7 choses que vous ne saviez pas sur les choux de Bruxelles

Think Brussels sprouts are bland and boring? Think again. John Morgan, Brussels Sprouts. CC. https://flic.kr/p/5omcPd

John Morgan, Brussels Sprouts. CC. https://flic.kr/p/5omcPd

J’étais étonné de voir ma première tige de choux de Bruxelles à un marché fermier. Ces petits choux poussaient le long d’une grosse tige, comme une masse médiévale!

Quel est l’origine de ces petits légumes? Pourquoi-sont-ils plus délicieux maintenant que je suis adulte? Peut-être c’est à cause de l’addition de l’ail et du bacon.

Que signifie le nom?

Les Romains étaient les premiers à cultiver les choux de Bruxelles. Par l’année 1586, les Belges étaient fous de ce légume. Ils les vendaient dans les marchés de Bruxelles, d’où vient le nom. Ce serait intéressant si les autres légumes avaient des noms similaires.

Comment sont-ils arrivés au Canada?

La popularité des choux de Bruxelles s’étaient propagé en France et en Angleterre. Thomas Jefferson était un grand fan – il les a introduits aux États-Unis en 1812. J’imagine que les choux de Bruxelles avaient envahi le Canada par là. Ils sont aussi cultivés en Australie et en Europe. Les choux de Bruxelles sont allergiques au chaud, alors ils trouvent au Canada un climat idéal. La plupart des variétés qui poussent au Canada sont des hybrides qui viennent du Japon ou des Pays-Bas.

Le roi des choux

Ontario grows tonnes of Brussels sprouts. Amanda Slater, Autumn at Barnsdale Gardens https://flic.kr/p/hLHMva

Amanda Slater, Autumn at Barnsdale Gardens https://flic.kr/p/hLHMva

La Colombie-Britannique produit la plus grande quantité de choux de Bruxelles au Canada, suivi de l’Ontario et du Québec. La récolte canadien vaut $7 million par année. Pas pire pour un petit légume amer!

Parler calmement tout en adoptant la politique des… choux de Bruxelles?

Brussels sprout stalks look like ideal tools for hunting dinosaurs. Or you could just eat them instead. Photo by Mia, Brussels sprout. CC. https://flic.kr/p/rzRSf

Photo by Mia, Brussels sprout. CC. https://flic.kr/p/rzRSf

Comparé aux choux qui poussent une seule tète, les choux de Bruxelles poussent des douzaines. Et vous pensiez que c’était seulement leur gout qui est horrifiante! Les petits choux sont les bourgeons qui se développent au long de la tige d’un mètre de grandeur. Il a l’air d’une messe de guerre. Les choux sont prêts à enlever l’automne ou l’hiver.

Rempli de la valeur nutritive

Mom was right, Brussels sprouts are good for you. Chris Yarzab, Brussels Sprouts. CC. https://flic.kr/p/czyrXL

Chris Yarzab, Brussels Sprouts. CC. https://flic.kr/p/czyrXL

Les choux de Bruxelles contiennent de la fibre, des vitamines A, C et K et du manganèse. Les choux les plus petites sont les plus gouteux. Il ne faut pas les trop cuire- sinon ils pueraient.

Est-ce qu’ils sont reliés aux choux?

Does this look like cabbage or kale to you? There's a good reason for it. Ed Mitchell, Top of a Brussels Sprout Plant. CC. https://flic.kr/p/3eKwrQ

Ed Mitchell, Top of a Brussels Sprout Plant. CC. https://flic.kr/p/3eKwrQ

Les choux de Bruxelles ont l’air de petits choux pour une bonne raison –ils font partie de la même espèce! En effet, les choux fleurs, les brocolis, le chou frisé et le chou-rave font tous parti d’espèce Brassica olercacea. Par l’élevage soigneux, les êtres humains ont créé tous ces légumes différents, de la même façon qu’ils ont créé tous les chiens différents à parti de Canis familiaris.

La plante originale de la Méditerranée avait des feuilles nutritives avec le gout de chou frisé. Les choux de Bruxelles étaient la dernière des cultures développées à parti de cette plante.

La vie sexuelle des choux

Croyez-le ou non, les choux de Bruxelles ont des fleurs. Ils sont jaunes et ils ont quatre pétales. On les oublie parce qu’on mange que des feuilles.

Comme les variétés de chien différent, les choux de Bruxelles et les choux normaux peuvent se reproduire entre eux. Mais je n’en ai aucune idée de quoi ils ont l’air, ces bébés!

En effet, en 2010 une compagnie en Grande Bretagne a croisé les choux frisés avec les choux de Bruxelles, et le résultat était des choux de Bruxelles frisées.

Alors qu’est-ce que vous attendez? Allez manger un bol de ces petits trésors!



The original kiwi: Interview with a kiwi bird


Photo by tara hunt. Kiwi Encounter. (photo of a model kiwi because the real thing is very elusive and park rangers don’t want you taking photos). CC. https://flic.kr/p/495oR2


Amelia: Here I am on Stewart Island in New Zealand, the place I’m most likely to get a glimpse of the secretive, nocturnal kiwi. I’ll be hiking in this coastal rainforest for three days, so I’m guaranteed to see one, right?

Kiwi: I wouldn’t bet on it.

A: Are those the dulcet tones of a kiwi I hear?

K: Hardly. My call sounds like a little girl screaming.

A:  Finally! I’ve been up all night waiting to see you. Would you mind coming a bit closer?

K: I’m fine right here, thanks. As an endangered bird, I’m not taking any chances.

A: But I don’t want to hurt you-I won’t even take a picture. I know the park staff are pretty strict about that.

K: Nope, not doing it. Humans have done too much damage to our species. I don’t owe you anything.

A: What did we do?

K: Well, as a flightless, ground-nesting bird who evolved on an island without any natural predators, I was toast when your ancestors decided that New Zealand’s rainforests needed to be turned into English countryside. Not only did you destroy our homes under the trees, you decided to introduce rats, opossums and stoats. Our chicks grow slowly, and it takes about 3-5 years before they can fight off a ravenous stoat. Domestic dogs and cats also make easy meals of our young ones.

A: Aren’t those predators a problem for adults too? You may be the size of a large cat, but you’re still pretty helpless looking.

K: That’s what you think. I can beat up a stoat easily.

A: Really? You’re a hairy bird with no wings. How do you manage it?

K: With my feet! We pack a pretty powerful kick, and we don’t put up with any nonsense from predators.

A: So at what age can you start laying those gigantic eggs you’re so famous for?

K: You mean the ones that takes up most of my insides and squishes all my organs into my sternum? The one I carry for 30 days and weights half a kilo?

A: I can see this is a sore point

K: Just a little. We can lay eggs once we’re four years old. We’re generally solitary, but during the mating season we’ll pair up. Generally we mate for life, which can be up to 40 years if we’re lucky.

A: Wow, that’s old for a bird!

K: Well when there’s no natural predators, life’s a walk in the park

A: What’s the secret to such a long partnership with your mate?

K: Once I lay that monster of an egg, it’s my partner’s job to sit on it for 80 days. My bit is done.

A: Wow, that’s a long time!

K: Yep. The upside is that the chicks are nearly independent when they’re born. After two weeks we chase them out of the nest, and they’re on their own.

A: That’s incredible! I’ve been hearing some sneezes coming from your direction. Is everything alright?

K: Yep. It’s a side-effect of having nostrils at the very end of my beak. I look for bugs by plunging my beak deep into the soil. This means that I constantly have dirt up my nose, so I have to sneeze to clear it out. My keen nose doesn’t do me any good if it’s full of dirt. My long whiskers and the sensor on the end of my bill also spot vibrations in the soil.

A: Wait, you have whiskers? Isn’t that a bit weird for a bird?

K: I’m no ordinary bird. There were no mammals on New Zealand before you introduced them, apart from bats. I adapted to fill a mammals’ niche, because obviously they left it open. I have hair-like feathers, solid-marrow bones and live in a burrow like a rabbit.

A: I’m sure you get this all the time: have you ever eaten a kiwi fruit?

K: Um, no. We are the original kiwis. The fruits are actually Chinese Gooseberries that were re-branded in the 1970’s in an effort to get New Zealander’s to buy them. I guess it worked.

A: Thanks for sharing your story with me. I’ll leave you alone now.

K: That’s all I ask.

References:Te Papa museum, various interpretive posters in NZ bird sanctuaries


Interview with a Western Tent Caterpillar

Photo by Andrew Reding. Western tent caterpillars. 2014. CC. https://flic.kr/p/nwEuEP

Photo by Andrew Reding. Western tent caterpillars. 2014. CC. https://flic.kr/p/nwEuEP

(This post was inspired by my father, who saw tent caterpillars in July and told me I should write a blog post about them. Merry Christmas Dad!)

Me: What a lovely June day. The bees are buzzing, the flowers are blooming, the caterpillars are swarming. Wait, why are caterpillars swarming my Aspen tree? Get off of there!

Western Tent Caterpillars: Make me. I’m a native species, and I’m not doing anything wrong.

Me: You’re a gross creepy crawly mass of caterpillars, that’s what’s wrong.

W: Well we can’t all be hairless apes like you.

Me: And look at what you’re doing to this poor tree! You’ve eaten half of its leaves. How is it supposed to survive?

W: I wouldn’t worry about it. Trees are pretty good at bouncing back. Our population explosion will be over soon anyways. Maybe another four years or so.

Me: Four years? You mean I’ll have to stare at hundreds of wriggling caterpillars for another four years?

W: That’s what it looks like, yes. These explosions happen every decade or so.

Me: That is not very comforting. Why does your population explode anyway?

W: What can I say, sometimes the world needs more caterpillars. The cycles depend on weather, predators, pests and other factors. You guys haven’t cared to study us very much, so I’m not giving anything away.

Me: Will my poor aspen tree end up dead as a result of your munching?

W: It’s a pretty healthy specimen, so probably not. Healthy trees don’t usually die from infestation, it just make them weaker and more vulnerable to pests and drought.

Me: That’s not very comforting.

W: If it’s any consolation, the tree’s fighting back. It can make its leaves less nutritious next year, so fewer of us will survive. Anyways, getting rid of some leaves in the canopy actually helps the environment.

Me: Oh really? How’s that?

W: Fewer leaves means more light and rain reach the forest floor, giving saplings down there a chance to grow. I’ll also have you know that caterpillar poop is an awesome fertilizer.

Me: Eww, I didn’t really need to know that. How did you all get on my tree in the first place?

W: Mom put us here. Last August she laid a huge cluster of 300 eggs around a twig and covered us in this foam that hardened to look like grey Styrofoam. The finished clutch was as big as she was!

Me: Sounds pretty impressive.

W: It was! We started developing in our eggs, then took a long nap over the winter.

Me: What happened when you hatched? Why did you stick together?

W: We hatched just as the leaves started appearing in April. All of the larvae from that eggs sack decided to hang out because we are social butterflies. Okay, social moths.

Me: Why do they call you tent caterpillars?

W: Life as a soft and squishy caterpillar is not easy. Birds and rodents want to eat you, and parasitic wasps want to lay eggs in your insides. It’s very unpleasant. To avoid this, the colony builds a giant silken tent to hide under. If we aren’t feeding we’re in the tent. It’s shelter from the weather, protection from predators and a place to molt and grow.

Me: I’ve seen you stick your bodies out of the tent and twitch them. Is that a caterpillar dance party?

W: Nope, it’s a defense mechanism. We do it whenever a possible predator passes by. Hopefully they’re so confused they just keep walking and don’t try to eat us.

M: You said you turn into a moth, right? How long before that happens?

W: About 4-6 weeks after we hatch, everyone in the colony separates and finds their own spot to make a silken cocoon. We’ll pupate on anything from aspen leaves to house siding to lawn mowers.

M: I can’t wait.

W: Don’t worry, 10 days later we’ll emerge as beautiful light brown moths. Those moths flitting around your porch light are probably us. We usually mate within 24 hours of emerging.

M: Whoa, you don’t waste any time, do you?

W: Nope. Every female lays one egg clutch, and our whole life cycle takes about a year.

M: Yeah, but for most of it you’re stuck in an egg.

W: Touché.

M: So does this mean that my aspen tree will be infested by your children next year?

W: Probably. We are Canada’s national champion of eating leaves off aspen trees, after all.

M: I guess I’d better get used to you then.

W: Yep. You could spray pesticides on the tree, but that would kill the beneficial bugs too. It’s best just to let our predators or the weather finish us off.

M: Okay, I’ll leave you be… this time.

W: We appreciate it!



Worried Woolly Bears

 Photo by Tony Fischer. Wooly Bear Caterpiallar to Tiger Moth. CC. https://flic.kr/p/5DzVRB

Photo by Tony Fischer. Wooly Bear Caterpiallar to Tiger Moth. CC. https://flic.kr/p/5DzVRB

While biking to school these days I’ve had to dodge the fuzzy black and orange caterpillars scurrying across the bike path. What are these critters, and why are they running so fast?

Child stars

Apparently woolly bears are the most recognizable caterpillar in North America, which is funny because I had never heard of them until this year. They’re much more famous than their adult form, the Isabella tiger moth, or Pyrrharctic isabella for you Latin fans. That’s probably because the moth is nocturnal and a dull yellow-tan. The fuzzy orange-and-black caterpillars are more noticeable, especially with their habit of crossing roads on sunny fall days.


The real reason for the woolly bear’s fame isn’t its cute black head or its orange and black fuzz. It’s because early North American settlers thought the native caterpillars could predict the winter weather. The wider the orange stripe, the milder the winter would be. They were basically a fall version of Groundhog Day.

This seems silly to us now, but in an era where your survival depended on how much food you stored up the fall, any information these settlers had about the winter would have been comforting.

Scientists aren’t really sure why some caterpillars have wider stripes than others. It could be climate, natural variety in the population, or something that changes as a caterpillar grows. Woolly bears may not predict the weather, but they are awesome for a lot of other reasons.

Autumn angst

Photo by D.Fletcher. Wooly Bear. CC. https://flic.kr/p/sjk7A

Photo by D.Fletcher. Wooly Bear. CC. https://flic.kr/p/sjk7A

People usually see woolly bears in the fall when they’re in a hurry. They’re looking for somewhere to wait out the winter, and if they don’t rush, they’ll freeze. Well, they freeze anyway, but more on that later.

In the spring and summer woolly bears are solitary beasts. Native to southern Canada, they spend their days in meadows and fields hidden in patches of wildflowers. They’ll eat just about anything, from grass to maple leaves to dandelions.

But when winter rolls around they need to find logs, rocks, or tree bark to hide under, none of which are plentiful in wildflower meadows. So in the fall they wander out of their meadows and into more forested areas, which is why we see them crossing roads and bike paths. They’re just looking for somewhere cozy to wait out the winter.

Fuzzy popsicles

Over the winter woolly bears freeze solid. Starting with their heart. Think about how that would feel for a moment. Freezing is usually a supremely bad idea for a living thing. Water expands as it freezes, and prickly ice crystals damage cells and tissues. But woolly bears make a natural antifreeze called cryoprotectant, which keeps their bodies largely undamaged from freeze and thaw cycles.

If it warms up enough during the winter, the caterpillars might thaw and walk around a bit before refreezing again when it gets cold. However, just because they’re full of antifreeze doesn’t make them superheroes. Freezing and thawing multiple times over the winter increases their chances of death and organ damage. When it warms up in the spring, the caterpillars wake up and continue to eat before making a cocoon and transforming into a less-famous adult moth.

Why so hairy?

Woolly Bear fuzz close up. Photo by LadyDragonflyCC->;<. Woolly Bear close up. CC. https://flic.kr/p/7X2AYD/p/oBBdcR

Soft and squishy caterpillars are the ideal snack for birds, rodents, frogs and snakes. The woolly bear has a few ways to keep from becoming their next meal. First, they can run away pretty quickly. They will also curl up into a ball and play dead, keeping all their hairy bristles called setae on the outside. These setae do discourage some predators, but skunks and a few other animals have been known to roll them off before chowing down. It’s also thought that the hairs act as insulation during the caterpillar’s long winter’s nap.

Heal thyself

Besides being surrounded by predators, some woolly bear caterpillars get eaten alive from the inside out. Parasitic flies lay their eggs inside the caterpillar’s body. After they hatch, the larvae munches on the woolly bear’s insides before exploding out of its side. Ick. A 2009 study at the University of Arizona found that woolly bears self-medicate on certain plants which cure the parasite. Caterpillars infected with parasites ate way more alkaloids than their non-infected peers. However, too many alkaloids are poisonous, so woolly bears have to balance poisoning themselves with getting eaten alive by fly babies. Not a fun choice.

So watch out for these speed demons on a road near you this fall, and please try not to squish them.



Underwater torpedo: Interview with a Common Loon

Common loons are voracious predators as well as being beautiful singers. Photo by Gary J. Wege,USFWSmidwest.Common Loons. CC. https://flic.kr/p/7SVDNK

Common loons are voracious predators as well as being beautiful singers. Photo by Gary J. Wege, USFWSmidwest.Common Loons. CC. https://flic.kr/p/7SVDNK


Me: I feel like I’ve been paddling this canoe forever. Oh, look a loon! It’s standing up and flapping its wings at me, how welcoming.

Common Loon: Idiot, this is a territorial display! What are you doing on my lake?

Me: Well, I’m camped just over there…

L: Is that an outboard motor I see?

M: No, this is a canoe.

L: Planning on doing any fishing with lead weights?

M: Um, no.

L: Okay, I guess you’re not a direct threat at the moment. You can stay.

M: Um, thank you. What do you have against lead fishing weights?

L: Well, unlike you humans I don’t have any teeth. Instead I have a muscular pouch behind my stomach called a gizzard that I fill with pebbles to chew my food. I’ve had friends die of lead poisoning because when they dove to grab some pebbles off the lake bottom, they also swallowed a fishing weight. It isn’t a good way to go.

M: That’s awful. What do loons eat, anyway?

L: Fish! Especially small ones like perch and sunfish.

M: But how do you catch them if you don’t have teeth? Aren’t fish slippery?

L: We thought of that. The tongue and the roof of my mouth are covered with backward-facing barbs that grab fish and force them down my throat.

M: How do you catch these fish in the first place? They’re pretty fast.

L: Not as fast as I am. I’m a specially designed killing machine.

M: Really? I find that hard to believe.

L: There’s more to being a loon then singing mournful songs on a lake.

M: Fine. Tell me about fishing.

L: I find my prey by sight. This means I need to hunt in clear, unpolluted lakes during the daytime so I can see them. Once I spot a fish, I get ready to dive. My body is specially designed for diving. Unlike most birds, my bones are solid so I can sink in the water. I also force the air out from my lungs and from between my feathers to go even faster. My feet are at the very end of my body, and push me down like a propeller. All this means I can dive very deep, up to 60 metres or 200 feet. I can even change direction underwater quickly to nab a darting fish. My heart even slows down to conserve oxygen when I dive. I’m basically a diving machine.

M: Okay, you’ve convinced me. You’re a top predator. When you can’t find fish, do you eat anything else?

L: I will eat snails, leeches, crustaceans and insect larvae in a pinch. But only if I have to.

M: I don’t see you on the shore very much with the ducks and the geese. Why not?

L: My feet are perfect propellers, but they aren’t good for walking. I spend all of my time in the water, except when I’m on the nest.

M: Aww, nesting! Your babies are such cute little balls of grey down. I love to see them riding on your back.

L: They’re demanding little balls of fluff. Our family can eat up to 30 kilograms of fish in a week. That’s a lot of diving!

M: This is an awkward question, but do loons mate for life?

L: Well, it depends on how long we live. Our average lifespan is between 9 and 30 years, and a pair bond usually lasts five years. You do the math. One day my mate won’t return to this lake, and I’ll find another black and white hottie.

M: Return from where? You don’t stay here all year?

L: Goodness no! We only come to Canadian lakes in the spring to breed. Frozen lakes do not make for good fishing. In the fall we migrate and spend the winter on unfrozen water, often in coastlines and estuaries.

M: Okay, back to nesting! Who gets to choose the nest site?

L: The male does. He tries to find somewhere sheltered a hidden on the lake shore. An island is perfect. Lots of animals would love to eat our eggs and young, like turtles, raccoons and gulls. We’ll generally only lay two eggs in a season, and take turns sitting on them for 30 days until they hatch.

M: What happens then?

L: Well, unlike other birds which are born blind and naked, our babies are super mature. In fact, they’re swimming only a few hours after they’re born.

M: That’s incredible!

L: Yep, they’re pretty awesome. That being said, we can usually only stand them for about 12 weeks. Then we take off for a migration honeymoon and leave the kids to their own devices.

M: That seems cruel. How do they know where to migrate in the winter?

L: Oh, they find a flock of other youngsters and figure it out together. Once the kids reach the ocean they’ll stay there a full two years going back north. Even so, they usually don’t start having chicks until they are 6 years old. If they haven’t already been eaten by sea otters or birds of prey, that is.

M: Sea otters, really?

L: Yep. They’ve been seen grabbing us from underneath and then wrestling us underwater.

M: Why don’t you fly away?

L: Well, first it’s a sneak attack, and second, taking off isn’t that easy. We need to run along a stretch of open water 27 to 400 metres long to generate enough speed to take off. This means that if we land in lakes that are two small, we’re stranded there. Flying isn’t something we can do instantaneously, but once we get going we can fly highway speeds of 100km or 70 miles per hour.

M: One last thing: What are those wild calls all about?

L: Our wail is to find a missing mate or defend territory, and the one that sounds like human laughter is to defend territory or chicks.

M: Great, thanks for taking the time to talk to me.

L: Thanks for not polluting my lake.



Sun worshipers: 6 things you didn’t know about sunflowers

Photo by Amelia Buchanan. CC.

Photo by Amelia Buchanan. CC.

It wasn’t until I saw fields of sunflowers in the south of France that I ever thought of these yellow flowers as a crop. From mayonnaise to snack food, there’s more to these blossoms than meets the eye.

North American origins

Sunflowers, like blueberries and cranberries, are one of the few crops native to North America. The wild ancestors of most of the world’s food plants, like wheat, corn and potatoes came from the Middle East, Asia or South or Central America.

Wild sunflowers, which were much smaller than those grown commercially today, were first domesticated around 5,000 years ago by the peoples of the south-western United States. The high-protein seeds were valued by some indigenous peoples who used ground seed meal to make bread. The flower hitched a ride across the continent, and was seen by the first European explorers in locations ranging from southern Canada to Mexico.

An oil popularized by Russia

Photo by Amelia. CC.

Photo by Amelia. CC.

Europeans were not especially excited by the sunflower, and it was probably first brought to Europe by the Spanish as a mere curiosity. However, in the 18th century, Russia and the Ukraine adopted the sunflower for its high-quality, sweet oil. At the time sunflower seeds were around 28% oil, but Russian breeding bumped that up to nearly 50%.

These oily sunflower hybrids gained popularity in the U.S. after WWII. In 1986, sunflowers were the third largest source of vegetable oil world-wide after soybean and palm oil. However, these days they only make up only 9% of the world’s veggie oil market. The leading producers of sunflower seeds are Argentina, Russia, Ukraine, France, the U.S. and China.

Sunflower oil is used in salads, cooking oil, margarine and mayonnaise. It is also added to drying oils for paints and varnishes, as well as being used in soaps, cosmetics and bio fuel. Once the oil is pressed out of the seeds, the remaining high-protein meal is used to feed chickens and livestock. This meal can also be a flour substitute in bread and cakes.

Snack time: A mouthful of achenes

Photo by Mark S. “Sunflower Seeds”. CC. https://flic.kr/p/bbKcST

Photo by Mark S. “Sunflower Seeds”. CC. https://flic.kr/p/bbKcST

The sunflower ‘seeds’ sold as snack food are actually fruit. In botany-speak they’re called achenes, a fruit with a hard outer coating. The real seed is the grey ‘meat’ in the centre.

Sunflowers grown for their achenes are different varieties from oil seed sunflowers, which have smaller black seeds. ‘Confectionery’ achenes have thicker hulls and lower oil content, not to mention stylish black and white stripes. They are served salted and roasted, or hulled for use in baking. With 20% protein, the achenes and seeds marketed as healthy snacks, and meat substitutes.

Sun worshipers

Photo by Amelia Buchanan. CC.

Many people think that sunflower heads always face the sun (called heliotrophism) but that simply isn’t true. The early flower buds spiral around until they face east like living compasses, but they stop once they bloom. The leaves also follow the sun, which makes sense: they are the ones that need the light for photosynthesis, not the flower.

Manitoba: Canada’s sunflower capital

Photo by William Ismael. “Sunflower Seeds.” CC. https://flic.kr/p/9rqvXr

Photo by William Ismael. “Sunflower Seeds.” CC. https://flic.kr/p/9rqvXr

Canada has grown sunflowers commercially since the 1940s. Over 90% are grown in Manitoba, where 250 million pounds of sunflower seeds are harvested annually. The rest are grown in Saskatchewan.

70% of all Canadian sunflowers are of the confectionery variety, and primarily serve Canadian markets. Some are exported to the U.S., The Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and China, which are large consumers of hulled sunflower seeds.

Canada also grows oil seed sunflowers, but because there is no large-scale sunflower crushing facility in Manitoba, the achenes are sent to the U.S. for processing.

Floret power

Photo by Amelia. CC.

Photo by Amelia. CC.

Despite popular belief, sunflower heads are not one flower, but a composite of many tiny flowers called florets.  One sunflower head can contain up of 1,000 to 2,000 florets. The sterile petal-like ray florets draw in the pollinators, but real pollination happens with the black and brown disk florets in the centre. These fertile disk florets are arranged in a spiral, and shed pollen beginning at the edges and moving to the centre. Disk florets very sensitive to frost; any temperature below 0 degrees Celsius will cause rings of sterile florets.

Now there’s something to think about the next time you enjoy a carrot muffin topped with sunflower seeds.



Enigmatic Echinacea: Consumers’ on-again, off-again relationship with a Prairie herb

Photo by Amelia Buchanan. CC.

I set out to photograph flowers. I may have been distracted by the bumble bees. No regrets. Photo by Amelia Buchanan. CC.

This is a story of colds, flus, and the hope that their annoying symptoms will one day disappear. From patent medicine hacks to million dollar profits, it’s the story of Echinacea.

This purple Prairie plant is mainly marketed as a remedy for cold and flu symptoms. It is also one of the most popular herbal remedies sold in North America today. And it’s native to Canada!

Tiny hedgehog

Chances are you’ve probably seen Echinacea growing in a garden or along the side of a road. In addition to being herbal remedies, they’re also eye-catching flowers that are easy to grow.

Wonder where the complicated name comes from? It’s the Latin name of the genus, or species group. Echinacea comes from the Greek word for hedgehog, and refers to the flower’s spiny centre. Each ‘spine’ is actually a tiny flower, with its own reserves of nectar and pollen. Like sunflowers and daisies, the flower head is actually made up of dozens disk florets in the centre. The purple petal-like things are ray florets, tiny flowers with one huge petal.

Prairie power

In Canada, Echinacea grows wild in the Prairies of Saskatchewan and Manitoba. It does what it can to get by, enduring drought, humidity, and low-quality soil. It blooms from June to August, and is pollinated by bees, wasps and butterflies.

Indigenous medicine cabinet

Photo by Amelia Buchanan. CC.

Photo by Amelia Buchanan. CC.

For over 400 years, Echinacea was used by Great Plains indigenous peoples to treat a variety of infections. European settlers on the prairies followed their example, using the plant as a cure-all for humans and even cattle. In 1897 students made extra money by gathering wild Echinecea, and by 1917 the herb was being recommended by American doctors.

The road to international fame

Echinacea went on to gain international fame and fortune, but it didn’t happen overnight. European doctors had their own medicinal plants, and little interest in finding new ones.

Echinacea was first introduced to Europe by patent medicine salesman H. C. F. Meyer, who sold Echinacea in the U.S. as a cure or just about everything, including snakebites. With hopes of expanding his market, Meyer sent samples to England for testing. The British scientists quickly learned that Echinacea didn’t do most of the things Meyer claimed it did. However, they were intrigued by its possible immune-system boosting powers, and the rest is history. In the 18th and 19th centuries Echinacea became a popular herb for treating scarlet fever, syphilis, malaria, blood poisoning, diphtheria. It probably didn’t work, but that’s what it was used for.

The fall from glory

The dramatic popularity of Echinacea led to over-harvesting of the wild plants. Fortunately for the flowers, in 1950 antibiotics were introduced and became all the rage. Echinacea fell out of favor, mainly because there was little scientific evidence that it had medicinal powers.

However, not everyone had given up on Echinacea. Research on Echinacea’s powers continued in Germany, where there were more liberal laws on the use of medicinal plants and more appetite for research. Today there are over 800 Echinacea products in Germany alone.

The cold-buster

Photo by Amelia Buchanan. CC.

Photo by Amelia Buchanan. CC.

In the 1970s and 80s, North American consumers realized that modern medicine couldn’t solve everything. Take the common cold. On average, adults get 3 to 4 colds a year, and kids get twice that many. Because there are 200 or so different viruses that can cause colds, there is no medical cure. Alternative medicines and herbal remedies to treat colds and flus regained popularity. Today Echinecea is touted as an immune-system booster that can prevent or treat cold symptoms, with estimated yearly sales in the tens of millions.

Does it work?

The short answer is we don’t know. Some studies say yes, others say no. The U.S. National Institutes of Health gives a tentative ‘maybe’ that Echinacea could be effective for treating the common cold and vaginal yeast infections.
Part of the problem is we haven’t figured out exactly how Echinacea works. It seems to decrease inflammation (swelling) but we don’t know what chemical is responsible. When you’re working with plant extracts that contain hundreds of different chemicals, it’s hard to say which is doing what.

One reason science haven’t given us a definitive answer is that the studies so far have used different species, different doses and different products. Part of the problem is the lack of standardization in the Echinecea marketplace. Some treatments can be 1,000 times stronger than others, and consumer reports have identified some products that don’t even contain Echinacea.

Regardless of what the science says, people still swear by it. Health authorities in Canada and the U.S. tell consumers that Echinacea is safe if they follow the directions on the bottle. If you’re allergic to other plants in the daisy family, like ragweed or marigolds, you may be allergic to this too. Also, Echinacea may interact with some medications, so make sure your doctor knows you’re taking it.

Farming a wild plant

Photo by Amelia Buchanan. CC.

Photo by Amelia Buchanan. CC.

Small scale Echinacea farms have sprung up in Saskatchewan, Manitoba, BC, and Alberta, but don’t produce enough to keep up with the growing demand. Before cultivation can go large-scale, researchers and farmers need to better understand Echinacea’s habits, fertilizer needs and diseases. It takes a while to figure out how to farm a wild plant, just ask Saskatoon berry farms. Echinacea in Canada is mainly harvested for the roots, which take 2-3 years to get big enough to gather.

Now you have something to think about next time you see this spiky, purple beauty.
















8 choses que vous ne saviez pas sur les glands

(To read this article in English, click here)

-Les glands, sont-ils des noix? Ma colocataire m’a demandé à l’improviste.

Ma réaction initiale (à cette question inattendue) a été de me souvenir de la définition botanique d’une noix. D’une noix comme famille botanique, pas juste comme le fruit du noyer. Mais ma colocataire avait en tête quelque chose de beaucoup plus terre à terre.

-Si les enfants les apportaient dans une garderie avec un environnement sans noix, est-ce que les enfants allergiques aux noix réagiraient aux glands? (Ma colocataire garde des enfants)

Bonne question. Je n’avais aucune idée. Mais Google avait la réponse.

La réponse courte est non. Les allergies aux glands sont assez rares. Jusqu’à maintenant, il n’était aucun mort attribué aux glands. Alors, les enfants allergiques aux noix peuvent être en contact avec les glands en toute sécurité.

Cependant, les glands sont tout de même un membre de la famille des noix, alors, il est préférable que les enfants ne les mangent pas, par précaution. Heureusement les glands sont assez amers, alors, il a peu de chance que cela arrive.

Naturellement, comme une adepte de botanique, je voulais en savoir plus sur les glands.

Les glands font partie de la famille des noix, mais les amandes pas.


Dans le monde botanique une noix est quelque chose de bien défini. Il s’agit de fruits qui sont entourés par une capsule sèche et dure. Pensez-aux châtaignes, aux noisettes et aux glands! En fait, les amandes sont des drupes, comme les prunes et les pêches.

Il y a 450 espèces de chênes dans le monde entier, mais seulement 13 au Canada. La plupart de nos espèces indigènes se trouvent au sud du pays. Le chêne de liège est l’origine de vos bouchons et le bois imperméable du chêne blanc est utilisé pour faire des tonneaux de vin.

Les faits canadiens

 Photo par Nicolas Raymond, Prince Edward Island Grunge Flag, CC, https://www.flickr.com/photos/80497449@N04/7384695152/

Photo par Nicolas Raymond, Prince Edward Island Grunge Flag, CC, https://www.flickr.com/photos/80497449@N04/7384695152/

Quelle province Canadienne a des glands sur son drapeau? C’est l’Île-du-Prince-Édouard! Sur son drapeau il y a quatre chênes, un pour l’Angleterre et un pour chaque compté de la province. Le chêne rouge d’Amérique est aussi l’arbre provincial.

Les glands sexys

Est-ce que vous savez quelle partie du corps a reçu le nom du gland? Évidemment, c’est le gland, l’extrémité du sexe masculin. Quelqu’un avait pensé qu’il ressemblait à la noix… Pas besoin de vous faire un dessin.

Une nourriture essentielle pour l’automne


Nous voyons souvent les écureuils entrain de fourrer les glands dans leurs bouches, mais saviez-vous que les cerfs les mangent aussi? En effet, les glands représentent 25 pour cent de leur régime alimentaire d’automne. Les souris, les pics, les geais bleus et les canards les aiment aussi. Tous ses animaux sont importants pour la distribution des glands. Ceux qu’ils enterrent et oublient de manger deviendront des nouveaux arbres.

Une nourriture essentielle pour les humains

Plusieurs cultures différentes mangeaient les glands depuis des siècles. En Amérique du Nord, il y a des populations autochtones qui les mangent toujours. Il est estimé que 75 pour cent de la population autochtone à la Californie mangeaient des glands tous les jours. La plupart des arbres ne font des noix que les deux ou trois ans, alors les populations autochtones ont trouvé les façons de les entreposer dans des granges pendant 10 à 12 ans. Aujourd’hui leurs descendants utilisent les glands comme nourriture traditionnelle, mais ils ne les mangent plus tous les jours.

Une mine des substances nutritives


Il y a une bonne raison pour laquelle les gens mangeaient les glands depuis longtemps- ils sont assez nourrissant et nutritifs. Quelques glands ont 18 pour cent matières grasses, 6 pour cent protéines et 68 pour cent glucides, ce qui est équivalent au blé et au maïs. Ils contiennent aussi une grande quantité de vitamines A et C.

Des tanins malins

Il y a seulement une chose de mal avec les glands : ils perturbent vos intestins. Bien, pas d’une façon dangereuse. Ils contiennent du tanin, un produit chimique qu’on utilise pour tanner le cuir. Si les intestins contiennent trop de tanin il leur est plus difficile d’extraire les nutriments de la nourriture. Alors, même si les glands sont vraiment nutritifs, les manger crus ne vous sera pas tellement profitable. De plus n’oubliez pas qu’ils sont plutôt amers. Les tanins se trouvent aussi dans les baies et les grenades, mais dans des proportions beaucoup plus faibles.

La nature est bien faite, n’est-ce-pas? En effet, les tanins sont un mécanisme de défense pour le fruit des glands. Si les glands étaient tout mangés, aucun nouveau chêne ne pousserait.

Malheureusement pour les chênes, plusieurs animaux ont trouvés des façons d’éviter les effets pervers des tanins. Il y a des animaux avec des systèmes digestifs qui détruisent les tanins. D’autres comme les écureuils, les cerfs et les porcs en mangent en si grand nombre qu’ils compensent pour les nutriments manqués à cause des tanins. Les humains ont appris un système différent : faire tremper les noix pour enlever les tanins.

Peut-être l’automne vous regarderez les glands d’une façon diffèrent.



Titillating Trilliums

Trillium colonies can get huge, but that doesn't mean you should pick them. Photo by Captain Tenneal. Trillium. CC. https://flic.kr/p/6spWeN

Trillium colonies can get huge, but that doesn’t mean you should pick them. Photo by Captain Tenneal. Trillium. CC. https://flic.kr/p/6spWeN

Me: Oh wow, the trilliums are really carpeting this maple grove today. I should pick one for Mom. Surely one bloom can’t hurt…

Trillium: That’s what you think!

Me: Oh, hello. Sorry, I didn’t realize you were a talking flower. I seem to be running into a lot lately.

T: Spare me the pleasantries. Just get your fingers away from my stem!

M: I don’t see what the big deal is. I mean, it’s just one flower. It will fade in a few days anyways. What’s the harm?

T: First of all, it’s my sexual organ. How would you like someone pulling off yours?

M: Eww, I’d never thought of it like that.

T: I’m not finished! It took me seven years to grow this blossom. Seven. Years. What have you accomplished in that time?

M: Well, I got a biology degree…Wait a minute. Seven years? How is that possible? I thought plants flowered every year.

T: Not trilliums.

M: But seven years, isn’t that a little excessive?

T: We’re pretty slow growing, and we like it that way. It gives us time to scope the place out. In addition, our seeds are pretty needy. We don’t start to grow unless the soil is really moist, and we’ll wait as long as we have to.

M: What happens during those seven pre-flower years?

T: Year one is roots, year two is an embryonic leaf, and year three is the real leaf. Around year five I get one of those voluptuous three-lobed leaves. You have no idea how good that feels.

M: I guess I wouldn’t. But now that you flower every year, what’s stopping me from picking the blossom?

T: Geez, you just won’t let it drop, will you? Okay, I confess, the real problem isn’t actually the flower. It’s the leaf.

M: Really?

T: Yes. It’s very hard to pick the flower without damaging the leaf, which happens to be my only source of food via photosynthesis. Remember how it takes me a full year to grow this thing? If I’m leafless for a year, I can’t make food to get me through the winter. A picked leaf is a death sentence.

M: Gosh, I didn’t realize!

T: Humans rarely do.

M: So what kind of trillium are you, exactly?

T: I’m Trillium grandiflorum, the big white-flowered one. I’m also Ontario’s provincial flower.

M: You seem to be a little bit pink. You’re not a love child between one of these white trilliums and red trilliums, are you?

T: Nope. I’m Trillium grandiflorum through and through. Our petals turn pink as they age. They last up to several weeks, not like those weakling tulips.

M: I see you’re surrounded by dozens of other trilliums. Is each flower an individual plant?

T: You bet.

M: Why do you all live so close together? Don’t you have to compete for nutrients and sunlight?

T: First of all, I’m kind of like a vampire. I don’t like light. I will silently scream in full sunlight. So clear-cutting my forests is bad. It wipes out my colony completely.

M: But why grow in colonies?

T: Well, to tell you the truth, it’s because we have a bit of dispersal problem. While other plants spread their seeds around using birds or the wind, ours are spread by ants. And ants don’t go very far.

M: How do you convince the ants to carry your seeds?

T: Sheer chemical trickery. Half the seed is an elaiosome, or oily appendage. These ant-snacks smell like the insect corpses that ants love to eat.

M: Lovely.

T: Tell me about it. Sometimes the ants are so hungry they break into the fruit and take their seeds back to the nest. They eat their fake dead-insect, then leave the seed to germinate in a tunnel. Nice and buried in the moist earth.

M: Is there anything else that puts you in danger, other than leaf-picking humans and clear-cutting?

T: Deer are not immune to our charms. We get munched on by them a lot. Just the price you pay for being an adorable early-riser in the spring when there’s not much to eat. But if they graze on me to much, they will kill me.

M: Ouch.

T: Yep, if there are lots of deer in area, we can die out within 12 years.

M: That’s awful!

T: Yes, but they did save our butts during the ice age, according to trillium lore.

M: How did they do that?

T: In the ice age it was way too cold for us to grow in Ontario and Quebec. Deer swallowed our seeds and carried them southward in their intestines. Not the most luxurious way to travel, but hey, at least now we’re here to tell the tale.

M: You’ve given me a lot to think about next time I see a trillium.

T: And no picking?

M: No picking, I promise.



Le coût social de la science

Photo par Texas A&M University-Commerce Marketing Communications Photography photostream. 14298-Children's learning center technology-4988.jpg. CC. https://flic.kr/p/nUTtKa

Photo par Texas A&M University-Commerce Marketing Communications Photography photostream. 14298-Children’s learning center technology-4988.jpg. CC. https://flic.kr/p/nUTtKa


(Click here for the English version of this article)

En tant qu’une étudiante de journalisme passionnée par la science, je suis constamment étonnée par les avances technologiques. Pendant mon vivant on a passé des disquettes à l’informatique en nuage.

Mais le 7 mai j’ai assisté à une conférence sur les difficultés avec la technologie émergente. Les points faits par Marc Saner, le directeur sortant de l’Institut de recherche sur la science, la société et la politique publique à l’Université d’Ottawa, m’avaient faire pensée de ces avances d’une façon plus critique.

1. Les investissements dans la science ne donnent pas toujours de la richesse

Il y a des gouvernements qui pensent que les investissements dans la recherche et l’innovation vont mener à des services et produits qui vont enrichir leur pays. Mais ce n’est pas toujours le cas. Des fois une nouvelle technologie est arrêtée à cause des chinoiseries administratives, un manque des fonds ou un manque de soutien de la population.

2. Recherche les effets sociaux, légaux et éthiques d’une nouvelle technologie tôt dans son développement

Identifier qui va bénéficier et qui vont payer le prix. Les technologies ont souvent des effets inattendus, mais des études d’avances peuvent aider la société à s’adapter.

3. N’essaye pas de parler de tout un domaine de technologie. Limite le champ.

On ne dit rien de précis quand on parle de tous les OGM ou tous les téléphones intelligents. Selon Saner, parler de tout un domaine est comme dire que ‘le plastic est mauvais.’ Concentre sur les avantages et désavantages d’un produit spécifique à la place, comme les pommes qui ne s’oxydent pas au lieu de tous les OGM.

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