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

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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

7 things you didn’t know about brussels sprouts

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

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


When I first saw brussels sprouts at a farmer’s market I was flabbergasted. Who knew that these little cabbages grew along a large stick, looking for all the world like a medieval club?

What were these bizarre little veggies anyways? Why do I suddenly love them after hating them as a child? Okay, adding sautéed bacon and garlic may have something to do with it.

What’s in a name?

Why are they called brussels sprouts? Because it sounds better than Paris sprouts or Rome sprouts?

Brussels sprouts were first grown by the Romans. By 1586 the Belgians were growing them like crazy. They were sold in markets in Brussels, which gave them their name. Wouldn’t it be interesting if other vegetables were named like this?

How did they make it to Canada?

From Belgium the sprouts became popular in England and France. Apparently Thomas Jefferson was a fan, because he introduced them to the United States in 1812. I assume that from there they crept into Canada. They are also grown in Europe and Australia.

Today, most of the sprouts grown in Canada don’t come from Belgium, but are hybrids made in Japan or Holland. Sprouts need a cool climate and are allergic to heat, so Canada is a perfect place for them.

Rolling in green

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

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


Which province in Canada produces the most Brussels sprouts? If you guessed BC, you’re right! Ontario and Quebec are close seconds. Every year, the sprouts harvest in Canada is worth over $7 million. Not bad for a bitter veggie people love to hate.

Apparently Canadians have a bigger taste for sprouts than Americans. When we don’t make enough locally we’ll import some from California. The advent of frozen food also increased demand for brussels sprouts. In Ontario the main variety grown is Jade E. Now doesn’t that sound exotic and exciting?


Speak softly and carry…brussels sprouts?

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

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


Instead of having one head like a lettuce, Brussels sprouts grow multiple heads along the stem. Just when you thought brussels sprouts couldn’t get less horrifying. The main stem is 2-3 feet long and the sprouts are leaf buds that develop along it. Brussels sprouts have mini stems inside, which you’ll see when you cut them in half. And, as I said, it looks like a knobby war club!

The sprouts grow from the bottom of the plant up. They are ready to pull off the stick in fall or early winter.

Full of goodies

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

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


What are these green balls good for? Well brussels sprouts have lots of fibre, vitamin A, C and K as well as manganese.

With sprouts, bigger is not better. Small is beautiful and tasty.

Apparently if you draw an X on them with a knife they will cook evenly. Hmm, I might have to try that.

Don’t cook them too long, or they’ll go grey and stinky. If you start smelling sulfur, stop cooking.

Cabbage Patch Kids

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

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


There’s a good reason that brussels sprouts look like little cabbages- they’re the same species! In fact, Cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, kale, kohlrabi and brussels sprouts also belong to the species Brassica oleracea. Just like domestic dogs, these differently-shaped vegetables were created by humans through careful breeding of the wild cabbage.

Just like with dogs, different people bred the plant to do different things. Some wanted huge hunting dogs, others wanted tiny lap-dogs. brussels sprouts are the tiny lapdog.

The original wild cabbage was just a weedy little plant in the Mediterranean with nutritious leaves. Now it’s one of the world’s most important food crops. It looked and tasted a lot like kale and collard greens. Brussels sprouts were a late bloomer, and were the last kind of cabbage that ancient gardeners developed.

Brussels sprout sex

Believe it or not, brussels sprouts have flowers! We don’t think about them because we eat the leaves, but their flowers are yellow with four petals.

Just like different dog breeds, brussels sprouts and cabbage can mate with each other and have babies. I’m just not sure what those babies would look like.

Actually, we know what they’d look like. In 2010, the British company Tozer bred a hybrid of kale and Brussels sprouts. It looks like a stem of frilly spouts. They call it a flower sprout.

Cabbage may look like lettuce, but don’t be fooled! Lettuce is in the sunflower family, while cabbage is the mustard family.

What are you waiting for? Get out there and eat some brussels sprouts!

References

http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/cabbage/
http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/82409/Brussels-sprouts
https://www.ontario.ca/foodland/food/brussels-sprouts
http://www.brussels-sprouts.com/BSINFO.htm
http://botanistinthekitchen.wordpress.com/2012/11/05/the-extraordinary-diversity-of-brassica-oleracea/
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/gardening/howtogrow/fruitandvegetables/10243047/How-many-more-variations-of-cabbage-can-we-breed.html
http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/brussels-sprouts/

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. https://www.flickr.com/photos/ralphandjenny/7192088348/

Ever seen one of these by the side of the road? These garden flowers have gone wild!Photo by Ralph Daily, Dayliliy, CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/ralphandjenny/7192088348/

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!

References:

A Great Visual daylily dictionary. Click each part to see detailed photos and definitions http://www.daylilies.org/ahs_dictionary/ImageMap.html

http://www.canadiangardening.com/plants/perennials/falling-for-daylilies/a/1808/3
http://www.canadiangardening.com/plants/perennials/falling-for-daylilies/a/1808
http://www.daylilies.org/AHSFAQsNew.html
http://www.mikesbackyardgarden.org/daylilygen.html
http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/153082/daylily
http://eol.org/pages/1000843/overview
https://www.canadapost.ca/cpo/mc/personal/collecting/stamps/2012/2012_mar_daylilies.jsf
http://www.daylilydiary.com/gardenH.htm
http://www.heirloomorchardist.com/the_heirloom_orchardist/the-heirloom-daylily-or-day-lily.html
http://www.heirloomorchardist.com/the_heirloom_orchardist/the-heirloom-daylily-or-day-lily.html
http://taglilien-hemerocallis.de/history_en.html

Farming a wild food: Saskatoon berries

The low-profile Saskatoon berry has fed Western Canadians for centuries. Photo by dbarronoss, First Fruits, CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/dbarronoss/526020146/

The low-profile Saskatoon berry has fed Western Canadians for centuries. Photo by dbarronoss, First Fruits, CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/dbarronoss/526020146/

If you’ve never heard of Saskatoon berries, you’re not alone. For one thing, this Canadian berry goes by many different names. Secondly, they’re just not very popular. At least, not yet.

I know about Saskatoon berries because I’m from Alberta. Outside of the Prairie Provinces, few people know that they even exist. This is because, unlike strawberries, farmers only started growing Saskatoons commercially in the 1970s. That hasn’t given them much time to develop a market.

Let’s get better acquainted with this berry. After all, it’s an important part of Canadian history.

Rose red

Saskatoon berries look like big blueberries, but they are actually more closely related to apples! Mind blown! Saskatoons belong of the rose family, Rosaceae, while blueberries hang out in the Ericaceae family. In fact, many other fruits like apples, peaches, plums and cherries belong to Rosaceae.

True Canadians

Saskatoon berry bushes are really strong, so strong that wind storms can’t blow them over. This is essential when you live in the prairies where there is nothing to block the wind. European settlers used this strong wood to make umbrella handles and fish poles. I guess you don’t want your umbrella bending in a windstorm!

Saskatoon bushes grow underground using suckers which pop out a thicket of bushes. They don’t mind the cold either, and can stand winters of -60 C! Brrr! No wonder they’re found all over Canada.

How sweet it is

There are 10-15 species of Amelanchier (the Saskatoon berry genus) native to Canada. All of these species have edible berries that are red-purple, and sweet and juicy.

Amelanchier berries are sweeter than blueberries and raspberries, with a sugar content of 20%. However, not all plants are created equal, and the taste of the berry will have a lot to do with what is in the soil and how much rain they’ve had. The berries I picked at the top of the plant were kind of sun-dried. It was 30 degrees, after all!

Humans aren’t the only animal to snack on Amelanchier berries. Squirrels, chipmunks, woodpeckers and waxwings all like these sweet berries. Bushes are also home sweet home for cardinals and robins.

Humans may like the berries, but bees like the blossoms! The white flowers pop out early, from March to June, making them perfect breakfast food for bees just waking up from hibernation.

Fur trade energy bars

Saskatoon berries have been around for hundreds of years, and the Aboriginal peoples of Western Canada took full advantage of them. They ate the berries raw, or preserved them by cooking them and then drying them in brick-like cakes that could be reconstituted as needed.

When Europeans came to trade Saskatoons were valuable trade items. Mixed with buffalo meat and fat to make pemmican, they became the original energy bar. Fur traders lived on this stuff when they were travelling.
Saskatoon berries were also eaten by early settlers in Western Canada. Sometimes the only fruit available, and were particularly good at keeping farmers alive during the 1930s drought.

Mini Pharmacies

Saskatoons are a great source of vitamin C and minerals like iron and copper. No scurvy here! They also have lot of antioxidants that help our immune system, twice as many as blueberries do. Due to their large edible seeds, Saskatoons also have twice as much fibre as blueberries. Poor blueberries! But blueberries have an edge on the market.

Interestingly, Saskatoon berry seeds are poisonous just like an apple’s, so don’t eat buckets of them! If you cook or dry them, the poison disappears.

Domestication how-to

In the 1970s Saskatoon berries started being grown commercially in Canada. They are in the early stages of domestication and farmers still have a lot to learn about diseases and pests. Most farms let customers to do their own picking. However, a few use machines designed for harvesting blueberries.

Most farms are in the Prairie Provinces, where Saskatoons are the second largest commercial crop.

Who can say whether this emerging industry will bloom? Only time will tell. In the meantime, get out to a U-pick and try some for yourselves!

References

http://saskatoonberrycouncil.com/sbcc/about-sbcc/processing.php
http://saskatoonberrycouncil.com/sbcc/health.php
http://www.for.gov.bc.ca/rsi/fnb/saskatoon.pdf
http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/en/article/saskatoon-berry/
http://www.gov.mb.ca/agriculture/crops/production/fruit-crops/saskatoon-berries.html
http://cwf-fcf.org/en/discover-wildlife/flora-fauna/flora/serviceberries.html
http://saskatoonberrycouncil.com/sbcc/about-sbcc/history.php

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