Post-Halloween Pumpkin Ponderings

Ever wonder why pumpkins are so popular in the fall? Photo by liz west. Pumpkins. CC.

Ever wonder why pumpkins are so popular in the fall? Photo by liz west. Pumpkins. CC.

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.

Out of the darkness, a delicious fruit will arise. Photo by DeusXFlorida. Halloween Pumpkins at the field. CC.

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.

Pumpkin pie, the Thanksgiving favorite. Photo by Jo. CC.

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.

Most of the pumpkins grown in North America turn into Jack-O’-Lanterns. Photo by Clinton Steeds. Pumpkin Carving in the Park. CC.

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.


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.

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.

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.

Every vine produces one or two pumpkins. Notice how far apart they are. Photo by kmadird.CC.

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.

This is one demanding female flower, looking for lots of bee love. Photo by Emilian Robert Vicol. Yellow-Pumpkin-Flowers_59053. CC.

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!


Who wants to get pollinated? Delightful Daylilies!

Ever seen one of these by the side of the road? They're garden flowers gone wild!Photo by Ralph Daily, Dayliliy, CC.

Ever seen one of these by the side of the road? These garden flowers have gone wild!Photo by Ralph Daily, Dayliliy, CC.

I just got back from an adventure in France and the Netherlands, so sorry I haven’t posted in a while. You’ll probably see some photos of the neat flora and fauna I saw there in the near future. It was great to be unplugged for a bit, but now I’m back at the blog!

About a month ago I visited ‘Les Jardins d’Emmarocalles” a garden in Quebec that showcases “les hemerocalles”. I knew that these were flowers, but I had no idea what kind. Once we arrived it became clear that ‘les hemerocalles’ are daylilies. We spent the afternoon picnicking among daylilies of all of shapes, sizes and colours. As you can imagine, there were bees everywhere! I overheard this conversation near a relatively inconspicuous orange daylily.

Bee: Boy, am I hungry! Which flower should I visit first? Decisions, decisions!

Day lily: Oh, oh, pick me, pick me!

B: No thanks. You’re a lily. I don’t like lilies.

D: Now, that’s not fair. I’m only distantly related to lilies. Just because we look the same doesn’t mean we’re related. It’s what’s inside that counts. I’m quite offended.

B: You’re sure you’re not a lily? I mean, humans even call you “Daylilies”

D: Who are you going to believe, me or some human? For ages they thought we belonged to Liliaceae, the Lily family. However, lately they finally figured out DNA and now I’m in a different family entirely, Hermerocallidoideae! So no, I’m not a lily!

B: Huh. Well if you’re not a lily, why do you look like one?

D: Let me give you an example. Sharks and dolphins have similar body shapes, but one’s a fish and the other is a mammal. When two living things develop the same body shape to do the same job, it’s called convergent evolution. For sharks and dolphins, it’s swimming quickly though the water. For me and lilies, it’s attracting pollinators. If there’s already a shape that works, why reinvent the wheel?

B: Okay, that makes sense. Wait a second, you’re a plant .You can’t move. How do you know about sharks and dolphins?

D: The neighbor across the road has a big screen TV and always watches Discovery channel.

B: Ah. Why are you called Daylily then if you’re not a lily?

D: Because my flowers only bloom for one day.

B: That doesn’t seem like the best way to get pollinated. If I’d missed you today, you’d be out of luck!

D: Not at all! Each flower only blooms for a day, but each of my flower stalks has 10-50 flower buds. I’ll be blooming for a long time yet! In fact, I’ll also bloom again in a month’s time. But pollination isn’t the be all end all. I have…other…ways of reproducing.

B: Yah? Do tell!

D: Instead of blubs, like true lilies, I have an underground root system that can spawn new plants. This is similar to what strawberries do. We like company, so we have a tendency of forming large clumps and taking over any place that we’re planted. We’re awesome and we know it.

B: I knew I’d seen you somewhere before! You’re that orange flower that blooms along the highway in the summer! There’s so many of you. You must be native to Canada, right?

D: Nope. We’re actually native to China, Korea and Japan.

B: Whoa, you’re a long way from home! What are you doing in Canada?

D: It’s kind of a long story.

B: Tell me, I love stories.

D: Okay, if you insist. The earliest reference to us comes from China in 2697 BC. At that time we had about 30 wild species, and we only came in red, orange and yellow. We were completely happy living in Asia, but humans had other ideas. In 1596 they brought us to England. Orange lilies like me were carried over to the US in the late 1800s. Pioneers liked us because we look beautiful without much fussing. We don’t get sick, we resist pests, and we’ll grow in almost any type of soil and climate, from Canada to California. All we need is some sun.

B: Okay, so how did you get from pioneer gardens to highway ditches?

D: We escaped! We’re so good at surviving in North America that we can grow and spread on our own. In fact, in some states we’re considered a noxious weed. That’s the price of success, I guess.

B: I guess so! So what species of daylily are you? You look…frillier…than the ones I see on the side of the road.

D: Goodness, humans have done so much breeding I don’t know what species I am anymore! In the early 1900 they decided they wanted bigger, brighter, and more colourful daylilies. And what humans want, humans generally get. Now we come in over 70,000 varieties, and in every colour of the rainbow except white and blue.

B: Wow, they must really like you!

D: Yup, I’m pretty popular. They like me in their gardens, but they don’t take advantage of my good looks in a bouquet. I don’t know why, because I’d be good at that. Is something wrong?

B: Sorry, I’m a little distracted. Your petals…they’re, they’re sparkling!

D: Yep, humans call this Diamond dusting. There are tiny crystals in our cells that make our petals sparkle! Only a few varieties have this trait. Pick me, I’m so fancy!

B: That aphid’s certainly picked you. Want me to brush her off?

D: Ewww, yes please! Interestingly enough, that species of aphid only feeds on daylilies. Aren’t we special? Slugs and snails also like to munch on our leaves.

B: Do you have other special characteristics?

D: Well, I happen to be a tetroploid.

B: A tetra-what-now?
D: It means I have four sets of chromosomes instead of just two. Originally daylilies had 22 chromosomes. In 1960s, breeders discovered they could double this number by treating us with colchicine, a chemical from a crocus. If a human had double the chromosomes, they would be in major trouble, but plants are special. For daylilies, the more DNA, the better! Daylilies with 44 chromosomes have larger, thicker petals and brighter colours. Nature is strange sometimes.

B: Indeed it is. Well, after that great story, it’s the least I can do to pollinate you.

D: Works every time!


A Great Visual daylily dictionary. Click each part to see detailed photos and definitions

8 things I didn’t know about native bees

Bees come in a rainbow of colours. Check out this shiny green sweat bee. Photo by Jim McCulloch, CC. Sweat bee on coral vine flower.

Bees come in a rainbow of colours. Check out this shiny green sweat bee. Photo by Jim McCulloch, CC. Sweat bee on coral vine flower.

I have a confession to make; I’m an insect geek.

And when it comes to social insects like bees and ants I’m even geekier than usual.

So when I learned that the Learning Garden at the University of Ottawa was holding a free workshop on insect identification, I jumped at the chance to learn more.

One of the coolest things we learned was how to tell the difference between flies and bees. You would think this would be easy, right? Bees are fuzzy with yellow and black stripes. Flies are black and shiny.

In fact, it isn’t that simple! Many of the native bee species in Canada look like tiny flies. Also, many fly species are camouflaged to look like bees so predators won’t mess with them. So how do you tell them apart? Well, look at the antennae. In most cases, flies have short, stubby antennae and bees have long, languorous ones.

Armed with this information, we stepped out into the University’s learning garden to find some insects. Now that I knew what I was looking for, I was amazed to see how many bees there were! They came in all shapes and sizes, from 2mm to 2cm. They also came in an exciting palette of colours, from black to grey to bright green! Even cooler, all these bees were native to Canada!

I first learned about native bees while writing an essay on the possible causes of the major honey bee deaths in North America. I learned that these unsung-heros do a great job of pollinating farmers crops for free! It’s sad that we aren’t taught more about them in school. So I did some reading, and here’s what I found out.

1. Everything you’ve been told about bees is a lie

Okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. It’s more like ‘everything you’ve been told about bees only applies to honey bees’.

Out of 19,000 bee species worldwide, most museums, science centres, schools and documentaries only talk about one: the European Honey bee. You know, the queen with thousands of female workers, the yellow and black-striped workers bringing back nectar and pollen to feed the larvae, the waggle dance to communicate where flowers are located. You’ve heard it all before.

And there’s a good reason to talk about them. European honey bees are commercially valuable. They were domesticated a long time ago to produce honey and pollinate crops. Without pollination, we wouldn’t have fruits like apples, tomatoes, cherries, pumpkins, strawberries or blueberries. In fact, we need pollinators for 1 out of every 3 mouthfuls of food we eat!

The European honeybee is so essential to agriculture that European settlers brought them to Canada. The European Honey bee is now a mainstay of the Canadian economy. However, there were bees in Canada already, around 730 species to be exact! And even though we don’t talk about them very much, they’re still here! For some crops, like blueberries, native bees are even better pollinators than honey bees.

2. They came from underground

Bees weren’t always cute and cuddly pollen-eaters. They used to eat meat! Yep, bees evolved from predatory digger wasps, which still exist today.

Why this drastic change from munching on other insects to sipping nectar? Well, it had everything to do with the arrival of flowering plants. Believe it or not, flowers didn’t exist until the Cretaceous period (1465-65 million years ago). This means that dinosaurs pre-date flowers. Can you imagine a world without flowers? Weird, huh? The evolution of flowers created a whole new food source, and bees, wasps, butterflies and moths evolved to eat it up. Maybe sipping nectar was easier than catching live prey!

3. All by myself…

Considering that honey bees are the poster child of the social insect, I was surprised to learn that most native bees in North America not social at all. They live by themselves, and are called solitary bees. Each female builds her own nest, lays her own eggs, and collects all her own pollen and nectar. Who needs hundreds of sisters when you can be independent?

What does a solitary bee’s life cycle look like? A female finds a male to mate with, then digs or finds a burrow to lay eggs in. She collects a huge ball of nectar and pollen, then lays an egg on top of it. When the egg hatches, the larvae feeds on the pollen, and in the fall becomes an adult. The adults hibernate through the winter to emerge in the spring.

4. Hives? No thanks.

Bee exiting a burrow. Photo by Rob Cruikshank, CC

Bee exiting a burrow. Photo by Rob Cruikshank, CC

Most solitary bees don’t live in fancy hives, but in holes in the ground. Yep, kind of like hobbits. 90% of native bee species lay their eggs in burrows in the ground.

Osima bees have by far the cutest homes. They like to nest in tiny spaces including snail shells, keyholes and even locks!

5. Busy bee? No, lazy bee.

Some bee species trick someone else into doing all the work for them. They lay their eggs in the nests of other bees, and avoid the work of collecting pollen and making a nest. This behaviour is called cleptoparastisitm. So much for busy bees!

6. Bumbling around

The fuzzy Bumble bee is indigenous to Canada. It’s the only bee that sticks around to feed its growing larvae. All other native bees hightail it out of there once the eggs are laid. In the wild, bumble bees also nest in the ground, but usually let someone else do the work. Holes in trees or abandoned rodent dens make a cozy nest. However, domesticated honey bees are managed using hives.

7. Picky, picky

Some Canadian bees are picky eaters. They only collect nectar and pollen from one kind of flower. They aren’t doing this to be difficult. They’re doing it because they have evolved to be perfectly suited to that flower. For example, the bee Melissodes desponsa only visits thistles. Ecologists call picky eaters ‘specialists’. Most Canadian bees are ‘generalists’ which means they can get food from many different kinds of flowers.

8. The extinction factor

Because of their sensitivity to environmental factors, some bee species are prone to extinction. This is especially true for specialists that only feed on one type of flower. If the flower disappears, they are in trouble. And it’s not just climate change that is causing their food to disappear. Many of the flowers we grow in our gardens come from Europe, and most native bees can’t use them for food.In addition, chemical pesticides meant for pesky insect will also kill bees.

Okay, enough doom and gloom. What can you do to help native bees? You can give them food by planting native wildflowers, or by waiting to mow those pesky ‘weeds’ until after they have flowered. You can give them places to live, by leaving bare patches of ground in your garden. You can even install woodblocks with holes drilled into them. These are called trap-nests, and will attract bees that like to live in pre-existing holes.

Want to learn more? Check out this user-friendly field guide to native pollinators by the David Suzuki Foundation. The photos are incredible!

Click to access Pollinator_Guide_5pg.pdf

Oh, and I’ve also decided to open up my blog to comments. If you have comments, questions or suggestions for a post, feel free to post them!

Also, if you haven’t checked out my Art page, you might like it.


Click to access Recommendations%20for%20Conservation%20of%20Pollinators%20on%20FarmlandFinal_DSC.pdf

Blown away by Dandelions

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

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

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

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

1) It is the largest tulip festival in the world

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some fun dandelion facts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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