Tip Top Tulips: The King is in the house

Stripy tulips have a sick and sinister past. The patterns are caused by a virus. Photo by Alexandre Dulaunoy. Tulips. CC. https://flic.kr/p/efAqg4

Stripy tulips have a sick and sinister past. Their light-coloured patterns are caused by a virus. Photo by Alexandre Dulaunoy. Tulips. CC. https://flic.kr/p/efAqg4

 

Amelia: Ladies and gentleman, please help me welcome our special guest…King Tulip!

Tulip: Thank you, thank you very much.

A: What a thrill it is to speak with you after your tour of the Canadian Tulip Festival.

T: My pleasure, I adore interviews. My miraculous bloom only opens for two to three weeks, and I can’t let all this beauty go to waste.

A: You’re one of North America’s most popular garden flowers, but where are you from, originally?

T: This flawless flower has a rocky past. Literally. I was born in Central Asia on the side of the mountain. Every day I struggled against the harsh winds and extreme temperatures. Close to the ground with yawning petals like a daisy, I looked very different than I do today.

A: So what changed?

T: Around 1000 AD some adventurous Turk picked me up and decided to grow me in their garden. I guess I was already too beautiful to pass up. After 700 years of intense breeding I had my first make-over, with needle-sharp petals and an almond shape. They just loved growing me in Turkey.

A: But you were meant to see the world, right?

T: Yesiree, I’m a Rollin’ stone. The Viennese Ambassador to Turkey brought me home to Europe in 1551. Scientist Carolus Clusius was the first one to plant me in the Netherlands. He just wanted me for research, and wouldn’t share his precious bulbs with anyone else. How rude. I knew I was destined to be a star. Luckily some Dutch entrepreneurs stole me from Clusius and spread my seeds all over the Netherlands.

A: You were a big deal in the Netherlands, right?

T: If by a big deal you mean that 80% of the world’s tulips are grown in the Netherlands, or that in the 1630s some tulip bulbs cost as much as a townhouse, then yes, I was a big deal. Still am.

A: I’ve heard about this, it was called Tulip Mania, right? Speculation drove tulip prices through the roof, and the price of bulbs doubled almost weekly before the market crashed in 1637. Why were people willing to pay so much? You are just a flower, after all.

T: How dare you! I am THE flower. Back then I wasn’t just any flower: I was a status symbol. At the time the Netherlands was one of the world’s largest colonial powers, and the rich and newly-rich merchants had money to spend. I was a rare exotic bloom that happened to fit the bill. Ironically, the mosaic virus also helped my rise to fame.

A: Excuse me, did you say virus? Don’t viruses make you sick?

T: Yes, technically they do. But these ones also make pretty patterns all over our petals.

A: How can a virus do that?

T: My flowers are naturally a solid colour, but some viruses strip away the pigment in our petals to reveal the yellow or white underneath. This means that one year I’d be red, and the next I’d be striped like a circus tent! The Dutch had no idea what was happening, but they loved the result.

A: When did they figure out it was a virus?

T: The mosaic virus was the second oldest viral disease to be described in plants, and there are woodcuts from 1576 prove it. During Tulip Mania striped tulips were worth even more because they were so rare. Driven by money, breeders tried using alchemy, paint or pigeon poop to achieve the stripes, but obviously nothing worked. You can’t beat nature for beautiful accidents. It was only in 1920 that scientists found out it was caused by a virus.

A: Does the virus eventually kill you?

T: No, but it does make us grow short and stubby. It also makes it harder for us to reproduce.

A: How do you catch a mosaic virus?

T: Juice-to-juice contact. Aphids like to suck up our sap. If an aphid that bit an infected plant then bites me, it’s game over for my beautiful ruby red petals. Next time I pop up out of the ground, I’ll have stripes.

A: Are stripy tulips still as popular with gardeners today?

T: Yes, but today’s stripy tulips are healthy virus-free hybrids bred to look like the mosaic-infected kind. Today if a tulip bed has a mosaic virus, gardeners destroy them pretty fast. Otherwise the virus will just spread to other beds. It can even spread to related species like lilies. And nobody likes streaked lilies.

A: Yikes! I didn’t realize that the flower industry was so cut-throat.

T: You better believe it, doll-face. That virus is the Devil in disguise. Ironically, I’m more popular worldwide than I ever was during the Dutch tulip craze. Not to mention way more affordable.

A: Alright, thanks for sharing your story with us.

T: My pleasure. Now I’m off to heartbreak hotel to sleep through the winter and rehearse for next year. See you there!

References

Tulipomania: Novelist Michael Upchurch explains how a Turkish blossom enflamed the landscape: [Final Edition]Upchurch, Michael. The Ottawa Citizen [Ottawa, Ont] 20 May 2001: C6.

‘Tulip fire’ hits Ottawa OTTAWA (CP)
The Globe and Mail [Toronto, Ont] 28 May 1981: N.14.

Ottawa tulip winter kill feared
The Globe and Mail [Toronto, Ont] 22 Mar 1980: P.11.

The elegant tulip symbolizes Ottawa in spring.
Cornish, Douglas. The Ottawa Citizen [Ottawa, Ont] 09 May 2000: B4.

Tulips: Dutch find fortunes in flowers: [Final Edition]
The Ottawa Citizen [Ottawa, Ont] 13 Dec 1988: B16.

Tulip: the flower of manias: From its early days in Europe, it has sparked wild adulation and excesses: [FINAL Edition]Robin, Laura. The Gazette [Montreal, Que] 15 May 1997: D.9.

http://wildthings.sarahzielinski.com/blog/theres-a-lot-of-dna-in-tulips/
http://www.hortmag.com/archive/wild_tulips
http://web.aces.uiuc.edu/vista/pdf_pubs/634.pdf
http://www.tulipsinthewild.com/?utm_source=gnb&utm_medium=packet&utm_content=gnbindex&utm_campaign=clb14
http://online.sfsu.edu/bholzman/courses/Spring99Projects/tulips.htm
https://www.lib.umn.edu/bell/tradeproducts/tulips
http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/608647/tulip
http://pss.uvm.edu/ppp/articles/cuttulip.html
http://web.aces.uiuc.edu/vista/pdf_pubs/634.pdf

 

Considering the social cost of science

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

It’s hard to guess what the legal and social consequences of a technology will be while it’s being developed. Marc Saner of the University of Ottawa’s Institute for Science, Society and Policy proposed researching any possible effects early on. Photo by Texas A&M University-Commerce Marketing Communications Photography photostream. 14298-Children’s learning center technology-4988.jpg. CC. https://flic.kr/p/nUTtKa

 

As a journalism student who’s passionate about science, I’m constantly amazed by the technological advances that have happened just in my lifetime, from floppy disks to cloud computing. I can’t help but get excited about all the new solutions researchers are working towards.

But at a May 7 talk on the troubles with emerging technology, the outgoing Director of the Institute for Science, Society and Policy at the University of Ottawa, Marc Saner, made some interesting points that made me think more critically about these advances:

1. Investments in science do not always lead to fame and fortune

Governments have this idea that investing in research and innovation will one day lead to money-making products and services. However, some technologies get tied up in red tape, run out of money or fail to win public approval.

2. Research the social, legal and ethical effects of the new technology early on

Looking at who benefits and who pays the price of a new technology can help society adapt to its often unpredictable effects.

3. Don’t try to talk about an entire field, narrow the scope

It’s hard to say anything accurate about all GMOs or all smartphones. Saner compared this to saying “Plastic is bad.” Stick to discussing the risks and benefits of specific products, such as non-browning apples.

Unrelated to the subject of the talk, I learned that if you identify yourself as a journalism student during the Q&A session, researchers and regulators will seek you out afterwards to tell you about their research and the importance of having journalists who can talk about science accurately. All it takes is one intelligent question, and the stories come to you. Definitely a good technique to keep in my back pocket.

Spring’s early riser: the prairie crocus

Photo by Thomas. Glacier National Park: There's more to these hardy spring plants than meets the eye. Prairie Crocus. CC. https://flic.kr/p/9ZyNXY

Photo by Thomas. Glacier National Park: There’s more to these hardy spring plants than meets the eye. Prairie Crocus. CC. https://flic.kr/p/9ZyNXY

After a long winter purple and white crocuses are finally peeking out in Ottawa gardens. As pretty as they are, my heart will always belong to the prairie crocus, which braves the frosts and high winds on Calgary’s Nose Hill Park.

What’s in a name?

European crocuses. Okay, I can see the resemblance. Photo by Gilles Gonthier. Crocus—Crocuses. CC. https://flic.kr/p/4KcjZN

European crocuses. Okay, I can see the resemblance. Photo by Gilles Gonthier. Crocus—Crocuses. CC. https://flic.kr/p/4KcjZN

First of all, the prairie crocus isn’t a crocus at all. It’s an Anemone, part of the Buttercup family. It’s miles away on the family tree from the pristine European crocuses of the Lily family. The early-blooming plant reminded homesick European settlers of their crocuses back home, so we can thank them for the mix-up.

As much as we’d like to believe prairie crocuses are unique Canadian snowflakes, they’re found all over the northern part of the world. They’re pretty common in Russia and Asia, and from the Yukon to New Mexico. You won’t see them in Ontario though: they stop once they reach Manitoba.

Fake petals

Photo by Erutuon. White center. CC. https://flic.kr/p/r5TrqM

Photo by Erutuon. White center. CC. https://flic.kr/p/r5TrqM

Anemones are imposters. They don’t have true petals. The pale purple parts are actually sepals, modified leaves that protect the bud. Who do they think they’re fooling? The real leaves are fun fractals, and don’t pop up until the flower has faded.

The flower is also the first thing to pop out of the ground. No leaves, no stem, just the flower. It’s only after a few days that the stem starts to grow, pushing up the flower like an elevator.

Satellite dish blooms

Photo by Dean Jarvey. Prairie Crocus. CC. https://flic.kr/p/7Q7TDX

Photo by Dean Jarvey. Prairie Crocus. CC. https://flic.kr/p/7Q7TDX

Okay, so those fake petals are good at one thing: heating up the reproductive parts. They reflect sunlight into the flower’s centre, which can be up to 10 C warmer than the surrounding air. Some cold-blooded spring insects take advantage of this mini-sauna.

Furry flowers
Prairie crocuses are true Canadians, and have the beard to prove it. They’re covered all over in little white hairs, from sepals to root stem.

Parachute seeds

Photo by Edna Wintl. Gone to seed. CC. https://flic.kr/p/o8bMbX

Photo by Edna Wintl. Gone to seed. CC. https://flic.kr/p/o8bMbX

After those fake sepals fall off, each tiny fruit gets a feathery hair. What for? Flying on the wind, of course! It works just like dandelions. Their parachutes are just longer and more languorous. They’ll start flying away during the summer. Once they reach the ground, the seeds plant themselves. Literally. The seeds are spear-shaped with backward pointing hairs. When the hairs get wet and dry they contort, pushing the seed into the leaf litter and soil. Once successfully planted this flower is slow growing, and won’t bloom for three to four years.
More than meets the eye

Prairie crocus flowers pop up in clusters that all come from the same woody taproot. These taproots flower year after year, and some can live up to 50 years. A large specimen can be a foot long and shoot up 40 blossoms at once.

Flowers in peril

Photo by Malcolm Manners. Pasqueflower. CC. https://flic.kr/p/9mVVWa

Photo by Malcolm Manners. Pasqueflower. CC. https://flic.kr/p/9mVVWa

As their name suggests, prairie crocuses are fans of open grassland. They love sunbathing and sandy soils. In fact the flowers only open up if it’s sunny. On cloudy days you’re out of luck. You’ll also see many more on the prairie after a fire, because the long grasses blocking out the sweet sun have burned away. However, because open grassland make such great farmland, the patches of wild prairie in Canada are getting smaller and smaller. This means there are much fewer prairie crocuses in Canada today than when bison roamed the plains. Much fewer bison too for that matter, but that’s a tale for another day.

The early flower gets the bee

There are advantages to arriving early. One is getting the full attention of hungry bees and other pollinators waking up from hibernation. Another is rising earlier than competing plants and taking full advantage of the sun. However, if there’s a frost and the temperature drops to -5 C, it’s a problem for seed production.

It isn’t easy being purple

Photo by David Prairie crocuses make great early spring treats for deer. DeHetre. Munch munch. CC. https://flic.kr/p/8u2GJE

Photo by David Prairie crocuses make great early spring treats for deer. DeHetre. Munch munch. CC. https://flic.kr/p/8u2GJE

Being one of the first flowers on the prairie is great, but it comes with some risks. Hungry herbivores consider it a delicacy after a long winter of dry grass and twigs. The plant’s furry hairs are an adaptation to prevent it from being eaten. It also contains an irritating substance that causes blistering in domestic sheep. However, these defenses don’t seem to deter the deer, elk and ground squirrels that feast on the blossoms. Some Indigenous peoples used the plant’s poison to treat rheumatism, muscular pains and nosebleeds.

There you have it, some of the wonders of the prairie crocus that isn’t actually a crocus.

References
http://plantwatch.naturealberta.ca/choose-your-plants/prairie-crocus/
http://sunsite.ualberta.ca/Projects/Plant_Watch/plants/pra_cro.php
http://www.naturenorth.com/spring/flora/crocus/Prairie_Crocus2.html

Surprisingly sweet sugar beets

On voit le sucre chaque jour, mais on ne pense pas de son origine. Photo par Logan Brumm. Sugar Rush. CC. https://flic.kr/p/7TDG99

Sugar is a big part of our lives, but we generally don’t think about where it comes from. One source grown in Canada may surprise you. Photo by Logan Brumm. Sugar Rush. CC. https://flic.kr/p/7TDG99

Did you know that a quarter of the sugar consumed around the world comes from beets? No, not the red root that turns your pee red. I’m talking about sugar beets.

I learned about these rather miraculous plants two years ago on an internship with a genetics research organization. I was there looking at the challenges of  communicating their complex experiments. During my reading I learned that a lot of the canola and sugar beets grown in Canada were genetically modified. The GMO debate aside, my question was: what the heck is a sugar beet? I’d certainly never seen one.

The ghost beet

Photo par elizabeth.mcquiston. sugarbeet1. CC. https://flic.kr/p/73mfwj

A plump, non-photogenic sugar beet. Photo by elizabeth.mcquiston. sugarbeet1. CC. https://flic.kr/p/73mfwj

There’s a reason I’d never seen sugar beet before. They’re pretty ugly. A big white carrot-shaped thing covered in dirt is not the most appealing symbol for a bag of sugar. In fact, it was hard to find photos of sugar beets for this post.

Sugar beets come from the same family as red beets, even though they look nothing alike. They grow best in temperate climates. In fact, the roots have to freeze for the plant to flower the next year.  Unfortunately Canada’s frigid winters  kill the roots completely, so farmers here  harvest every year. But it’s not big deal because the roots grow very fast over a single season.

Sweet root

Photo par Heather. Sugar Beet Harvest. CC. https://flic.kr/p/gynqqq

Sugar beet pile. Sugar Beet Harvest. CC. https://flic.kr/p/gynqqq

So why do sugar beets make sugar? It’s definitely not for our benefit. For most plants sugar is a temporary energy storage that is generally turned into starch for longer-term storage. However, sugar cane and sugar beets are unique. They don’t turn their sugar into starch, but hang onto it in their  tissues. We humans aren’t complaining, because we can extract it pretty easily. Together, sugar cane and sugar beets are responsible for 90 per cent of the sugar produced worldwide.

Curious crystals

Des cristaux de sucre. Photo par Martyn Wright. Hello Sugar (4). CC. https://flic.kr/p/8TTih5

Sugar crystals. Photo par Martyn Wright. Hello Sugar (4). CC. https://flic.kr/p/8TTih5

In fact, the crystals of sugar beet sugar and sugar cane sugar are identical. They have the same chemical properties, and, most importantly, the same taste.  German chemist Andreas Margaff made this unusual discovery in 1747.His student Franz Carl Achard continued his research on how to make extracting the sugar commercially viable. Today’s sugar beets have been bred to be as sweet as possible, with sugar making up 19 per cent of a root’s weight. I’d like to know what on earth inspired them to test sugar beets, over other sweet roots like carrots. But then again, I’m a bit too fond of carrots for my own good.

Beets of war

La propagande pour encourager l’élevage des betteraves à sucre pendant la guerre. Photo par James Vaughan. WW2- more sugar beets? CC. https://flic.kr/p/7hTDu4

WWII propaganda for sugar beets. It was war that led to the commercialization of the sugar beet.  Photo by James Vaughan. WW2- more sugar beets? CC. https://flic.kr/p/7hTDu4

Sugar beets are nothing new.  Even ancient Egyptians ate them.  However, during the Middle Ages they were somehow relegated to cattle fodder.

After Margaff’s sugar discovery, there were some attempts at industrial production of sugar beet sugar. However, sugar cane from the tropics was popular and cheap, so there wasn’t much incentive to squeeze sugar out of beets.

The quest for another sugar source intensified during the Napoleonic Wars. Great Britain decided to block shipments of sugar cane and other goods from coming into France, much to the chagrin of that country’s pastry-makers. France to quickly bred a sweeter variety of sugar beet and built factories that could extract the sugar. Napoleon encouraged the sugar beet industry and promote the adoption of the finished product. However, after Great Britain lifted the blockade, France went back to using mostly sugar cane. But to this day France remains one of the world’s largest producers of sugar beets.

 

Great Canadian Beet

Photo par Lars Plougmann. Church and sugarbeet. CC. https://flic.kr/p/7PFuq

Huge pile of sugar beets. Photo by Lars Plougmann. Church and sugarbeet. CC. https://flic.kr/p/7PFuq

Canada is 31st in the list of world sugar beet producers. The first factory was built in Farnham, Quebec in 1881. During WWI sugar beets were a pretty important crop in Canada, more so than they are today.

Most Canadian sugar beets are grown in Alberta, Manitoba Ontario and Quebec. Sugar beets work really well in Canada because they can adapt to so different types of soil and temperatures.

Even though we grow sugar beets in Canada, most of the sugar we eat is from imported sugar cane. This boggles the mind, but it’s because producing sugar from beets is still more expensive than producing and shipping cane sugar from the tropics. Sugar beets are used more in the prairie provinces because they are further away from coastal ports where the raw cane sugar sails in. One tonne of sugar beets will give 125 kg of white granulated sugar.

Less sweet byproducts

So how do you get sugar out of a beet? You juice them. Most of the root is liquid, and once the juice is squeezed out there isn’t much left. The solid left-overs are used as high-energy food for cows and pigs. The liquid leftovers include molasses, the sticky black sweeter of gingerbread fame. Apparently cattle like it too.

Another unpredictable sugar beet product is monosodium glutamate, or MSG, a natural flavor-enhancer that boots the taste of certain foods. Even though some people are concerned about MSG, according to the American Food and Drug Administration most people can consume it safely.

Molasses as antifreeze

Apparently the cities of Toronto and Saint John in New Brunswick use a mixture of molasses and road salt for deicing roads. It get so cold that salt alone doesn’t work, so the sugar helps the salt do it’s thing even at -35 Celsius. Not bad for an ugly white beet!

 

References
http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/fr/article/beet/
http://www.ctahr.hawaii.edu/oc/freepubs/pdf/FN-8.pdf
http://sugarbeet.ucdavis.edu/sbchap.html#table1
http://science.howstuffworks.com/life/botany/beet-info.htm
http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/96-325-x/2007000/article/10576-fra.htm

Un secret sucré : les betteraves à sucre

On voit le sucre chaque jour, mais on ne pense pas de son origine. Photo par Logan Brumm. Sugar Rush. CC. https://flic.kr/p/7TDG99

On voit le sucre chaque jour, mais on ne pense pas de son origine. Photo par Logan Brumm. Sugar Rush. CC. https://flic.kr/p/7TDG99

Author’s note: Today I’m practicing my French-language communication skills. Check back in two weeks for the English version of everything you wanted to know about sugar beets, and then some.

Saviez-vous qu’un quart du sucre blanc qu’on mange au monde ne vient pas de la canne à sucre, mais des betteraves? En effet, 10 pour cent du sucre consommé au Canada vient des betteraves à sucre. C’est presque incroyable de penser qu’il y a une similarité entre les betteraves rouges sur l’assiette à côté des patates et le sucre qu’on met dans son café, mais c’est ça.

J’ai découvert ce fait miraculeux pendant un stage à Génome Prairie, où j’étudiais les défis de la communication sur les OGM. Apparemment beaucoup de betteraves à sucre au Canada sont les OGM. Mais pour moi la question importante était : c’est quoi une betterave à sucre?

La carotte fantôme

Photo par elizabeth.mcquiston. sugarbeet1. CC. https://flic.kr/p/73mfwj

Une betterave à sucre. Photo par elizabeth.mcquiston. sugarbeet1. CC. https://flic.kr/p/73mfwj

Une betterave à sucre a l’air d’une grosse carotte blanche. Elles sont de la même famille botanique que les betteraves rouges, mêmes qu’elles se ressemblent peu. Elles aiment les climats tempérés et les racines doivent être gelées l’hiver avant de fleurir l’an prochain. Au Canada les hivers froids tueront les racines, alors les fermiers font la récolte chaque année.

Une racine sucrée

Photo par Heather. Sugar Beet Harvest. CC. https://flic.kr/p/gynqqq

Photo par Heather. Sugar Beet Harvest. CC. https://flic.kr/p/gynqqq

Pourquoi est-ce que les plantes font du sucre? Ce n’est pas pour nous autres, c’est sûr. Le saccharose est un moyen temporaire pour une plante d’entreposer de l’énergie. Normalement, les plantes vont transformer ce sucre en amidon pour l’entreposage long-terme. Mais chez la betterave à sucre et la cannes à sucre, le saccharose s’accumule dans leurs tissus au lieu d’amidon. Ensemble ces deux plantes sont responsables de la production de 90 pour cent du sucre mondial.

Des cristaux curieux

Des cristaux de sucre. Photo par Martyn Wright. Hello Sugar (4). CC. https://flic.kr/p/8TTih5

Des cristaux de sucre. Photo par Martyn Wright. Hello Sugar (4). CC. https://flic.kr/p/8TTih5

En effet, les cristaux du sucre des betteraves à sucre sont identiques aux cristaux de la canne à sucre. Ils ont les mêmes propriétés chimiques, y compris le goût. Le chimiste allemand Andreas Margaff a découvert cette similarité en 1747, et son élève Franz Carl Achard a continué sa recherche sur l’extraction du sucre. Je veux savoir pourquoi ils ont choisi de rechercher les betteraves. Pourquoi pas les carottes? Ils sont bien sucrés aussi. Peut-être que je suis seulement folle des carottes. De nos jours, le sucre dans une betterave représente 19 pour cent de son poids. En effet les racines les plus lourds contiennent le plus de sucre.

Les betteraves en guerre

La propagande pour encourager l’élevage des betteraves à sucre pendant la guerre. Photo par James Vaughan. WW2- more sugar beets? CC. https://flic.kr/p/7hTDu4

La propagande pour encourager l’élevage des betteraves à sucre pendant la guerre. Photo par James Vaughan. WW2- more sugar beets? CC. https://flic.kr/p/7hTDu4

Les betteraves à sucres étaient utilisées comme nourriture en Égypte antique, mais au Moyen Âges elles étaient reléguées à la nourriture du bétail.

Après la découverte de Margaff, il y avait des petits essaies dans la production industrielle, mais le sucre de canne des tropiques était toujours plus populaire et moins cher.

La quête pour une autre source du sucre avait intensifié pendant les guerres napoléoniennes quand la Grande Bretagne a bloqué l’expédition de la canne à sucre en France. Ceci a motivé la recherche en France et d’autres parts d’Europe de développer une variété vraiment sucrée de betterave et de bâtir des usines pour extraire le sucre. Napoléon a encouragé l’industrie et a aidé dans la promotion du sucre à betterave. Après la Grande Bretagne a enlevé le blocus, la France dépendait moins des betteraves à sucre. Malgré ça, aujourd’hui la France et l’un des plus grands producteurs de betteraves à sucre au monde.

Une betterave canadienne

Photo par Lars Plougmann. Church and sugarbeet. CC. https://flic.kr/p/7PFuq

Photo par Lars Plougmann. Church and sugarbeet. CC. https://flic.kr/p/7PFuq

Par contre, le Canada est au 31e rang dans la production mondiale. La première usine pour extraire le sucre des betteraves a été construite en 1881 à Farnham au Québec. C’était aussi un secteur agricole important pendant la Première Guerre mondiale.

Au Canada on cultive les betteraves à sucre en Alberta, au Manitoba, en Ontario et au Québec. Les betteraves sont parfaits pour le Canada parce qu’ils s’adaptent à plusieurs types de sol et climats.
Malgré ça, le Canada importe la plupart de son sucre comme sucre de canne brut parce que son prix de production a diminué plus vite que ceci des betteraves à sucre.

Mais dans les provinces prairies qui sont loin des côtes, c’est toujours plus économique d’acheter du sucre de betterave.

Les sous-produits moins sucrés

Le sucre est dans le jus de bette et une tonne de betteraves donne 125kg de sucre blanche granulé. La plupart de la racine est liquide et après l’extraction de sucre il ne reste pas grande chose. Les restants solides sont utilisés comme nourriture pour le bétail.

Le restant liquide est la mélasse, un produit sucré noire et visqueuse. J’ai de bons souvenirs de la mélasse parce que mon père l’avait utilisé pour faire les muffins et les biscuits de gingembre Noël. Apparemment le bétail le mange aussi. Un autre produit des betteraves à sucre est le glutamate monosodique (GMS), utilisé pour augmenter la saveur de la nourriture. Même qu’il y a des gens qui ont des craints contre le GMS, selon la Food and Drug Administration américaine c’est un produit naturel qui ne pose aucun danger pour la plupart de la population.

La mélasse comme déglaçant

Apparemment les villes de Toronto et Sait John au Nouveau Brunswick utilise un mélange de mélasse et du sel pour le déglaçage des rues. Le sucre fait que le sel fonctionne jusqu’à -35 degrés Celsius, un service bien nécessaire pour ces régions froids.

Les Références
http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/fr/article/beet/
http://www.ctahr.hawaii.edu/oc/freepubs/pdf/FN-8.pdf
http://sugarbeet.ucdavis.edu/sbchap.html#table1
http://science.howstuffworks.com/life/botany/beet-info.htm
http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/96-325-x/2007000/article/10576-fra.htm

Puzzling Pomegranates

Where do these funny fruits come from, and, more importantly, how do you eat them? Photo by Samantha Forsberg. Pomegranate. CC. https://flic.kr/p/q5bhL8

Where do these funny fruits come from, and, more importantly, how do you eat them? Photo by Samantha Forsberg. Pomegranate. CC. https://flic.kr/p/q5bhL8

Last week I took a gamble and picked three pomegranates off the discount fruit and veggie rack. But when I got  back to my kitchen I realized I was vastly under prepared. Was it normal that the seeds were pink instead of red? Were they overripe? What would rotten seeds taste like? Were they worth the six dollars?

It got me curious about pomegranates, so here’s a few things you may not have known about this so-called “super fruit”.

Allergic to rain

Having a fruit split on the tree is the last thing producers want. Photo by Nicolas_gent. Pomegranate open, exposing the bright red arils. CC.  https://flic.kr/p/dvwm13

Having a fruit split on the tree is the last thing producers want. Photo by Nicolas_gent. Pomegranate open, exposing the bright red arils. CC. https://flic.kr/p/dvwm13

You’d think this juicy fruit was born in a steamy rainforest. But it wasn’t.

Pomegranates came from dry, desert-like places like Persia, Iran and Afghanistan. They love cold winters and hot, dry summers and can live through long droughts.

Humidity does bad things to the fruit. If it rains too much the fruit fills up with water and gets soft and becomes difficult to ship. August rain can split the fruit on the tree, sometimes turning them inside out. In addition, too much rain in the spring may cause Alternaria fungus, which gets into the blossom and rots the fruit from the inside out. Eww.

Ancient refresher

Pomegranates were some of the earliest domesticated fruits. Photo by John Morgan. Pomegranates. CC. https://flic.kr/p/4rnCeQ

Pomegranates were some of the earliest domesticated fruits. Photo by John Morgan. Pomegranates. CC. https://flic.kr/p/4rnCeQ

Pomegranates were one of the first cultivated fruits along with olives and dates. The cool, refreshing tree was brought to other arid regions of India, China, and the Mediterranean. Pomegranates eventually made their way to Spain, where the city of Granada is named after them. Today the world’s main producers are still India, Iran, Turkey and Spain.

The Spanish loved the fruit so much that missionaries brought the fruit to Mexico after the conquistadors had finished slaughtering the locals. The missionaries continued to grow the fruit in their gardens as they expanded north to California, which remains the primary U.S. producer.

Suspicious superfruit

Pomegranates are often marketed as cancer-fighting super heros. Photo by Aaron. Pomegranate. CC. https://flic.kr/p/dkeNTg

Pomegranates are often marketed as cancer-fighting super heros. Photo by Aaron. Pomegranate. CC. https://flic.kr/p/dkeNTg

 

Pomegranates have been aggressively marketed for their heart-healthy, cancer-fighting goodness. This is because North Americans are not eating very many, balking at paying high prices for a fruit that is at best daunting to eat.

The superfruit claims are based on laboratory tests that show pomegranates have antioxidant, antibacterial, and antiviral properties. However, these studies were done in test tubes and in mice, and the effects haven’t yet been seen in human. This means there’s no evidence yet that pomegranates can prevent cancer or heart disease.

This doesn’t mean pomegranates are unhealthy. Far from it. They’re full of vitamin C and important nutrients like calcium, iron, magnesium, and phosphorus.

Funky flowers

Photo by four years. Some people grow pomegranate trees simply for the beauty of their flowers. Pomegranate tree. CC. https://flic.kr/p/7f8maB

Photo by four years. Some people grow pomegranate trees simply for the beauty of their flowers. Pomegranate tree. CC. https://flic.kr/p/7f8maB

The crown on top of a pomegranate is made from the leftover petals from the blossom. Pomegranate plants have male flowers, which don’t make any fruit, and flowers with both male and female parts, which do. They are pollinated by bees.

Many people grow pomegranates as ornamentals because of their attractive orange-red flowers. In tropical America it’s grown in gardens just for show, because, as we know, humidity does bad things to the fruit.

Hedge fund

Most pomegranates grow as bushes or hedges. Photo by Glen Belbeck. Euope 2011 506. Pomegranate bush. CC. https://flic.kr/p/aDP3ux

Most pomegranates grow as bushes or hedges. Photo by Glen Belbeck. Euope 2011 506. Pomegranate bush. CC. https://flic.kr/p/aDP3ux

While pomegranates can be coerced into being a tree, they really prefer to be hedges and bushes with multiple trunks. In fact, hedges are often better for farmers than trees. Pomegranate trunks are very sensitive to frost, and if grown in a bush farmers can lose a few trunks to frost without losing most of their crop.

Amazing arils

Repeat after me: these are not seeds! Photo by Aaron. Pomegranate. CC. https://flic.kr/p/dkeNTg

Repeat after me: these are not seeds! Photo by Aaron. Pomegranate. CC. https://flic.kr/p/dkeNTg

What’s an aril? It’s the little sac of juice around each seed in the pomegranate, the part that actually tastes good.

By definition, an aril is sweet, attractive tissue stuck to a seed that makes birds and animals want to eat them and poop them out somewhere else. Other plants, like yew trees, also have arils.

Pomegranate arils can range from white to dark red. White or pink are usually sweeter than dark crimson.

While we’re on the topic of colour, in North America we’re used to the Wonderful variety of pomegranates with a bright scarlet peel, but the peels of other varieties can range from off-white to yellow to purple.

What to do with them?

Arils are used in snacks, salads and desserts. Photo by stu_spivack. Ricotta cheesecake. CC. https://flic.kr/p/5ZiT9i

Arils are used in snacks, salads and desserts. Photo by stu_spivack. Ricotta cheesecake. CC. https://flic.kr/p/5ZiT9i

My biggest question about pomegranates was how to eat them. Apparently my technique of cutting them in half is not the most efficient answer. The best is to slice off the top near the stem, score the skin into segments and then pull the segments apart. If you put the fruit in a bowl of water while you’re doing this the peel floats to the top and the arils will sink.

Ripe pomegranates look slightly square because the ripening arils push against the sides and flatten them. An unripe fruit is round like an apple. Whole fruit will keep up to 2 months in the fridge, and fresh juice or seeds up to 5 days. The arils can also be frozen.

Grenadine syrup, a flavoring for mixed drinks and an ice cream topping, is made from pomegranate juice. Apparently you can also make pomegranate wine, puddings and jellies.

Now you’ll have something to ponder next time you dissect a pomegranate.

References

http://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/herb/pomegranate
http://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/citrus/pomegranate.htm
http://ucce.ucdavis.edu/rics/fnric2/crops/pomegranate_factsheet.shtml
http://www.crec.ifas.ufl.edu/extension/pomegranates/botany.shtml
http://pomegranates.org/index.php?c=5

Sticky tongues and feather nose-plugs: Interview with a Downy Woodpecker

The Downy Woodpecker is the smallest woodpecker in Canada. Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar. Downy Woodpecker. CC. https://flic.kr/p/9sMxyK

The Downy Woodpecker is the smallest woodpecker in Canada. Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar. Downy Woodpecker. CC. https://flic.kr/p/9sMxyK

Me: Hey there, can I speak with you for a moment?

Downy woodpecker: Aaah! You scared me with your super-loud voice. I spend my time listening to insects crawling around in wood, remember?

Me: Sorry, I’ll whisper instead.

D: Much appreciated.

M: How do you get the bugs out of the tree once you find them?

D: I have a long, sticky, barbed tongue, kind of like a chameleon. After I drill a hole in a tree, I’ll shoot my tongue inside to scoop up the insects. When I’m not using it my tongue sits nestled around the back of my head between the skull and skin.

M: That’s kind of weird. Do you get headaches from hammering trees all day?

D: Nope. We have thick skulls and neck muscles to keep our brains, such as they are, un-addled.

M: I see that you’re currently drilling holes in thin, tiny branches. Wouldn’t you be better off looking on the trunk, where most of the other woodpeckers hang out?

D: Why would I follow the crowd? As the smallest of the 13 woodpecker species in Canada, I can find food where no one else can. I can make holes in branches less than 10cm in circumference, which gives me a lot more options than birds with bigger beaks and gangly bodies. Small is beautiful, if you ask me.

M: Maybe so, but small also means more things can eat you.

D: Touché. Small birds of prey like hawks and Kestrels are our main enemies. They like to snag us while we’re flying, but if we’re on a tree we’re usually safe. If something scary comes along we’ll use the branch as a shield, darting to the other side like squirrels do.

M: Aren’t you damaging the trees by making all those holes?

D: Maybe a little bit, but we’re also eating the pesky insects that damage the tree’s insides. Wood boring beetles that kill trees? We got those. We also eat insects that spread diseases like Dutch elm disease. Anyway, we don’t usually drill holes in perfectly healthy trees. We prefer diseased, dying or rotting trees.

M: Why are you called the “Downy” woodpecker? Were you named after the toilet paper?

D: Why would you even think that? Downy refers to the beautiful strip of soft white feathers down my back. They set off the little red pompom on my head wonderfully, don’t you think?

M: Um, sure. How’s the winter treating you so far? You don’t migrate, right?

D: That’s correct. We’re found all over Canada except in the far North. If there isn’t enough food in our northern Alberta and Ontario range we’ll move south, but generally we stay put.

M: Do you have a good stash of food to keep you through the winter?

D: Stashing food? Please. That’s just lazy. Unlike some birds like chickadees, we don’t hide food. There’s tons of sleepy insects hiding under tree bark to keep us full all winter.

M: Are insects the only thing you eat?

D: They’re about three quarters of our diet, but I won’t say no to fruit.

M: What’s in store for this spring?

D: Oh, it makes my head hurt just thinking about it.

M: Why’s that?

D: I’m responsible for hollowing out the nest each year. That’s two to three weeks with my head stuck in a 20-30cm hole in a tree. Thank goodness I have feathers over my nostrils to keep out the sawdust. Otherwise I’d be sneezing for months!

M: I want to sneeze just thinking about it. Does your wife help make the nest too?

D: Not really. She claims she’s ‘protecting our territory’ while I have my head in the tree. Her job is to chase other woodpeckers away from our prime nesting site. I say she’s just trying to avoid the grunt work. Sometimes she has the nerve to change her mind about the nest mid-drill, and guess who has to start another hole!

M: That does sound trying.

D: Tell me about it! I’ll drill non-stop for 20 minutes at a time, throwing the lose chips over my shoulder. I’m so tired at the end of the day that I usually sleep in the unfinished nest.

M: Does your mate join you for some cuddling?

D: Oh no. She needs her own space. Even when it isn’t breeding season, we have our own sleeping holes. Anyways, she snores, so I prefer sleeping alone.

M: What’s it like when the babies show up?

D: We’ll take turn guarding the doorway of the nest. The opening is so narrow that most predators like squirrels can’t get into it, but snakes are more than happy to sneak in and snatch a baby. Our chisel-like beaks are pretty good at making them change their minds.

Thankfully, the kids grow up fast, by 17-18 days they’re full grown. Then they crawl up the cavity wall and peek out. At this point they are eating so much that we have to bring them meals every three minutes. Eventually my wife and I get fed up and start bringing less food. This encourages them to lean out of the nest wondering where the heck we are with the next grub, and often they fall out and fly.

M: Why do you bang on metal lamp posts and wood siding? There’s no insects in there, you know!

D: We’re not looking for food, we’re communicating. Why waste your voice when you can bang on things? We hammer our beaks on hollow structures like tree stumps, stop signs, drainpipes or chimneys. We usually do it in early spring, to attract a mate and protect territory. This kind of drumming is more annoying to people than damaging to your infrastructure.

M: What can people do if they don’t like you drumming on their house?

D: Well, if they want to scare us away, we’re not a fan of mirrors, reflective tape or streamers.

M: Thanks for the advice, and see you again soon.

D: You certainly will! As one of the most common birds in Eastern North America, our population has only increased in the last twenty years.

References
http://onnaturemagazine.com/ontario%E2%80%99s-woodpeckers.html
http://www.birds.cornell.edu/wp_about/biology.html
http://www.birds.cornell.edu/wp_about/insects.html
http://www.hww.ca/en/species/birds/downy-woodpecker.html

Symbol of love? Not so much. Interview with a snarky swan

This trumpeter swan has a bone to pick with us. Photo by Rick Harris. Swan [1]. CC. https://flic.kr/p/BAzX9

This trumpeter swan has a bone to pick with us. Photo by Rick Harris. Swan [1]. CC. https://flic.kr/p/BAzX9

Me: This Valentine’s Day I decided to talk to the most romantic bird of all: the swan.

Trumpeter swan: If you get any closer I’ll break your arm with my wing.

Me: Whoa, that was uncalled for! Not to mention unattractive, coming from the symbol of beauty and faithful love.

Swan: Hey, I never asked to be a symbol of anything. I’m just an animal like any other that eats, breeds, poops and dies.

Me: But you do mate for life, right?

Swan: Yes, most of the time. If the egg-laying thing doesn’t work out, we’ll generally split and find another hot swan who’s more fertile.

Me: That’s kind of harsh.

Swan: Well, get used to it. Life is harsh. Speaking of harsh, if we’re such an important symbol of love, why did you hunt us nearly to extinction? In 1933, there were only 77 breeding pairs of Trumpeter swans left in Canada. So much for love and compassion.

Me: That’s awful! But I can’t say I’m surprised. We’re pretty good at hunting things to extinction. Dodo, passenger pigeon, you know.

Swan: Yes, I’ve heard. We used to live across Canada, from the Yukon to the St. Lawrence River. The indigenous peoples ate our eggs and meat and used our feathers, but at least they did it sustainably. Then some dumb Europeans came and decided to kill most of us for meat, skin and feathers. I guess they thought they deserved to wear our feathers more than we did.

Me: I said I was sorry, okay! What does your population look like today?

Swan: Fortunately for us, some 1916 tree-huggers decided make hunting us illegal under the Migratory Birds Convention, an agreement between the U.S. and Canada. Little by little, by feeding us during the winter and reintroducing us to places we once lived, we bounced back. Now there are about 16,000 wild trumpeters in North America, and we’re no longer in danger of extinction.

Me: Yay!

Swan: Oh yes, whoopee. We’re a little bitter, as you can see.

Me: Do you have any other predators?

Swan: Besides humans? Not really. Eagles, owls, coyotes and mink may take a baby on occasion, but as adults we’re pretty big birds to kill. Much like the Canada goose, not much out there is big enough to eat us. We’re also really strong. I wasn’t kidding about breaking your arm with my wing. I fight off coyotes and dogs that way.

Trumpeter swans are the heaviest bird in North America. Photo by Emily Carter Mitchell. Trumpeter Swan. CC. https://flic.kr/p/qD9eKK

Trumpeter swans are the heaviest bird in North America. Photo by Emily Carter Mitchell. Trumpeter Swan. CC. https://flic.kr/p/qD9eKK

Me: I’m just noticing now how huge you are.

Swan: Yep, largest waterfowl in North America. I may have a three-metre wingspan, but I’m a lightweight, only weighing 10-12 kilograms.

Me: I guess a lot of that bulk is feathers, right?

Swan: You got it. Our down is five centimeters thick, and makes minus 30 feel balmy. Your fancy Canada Goose jacket has nothing on us.

Me: All that soft down would make for nice cuddling, wouldn’t it?

Swan: There you go getting all touchy-feely again.

Me: So what are you doing these days?

Swan: Well, in the winter my main job is to not starve to death. My favorite thing to eat is plants covered in water, so I have to find places where the water isn’t covered in ice. British Colombia is pretty good for that, because salt water estuaries don’t freeze. There’s also some hot springs in the mountains that stay clear of ice all winter.

Me: What kinds of things do you eat?

Swan: We eat roots that we pull out muddy river bottoms. I can’t think of a less sexy eating habit.

Me: Spring nesting must be romantic, though.

Swan: I guess. We build our nests in the middle of water, often on old beaver lodges or dams or floating vegetation. My partner and I use the same nest year after year. No romantic gestures there, just simple practicality. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Me: How many eggs do you lay?

Swan: Generally five to six. I sit on them for 32 days. 32 days of sitting on bumpy objects and not being able to fly because I’m moulting. I can’t think of anything less romantic.

Me: I’d love to come see your babies in the spring!

Swan: I wouldn’t do that if I were you. I can get pretty aggressive.

Me: More so than today?

Swan: Touché

References
http://nandugreen.typepad.com/chasing_the_wind/trumpeterswans.html
http://www.hww.ca/en/species/birds/trumpeter-swan.html
http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/swan/
https://suite.io/rosemary-drisdelle/205j27t
http://www.abbeville.com/blog/?tag=trumpeter-swan

Une interview avec un Carouge à épaulettes

Le carouges à épaulettes es un des oiseaux les plus répandu au Canada. Photo par Jordan Walmsley. CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/champofsomething/8758859270/-

Le carouges à épaulettes es un des oiseaux les plus répandu au Canada. Photo par Jordan Walmsley. CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/champofsomething/8758859270/-

Si vous n’avez jamais randonné au long d’une rivière Canadienne l’été, vous avez sûrement entendu la chanson d’un Carouge à épaulettes. J’ai fait une interview avec un de ces oiseaux pour plus apprendre sûr son mode de vie.

Amelia : J’ai entendu dire que vous êtes probablement l’oiseau le plus répandu au Canada.

Carouge : Très chère, nous sommes loin d’être banals. Nous sommes autant à l’aise en Alaska qu’à Cuba. Mais il y a un prix à tout, même le succès.

A : Qu’est-ce que vous voulez dire?

C : À cause de notre abondance, nous ne sommes pas protégés par des lois comme des espèces en voie d’extinction. Ainsi, les humains nous tuent en grand nombre.

A : Pourquoi est-ce qu’ils veulent vous tuer? Vous ne faites mal à personne.

C : Vos voisins aux États-Unis ne sont pas d’accord. Nous sommes au Canada qu’en été pour élever nos petits. L’hiver nous voyageons aux États-Unis pour nous reposer et nous goinfrer. On aime voyager en groupe…des grands groupes, avec des centaines d’individus. Nous préférons le blé, le riz et les grains de tournesol. C’est délicieux!

A : J’imagine que les propriétaires de ces champs ne sont pas content de vous voir, hein?

C : Vous avez raison. Des fois nous mangeons entre 1 et 2% de la récolte, ou même 25% de la récolte des grains de tournesol. Comment pourrions-nous à toute cette nourriture, là, à un battement d’ailes? Nous aidons aussi les fermiers en mangeant les insectes nuisibles de leurs champs. Mais les fermiers ne le voient pas de cet œil-là.

A : Que font les fermiers pour vous enlever de leurs champs?

C : Certains fermiers on recourt à de la musique assourdissante, des canons d’air et même des avions télécommandées. D’autres enlèvent les massette-quenouille et les joncs, notre habitat préféré.

A : Mais d’autres vous tuent?

C : Oui, malheureusement. Ils nous tirent dessus, ou empoisonnent leurs grains. Les pires sont ceux qui vaporisent leurs champs avec des surfactants. Ces produits chimiques empêchent nos plumes de nous protéger contre le froid. J’ai vu plein d’amis mort d’hypothermie et ce n’était pas très joli.

A : C’est affreux, mais je peux comprendre les actions de ces fermiers. Ils essayent de nourrir leurs familles, après tout.

C : Je suis d’accord, mais je préfère les méthodes non létales.

A : Sans transition, je veux parler de quelque chose de plus joyeuse. Explique-moi ce qui se passe en printemps, quand vous êtes ici au Canada.

C : En effet, le printemps me stresse beaucoup. Pour les mâles comme moi, notre territoire est de la plus grande importance. Les femelles s’en fichent si tu es le plus beau ou chant vraiment bien. Tout ce que la concerne est de trouver un endroit sûr pour cacher son nid. Donc le mâle avec le meilleur territoire va avoir les meilleures femelles.

A : Il me semble que la concurrence est féroce! Il rassemble à quoi, un territoire idéal?

C : Les femelles aiment beaucoup les marais. Puisque vous humains aimez assécher les marais, ils sont de plus en plus difficile à trouver. Nous nous contentons de trouver un parc urbain près de l’eau.

A : Pourquoi est-ce que l’eau est si importante dans vos territoires?

C : Il y a beaucoup d’animaux, comme les corbeaux et les ratons laveurs, qui aimeraient manger mes bébés. Si ma femelle bâtit son nid au-dessus de l’eau, il est plus difficile pour les prédateurs d’y accéder.

A : Ce n’est pas dangereux pour les bébés, de vivre au-dessus l’eau?

C : Pas du tout! S’ils tombent du nid, nos oisillons peuvent nager des courtes distances.

A : Incroyable! Est-ce que vous pouvez toujours nager?

C : Non, j’ai perdu cette capacité en devenant adulte.

A : À quel âge êtes-vous devenu adulte?

C : Selon moi, trop tard! J’avais trois ans quand j’ai finalement poussé mes épaulettes rouges. Avant cela j’étais un ado quelconque, avec aucune chance de se battre avec les adultes pour un territoire. Je traînais avec des autres ados célibataires, et je rêvais du jour où j’aurais un harem!

A : Désolée, vous avez dit un harem?

C : Bien sûr! Nous ne sommes pas faits pour rester avec la même partenaire toute la vie. Il y a entre cinq à quinze femelles sur mon territoire, et ce ne sont pas les mêmes femelles chaque année. C’est beaucoup de travail de défendre autant de nids. Mais quand je vois les visages des petits, je sais que ça en vaut la peine. Même si le petit visage ressemble à mon voisin de côté.

A : Est-ce que vous êtes en train de suggérer que vos femelles sont infidèles?

C : Oui. Je sais que 25-50% des petits sur mon territoire ne sont pas les miens. Comme je t’ai dit, les femelles sont avec moi pour mon territoire, pas pour mes gênes.

A : Okay, peut-être une question moins gênante. Ils servent à quoi, vos épaulettes rouges?

C : Mes épaulettes sont les signes de ma virilité. Je les utilise pour défendre mon territoire et pour attirer les femelles. Mais quand je suis en train de manger avec mes gars, je les cache pour éviter une dispute.

A : Merci bien pour votre temps.

C : De rien. Excusez-moi, mais j’ai un harem et un territoire à défendre. À plus tard.

References:

http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/birding/red-winged-blackbird/?rptregcta=reg_free_np&rptregcampaign=20131016_rw_membership_r1p_intl_ot_w#
http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/184/articles/introduction
http://www.hww.ca/en/species/birds/red-winged-blackbird.html
http://cwf-fcf.org/en/discover-wildlife/flora-fauna/fauna/birds/life-of-a-blackbird.html
http://www.birdcanada.com/ravishing-red-winged-blackbirds/
http://www.allaboutbirds.org/Page.aspx?pid=1807
http://www.wild-bird-watching.com/Red-winged-Blackbird.html#sthash.jMMAIk7F.dpbs
http://www.arkive.org/red-winged-blackbird/agelaius-phoeniceus/
http://www.learner.org/jnorth/tm/rwbb/RedwingPoisoning.html

Alarming Avocados

Not all avocados are green and pear-shaped. Some are spherical, black and even purple. Photo by ruurmo. Aguacates para todos. CC. https://flic.kr/p/fN5wX (pile)

Not all avocados are green and pear-shaped. Some are spherical, black and even purple. Photo by ruurmo. Aguacates para todos. CC. https://flic.kr/p/fN5wX (pile)

 

Scooping the flesh out of an over-ripe avocado the other day, I thought, what a weird fruit. The more I researched the avocado, the more I realized that yep, this plant really is weird. Here’s why.

Origin Story

Crazy fact: the avocado was domesticated so long ago that we don’t know what its wild ancestor looked like.

Humans in Mexico were growing avocados long before history was being recorded. They called it ahuacatl, and it’s still called that in some parts of Mexico.

The Incas discovered avocados between 1450 and 1475 when they happened to take over an area where the fruit were grown. The Inca called the fruit aguacate. The fruit was grown from the Rio Grande to central Peru before Europeans arrived.

The European explorers were quick to adopt the aguacate. They liked by the buttery texture but the native name eluded them. Various mangled versions of the name ‘aguacate’ started popping up in European documents.

The avocado quickly spread from Mexico to other areas with the same climate. A bunch were planted in the West Indies. In 1833 they were introduced to Florida, and California got some in 1871. Today avocados are grown around the world, from New Zealand to Indonesia. Mexico is the leading exporter of avocados, followed by California, Israel and South Africa.

How about an alligator pear sandwich?

What do you call a bumpy green fruit? Photo by torbakhopper HE DEAD. CC. https://flic.kr/p/fpwPr

What do you call a bumpy green fruit? Photo by torbakhopper HE DEAD. CC. https://flic.kr/p/fpwPr

Remember how the European explorers had trouble with ‘aguacate?’ Well, the name mangling got worse, as common names often do.

By the beginning of the 20th century, there were at least 40 different names for avocado. These included avigato, albecatta, avocatier, avocatt, midshipman’s butter, vegetable butter, butter pear and my personal favorite, alligator pear. Well, it’s pear shaped and scaly like an alligator, right? Makes sense.

The showdown to choose the correct name happened in the United States. California called the fruit aguacate, while Florida liked alligator pear. Neither of them wanted to change the name. However the powers that be in the U.S. Department of Agriculture decided that alligator pear was unpleasant, and suggested avocado instead. After some scuffles, the name avocado became the industry standard. In a different world, we would have alligator pears in our sandwiches.

A flower with an identity crisis

Avocado flowers. Photo by Cayobo. Avocado Flowers. CC. https://flic.kr/p/zbPB

Avocado flowers. Photo by Cayobo. Avocado Flowers. CC. https://flic.kr/p/zbPB

Avocados make over a million flowers, but less than 0.1% ever become fruit.

Like a lot of flowers, each avocado flower has both male and female organs. Here’s where it gets crazy: the parts don’t work at the same time. The flower only opens for two days. On the first day, only the female organs work. For two to three hours. On the second day, only the male organs work. No other plant does this. I told you avocados were weird. The botany word for this is dichogamous. Isn’t science grand?

Because of this unique pollination system, if a tree is all on it’s lonesome, it’s out of luck. It can’t pollinate itself, so it won’t have any fruit. Growers have to be careful to mix varieties whose male and female organs work at the same time of day. Thankfully there are over 1,000 different avocado varieties, so this isn’t too hard to do.

Berry nice to meet you

The creamy avocado is a fruit, but what kind? Photo by Jaanus Silla. Avocado. CC. https://flic.kr/p/68eBn2

The creamy avocado is a fruit, but what kind? Photo by Jaanus Silla. Avocado. CC. https://flic.kr/p/68eBn2

Avocados are actually berries. In the world of botany, berries are fleshy fruit that grow from a single ovary. Think blueberries, tomatoes, bananas, and even pumpkins.

You can try planting an avocado seed, but it will be five to 13 years before you’ll get a fruit out of it. If you’re impatient like me, you can always pick up one up at a grocery store. It will take 7-10 days to ripen at room temperature. To make it ripen faster, put it in a bag with another ripe fruit like an apple or banana.

Tree time

Avocado tree in bloom. Photo by Cayobo. Avocado Tree In Bloom. CC. https://flic.kr/p/mg7qZw

Avocado tree in bloom. Photo by Cayobo. Avocado Tree In Bloom. CC. https://flic.kr/p/mg7qZw

Avocados grow on trees. They can be up to 60 feet (20 metres) tall, but farmers usually prune their trees to keep them under 15 feet. These trees are tanks. 400-year old wild avocado trees in Mexico are still making fruit.
When a tree is 5-7 years old it yields 200-300 fruit per year. However, the trees like to take a break, so a bumper-crop year is usually followed by a slow year. This can be a problem because avocado demand doesn’t have yearly cycles. People want their guacamole, and they want it now.

Economic boom and bust

The alternating cycle of avocado trees makes life hard for avocado farmers. The industry loses millions of dollars during low crop years. Researchers are trying to find ways of getting the trees to produce the same every year, but no luck so far.

In 1965 California found an innovative solution to the problem of too many avocados in bumper-crop years; freezing then in liquid nitrogen. They could be thawed later to use in restaurants and airlines. Wait, they serve avocados on airplanes? I must be taking the wrong flights.

Sugar or spice. Or both.

People use avocados for all sorts of things, even ice cream. Photo by Kimberly Vardeman. Avocado Ice. CC. https://flic.kr/p/9VsoZE

People use avocados for all sorts of things, even ice cream. Photo by Kimberly Vardeman. Avocado Ice. CC. https://flic.kr/p/9VsoZE

The cool thing about avocados is there is no right way to eat them.

In North America we eat them in salads and sandwiches. In some places in South and Central America an avocado with salt, tortilla and a cup of coffee is a complete meal.

In Brazil, it’s a dessert mixed with ice cream and milkshakes. They have avocado ice cream in New Zealand too. In Java, avocado is mixed with sugar and black coffee.

Ever wonder why we eat avocados raw? Ever thought of cooking one? Well, I wouldn’t try it. Avocados get bitter when they’re cooked, because they’re full of chemicals called tannins.

Weird by-products

Think there's no avocado in this soap? Think again. Avocado oil is popular in lots of products. Photo by Erin Costa. Pink Strawberry Soap_KRISTIE 2. CC. https://flic.kr/p/bmC7W4

Think there’s no avocado in this soap? Think again. Avocado oil is popular in lots of products. Photo by Erin Costa. Pink Strawberry Soap_KRISTIE 2. CC. https://flic.kr/p/bmC7W4

Avocado oil keeps for a long time, up to 12 years at four degrees C. Because of this stability, avocado oil is used to make facial creams, hand lotions and fancy soap. In fact, 30% of the Brazilian crop is made into oil. The leftover flesh is used to feed farm animals once the oil has been squeezed out.
Strangely enough, the avocado’s huge seed contains a white fluid that turns dark red when exposed to the air. The Spanish conquistadors used it as ink.

Now you have something to ponder over your next bowl of guacamole, or avocado milkshake.

References
http://ucavo.ucr.edu/General/ThreeGroups.html
http://ucavo.ucr.edu/General/FruitBerry.html
http://ucavo.ucr.edu/General/Answers.html#anchor738397
http://ucavo.ucr.edu/General/HistoryName.html
http://ucavo.ucr.edu/General/Introduction.html
https://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/morton/avocado_ars.html
http://ucavo.ucr.edu/AvocadoVarieties/Hass_History.html
http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/45866/avocado
https://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/morton/avocado_ars.html
https://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/morton/avocado_ars.html
http://ucavo.ucr.edu/Flowering/Figure3.html
http://ucavo.ucr.edu/Flowering/FloweringBasics.html

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