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.

References

http://www.bioenergytrade.org/downloads/vegetableoilstudyfinaljune18.pdf
http://www.kew.org/science-conservation/plants-fungi/helianthus-annuus-sunflower
http://www.britannica.com/plant/sunflower-plant
http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/sunflower/
http://www.canadasunflower.com/production/sunflower-agronomy/
http://www.gov.mb.ca/trade/globaltrade/agrifood/commodity/sunflowers.html
http://www.agr.gc.ca/eng/industry-markets-and-trade/statistics-and-market-information/by-product-sector/crops/pulses-and-special-crops-canadian-industry/sunflower-seed/?id=1174599801414
https://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/afcm/sunflower.html

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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.

References

http://www.britannica.com/plant/Echinacea

http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/en/article/new-natural-common-cold-cures/

https://nccih.nih.gov/health/echinacea/ataglance.htmhttp://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/druginfo/natural/981.html

https://nccih.nih.gov/about/offices/od/2010-12.htm

http://webprod.hc-sc.gc.ca/nhpid-bdipsn/monoReq.do?id=80&lang=eng

http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/dhp-mps/prodpharma/applic-demande/guide-ld/label-etiquet-pharm/echinace-eng.php

http://www.botanicalgarden.ubc.ca/potd/2014/01/echinacea-purpurea.phphttp://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/PlantFinder/PlantFinderDetails.aspx?kempercode=c5804

http://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/herb/echinacea

http://www.kew.org/science-conservation/plants-fungi/echinacea-purpurea-eastern-purple-coneflower

http://kindscher.faculty.ku.edu/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/Kindscher-1989-Ethnobotany-of-Purple-Conflower.pdf

http://www.gov.mb.ca/agriculture/crops/production/print,echinacea.html

http://www1.agric.gov.ab.ca/$department/deptdocs.nsf/all/agdex578

http://www.agr.gc.ca/eng/about-us/offices-and-locations/canada-saskatchewan-irrigation-diversification-centre/canada-saskatchewan-irrigation-diversification-centre-publications/production-practices-for-echinacea-angustifolia/?id=1193337467277

http://www.agriculture.gov.sk.ca/Default.aspx?DN=7c8fbf9f-10ad-4ffd-a4f9-780db93ee478

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.

References

http://www.ont-woodlot-assoc.org/sw_woodlandplants.html
http://www.biology-online.org/dictionary/Cotyledon
http://ontariowildflowers.com/main/species.php?id=714
http://www.northernontarioflora.ca/description.cfm?speciesid=1002574
http://sunsite.ualberta.ca/Projects/Plant_Watch/plants/whi_tri.php
http://sunsite.ualberta.ca/Projects/Plant_Watch/plants/whi_tri.php
http://www.canada.com/victoriatimescolonist/news/homes/story.html?id=fe609c69-0258-444d-9617-1d59d9f89b64
http://www.louistheplantgeek.com/a-gardening-journal/675-trillium-grandiflorum

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

 

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

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

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

Meet me under the Mistletoe

This plant for love birds is a parasite. Food for thought. Photo by Hornet Photography. Mistletoe-Viscum album. CC. https://flic.kr/p/jKt9Kz

This plant for love birds is a parasite. Food for thought. Photo by Hornet Photography. Mistletoe-Viscum album. CC. https://flic.kr/p/jKt9Kz

In this season of holiday parties and festive family gatherings, let’s take a look at the plant we smooch under in December and then forget for the rest of the year: mistletoe.

Mistletoe is not holly

It’s a common mistake. Hollies are evergreen trees with spiky leaves and red berries. Mistletoe is an evergreen with smooth oval leaves and white berries. It is also a parasite that hangs out in tree branches.

 Stuck on you

Mistletoe doing its parasitic thing. Photo by Neil Howard. Tree with Mistletoe-Hampton Court Palace. CC. https://flic.kr/p/7rSpe4

Mistletoe doing its parasitic thing. Photo by Neil Howard. Tree with Mistletoe-Hampton Court Palace. CC. https://flic.kr/p/7rSpe4

Mistletoe steals food from the tree it lives on. The mistletoe seed latches onto a tree branch and penetrates the bark with its roots. Then it slurps up the tree’s hard-won water and minerals like drinking a bottomless milkshake.

Not only do mistletoe plants have a good view up in the tree, they also get a lot of light. They use this light to make food of their own through photosynthesis.

Some mistletoe species even parasitize other mistletoes. Nature is strange.

All in the family

The mistletoe family, Loranthaceae, has over 1000 species. Most species are tropical. The one we kiss under, Viscum album, grows in temperate Europe, Asia and Africa. Viscum album prefers to grow on commercially valuable trees like apple, oak, poplar and hawthorn.

What do witches’ brooms have to do with Christmas?

Trees have some strange responses to mistletoe infection, like developing these gnarled branches. Photo by Nick Bonzey. Witch’s broom. CC. https://flic.kr/p/2jXZ1z

Trees have some strange responses to mistletoe infection, like developing these gnarled branches. Photo by Nick Bonzey. Witch’s broom. CC. https://flic.kr/p/2jXZ1z

Mistletoe grows very slowly. Viscum album only gets to be about 2-3 feet tall. Mistletoe is almost immortal. It only dies if the host dies. Or if a tree farmer yanks them out with a pole.

Tree farmers are not big mistletoe fans. Severe mistletoe infestations can drain a tree’s resources. Instead of growing taller or producing more apples, the trees spend their energy feeding the mistletoe.

Trees sometimes try to fight back against the mistletoe by growing several branches around it. These branches are often deformed, and are called ‘witches’ brooms.’ Unfortunately, these witches’ brooms suck the tree’s resources even more. If the tree dies, the witches’ broom is often the last part to go.

It’s not all bad though. Birds love to make nests in witches’ brooms. But, then again, birds are also a mistletoe’s best friend.

The dung plant

One way that mistletoe seeds get around. Photo by coniferconifer. Dispersing Mistletoe seeds by Japanese Waxwing. CC. https://flic.kr/p/kW7zJF

One way that mistletoe seeds get around. Photo by coniferconifer. Dispersing Mistletoe seeds by Japanese Waxwing. CC. https://flic.kr/p/kW7zJF

 

How on earth does this air-borne plant make sure its seeds get stuck on tree branches? The answer has two wings and a beak.

Remember those white berries? Each one is full of sticky pulp and a single seed. The pulp is toxic to humans and animals, but not to birds. After guzzling the berries, birds will scrape their beaks against tree bark to remove the sticky pulp. Any seeds that gets scraped onto the bark now have a new home to parasitize.

Birds also poop in  trees and spread the seeds that way. This is where mistletoe got its name. Mistel is an old Anglo-Saxon word for dung. Something to think about while smooching under this fabled plant.

The weird Canadian cousin

Canada has tiny mistletoe that grows on conifers, of course. Photo by Ken-ichi Ueda. Bad Seed. CC. https://flic.kr/p/8Jr92s

Canada has tiny mistletoe that grows on conifers, of course. Photo by Ken-ichi Ueda. Bad Seed. CC. https://flic.kr/p/8Jr92s

 

The mistletoe of holiday traditions is very European, but Canada has some too. Four species, to be exact. In the true Canadian way, they parasitize pine trees.

They belong to a group called Dwarf mistletoe. These itty-bitty plants have 3mm branches and 4mm berries. They have done away with leaves, and have scales instead.

Arguably the coolest thing about dwarf mistletoe is that they spread their seeds by shooting them onto a neighboring branch. As the fruit ripens, pressure builds up until KABOOM! The fruit explodes and the seeds fly out at high speed. If these sticky bullets are lucky, they’ll hit a branch and stick there.

I could see why this isn’t a popular plant to kiss under. Sticky seeds in your up-do simply isn’t sexy.

Mythic origins

Mistletoe is part of a dastardly deed in Norse mythology. Photo by Don Meliton. The death of Balder. CC. https://flic.kr/p/3QsKqv

Mistletoe is part of a dastardly deed in Norse mythology. Photo by Don Meliton. The death of Balder. CC. https://flic.kr/p/3QsKqv

 

Okay, so why do we kiss under these parasitic ‘dung’ plants in the first place?

The mistletoe’s story begins in Celtic Europe. Its evergreen leaves were seen as a symbol of magical power and rebirth, especially during the winter when mistletoe is one the only green things around. Druids used mistletoe in religious ceremonies as a cure-all and to bring good luck.

The mistletoe was also significant in German and Norse mythology, especially when it grew on sacred oak trees. Mistletoe was believed to bring happiness, safety and good luck, as long as it didn’t touch the ground.

Mistletoe plays a starring role in the Norse myth of Baldur’s murder. Baldur was immortal because his mother made everything on earth promise not to hurt him. Some would call that helicopter parenting. She missed the mistletoe, because what could it do? Shoot berries at him?

But Loki, the trickster, made a spear out of mistletoe and tricked another god into killing Baldur with it. Some myths say the mistletoe’s white berries are his mother’s tears. Others say that the gods decided that after this tragic event the mistletoe would bring love instead of death.

As a result, when Scandinavian warriors met an enemy under a mistletoe, it was customary to lay down their weapons for the day. It’s a far cry from kissing, but not killing each other is the first step.

Norse mythology and traditions were adopted by the French and English, who started using mistletoe as a holiday decoration.

Modern-day mistletoe tradition. Photo by Will Folsom. Mistletoe. CC. https://flic.kr/p/b1cZYH

Modern-day mistletoe tradition. Photo by Will Folsom. Mistletoe. CC. https://flic.kr/p/b1cZYH

Reportedly the kissing thing finally happened in England, and was later imported to North America. In some circles kissing under a mistletoe was thought to always lead to marriage, so you had to be careful who you kissed!

Special powers

In Celtic traditions mistletoe was a cure-all. Some groups in Europe used it as an aphrodisiac and to boost fertility. Confusingly, others used it as a contraceptive.

Remember those dwarf mistletoe in Canada? Some indigenous groups in western Canada boiled and ate the berries. They also made a contraceptive tea out of the scaly leaves.

Beliefs about mistletoe’s healing powers continue to this day. Since 1916 mistletoe has been used as an alternative cancer treatment. The poisonous chemicals in the berries were thought to stimulate the immune system and help it fight off cancer.

No clinical trials have proven that mistletoe can cure cancer. That doesn’t change the fact that it is one of the most widely used unconventional cancer treatments in Europe.

There you have it, some interesting facts about mistletoe to share at your next holiday party. See if you can spot any in the trees this winter.

 

References

http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/257150/haustorium

http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/385828/mistletoe

http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/174870/dwarf-mistletoe

http://kids.britannica.com/comptons/article-9275872/mistletoe

http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/mistletoe/

http://thisisafrica.me/trevor-noah-turns-african-stereotypes-america/

http://okeechobee.ifas.ufl.edu/News%20columns/Mistletoe.htm

http://nassau.ifas.ufl.edu/horticulture/gardentalk/pests.html#mistletoe

http://okeechobee.ifas.ufl.edu/News%20columns/Holly.Holidays.htm

http://www.apsnet.org/edcenter/intropp/lessons/miscellaneous/Pages/Dwarfmistletoes.aspx

(lots of good photos)

http://esrd.alberta.ca/lands-forests/forest-health/forest-pests/common-tree-insects-diseases/dwarf-mistletoe.aspx

http://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatmentsandsideeffects/complementaryandalternativemedicine/herbsvitaminsandminerals/mistletoe

Poppies: how a fertility symbol became a symbol of war

Food, drugs, symbols of war and fertility, poppies play many roles. Photo by Jenny Downing. Through the dancing poppies stole a breeze. CC. https://flic.kr/p/bx8qjf

Food, drugs, symbols of war and fertility, poppies play many roles. Photo by Jenny Downing. Through the dancing poppies stole a breeze. CC. https://flic.kr/p/bx8qjf

Last Tuesday was Remembrance Day in Canada, and red felt poppies were everywhere. In Canada, as in many other countries, poppies symbolize those who lost their lives in war.

However, poppies also bring to mind a deadly field in the Wizard of Oz, opium dens and heroin addicts. Where did the poppy, which is arguably just as attractive as a rose, get such a dark reputation?

A one-plant drug factory

Heroin was once a common ingredient in patent medicines. Photo by Karen Neoh. Heroin Bottles. CC. https://flic.kr/p/i4EFNG

Heroin was once a common ingredient in patent medicines. Photo by Karen Neoh. Heroin Bottles. CC. https://flic.kr/p/i4EFNG

Okay, I know everyone wants to know about opium and heroin, so let’s get this out of the way.

Opium and heroin are opiates, drugs that occur naturally in the opium poppy’s sap. Other opiates include the painkiller morphine and the cough-suppressant codeine. Some opiates, like heroin, are more powerful than others.

Out of the 50-plus species of poppies, you can only get opiates from one. The opium poppy, Papaver somniferum, was originally from Turkey. Today it’s grown legally in Australia, India and Turkey to make pharmaceuticals, and illegally in Laos, Thailand and Afghanistan and the United States to make heroin.

Opiates act on the brain and spinal cord to reduce pain and relax muscles. Opiates trick the brain into thinking they are endorphins, the brain’s feel-good chemical. Unfortunately, this also makes them very addictive.

For centuries opium was medicine’s main painkiller. It was taken as pills or added to drinks. Because of its medicinal properties the opium poppy spread from Turkey to Greece, China and India.

In Europe opium was a common ingredient in patent medicines. Morphine was used to treat American soldiers during the Civil war, creating thousands of addicts.

When heroin was discovered in the 1900s, governments quickly made most opiates illegal. After that, the strongest opiates moved underground. Today many opium poppies are grown illegally to feed the habit of millions of heroin addicts.

It’s not all bad. Some people grow the opium poppy for its seeds, used to make oil and birdseed.

A big money-maker

An opium poppy in full bloom. The seed pod sap is where the drugs come from. Photo by Tristan Martin. Opium Poppy. CC. https://flic.kr/p/9XU5WX

An opium poppy in full bloom. The seed pod sap is where the drugs come from. Photo by Tristan Martin. Opium Poppy. CC. https://flic.kr/p/9XU5WX

Today the not-so-strong opiate codeine is one of the world’s most common painkillers. Canadians are some of the drug’s top consumers, spending over $100 million a year on codeine products. All of Canada’s codeine is imported, and some scientists are trying to find ways to make it artificially to avoid import costs.

Origin story

Field of poppies in California. Photo by Rennett Stowe. California Poppies. CC. https://flic.kr/p/4Axv1J

Field of poppies in California. Photo by Rennett Stowe. California Poppies. CC. https://flic.kr/p/4Axv1J

Poppies belong to the Papaveraceae family. Papaver is Latin for food or milk, which refers to the poppy’s milky sap.

Poppies grow all over the place, including the Middle East, China, Europe, Central Asia and North America. Some even grow in the arctic like the strangely named Iceland Poppy actually from North America. The four-petaled Common poppy of Remembrance Day fame is native to North Africa and Southern Europe, but it’s done a good job of spreading itself all over Europe and Asia.

Fabulous Fertility

Poppies have lots of seeds and often grow in farmer's fields. Photo by Bob Shrader. Corn Poppy Red. CC. https://flic.kr/p/jBcoyq

Poppies have lots of seeds and often grow in farmer’s fields. Photo by Bob Shrader. Corn Poppy Red. CC. https://flic.kr/p/jBcoyq

Imagine a poppy seed. You know, one of the black specks in your lemon-poppy-seed muffin. Now imagine 60,000 of them. That’s how many seeds a single plant can make in a single year. This is one reason the Common poppy is a fertility symbol in Europe.

Poppy seeds are patient. They can wait up to 80 years for just the right conditions: churned up and disturbed soil. Poppies love to pop up in newly-tilled fields, so farmers associated them with the fertility of their crops.

Unfortunately, this super-fertile plant started to decline once farmers started using chemical herbicides on their fields. However, poppies still bloom on land farmers set aside, attracting bees and butterflies to pollinate the fields.

Lest we forget

Poppies strewn on a war memorial on Remembrance Day in Ottawa, Canada. Photo by Amelia Buchanan.CC.

Poppies strewn on a war memorial on Remembrance Day in Ottawa, Canada. Photo by Amelia Buchanan.CC.


War also does a good job of churning up fields and creating perfect poppy conditions. Poppies bloomed on many fields after the First World War, inspiring Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae’s poem “In Flanders Fields”. His poem sparked the widespread association between the flowers and those that died in war. Today poppies are a symbol of wartime remembrance in many countries, and artificial poppies are sold in support of veterans.

Tiny edibles

Tiny poppy seeds play a big role in many sweets. Photo by rusvaplauke. Poppy Seed Triangles. CC. https://flic.kr/p/2u5UDW

Tiny poppy seeds play a big role in many sweets. Photo by rusvaplauke. Poppy Seed Triangles. CC. https://flic.kr/p/2u5UDW


What would lemon muffins be without poppy seeds? Poppy seeds are a spice used to flavour cakes and breads. In France they also use the oil of the seed. The bright petals are also used to dye some medicines and wines red, and the young leaves can be eaten like spinach.

Poppies are cultural reminders of war, fertility symbols, spices, illegal drugs and painkillers. Humans owe a lot to this bright red flower.

References

http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/470181/poppy
http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/430129/opium/283761/History-of-opium
http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/430129/opium
http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/en/article/in-flanders-fields/
http://www.kew.org/science-conservation/plants-fungi/papaver-rhoeas-common-poppy
http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/627065/Veterans-Day#ref1089588
http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/en/article/in-flanders-fields/
http://ucalgary.ca/news/march2010/poppygenes
http://www.kew.org/science-conservation/plants-fungi/papaver-orientale-oriental-poppy

Post-Halloween Pumpkin Ponderings

Ever wonder why pumpkins are so popular in the fall? Photo by liz west. Pumpkins. CC. https://flic.kr/p/5msURe

Ever wonder why pumpkins are so popular in the fall? Photo by liz west. Pumpkins. CC. https://flic.kr/p/5msURe

Let’s face it. As food, fresh pumpkins are not popular. In Canada they have a week or two of glory alongside the bulk candy corn and bat-shaped gummies. As thousands of jack-o’-lanterns are sent to the compost today, I look into the history and botany of pumpkins.

Family matters

Okay, first things first. Pumpkins are fruit. They belong to the family Cucurbitaceae, which has a nice ring to it if you like Latin. This family includes pumpkins, squash and gourds. Generally, pumpkins are carved, squash are cooked, and gourds are bumpy decorations.

Origin story

Out of the darkness, a delicious fruit will arise. Photo by DeusXFlorida. Halloween Pumpkins at the field. CC.https://flic.kr/p/8NNSeK

Out of the darkness, a delicious fruit will arise. Photo by DeusXFlorida. Halloween Pumpkins at the field. CC.https://flic.kr/p/8NNSeK


Just like corn and tomatoes, pumpkins are from Mexico. The name comes from Greek word ‘pepon’, which means ‘large melon’.

Like a lot of good stuff to eat, pumpkins made their way north. When the Pilgrims arrived in North America, the aboriginal peoples they met were already growing pumpkins and roasting them over the fire. They also used dried strips to make mats.

Thoroughly convinced of their deliciousness, the colonists started popped pumpkins into stews, soups and desserts. Legend has it that pumpkin pie was invented when someone decided to bake a hollowed-out pumpkin filled with milk, spices and honey. The colonists even made pumpkin beer! They brewed it with hops, persimmons and maple sugar.

Pumpkin eaters

Pumpkin pie, the Thanksgiving favorite. Photo by Jo. CC.  https://flic.kr/p/aDMSUR

Pumpkin pie, the Thanksgiving favorite. Photo by Jo. CC. https://flic.kr/p/aDMSUR

From North America pumpkins made their way to Europe. There it’s served as a vegetable. As we know, in Canada and the U.S. it’s served in pies, muffins, soups and lattes. Oh, wait. There’s actually no pumpkin in pumpkin spice lattes.

Pumpkins are good eating! They’re full of vitamin A and potassium. The flowers are edible too, if you can get them. Pumpkins are also used to feed livestock.

Halloween, or Christmas 2.1

Most of the pumpkins grown in North America turn into Jack-O'-Lanterns. Photo by Clinton Steeds. Pumpkin Carving in the Park. CC. https://flic.kr/p/9cRyQQ

Most of the pumpkins grown in North America turn into Jack-O’-Lanterns. Photo by Clinton Steeds. Pumpkin Carving in the Park. CC. https://flic.kr/p/9cRyQQ

When it comes to spending money on decorations, Halloween is close on the heels of Christmas. In Canada, 90 per cent of the pumpkin crop is sold fresh to be turned into jack-o’-lanterns. Less than 10 per cent is canned. This would explain why the canned pumpkin I purchase is so expensive.

In response to growing decorating demand, pumpkin production in the last 20 years has been increasing. Canada’s crop is worth over $15 million, and is an important source of income for many growers.

Jack-o’-turnip?

This is the scariest Jack-O'-Lantern I've ever seen. It must be the shrunken head look. Photo by IrishFireside. Jack-O-Lantern. CC. https://flic.kr/p/8jEbmP

This is the scariest Jack-O’-Lantern I’ve ever seen. It must be the shrunken head look. Photo by IrishFireside. Jack-O-Lantern. CC. https://flic.kr/p/8jEbmP

The tradition of carving a face in a fruit (which you have to admit, is a little bit odd) comes to us from Ireland and Scotland.

An Irish myth tells of a man named Jack so deceitful that neither heaven nor hell would let him in. His soul was doomed to wander the earth carrying a lantern carved out of a turnip. Yes, you heard right. A turnip.

To keep Jack of the Lantern away, people carved scary faces in vegetables and put them in their windows to scare him away. Europe being pumpkin-less at the time, they used turnips, potatoes and beets instead.

Immigrants brought the Celtic holiday to North America, where it grew to be the commercial scare-fest we see today.

Pumpkins are needy

Every vine produces one or two pumpkins. Notice how far apart they are. Photo by kmadird.CC. https://flic.kr/p/ayicVw

Every vine produces one or two pumpkins. Notice how far apart they are. Photo by kmadird.CC. https://flic.kr/p/ayicVw

For Canadian farmers growing this subtropical plant can be tricky.

Pumpkins love heat and they need space. If it’s too cold they will only produce male flowers, which don’t become fruit. If they are crowded, they produce smaller fruit.

In addition to this neediness, each plant only produces 1-2 large pumpkins. Miniature pumpkin varieties, which nauseating names like ‘Baby Boo’, ‘Sweetie Pie’, ‘Jack-Be-Little’ and ‘Munchkin’, produce 12-15 fruit per plant.

The bee dance

This is one demanding female flower, looking for lots of bee love. Photo by Emilian Robert Vicol. Yellow-Pumpkin-Flowers_59053. CC. https://flic.kr/p/bvuSum

This is one demanding female flower, looking for lots of bee love. Photo by Emilian Robert Vicol. Yellow-Pumpkin-Flowers_59053. CC. https://flic.kr/p/bvuSum


In keeping with their neediness, female pumpkin flowers need to be pollinated at least 15 times to produce fruit. That’s right, 15 times!

Unfortunately, bees don’t like visiting pumpkin flowers because the blooms are too far apart. In addition, there has 10 male flowers for every female flower, which further reduces the chance a bee will visit a female flower.

To add to the stakes, a female flower is only open for one day, usually from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. It’s a wonder we have any pumpkins at all!

References

http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/en/article/pumpkin/
http://napavalleyregister.com/lifestyles/food-and-cooking/not-just-for-halloween-pumpkin-is-a-staple-of-fall/article_b72c05c6-4853-51a4-a892-3ce1cad031fa.html
http://urbanext.illinois.edu/pumpkins/history.cfm
http://urbanext.illinois.edu/pumpkins/facts.cfm
http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/298713/jack-o-lantern
http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/483389/pumpkin
http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/252875/Halloween
http://www.omafra.gov.on.ca/english/crops/facts/00-031.htm

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