Titillating Trilliums

Trillium colonies can get huge, but that doesn't mean you should pick them. Photo by Captain Tenneal. Trillium. CC. https://flic.kr/p/6spWeN

Trillium colonies can get huge, but that doesn’t mean you should pick them. Photo by Captain Tenneal. Trillium. CC. https://flic.kr/p/6spWeN

Me: Oh wow, the trilliums are really carpeting this maple grove today. I should pick one for Mom. Surely one bloom can’t hurt…

Trillium: That’s what you think!

Me: Oh, hello. Sorry, I didn’t realize you were a talking flower. I seem to be running into a lot lately.

T: Spare me the pleasantries. Just get your fingers away from my stem!

M: I don’t see what the big deal is. I mean, it’s just one flower. It will fade in a few days anyways. What’s the harm?

T: First of all, it’s my sexual organ. How would you like someone pulling off yours?

M: Eww, I’d never thought of it like that.

T: I’m not finished! It took me seven years to grow this blossom. Seven. Years. What have you accomplished in that time?

M: Well, I got a biology degree…Wait a minute. Seven years? How is that possible? I thought plants flowered every year.

T: Not trilliums.

M: But seven years, isn’t that a little excessive?

T: We’re pretty slow growing, and we like it that way. It gives us time to scope the place out. In addition, our seeds are pretty needy. We don’t start to grow unless the soil is really moist, and we’ll wait as long as we have to.

M: What happens during those seven pre-flower years?

T: Year one is roots, year two is an embryonic leaf, and year three is the real leaf. Around year five I get one of those voluptuous three-lobed leaves. You have no idea how good that feels.

M: I guess I wouldn’t. But now that you flower every year, what’s stopping me from picking the blossom?

T: Geez, you just won’t let it drop, will you? Okay, I confess, the real problem isn’t actually the flower. It’s the leaf.

M: Really?

T: Yes. It’s very hard to pick the flower without damaging the leaf, which happens to be my only source of food via photosynthesis. Remember how it takes me a full year to grow this thing? If I’m leafless for a year, I can’t make food to get me through the winter. A picked leaf is a death sentence.

M: Gosh, I didn’t realize!

T: Humans rarely do.

M: So what kind of trillium are you, exactly?

T: I’m Trillium grandiflorum, the big white-flowered one. I’m also Ontario’s provincial flower.

M: You seem to be a little bit pink. You’re not a love child between one of these white trilliums and red trilliums, are you?

T: Nope. I’m Trillium grandiflorum through and through. Our petals turn pink as they age. They last up to several weeks, not like those weakling tulips.

M: I see you’re surrounded by dozens of other trilliums. Is each flower an individual plant?

T: You bet.

M: Why do you all live so close together? Don’t you have to compete for nutrients and sunlight?

T: First of all, I’m kind of like a vampire. I don’t like light. I will silently scream in full sunlight. So clear-cutting my forests is bad. It wipes out my colony completely.

M: But why grow in colonies?

T: Well, to tell you the truth, it’s because we have a bit of dispersal problem. While other plants spread their seeds around using birds or the wind, ours are spread by ants. And ants don’t go very far.

M: How do you convince the ants to carry your seeds?

T: Sheer chemical trickery. Half the seed is an elaiosome, or oily appendage. These ant-snacks smell like the insect corpses that ants love to eat.

M: Lovely.

T: Tell me about it. Sometimes the ants are so hungry they break into the fruit and take their seeds back to the nest. They eat their fake dead-insect, then leave the seed to germinate in a tunnel. Nice and buried in the moist earth.

M: Is there anything else that puts you in danger, other than leaf-picking humans and clear-cutting?

T: Deer are not immune to our charms. We get munched on by them a lot. Just the price you pay for being an adorable early-riser in the spring when there’s not much to eat. But if they graze on me to much, they will kill me.

M: Ouch.

T: Yep, if there are lots of deer in area, we can die out within 12 years.

M: That’s awful!

T: Yes, but they did save our butts during the ice age, according to trillium lore.

M: How did they do that?

T: In the ice age it was way too cold for us to grow in Ontario and Quebec. Deer swallowed our seeds and carried them southward in their intestines. Not the most luxurious way to travel, but hey, at least now we’re here to tell the tale.

M: You’ve given me a lot to think about next time I see a trillium.

T: And no picking?

M: No picking, I promise.



Le coût social de la science

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

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


(Click here for the English version of this article)

En tant qu’une étudiante de journalisme passionnée par la science, je suis constamment étonnée par les avances technologiques. Pendant mon vivant on a passé des disquettes à l’informatique en nuage.

Mais le 7 mai j’ai assisté à une conférence sur les difficultés avec la technologie émergente. Les points faits par Marc Saner, le directeur sortant de l’Institut de recherche sur la science, la société et la politique publique à l’Université d’Ottawa, m’avaient faire pensée de ces avances d’une façon plus critique.

1. Les investissements dans la science ne donnent pas toujours de la richesse

Il y a des gouvernements qui pensent que les investissements dans la recherche et l’innovation vont mener à des services et produits qui vont enrichir leur pays. Mais ce n’est pas toujours le cas. Des fois une nouvelle technologie est arrêtée à cause des chinoiseries administratives, un manque des fonds ou un manque de soutien de la population.

2. Recherche les effets sociaux, légaux et éthiques d’une nouvelle technologie tôt dans son développement

Identifier qui va bénéficier et qui vont payer le prix. Les technologies ont souvent des effets inattendus, mais des études d’avances peuvent aider la société à s’adapter.

3. N’essaye pas de parler de tout un domaine de technologie. Limite le champ.

On ne dit rien de précis quand on parle de tous les OGM ou tous les téléphones intelligents. Selon Saner, parler de tout un domaine est comme dire que ‘le plastic est mauvais.’ Concentre sur les avantages et désavantages d’un produit spécifique à la place, comme les pommes qui ne s’oxydent pas au lieu de tous les OGM.

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

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

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

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

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

Me: Sorry, I’ll whisper instead.

D: Much appreciated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

M: Are insects the only thing you eat?

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

M: What’s in store for this spring?

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

M: Why’s that?

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

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

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

M: That does sound trying.

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

M: Does your mate join you for some cuddling?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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, https://www.flickr.com/photos/moonimage/9166449223/

Acorns are very common in Southern Canada, but how much do you know about them? Photo by moonimage, acorns, CC, https://www.flickr.com/photos/moonimage/9166449223/


“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, https://www.flickr.com/photos/cygnus921/2955260269/

The hard case of this acorn is split open, revealing the yummy fruit inside! Photo by John, cygnus921, Acorn 020, CC, https://www.flickr.com/photos/cygnus921/2955260269/

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, https://www.flickr.com/photos/80497449@N04/7384695152/

Quick, which province does this flag represent? Photo by Nicolas Raymond, Prince Edward Island Grunge Flag, CC, https://www.flickr.com/photos/80497449@N04/7384695152/

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, https://www.flickr.com/photos/taylar/7331902826/

Birds and beasts of all kinds love snacking on acorns. Photo by Ingrid Taylar, A Caching Steller’s, CC, https://www.flickr.com/photos/taylar/7331902826/

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, https://www.flickr.com/photos/wwworks/6094598165/

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, https://www.flickr.com/photos/wwworks/6094598165/

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!



Crimson chanteuse: Interview with a Northern Cardinal

Female Northern Cardinals are one of the few female birds in North America that sing. Photo by William Klos, Northern Cardinal (Female) CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/wjklos/11610478/

Female Northern Cardinals are one of the few female birds in North America that sing. Photo by William Klos, Northern Cardinal (Female) CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/wjklos/11610478/

When I moved to Ottawa from Calgary, Northern Cardinals were one of my favorite birds to discover! I mean, they’re brightly coloured, they sing beautifully, what’s not to love?

Even though Northern Cardinals are around all year, I only notice them in the winter and spring. Their red plumage is easy to spot against white snow or an icy blue sky. In the spring, their whistling song is one of the first things I hear in the morning (other than my alarm clock and the buzz of the refrigerator). I was lucky enough to find a female sitting on her nest this morning and decided to ask her some burning questions.

A: I love to hear male cardinals sing in the spring! Why do they do it?

C: Hey now, the men can’t take all the credit! I sing too!

A: Really? Isn’t that unusual for songbirds?

C: That’s right, we’re one of the only songstress birds in North America, and we’re proud of it!

A: I can see that. Okay, so why do you sing? Are you trying to attract a mate, or guard a territory like the males

C: Goodness no! Our songs are much more subtle than the guys’. I often borrow phrases of my husband’s song and add my own flavour. That way he knows it’s me.

A: Where is your favorite place to sing? In the shower?

C: Um, no. I don’t take showers. I sing quietly on my nest. After all, I don’t want to attract every predator within 20 metres.

A: Okay, so why do you sing?

C: A lady can have her secrets, can’t she? Maybe I’m saying “I’m hungry” or “I’m full” or “There’s a predator nearby” or “The kids are driving me crazy!” or even “Where is that grasshopper pizza I ordered?” Let’s just say that I’m telling my husband to bring me food, or not bring me food. If that handsome red guy came by every minute, he might lead a predator right to our nest. Singing to him can cut down on unneeded trips.

A: So your husband brings you food? That sounds like a great system. I wouldn’t say no to breakfast in bed every day.

C: He is quite sweet. But let me tell you, when the babies are demanding food every few minutes, he gets quite a work-out! He only brings me food when I’m nesting in the spring and summer. In the fall and winter I go back to getting my own food.

A: What kind of food does your husband bring back to the nest? You mentioned grasshopper pizza?

C: I was joking, but if you know a joint that makes grasshopper pizza let me know. He brings me seeds, fruit, and berries. My favorite are the sunflower seeds you fill your birdfeeders with. Mm-mm! When we have babies in the nest he’ll bring them lots of insects, like beetles, flies, centipedes, butterflies and crickets. They also like spiders. It must be all those legs.

A: Ugh, that’s an unpleasant image! It seems to me like your husband is doing all the work. I mean he defends the territory and brings home the bacon while you sit on a nest all day.

C: I resent that! Sitting on a nest is not as easy as it looks. I’m protecting my kids from becoming a predator’s snack. And let me tell you, there are lots of animals that love to snack on young birds. It’s a stressful job. The babies in 4 out of every 5 nests don’t survive to adulthood.

A: That’s awful!

C: Yes it is, but we move on and try harder next year. Every spring I go house-hunting with my husband, scoping out good nest sites in tangled vines or bushes. We like to nest close to the ground, but unfortunately that makes it easy for predators to get at the nest.
I work really hard on that nest. Each one is a 4-layered feat of engineering! I bend twigs into a circle, then add a layer of leaves, a layer of grapevine bark and then finish it off with some cozy grass and pine needles. Each nest takes 3-9 days to build! And for the next batch of eggs, I do it all over again. If conditions are good,
I’ll build two nests a year.

A: Okay, so it sounds like you’re working hard too, and work is pretty equally distributed between you and your husband. But there’s something that doesn’t make sense to me. If you’re on the nest all the time, how do predators ever get at your babies?

C: Well, I’m not on the nest every second of the day…

A: I feel like there’s something you’re not telling me. Want to get it off your chest?

C: Okay, fine, I’ll tell you! I’m having an affair with the next door neighbor! He’s just so….red!

A: Okay, that explains it. Does your husband know?

C: I’m sure he suspects it. At any given time a tenth to a third of chicks in my nest are not his, and he can tell. Anyway, he cheats on me too. Everybody does.

A: But you’re still a couple?

C: Yep, we’re completely devoted to each other. I’m the only female he feeds and takes care of. We drift apart in the winter, but usually get back together in the spring. That sweet song of his gets me every time.

A: Do most couples mate for life?

C: Goodness no! About 1 in 5 relationships won’t last the winter.

A: Speaking of winter, how do you like the cold here? I always seem to see you frolicking in the snow.

C: I hate it. I’m not frolicking, I’m desperately trying to stay warm! But we like the neighborhood, and there’s plenty of food here so there’s no point in migrating.

My ancestors were tropical birds who came to Canada from the US in the 1800s. They were following Europeans who were cutting down forests, creating the open bushy spaces that we love. We love living in backyards and parks and forest edges, so our numbers have only been growing as the numbers of humans living here grows.

What a hunk! Photo by Flyn Kynd, Northern Cardinal, CC.  https://www.flickr.com/photos/79452129@N02/14025876635/

What a hunk! Photo by Flyn Kynd, Northern Cardinal, CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/79452129@N02/14025876635/

A: Very interesting! One last question. Why are cardinals red?

C: Because we eat red berries. Duh. Just like flamingos get pink from eating shrimp, we get red from eating berries. Any bird you see that is red, orange or yellow is eating something that colour. We can’t make those pigments by ourselves.

A: Fascinating! Thank you so much. Best of luck with those eggs!

C: Thanks! My pleasure.



Missing Monarchs and Marvelous Milkweed

Monarchs depend on milkweed for their survival. Sid Mosdell, SidPix. Monarch on Milkweed. CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/sidm/4439745304/

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.https://www.flickr.com/photos/7147684@N03/1035856056/

Individual milkweed flowers are very complex! Photo by Jason Hollinger. CC.https://www.flickr.com/photos/7147684@N03/1035856056/

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. https://www.flickr.com/photos/calliope/58266084/

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!




Lilac locomotion: Humanity’s bizarre love affair with lilacs

Humans have admired lilacs like these for centuries. Photo by RichardBH. CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/rbh/5769371225/

Humans have admired lilacs like these for centuries. Photo by RichardBH. CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/rbh/5769371225/

Lilacs were part of my childhood. We had a lilac bush in my front yard, and the week that it was in bloom I would rush outside and bury my face in its light purple flowers. In Calgary, where the growing season starts quite late, the lilacs always bloomed around exam time in mid-June. For me they were a symbol that spring had finally arrived and that school would soon be over.

I’m a biology nerd and I love how plants work. However, I’m also fascinated by how plants interact with humans. For this post, I’m going to examine lilacs from the biological, and then a cultural perspective, just to see what happens. Here we go.


Lilacs are part of the olive family. There are 21 species of lilac. Most of them come from China, and 2 come from Eastern Europe. They do well in Canada because they are good at surviving in cold climates. In fact, they need a cold dormant period to trigger blooming!

A newly planted lilac won’t bloom for a few years, because it’s getting used to the new environment. Once it is well established and comfortable, then it will start flowering.

Human interactions:

Just like the dandelion, in North America the lilac is an alien invader. They are native to China and Eastern Europe, so how on earth did they get to Canada?

Well, it’s a VERY long story.

A bizarre story about humanity’s obsession with pretty purple flowers.

Which when you think about it, is a pretty strange obsession.

Okay, lilacs do have some practical uses. Green dye can be extracted from the flowers and leaves, and oils from the flowers are used in perfumes. They have also been used as treatments for sore mouth, stomach ache and paralysis.

But mostly, people like them because they look and smell nice.

Our story begins in the European Baltic states, the native stomping grounds of the European lilac. Shepherds, entranced by the beauty and aroma of the wild plant, brought lilac bushes back to their homesteads. These lilac flowers were light purple. The word lilac comes from Persian, and means ‘blueish’.

Eventually lilacs made their way to Instanbul via the silk trade routes. Apparently someone thought they were valuable enough to trade.

In 1563, and Austrian ambassador visiting Instanbul fell in love with lilacs and brought them back to Austria and then later to Paris.

Once introduced to the people of France, lilacs spread around Europe like a fluffy purple disease. They moved from garden to garden as people shared cuttings with their neighbors.

Around 1650, European immigrants brought lilacs to North America in their personal luggage. Lilacs quickly adapted to the cold, temperate climate and soon become a common sight in North American colonies. Even Thomas Jefferson and George Washington planted lilacs in their gardens.Eventually, lilacs in North America escaped from cultivation and became a part of the natural environment.

Remember how I said that most lilac species come from China? Well, prior to 1860 most Europeans had never seen them because China had a closed-door policy on trade. However, when China lost the Opium wars and was forced to trade with Europe, lots of Chinese lilac species were ‘discovered’ by Europeans. Enraptured European plant explorers sent home thousands of ‘new’ species, including lilacs.

Compared to this influx of Chinese lilacs, the wild European lilac was staring to look positively drab. In the 1770s people in Europe, wanting flashier colours, started breeding deep purple and white lilacs.

In 1871 in Nancy, France, Victor Lemoine decided that the wild lilacs were simply not interesting enough. He and his family created 200 different lilac cultivars of all different colours and shapes. A cultivar is a variety of plant made artificially by humans. Think of cultivars like dog breeds. A poodle and a bull dog belong to the same species, but they are different forms that humans have created through breeding. Thanks to Lemoine, France became the hub of fine lilac cultivars.

Today there are over 1500 lilac varieties! Compare that to the original 21 species.

Back in North America, people started breeding their own cultivars. In 1874 John Dougall of Windsor Ontario created the first North American cultivar called ‘White Princess Alexandra’. Yay Canadian pride!

In 1878, not content with breeding new cultivars, lilac breeders started combining species from China and Europe that never would have reproduced in the wild. Combining two species like this is called hybridization.

Thankfully for plants, sex between different species isn’t that big a deal. It actually happens quite frequently because the barriers between plant species are much fuzzier than in animals.

Finally, the Canadian Connection! Isabella Preston, the first female hybridizer in Canada, put Canada on the lilac map in 1920. Preston produced the ultimate lilac for Canada’s harsh climate by crossing Chinese lilacs. And she did her work right here in Ottawa, at the Central Experimental Farm! This un-sung Canadian horticulturalist also created Canada-friendly cultivars of roses, lilies, crab apple, and iris.

For anyone living in Ottawa, there is a whole website about lilacs at the Central Experimental Farm, including the best places to find them.

After doing this research, I realized that there are a lot of people throughout history who really cared about lilacs. It was their jobs to make new cultivars to sell to people. Also, people liked lilacs enough to carry them across trade routes and across oceans. Not bad for a hardy little bush with purple flowers!


Click to access cs_syvu.pdf


Click to access cs_syvu.pdf


Wearing his heart on his sleeve: Interview with a Red-winged Blackbird

I'm not just a pair of  red shoulders! A red-winged blackbird sitting pretty. Photo by Jordan Walmsley. CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/champofsomething/8758859270/-

I’m not just a pair of red shoulders! A red-winged blackbird sitting pretty. Photo by Jordan Walmsley. CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/champofsomething/8758859270/-

If you’ve ever gone near a river in the summer, you’re probably well acquainted with the call of the red-winged blackbird. As a prairie girl who grew up in Calgary seeing very few of these showy birds, I love hearing them whenever I walk along a Ottawa waterway.

However, just like my friend the robin, my knowledge of red-winged blackbirds is limited to:

1) Males have red shoulders
2) Females are brown and less showy than the males
3) Males will aggressively chase other birds and animals out of their territory

The last time I interviewed a bird I talked to a female robin, so to give a fair chance to both sexes I asked a male redwing about being an urban blackbird.

A: I’ve heard you’re one of the most common birds in North America. How does this make you feel?

B: Sweetheart, just because we’re common doesn’t mean we aren’t special. It takes a special bird to be successful in both Alaska and Cuba. Anyways, there is a price to being one of the most abundant birds on the continent.

A: A price? What do you mean?

B: Because there are so many of us we aren’t protected by endangered species laws. It also means that humans don’t feel so bad when they kill us. The majority of blackbird deaths are caused by humans.

A: Why would humans want kill you? You’re so pretty and harmless.

B: You would think so, but in Canada you only see us during the spring and summer when we’re having babies. The other half of the year we go south to relax and refuel. We hang out in huge swarms, sometimes even welcoming other species into our group. We fly around searching for food, and where do we find the most food? In fields of rice, corn and sunflower seeds.

A: Oh. I imagine the farmers who own these fields aren’t happy to see you?

B: You’re right on the money, doll. We can eat 1-2% of a farmer’s crop. For sunflowers, it can be up to 25%. But what can we do? A bird’s got to eat, and there’s all this lovely food sitting there!

A: Are seeds the only thing you eat?

B: No, we have a balanced diet of fruit, insects, spiders and snails. In fact, we often help farmers by eating the insect pests off their crops.

A: What do farmers do when they find you in their field?

B: Some try to chase us away with air canons, loud music, recordings of our alarm calls, and even with remote-controlled airplanes! Others will remove the cattails and bulrushes from the edges of their fields, because those are our favorite spots to hang out and removing them makes us less likely to visit.

A: But some farmers kill you?

B: Yes. Some shoot us or scatter poisoned seeds. The worst is when they spray their crops with surfactants. When our feathers touch these chemicals they can’t keep us warm or dry anymore, and we die from exposure. I’ve seen a few of my friends go this way. It’s not a pretty sight.

A: That’s awful, but I can understand why farmers would want to protect their livelihood. They need to feed their families too.

B: I agree, but obviously I prefer non-lethal methods.

A: Okay, on to something more cheerful! Tell me what happens when you come back to Canada in the spring.

B: It’s actually quite stressful. You have to understand that during the breeding season it’s all about territory. A female doesn’t care about how beautiful you look or how sweetly you swing. All she cares about is finding a safe place where she can hide her nest and raise her chicks. If she likes your territory, she stays. Therefore, the males with the best territories get the best females.

A: Sounds like cut-throat competition! What does an ideal territory look like?

B: Females really like cattails, marshes, and wet shrub lands. Because you humans keep draining wetlands, these ideal places are getting harder to find. We often settle for urban parks and river banks.

A: All of those habitats include water. Why do females like water so much?

B: You have to understand that many animals like eating our eggs and baby birds. I’ve had to chase many raccoons and crows away from my nests, and I don’t always get there in time. If a female builds her grass nest above the water, it’s harder for predators to get at it. So water in the habitat means a greater chance that our babies will survive.

A: Isn’t that dangerous, having babies above the water like that? What if they fell in?

B: Our chicks can swim short distances, so falling out of the nest isn’t a problem.

A: Wow! Can you still swim?

B: No, I lost the ability when I become an adult.

A: Let’s talk about becoming an adult. When did that happen for you?

B: It takes a long time! I was three years old when I finally got my red epaulets. Before that I was a fairly dull teenaged bird with little chance of winning a territory from the older males. I just hung around with my bachelor friends all summer, dreaming of the day when I would have a harem of my own!

A: Excuse me, did you say a harem?

B: Yes ma ’me! We can have 5 to 15 females nesting on our territory at once. We’re definitely not the mate-for-life type.

Protecting that many nests takes a lot of work, I’ll tell you! But when you see those little faces blinking at the sky for the first time, it’s all worth it! Even when the little faces have a strong resemblance to your ugly neighbor.

A: What? Are you implying that your females cheat on you?

B: It’s pretty common knowledge that 25- 50% of the chicks I raise are not my own. Women are pretty good at getting what they want. Like I said, they’re with me for my territory, not necessarily for my genes.

A: That was awkward. Okay, one last question. What’s the deal with your red shoulders? Are they just there to look pretty?

B: How dare you! My red epaulets are state-of-the art signalling devices that I use to defend my territory and my honour. I can grow or shrink them depending on the occasion. You can see this very clearly in this video by The Music of Nature:

For example, if my male neighbor enters my territory, I’ll hunch my shoulders and show as much red as I can, to show him how beautiful I am and that he shouldn’t mess with me. I also show my shoulders when I’m wooing my ladies. However, if I’m feeding peacefully with the boys I will hide my red shoulders so no fights break out.

A: Wow, that’s very interesting. Well, thanks for taking time to talk to me.

B: It was my pleasure. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a territory and a harem to defend.



There’s a bat on my doorstep!

I find wild animals fascinating. I was raised on PBS Nature documentaries. Some of my earliest memories involve cheetahs chasing down and disemboweling gazelles. I donate money to save polar bears, and gasp with delight when I glimpse a deer in a National park.

However, a wild animal on my property is a different story.

As I stepped out into the bright sunshine with my laundry this morning, I noticed a brown shape huddled on my doorstep. It was a bat. A bat that was obviously in trouble. There were bloodstains on the concrete. His wing was crumpled. He wasn’t moving.

I assumed he was dead.

He wasn’t. That became clear when I tried to pick him up with a plastic bag.

He struggled lethargically. He extended his good wing. He opened his mouth to reveal tiny teeth and an amazingly pink throat.

I was hit with a number of emotions at once:

1) Wonder. I had never seen a bat outside of a zoo, and I was fascinated. I’ve often wondered what it would be like to live upside down, and to see not with your eyes but with your nose and ears. It was amazing to see this creature up close.

2) Grief. It was gut-wrenching to see this animal suffering. His broken wing was glued to the ground so he couldn’t move.

3) Responsibility. Because I was the one who found him, it was up to me to deal with him. I had no idea what to do next. Part of me wanted a neighborhood cat to come along and solve the problem for me.
So I did what most people do these days when they don’t know what to do. I Googled it.

I learned that the Ottawa Humane Society is the organization to go to if you find injured or sick wildlife. (http://ottawahumane.ca/wildlife/injuredsickwildlife.cfm)

I also learned that you should never touch bats. Bats that are sick can also infect humans. Oops. (http://www.ottawahumane.ca/wildlife/batfaqs.cfm)

It was a relief to call the professionals. I was asked to put a recycling box over the bat to contain him. They would do the rest.

Forty-five minutes later a Humane Society van was leaving my driveway with the injured bat. He was no longer my responsibility.

As I watched them drive away, I thought about how we humans generally interact with urban wildlife. It is amazing how many animals live in cities without us ever seeing them. I’m always surprised how seldom I see rats, mice and raccoons. This is either because they are nocturnal, or very good at hiding.

It seems we only encounter these animals when they are dead on the side of the road or living somewhere we don’t want them to live, like in our attic. As a result, we mainly see them as pests and nuisances, albeit cute ones. Which is unfortunate. They are so much more than that. Raccoons and rats are amazingly intelligent, persistent and curious, qualities we admire in other humans. However, our expectation that urban homes are free of animals often brings us into conflict with them. It would be nice to see more public education about urban wildlife, so that an animal control website isn’t the first place we learn about our four-legged neighbors.

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August 2020


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