Alexandra’. Yay Canadian pride!

In 1878, not content with breeding new cultivars, lilac breeders started combining species from China and Europe that never would have reproduced in the wild. Combining two species like this is called hybridization.

Thankfully for plants, sex between different species isn’t that big a deal. It actually happens quite frequently because the barriers between plant species are much fuzzier than in animals.

Finally, the Canadian Connection! Isabella Preston, the first female hybridizer in Canada, put Canada on the lilac map in 1920. Preston produced the ultimate lilac for Canada’s harsh climate by crossing Chinese lilacs. And she did her work right here in Ottawa, at the Central Experimental Farm! This un-sung Canadian horticulturalist also created Canada-friendly cultivars of roses, lilies, crab apple, and iris.

For anyone living in Ottawa, there is a whole website about lilacs at the Central Experimental Farm, including the best places to find them.

After doing this research, I realized that there are a lot of people throughout history who really cared about lilacs. It was their jobs to make new cultivars to sell to people. Also, people liked lilacs enough to carry them across trade routes and across oceans. Not bad for a hardy little bush with purple flowers!


Click to access cs_syvu.pdf

Click to access cs_syvu.pdf

Wearing his heart on his sleeve: Interview with a Red-winged Blackbird

I'm not just a pair of  red shoulders! A red-winged blackbird sitting pretty. Photo by Jordan Walmsley. CC.

I’m not just a pair of red shoulders! A red-winged blackbird sitting pretty. Photo by Jordan Walmsley. CC.

If you’ve ever gone near a river in the summer, you’re probably well acquainted with the call of the red-winged blackbird. As a prairie girl who grew up in Calgary seeing very few of these showy birds, I love hearing them whenever I walk along a Ottawa waterway.

However, just like my friend the robin, my knowledge of red-winged blackbirds is limited to:

1) Males have red shoulders
2) Females are brown and less showy than the males
3) Males will aggressively chase other birds and animals out of their territory

The last time I interviewed a bird I talked to a female robin, so to give a fair chance to both sexes I asked a male redwing about being an urban blackbird.

A: I’ve heard you’re one of the most common birds in North America. How does this make you feel?

B: Sweetheart, just because we’re common doesn’t mean we aren’t special. It takes a special bird to be successful in both Alaska and Cuba. Anyways, there is a price to being one of the most abundant birds on the continent.

A: A price? What do you mean?

B: Because there are so many of us we aren’t protected by endangered species laws. It also means that humans don’t feel so bad when they kill us. The majority of blackbird deaths are caused by humans.

A: Why would humans want kill you? You’re so pretty and harmless.

B: You would think so, but in Canada you only see us during the spring and summer when we’re having babies. The other half of the year we go south to relax and refuel. We hang out in huge swarms, sometimes even welcoming other species into our group. We fly around searching for food, and where do we find the most food? In fields of rice, corn and sunflower seeds.

A: Oh. I imagine the farmers who own these fields aren’t happy to see you?

B: You’re right on the money, doll. We can eat 1-2% of a farmer’s crop. For sunflowers, it can be up to 25%. But what can we do? A bird’s got to eat, and there’s all this lovely food sitting there!

A: Are seeds the only thing you eat?

B: No, we have a balanced diet of fruit, insects, spiders and snails. In fact, we often help farmers by eating the insect pests off their crops.

A: What do farmers do when they find you in their field?

B: Some try to chase us away with air canons, loud music, recordings of our alarm calls, and even with remote-controlled airplanes! Others will remove the cattails and bulrushes from the edges of their fields, because those are our favorite spots to hang out and removing them makes us less likely to visit.

A: But some farmers kill you?

B: Yes. Some shoot us or scatter poisoned seeds. The worst is when they spray their crops with surfactants. When our feathers touch these chemicals they can’t keep us warm or dry anymore, and we die from exposure. I’ve seen a few of my friends go this way. It’s not a pretty sight.

A: That’s awful, but I can understand why farmers would want to protect their livelihood. They need to feed their families too.

B: I agree, but obviously I prefer non-lethal methods.

A: Okay, on to something more cheerful! Tell me what happens when you come back to Canada in the spring.

B: It’s actually quite stressful. You have to understand that during the breeding season it’s all about territory. A female doesn’t care about how beautiful you look or how sweetly you swing. All she cares about is finding a safe place where she can hide her nest and raise her chicks. If she likes your territory, she stays. Therefore, the males with the best territories get the best females.

A: Sounds like cut-throat competition! What does an ideal territory look like?

B: Females really like cattails, marshes, and wet shrub lands. Because you humans keep draining wetlands, these ideal places are getting harder to find. We often settle for urban parks and river banks.

A: All of those habitats include water. Why do females like water so much?

B: You have to understand that many animals like eating our eggs and baby birds. I’ve had to chase many raccoons and crows away from my nests, and I don’t always get there in time. If a female builds her grass nest above the water, it’s harder for predators to get at it. So water in the habitat means a greater chance that our babies will survive.

A: Isn’t that dangerous, having babies above the water like that? What if they fell in?

B: Our chicks can swim short distances, so falling out of the nest isn’t a problem.

A: Wow! Can you still swim?

B: No, I lost the ability when I become an adult.

A: Let’s talk about becoming an adult. When did that happen for you?

B: It takes a long time! I was three years old when I finally got my red epaulets. Before that I was a fairly dull teenaged bird with little chance of winning a territory from the older males. I just hung around with my bachelor friends all summer, dreaming of the day when I would have a harem of my own!

A: Excuse me, did you say a harem?

B: Yes ma ’me! We can have 5 to 15 females nesting on our territory at once. We’re definitely not the mate-for-life type.

Protecting that many nests takes a lot of work, I’ll tell you! But when you see those little faces blinking at the sky for the first time, it’s all worth it! Even when the little faces have a strong resemblance to your ugly neighbor.

A: What? Are you implying that your females cheat on you?

B: It’s pretty common knowledge that 25- 50% of the chicks I raise are not my own. Women are pretty good at getting what they want. Like I said, they’re with me for my territory, not necessarily for my genes.

A: That was awkward. Okay, one last question. What’s the deal with your red shoulders? Are they just there to look pretty?

B: How dare you! My red epaulets are state-of-the art signalling devices that I use to defend my territory and my honour. I can grow or shrink them depending on the occasion. You can see this very clearly in this video by The Music of Nature:

For example, if my male neighbor enters my territory, I’ll hunch my shoulders and show as much red as I can, to show him how beautiful I am and that he shouldn’t mess with me. I also show my shoulders when I’m wooing my ladies. However, if I’m feeding peacefully with the boys I will hide my red shoulders so no fights break out.

A: Wow, that’s very interesting. Well, thanks for taking time to talk to me.

B: It was my pleasure. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a territory and a harem to defend.


Blown away by Dandelions

The answer is blowin' in the wind...Dandelions are very efficient at spreading their fruits using tiny parachutes. Photo by Paul Hudson, CC.

The answer is blowin’ in the wind…Dandelions are very efficient at spreading their fruits using tiny parachutes. Photo by Paul Hudson, CC.

The tulip festival is in town this week, and the streets of Ottawa are lined with the slender stems of these bobbing flowers. Tulips are pretty cool, especially in the huge numbers seen at the festival. However, for me the coolest part of the tulip festival is to see how many tourists come from all over the globe…just to take photos of tulips. I guess the botany nerd in me should be happy that people are so interested in flowers!

Okay, upon reading the Tulip festival website, there are some pretty good reasons for tourists to take photos of these flowers:

1) It is the largest tulip festival in the world

2) The tulip is Ottawa’s official flower (who knew?)

3) The tulips are a yearly gift from the Netherlands. They are thank-you to Canada for helping liberate the Dutch during WII and for harboring the Dutch Royal Family while their home country was occupied by the Germans

4) While the Royal Family was here, Princess Margriet was born at the Ottawa Civic Hospital, making her the only royal ever born in North America. Canada temporarily made the hospital part of the Netherlands, so the Princess could have full Dutch citizenship. Yessir, we take our constitutional monarchy status very seriously here!

If the title of Ottawa’s official flower was based on abundance, I think the dandelion would win. But then, it would also be the official flower of most other Canadian cities, so I think Ottawa should stick to the tulip.

The dandelion has a bad reputation for defiling perfectly manicured lawns with its bright yellow cheeriness. Those fluffy seeds are also pretty good at spreading the plant’s progeny far and wide.

In North America, the dandelion is an alien invader. Run for the hills!

Okay, it came from Europe, not outer space. Small detail.

In fact, many of our common ‘weeds’ were brought over by early European immigrants for sentimental reasons. Women brought seeds from their gardens back home to plant in the New World. This small familiar flower in a new country was no doubt comforting, but it wreaked havoc on the Canadian ecosystem.

Here are some fun dandelion facts:

A dandelion is actually made of many tiny flowers! Photo by Sam Droege, Dandelion, side_2013. CC.

A dandelion is actually made of many tiny flowers! Photo by Sam Droege, Dandelion, side_2013. CC.

1. A dandelion is not just one flower, but a monsterflower! The flowering head is made up of hundreds of tiny flowers. As anyone who has made a wish by blowing on a dandelion can attest, each of the mini-flowers produces a tiny fruit with its own parachute. Botanists call dandelions compound flowers, but I like the term monsterflower much better. How did this plant spread its seeds before there were humans to blow on them? Why, by using the wind, of course!

2. Much to the despair of anyone who as pulled dandelions out of their lawn, dandelions can completely regrow from tiny pieces of their very long taproot. Imagine if humans could do this!

3. Ever wondered why you don’t see dandelions in the woods? It’s because they need lots of sunlight to grow, and have trouble breaking into natural habitats. Artificial habitats created by humans like lawns and gardens are their favorite spots! We’re encouraging them, really.

4. Why should you care about dandelions? Well, because bees think they are awesome. The flowers bloom in early spring when bees are just waking up and food is scarce. They also bloom in late fall, when bees are stocking up on food for the winter. Why should you care about well fed bees? Well, because they pollinate many of our crops. For free. No bees means no apples, berries, almonds or cucumbers.

Now go impress your friends with your dandelion knowledge. And if you’re in Ottawa, go check out the tulip festival!

Fruit fly sex: the hot and heavy details

The last time I did a piece on my fly sex research, I skirted around the question that you were all thinking; what does fruit fly sex look like?

Okay, here goes:

In most species, (and no, I’m not talking about the human species right now) it’s the females who choose which males they want to mate with. My fruit fly friends are no exception.

Why is this?

It all comes back to sperm and eggs. Think of the game of reproduction like a marketplace. The end goal of both sexes is to spread their genes, aka have babies.

Sperm are relatively ‘cheap’ to produce (sorry guys). They are small cells that don’t take much energy to make. And males make lots of them. All the time.

Eggs are huge, bulky cells full of nutrients. They are energy-intensive to make, and females don’t make very many of them. This makes eggs more ‘expensive’ than sperm.

In addition, some female animals carry their young inside their bodies, feeding them through their bloodstream. This takes lots of energy. So does caring for and feeding these babies once they come out into the real world.

In short, making babies is ‘expensive’ for females and ‘cheap’ for males.
Because females are so invested in reproduction, they are looking for males with the very best genes. These males will pass their terrific genes to the female’s offspring, increasing the chance that her babies will survive long enough to have babies of their own.

Reproducing before you die is basically the end goal in evolution. The natural ‘meaning of life’ if you will.

Did I lose anyone? Back to the fruit flies!

In fruit flies, it is up to the males to impress the females. How do they do it? Through dance.

I’m not kidding.

Watch this video by Dylan Clyne, and you’ll see what I mean. The fly with the black butt is the male.

First the male chases the female around trying to get her attention. Then he extends one wing and vibrates it. Apparently females are fond of this. Biologists call it ‘wing song’. Maybe it’s a romantic serenade or a pop ballad, you never know.

He also gets close and lets he rub her legs along his body. This isn’t a mere caress. She’s smelling him, and deciding if he’s up to par. The bodies of fruit flies are covered with waterproof waxes. These waxes also contain pheromones which the female experiences through touch. Every male has a different combination of pheromones, so each ‘smells’ slightly different to the female.

Finally, the male jumps onto the female’s back and attempts to mate with her. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t.

If you watched the video, you’ll have seen that the female is larger than the male. That’s pretty common in the insect world. Scientists don’t agree why this is. Evolutionary Ecologist Wolf Blanckenhorn proposes that while females bulk up so they can be better mothers, males focus on growing their reproductive organs, which are both complex and massive compared to the size of their body. Ain’t evolution grand?

Okay, the female fly is bigger than the male. This means that if a female has no intentions of mating with the male who has had the audacity to climb on her back, she can forcibly remove him.

She does this by shaking her body vigorously, sending him flying through the air.

Without a doubt, this is the most fun part of fly mating to watch.

The males always look so confused and flustered when they’re sailing through the air.

Often the male doesn’t quite get the message, and tries it again. After 2-3 attempts he gives up and searches for greener pastures.

There you have it, more details about fruit fly sex than you could possibly want! As well as some info on reproductive evolution that you probably didn’t want either, but have to admit is pretty cool.

Science through Poetry

A scientific report summarized in beautiful poetry and illustrations! Courtesy Dr. Greg Johnson and Sightline Institute.

A scientific report summarized in beautiful poetry and illustrations! Courtesy Dr. Greg Johnson and Sightline Institute.

I was reading recently that science bloggers (or any bloggers, for that matter) shouldn’t feel limited to using prose to share their brilliant ideas. As someone who once scribbled out poems while riding the bus to school, I’m willing to give science poetry a shot.

I was further inspired by Dr. Greg Johnson, an oceanographer who condensed a 2,000+ page report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) into 19 haikus. Be sure to look at his informative and beautiful piece, complete with watercolour illustrations. Who says scientists can’t be artistic?

My first memory of haikus was learning how to write them in grade 5. Our teacher was very excited about poetry, and had us chant our poems rhythmically. We added ostinato (repetitive rhythmic phrases chanted under the poem), hand clapping and even interpretive dance to bring the poems to life.

Nowadays, I prefer to write free verse poetry because I don’t have to follow any rules about rhyming or numbers of syllables. However, discipline can be a good thing, so I’ll try my hand at condensing the results of my fruit fly sex research project into some haikus. For those of you who didn’t write haikus in grade school, they are short Japanese poems that traditionally had 3 lines with the following format:

5 syllables
7 syllables
5 syllables

Interestingly, most haiku poets no longer stick to this formula, but they still teach it in Canadian grade schools. For the sake of nostalgia, I’ll stick with the format I know.
So here it is, a Haiku summary of my report:

Female choice and condition-dependence of male sexual traits in Drosophila pseudoobscura

(don’t worry if none of that title made sense to you. It isn’t really supposed to).

In this fly species
The ladies choose their partners
What do they look for?

Males put their perfume
In their waxy surfaces
These attract females

She likes the smell of
These cuticle pheromones
She sniffs by touching

The male’s red testes
Do not impress the ladies
What are they for then?

Now that we know what
Attracts these female fruit flies
Research will be easier

Wow, that was harder than I had thought! Not as hard a summarizing 2000 pages of research results but still quite difficult. Haiku is good because it forces you to use short words. Scientific writing tends towards very long and multisyllabic, so this is a very good exercise to practice writing for a non-scientific audience. Plus, writing haikus is more fun than writing reports. I encourage you to give it a try!

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