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.

Photo by Mark S. “Sunflower Seeds”. CC.

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.

Photo by William Ismael. “Sunflower Seeds.” CC.

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.


Click to access vegetableoilstudyfinaljune18.pdf

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.


Click to access Kindscher-1989-Ethnobotany-of-Purple-Conflower.pdf,echinacea.html$department/deptdocs.nsf/all/agdex578

Titillating Trilliums

Trillium colonies can get huge, but that doesn't mean you should pick them. Photo by Captain Tenneal. Trillium. CC.

Trillium colonies can get huge, but that doesn’t mean you should pick them. Photo by Captain Tenneal. Trillium. CC.

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.


Meet me under the Mistletoe

This plant for love birds is a parasite. Food for thought. Photo by Hornet Photography. Mistletoe-Viscum album. CC.

This plant for love birds is a parasite. Food for thought. Photo by Hornet Photography. Mistletoe-Viscum album. CC.

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.

Mistletoe doing its parasitic thing. Photo by Neil Howard. Tree with Mistletoe-Hampton Court Palace. CC.

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.

Trees have some strange responses to mistletoe infection, like developing these gnarled branches. Photo by Nick Bonzey. Witch’s broom. CC.

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.

One way that mistletoe seeds get around. Photo by coniferconifer. Dispersing Mistletoe seeds by Japanese Waxwing. CC.


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.

Canada has tiny mistletoe that grows on conifers, of course. Photo by Ken-ichi Ueda. Bad Seed. CC.


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.

Mistletoe is part of a dastardly deed in Norse mythology. Photo by Don Meliton. The death of Balder. CC.


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.

Modern-day mistletoe tradition. Photo by Will Folsom. Mistletoe. CC.

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.



(lots of good photos)

Maple Madness

Why is a maple leaf Canada's national symbol? Photo by Theresa Thompson. CC.

Why is a maple leaf Canada’s national symbol? Photo by Theresa Thompson. CC.

By rights, Canada’s national symbol should be a pinecone.

Pines grow all across Canada. They resist cold, dry, wet and windy weather like true Canadians.

But we’re stuck with the maple leaf.

Here are some things you may not know about Canada’s national tree.

National Symbol?

Ontario's flag reminds us what the Red Ensign looked like. Photo by abdallahh. CC.

Ontario’s flag reminds us what the Red Ensign looked like. Photo by abdallahh. CC.

The maple leaf wasn’t always on Canada’s flag. In fact, Canada didn’t have its own flag until 1965, 96 years after it became a country. Before that Canada used the British Union Jack or the Red Ensign.

As the centennial approached, there was more pressure for Canada to have its own flag. “The Flag Debate” was a heated time in Canadian history. The Liberals and New Democrats wanted maple leaves. The Conservative party liked the British history of the Red Ensign, but French Canadians understandably did not want a British flag.

A call for flag ideas went out, and 5,900 designs poured into Ottawa. It took parliament 37 days to agree on the one we know today.

As a Canadian symbol, the maple leaf dates back to 1700. It popped up in crests, badges, songs, and on the Canadian soldiers’ uniforms during the World Wars. From 1876 and 1901 it was on the back of every coin, not just the penny.

Not a Canadian Exclusive

There a maples in Japan too. Photo by skyseeker. CC.

There a maples in Japan too. Photo by skyseeker. CC.

Of the 150 maple tree species, China has 100 and Canada only has 10. We make up for it in syrup and maple leaf merchandise.

Most of Canada’s maples grow east of Manitoba. They say one species grows in every province, but that means the arctic territories are maple-less. Like I said, pine trees would be a better national symbol because they grow everywhere.

The maple tree wasn’t actually Canada’s official tree until 1996. Oops. There’s a “make like a tree and leaf” joke here somewhere.

What makes a maple a maple?

Maple Samaras. Photo by Graham Hellewell. CC.

Maple Samaras. Photo by Graham Hellewell. CC.

I’m glad you asked! All maples have winged fruit called keys or samaras. Samara is botany-speak for helicopter seeds. If you see double-bladed helicopter seeds, it’s probably a maple.

I see your true colours

The leaf on Canada’s flag is red, which means all maples turn red in the fall, right? Wrong! It depends on the species. Autumn colours can range from yellow, pink, and orange to deep red and purple. This makes fall in Southern Ontario a veritable rainbow.

You can’t even count on Red Maples to have red leaves-some varieties go yellow or orange. Leaf colour also depends on how hot the summer was, and how cold the fall is.

Killer leaves!

The leaves of the Red Maple can kill horses. Yes, that’s right, these pretty red leaves are toxic when they’re dry. If a horse eats too many their red blood cells start exploding. Not good. They die of lack of oxygen, which red blood cells carry. However, fresh leaves are completely safe for horses. Nature is weird.

How sweet it is

Sugar Maple. Photo by Green Optics. Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum) CC.

Sugar Maple. Photo by Green Optics. Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum) CC.

The Sugar Maple leaf is the one on the Canadian flag. As you may have guessed, this is the tree maple syrup comes from. Canada produces 85% of the world’s maple syrup, and most of it is exported.

Humans aren’t the only ones that steal this tree’s sap. Squirrels will eat off the spring buds to get a taste of sweet nectar. Birds and squirrels will also eat the seeds out of the samara. Luckily for them, Sugar Maples have a bumper-crop every 2-5 years.

Ideally, these seeds will turn into baby trees. Unfortunately, deer love to munch on the seedlings. Gulp, no more tree. Seedlings can survive this abuse, but grow into deformed trees. If they survive this long, they can live from 200-400 years.

Sugar Maples have flowers! They’re tiny little green things pollinated by bees. Most trees have both hermaphroditic and single sex flowers. Bizarre.

Prairie Perfect

See how different the leaves of the Manitoba Maple are? Photo by Scott Loarie. CC.

See how different the leaves of the Manitoba Maple are? Photo by Scott Loarie. CC.

Not all maple leaves look like the Canadian flag. The Manitoba Maple’s look really different. These trees are super successful because they grow in a lot of different soils. They like to hang out with their friends in forests, as well as in disturbed areas and along rivers. They are found in most Prairie Provinces. Their seeds are important winter food for birds and squirrels, and moose snack on the twigs.

Invasive maples

A Norway Maple looms threateningly. Photo by Dendroica cerulea. CC.

A Norway Maple looms threateningly. Photo by Dendroica cerulea. CC.

Norway Maples were imported to Canada in 1778 from Eurasia. They were a popular city tree because they resist pollution. After Dutch Elm flattened many urban elms, Norway maples became the favorite tree of urban developers. Now they’re everywhere. If you see a maple with large yellow or purple leaves, that’s a Norway Maple.

Unfortunately, this invasive tree jumped out of cities and started crowding-out and out-competing native maples. It’s very successful because it has a long growing season and makes 2000 seeds a year.

Also, we learned pretty quickly that they are awful city trees. Unlike Sugar Maples, Norway Maples only live around 60 years. At 35 the wood starts to weaken, and you end up with branches on your car after a snowstorm. Needless to say, it isn’t planted any more.

There you go, more than you wanted to know about Maple trees! Now get out there and try to find one.


Nice hips! Rose hips, that is.

Berries? No, rose hips! Photo by Roberto Verzo, CC,

Berries? No, rose hips! Photo by Roberto Verzo, CC,

If you have rose bushes in your area, you’ll notice they’re covered with red balls. What’s up with that? Is it a weird rose-eating fungus? Nope! They’re the roses’ fruit, called rose hips.

Roses you send to me

Ever wonder where roses came from? Well, they came from all over the place! Most species are from Asia, but a few are native to North America, Europe and northern Africa. Roses from far-flung regions are more than happy to interbreed when introduced to each other, which makes the family tree (or bush) quite muddled. Most of today’s garden roses came from 10 species from Asia.

A rose by any other name

Why rose hips? The word hip is from Old English, meaning ‘seed pod of the wild rose’. That’s a pretty specific noun! Rose hips are also called heps or haws. All these names sound like they belong in a jazz song.

Not a fruit!

Okay, I lied. Rose hips are not a fruit. Like the strawberry, they’re an aggregate fruit. If you cut one in half, you’ll see hairy achenes inside. These are the real fruit. The red fleshy stuff around them is actually the receptacle.

Can you eat them?

Yep, they're edible. Just watch out for thorns!Photo by Kristen Taylor, rose hips, CC,

Yep, they’re edible. Just watch out for thorns!Photo by Kristen Taylor, rose hips, CC,

Yes! Well, just the fleshy red part. The achenes have tiny, irritating hairs that would do nasty things to your insides. Some rose species have bigger hips than others, ranging from pea to cherry-sized. R. rugosa generally have the largest hips, and therefore have the most to eat! Rose hips are eaten by birds and small animals in the fall and winter.

Why would I want to eat them?

I asked the same question when I was 14. I’d read in a book that rose hips have more vitamin C than oranges, and I wanted to know what they tasted like. I plucked some large hips off my Mom’s rose bush and went at them with a knife and cutting board. Unlike apples, rose hips are mostly fluffy seeds with a tiny layer of edible red flesh. Peeling off this layer is labour intensive. Once it was free I popped it in my mouth and savored the tangy flavour, which reminded me of a crabapple. Texture wise, it felt like having a scrap of peach skin stuck in your teeth. It was yummy, but definitely not worth the effort.

Some would disagree with me.

Kissed by a rose

Rose hips are jam-packed with nutrients. Photo by Mark Garth, Rose Hips, CC,

Rose hips are jam-packed with nutrients. Photo by Mark Garth, Rose Hips, CC,

Rose hips are nutritional power-houses. A handful of rose hips contains as much vitamin C as 60 oranges! They are rich in vitamin A and B. They also have bioflavonoids, chemicals that strengthen blood vessels to prevent bruising, nosebleeds and hemorrhages.

If you live in a cold, dark county far away from orange groves, rose hips start looking pretty good. In Sweden, rose hip soup, or Nyponsoppa, is a popular dessert. Many indigenous groups in North America used rose hip tea and syrup for respiratory infections and sore mouths, and as a source of vitamins during the winter. They were used traditionally to cure arthritis, colds, indigestion, bladder stones and even gonerrhea.

Rose hips played a role in the war effort. England had a hard time importing oranges during the Second World War. It was kept scurvy-free by rose-hip syrup, made from hips hand-picked by volunteers.

I want to try them!

Okay, if you insist. If you pick your own, avoid bushes that were sprayed with pesticides. For the best result, wait until after the first frost. If you do they’ll be softer and sweeter. Just slice them in half with scissors or a knife and remove the seeds. Make tea with the fresh hips or throw them in salads. If you’re ambitious, you can make jelly, jams, syrups sauces and even cupcakes! Just be careful not to use aluminum pans, which will react with and destroy all that lovely vitamin C.

Enjoy the rainbow colours of rose hips this fall! Perhaps even sip some rosehip tea, which you can buy commercially.


8 things you didn’t know about acorns

Acorns are very common in southern Canada, but how much do you know about them? Photo by moonimage, acorns, CC,

Acorns are very common in Southern Canada, but how much do you know about them? Photo by moonimage, acorns, CC,


“Are acorns nuts?” my roommate asked out of the blue.

The science nerd in me struggled to remember the botanical definition of a nut.

Being a normal human being, my roommate was interested in more practical matters; “If kids are bringing them into a nut-free daycare, will kids with nut allergies react to them?”

Good question. I had no idea. But Google did.

The short answer is no, allergies to acorns are quite rare. There has never been a recorded death related to an acorn allergy. Therefore, kids with tree-nut allergies who pick up and play with acorns will be fine.

However, acorns are still a tree nut, so just in case kids shouldn’t be eating them! Thankfully acorns are very bitter, and not likely to be ingested. We’ll get to that later.

Being an inquisitive botany geek, I naturally wanted to learn more about acorns. Let’s learn together, shall we?

1. Acorns are nuts, but almonds aren’t!

The hard case of this acorn is split open, revealing the yummy fruit inside! Photo by John, cygnus921, Acorn 020, CC,

The hard case of this acorn is split open, revealing the yummy fruit inside! Photo by John, cygnus921, Acorn 020, CC,

It turns out that botanically a nut is a very special beast. A nut is a hard, dry pod that surrounds the fruit and a single seed inside. Think chestnuts, hazelnuts and acorns! Almonds are actually drupes, like plums and peaches.

2. Meet the family

There are 450 species of oak trees wordwide, but only 13 in Canada. Most of our native species hang out in the most southern parts of the country. The Cork Oak (Quercus suber) is where all your wine corks come from, and the waterproof wood of the White Oak is used for wine barrels.

3. Geeky Canadian trivia

Quick, which province does this flag represent? Photo by Nicolas Raymond, Prince Edward Island Grunge Flag, CC,

Quick, which province does this flag represent? Photo by Nicolas Raymond, Prince Edward Island Grunge Flag, CC,

Quick, which Canadian province has acorns on its flag? If you guessed Prince Edward Island, you’re right! There are four oak trees on the flag, one represents England and three others represent the three counties of Prince Edward Island. The Red Oak, a native tree prized for its wood ideal for furniture making, is also the province’s official tree. Who knew?

4. Sexy acorns

Can you guess which part of the male anatomy was named after the acorn? It’s the glans, or head of the penis! Glans the Latin word for acorn. I guess the 17th century English thought there was some resemblance. No, I’m not going to draw you a picture.

5. Essential fall food!

Birds and beasts of all kinds love snacking on acorns. Photo by Ingrid Taylar, A Caching Steller’s, CC,

Birds and beasts of all kinds love snacking on acorns. Photo by Ingrid Taylar, A Caching Steller’s, CC,

We often see squirrels with acorns, but did you know that deer eat them too? 25% of a deer’s fall diet is acorns! Mice, woodpeckers, blue jays and ducks like to snack on them too. Oak trees depend on animals to carry their acorns somewhere else, bury them, and then forget about them so a new tree can start growing.

6. Essential human food!

Acorns have been eaten by many different cultures for thousands of years. In North America, some groups of Aboriginal peoples depended on acorns. For example, it is estimated that 75% of the Aboriginal people in California relied on acorns on a daily basis. Most oak trees only produce acorns every 2-3 years, so most groups found ways to store unshelled nuts for 10-12 years in granaries. Today the descendants of these groups use acorns as special traditional foods, but do not eat them every day.

7. Nutritional powerhouses

Acorns are packed with nutrients! Though not these ones, because they aren't ripe yet. Photo by woodleywonderworks, Fruit From Hurricane Irene (green acorns), CC,

Acorns are packed with nutrients! Though not these ones, because they aren’t ripe yet. Photo by woodleywonderworks, Fruit From Hurricane Irene (green acorns), CC,

There’s a reason so many people have eaten acorns throughout history- they are abundant and really good for you. Some acorns are 18% fat, 6% protein and 68% carbohydrate, equivalent to modern corn and wheat. They are also great sources of vitamin A and C.

8. Tricky tannins

There is only one problem about eating acorns-they mess with your insides! Well, not dangerously so, but they contain tannin, a bitter chemical that we humans use to tan leather. Too much tannin in your sensitive intestines makes it hard for them to get any nutrients out of the food you’re eating! So acorns may be super good for you, but if you’re eating them raw your body will never see any of those wonderful nutrients. You’ll also be left with a bitter taste in your mouth. Tannins are also found in berries and pomegranates, but acorns take tannins to the next level.

Well, that’s not very nice of oak trees, is it? It’s actually a clever defense mechanism. If all their acorns get eaten, none will turn into baby trees. So the bitter tannins are a way to discourage animals from eating their seeds. Pretty neat, huh?

Unfortunately for the oak trees, many animals have found ways to get around tannins. Some animals have special digestive systems that destroy the tannins before they can do their thing. Other animals like squirrels, deer and pigs eat so many acorns at once that it doesn’t matter that they aren’t absorbing all possible nutrients. Humans have a different adaptation-soaking the nuts in water to rinse out the tannins.

As we head into fall, hopefully you’ll look at all those fallen acorns in a different light!


Farming a wild food: Saskatoon berries

The low-profile Saskatoon berry has fed Western Canadians for centuries. Photo by dbarronoss, First Fruits, CC.

The low-profile Saskatoon berry has fed Western Canadians for centuries. Photo by dbarronoss, First Fruits, CC.

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!


Click to access saskatoon.pdf

A berry by any other name would taste as sweet: Sneaky Saskatoons

Saskatoons, juneberry, bilberry, wild-plum...why does this tasty berry have so many names? Photo by John Freeland, Saskatoon Berries, CC.

Saskatoons, juneberry, bilberry, wild-plum…why does this tasty berry have so many names? Photo by John Freeland, Saskatoon Berries, CC.

Okay, get ready for a rant. A rant against common names. Common names are the handles most people use to describe plants and animals, like daisy or robin. Scientists prefer to use Latin names like Bellis perennis and Turdus migratorius. I think you’ll understand why in a second.

But before I rant, I need to tell you a story.

A few weeks ago I wrote about strawberries. Strangely enough, then I wanted to eat strawberries. And not imported ones from California. I wanted local strawberries fresh off the bush that still had bugs on them. So I ended up at a U-pick farm outside Shawinigan, Quebec.

To my great disappointment, there were no strawberries to be found! They had all been picked the previous day by hungry customers. However, the owner told us (in French, bien sûr) that “les amélanches” were ready for picking, and urged us to try one from her basket. Cautiously, we popped one of the blue-purple berries in our mouths. We were not disappointed. Whatever these berries were, they tasted like sweet blueberries and had a great texture. Soon we were ripping them (carefully) off the 7-foot tall bushes. Some of the berries even ended up in our buckets. Compared to picking raspberries and strawberries, picking these was a breeze! But what the heck were they?

I turned to the internet for an answer. It turns out that “les amélanches” are Saskatoon berries. Before my berry-picking experience, I had never encountered raw Saskatoon berries. The most common uses are baked in pies and pastries, or made into jams and syrups. I can attest that Saskatoon berry syrup on pancakes is darn delicious. But the raw berries are even better!

As I shared my divine berry picking experience on Facebook, I discovered out that many other people had picked Saskatoon berries, but under a different name. It was hard to talk about the berries, because everyone called them something different! What was going on?

As it turns out, Saskatoon berries go by many different names. Serviceberry, sarvisberry, shadbush, juneberry, bilberry, wild-plum and (my personal favorite) chuckley pear! Whew! That’s a lot of names to go on a passport! And kind of ridiculous if you ask me. Do I have to memorize all of these common names just to have an intelligent conversation about berry picking?

Sasktaoon Berries chillin' on a bush. Photo by John Freeland, Saskatoon Berries, CC.

Sasktaoon Berries chillin’ on a bush. Photo by John Freeland, Saskatoon Berries, CC.

In Latin, the plant is called Amelanchier alnifolia. One name. Okay, a complicated name with lots of vowels, but still easier than memorizing 13 different common names. It was this problem of too many names that inspired Carl Linnaeus to give every organism a single universal name. And that’s just what he did. Now scientists all around the world can talk about Amelanchier alnifolia without being confused. It’s called the Latin name. Or scientific name. Or binomen. Okay, that’s a little ironic.

Where did all these names for Saskatoon berry come from, anyway? Well, they’re found from BC to Western Ontario and also in the Yukon. The different populations of people who lived in these areas probably ‘discovered’ them independently and named them different things.

Speaking of names, there is a city in Saskatchewan named Saskatoon. So Saskatoon berries were named after the city, right? Wrong! The city was actually named after the berry. Apparently there were oodles of bushes in that area. Yum yum yum! The name ‘Saskatoon’ is probably an English mangling of the Blackfoot or Cree name.

I wished I lived in a city named Strawberry. Or Raspberry, for that matter.

Okay, thus ends my rant against common names. They are great in most cases, but if you want to be precise, the scientific name is the way to go.

Want to learn more about the mysterious Saskatoon berry? More history, facts and revelations to come next week!


Click to access saskatoon.pdf

Missing Monarchs and Marvelous Milkweed

Monarchs depend on milkweed for their survival. Sid Mosdell, SidPix. Monarch on Milkweed. CC.

Monarchs depend on milkweed for their survival. Sid Mosdell, SidPix. Monarch on Milkweed. CC.

The first time I saw a Monarch butterfly lazily flitting through suburban Ottawa, I was flabbergasted! For me, Monarch butterflies were the poster child of metamorphosis, and I had finally met my childhood icon! Growing up in bone-dry Calgary was not a great place to see monarchs.

Unfortunately, I may not be seeing many monarchs in Ottawa this summer. Monarch populations were estimated to have declined by 90% this last year, according to Ryan Norris, researcher at the University of Guelph.

Why are Monarchs disappearing? For a long time scientists believed that it was because the forests in Mexico where they overwinter were being destroyed. However, a study published this week proposes that the real problem is the destruction of milkweed in North America, especially in the Mid-Western United States.

So to save the monarchs, we need more milkweed. But what is milkweed, exactly?

Well, as its name implies, it is an aggressive plant that is really good at invading fields and gardens. There are 14 species native to Canada. It likes bright open areas, like those opened up by agriculture and urban development. Under the Ontario weed act, milkweed is a noxious weed.

Milkweed is very good at being a noxious weed. Its seeds fly 7.5-30 meters away from the host plant, invading new territories far away. At the same time, it’s also working underground, sending out roots that will turn into new plants. Soon a colony of clones pop up, ready to dominate the landscape. Muuahhahaa! No, seriously. Milkweed are really good at crowding out other plants. Oh, and milkweed is also toxic to most animals, including humans.

Sounds pretty awful, doesn’t it?

It is if you’re a farmer. Milkweed often competes for space with their crops. Farmers have used herbicide to get rid of milkweed to make room for more farms. Due to industrial farming, milkweed cover declined by 21% between 1995 and 2013.

But milkweed isn’t all bad. In fact, it does a lot of good. As we’ve seen, milkweed is essential for the survival of Monarch butterflies. They depend on milkweed to shelter their eggs and feed their caterpillars. In fact, milkweed is the only thing that monarch caterpillars will eat. Species like Milkweed Bugs and Milkweed Leaf Beetle are also strict milkweed eaters.

In addition, milkweed plants are super cool! Here are some reasons why.

1.They have complex and clever flowers

Individual milkweed flowers are very complex! Photo by Jason Hollinger. CC.

Individual milkweed flowers are very complex! Photo by Jason Hollinger. CC.

Milkweed blossoms may look like pink pom-poms, but they have an ulterior motive: trick insects into carrying their pollen. Unlike most plants that reproduce using loose pollen grains, milkweed store their pollen into special sacks called pollinia. When a bee comes to sip some sweet nectar, one of its legs slips into a hidden slit in the flower where the pollinia is stored. The pollinia attaches itself to the bee’s leg and is carried to the next flower. Very clever!

However, sometimes the insect’s legs get stuck in these slits and they are trapped forever and die among the flowers. Unlucky for them, but lucky for the hungry predators that lurk among the leaves.

2.They are living grocery stores

Milkweed is one of my favorite summer flowers because it attracts so many insects. Monarch caterpillars and Milkweed bugs munch away at the poisonous leaves, becoming poisonous themselves to ward off predators. These poisons are called cardiac glycosides. Don’t eat the plant or get the sap in your eyes, because it’s also toxic to humans!

Crazy fact. Even though the milkweed’s sap is poisonous, the nectar and pollen in the flowers are not. So the milkweed gets the best of both worlds: lots of things want to pollinate its flowers, and very few things want to eat its leaves. Genius!

Milkweed flowers can be seen from June to August. Many species pollinate these flowers, including bees, wasps, butterflies, ants and even hummingbirds.

However, danger can be lurking for these peaceful pollinators. Some predators like crab spiders and Yellow Jackets hide in the large leaves of the milkweed and pounce on the pollinators as they come by to sip nectar. So predators think milkweed is pretty cool too!

3.They have silky seeds

Milkweed pod bursting with silky seeds. Photo by liz west, Muffet. Milkweed seeds2. CC.

Milkweed pod bursting with silky seeds. Photo by liz west, Muffet. Milkweed seeds2. CC.

The fluffy silk that milkweed uses to spread its seeds has definite entertainment value. It’s like blowing a dandelion, but 10 times better! However, there are practical uses too. Every thread of silk is a tiny, air-filled tube with great insulation and flotation properties. Hummingbirds use it to line their nests to keep their babies warm. In World War II, milkweed silk was used to fill life jackets when they ran out of kapok, another fluffy plant fibre. Recently, milkweed has been grown commercially as stuffing for hypoallergenic pillows.

Milkweed is a pretty cool plant, especially because Monarchs need it to survive. You can help increase milkweed populations by planting it in your garden. You’ll see lots of amazing insects flocking to your garden in no time!


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