Tip Top Tulips: The King is in the house

Stripy tulips have a sick and sinister past. The patterns are caused by a virus. Photo by Alexandre Dulaunoy. Tulips. CC. https://flic.kr/p/efAqg4

Stripy tulips have a sick and sinister past. Their light-coloured patterns are caused by a virus. Photo by Alexandre Dulaunoy. Tulips. CC. https://flic.kr/p/efAqg4

 

Amelia: Ladies and gentleman, please help me welcome our special guest…King Tulip!

Tulip: Thank you, thank you very much.

A: What a thrill it is to speak with you after your tour of the Canadian Tulip Festival.

T: My pleasure, I adore interviews. My miraculous bloom only opens for two to three weeks, and I can’t let all this beauty go to waste.

A: You’re one of North America’s most popular garden flowers, but where are you from, originally?

T: This flawless flower has a rocky past. Literally. I was born in Central Asia on the side of the mountain. Every day I struggled against the harsh winds and extreme temperatures. Close to the ground with yawning petals like a daisy, I looked very different than I do today.

A: So what changed?

T: Around 1000 AD some adventurous Turk picked me up and decided to grow me in their garden. I guess I was already too beautiful to pass up. After 700 years of intense breeding I had my first make-over, with needle-sharp petals and an almond shape. They just loved growing me in Turkey.

A: But you were meant to see the world, right?

T: Yesiree, I’m a Rollin’ stone. The Viennese Ambassador to Turkey brought me home to Europe in 1551. Scientist Carolus Clusius was the first one to plant me in the Netherlands. He just wanted me for research, and wouldn’t share his precious bulbs with anyone else. How rude. I knew I was destined to be a star. Luckily some Dutch entrepreneurs stole me from Clusius and spread my seeds all over the Netherlands.

A: You were a big deal in the Netherlands, right?

T: If by a big deal you mean that 80% of the world’s tulips are grown in the Netherlands, or that in the 1630s some tulip bulbs cost as much as a townhouse, then yes, I was a big deal. Still am.

A: I’ve heard about this, it was called Tulip Mania, right? Speculation drove tulip prices through the roof, and the price of bulbs doubled almost weekly before the market crashed in 1637. Why were people willing to pay so much? You are just a flower, after all.

T: How dare you! I am THE flower. Back then I wasn’t just any flower: I was a status symbol. At the time the Netherlands was one of the world’s largest colonial powers, and the rich and newly-rich merchants had money to spend. I was a rare exotic bloom that happened to fit the bill. Ironically, the mosaic virus also helped my rise to fame.

A: Excuse me, did you say virus? Don’t viruses make you sick?

T: Yes, technically they do. But these ones also make pretty patterns all over our petals.

A: How can a virus do that?

T: My flowers are naturally a solid colour, but some viruses strip away the pigment in our petals to reveal the yellow or white underneath. This means that one year I’d be red, and the next I’d be striped like a circus tent! The Dutch had no idea what was happening, but they loved the result.

A: When did they figure out it was a virus?

T: The mosaic virus was the second oldest viral disease to be described in plants, and there are woodcuts from 1576 prove it. During Tulip Mania striped tulips were worth even more because they were so rare. Driven by money, breeders tried using alchemy, paint or pigeon poop to achieve the stripes, but obviously nothing worked. You can’t beat nature for beautiful accidents. It was only in 1920 that scientists found out it was caused by a virus.

A: Does the virus eventually kill you?

T: No, but it does make us grow short and stubby. It also makes it harder for us to reproduce.

A: How do you catch a mosaic virus?

T: Juice-to-juice contact. Aphids like to suck up our sap. If an aphid that bit an infected plant then bites me, it’s game over for my beautiful ruby red petals. Next time I pop up out of the ground, I’ll have stripes.

A: Are stripy tulips still as popular with gardeners today?

T: Yes, but today’s stripy tulips are healthy virus-free hybrids bred to look like the mosaic-infected kind. Today if a tulip bed has a mosaic virus, gardeners destroy them pretty fast. Otherwise the virus will just spread to other beds. It can even spread to related species like lilies. And nobody likes streaked lilies.

A: Yikes! I didn’t realize that the flower industry was so cut-throat.

T: You better believe it, doll-face. That virus is the Devil in disguise. Ironically, I’m more popular worldwide than I ever was during the Dutch tulip craze. Not to mention way more affordable.

A: Alright, thanks for sharing your story with us.

T: My pleasure. Now I’m off to heartbreak hotel to sleep through the winter and rehearse for next year. See you there!

References

Tulipomania: Novelist Michael Upchurch explains how a Turkish blossom enflamed the landscape: [Final Edition]Upchurch, Michael. The Ottawa Citizen [Ottawa, Ont] 20 May 2001: C6.

‘Tulip fire’ hits Ottawa OTTAWA (CP)
The Globe and Mail [Toronto, Ont] 28 May 1981: N.14.

Ottawa tulip winter kill feared
The Globe and Mail [Toronto, Ont] 22 Mar 1980: P.11.

The elegant tulip symbolizes Ottawa in spring.
Cornish, Douglas. The Ottawa Citizen [Ottawa, Ont] 09 May 2000: B4.

Tulips: Dutch find fortunes in flowers: [Final Edition]
The Ottawa Citizen [Ottawa, Ont] 13 Dec 1988: B16.

Tulip: the flower of manias: From its early days in Europe, it has sparked wild adulation and excesses: [FINAL Edition]Robin, Laura. The Gazette [Montreal, Que] 15 May 1997: D.9.

http://wildthings.sarahzielinski.com/blog/theres-a-lot-of-dna-in-tulips/
http://www.hortmag.com/archive/wild_tulips

Click to access 634.pdf


http://www.tulipsinthewild.com/?utm_source=gnb&utm_medium=packet&utm_content=gnbindex&utm_campaign=clb14
http://online.sfsu.edu/bholzman/courses/Spring99Projects/tulips.htm
https://www.lib.umn.edu/bell/tradeproducts/tulips
http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/608647/tulip
http://pss.uvm.edu/ppp/articles/cuttulip.html

Click to access 634.pdf

 

Alarming Avocados

Not all avocados are green and pear-shaped. Some are spherical, black and even purple. Photo by ruurmo. Aguacates para todos. CC. https://flic.kr/p/fN5wX (pile)

Not all avocados are green and pear-shaped. Some are spherical, black and even purple. Photo by ruurmo. Aguacates para todos. CC. https://flic.kr/p/fN5wX (pile)

 

Scooping the flesh out of an over-ripe avocado the other day, I thought, what a weird fruit. The more I researched the avocado, the more I realized that yep, this plant really is weird. Here’s why.

Origin Story

Crazy fact: the avocado was domesticated so long ago that we don’t know what its wild ancestor looked like.

Humans in Mexico were growing avocados long before history was being recorded. They called it ahuacatl, and it’s still called that in some parts of Mexico.

The Incas discovered avocados between 1450 and 1475 when they happened to take over an area where the fruit were grown. The Inca called the fruit aguacate. The fruit was grown from the Rio Grande to central Peru before Europeans arrived.

The European explorers were quick to adopt the aguacate. They liked by the buttery texture but the native name eluded them. Various mangled versions of the name ‘aguacate’ started popping up in European documents.

The avocado quickly spread from Mexico to other areas with the same climate. A bunch were planted in the West Indies. In 1833 they were introduced to Florida, and California got some in 1871. Today avocados are grown around the world, from New Zealand to Indonesia. Mexico is the leading exporter of avocados, followed by California, Israel and South Africa.

How about an alligator pear sandwich?

What do you call a bumpy green fruit? Photo by torbakhopper HE DEAD. CC. https://flic.kr/p/fpwPr

What do you call a bumpy green fruit? Photo by torbakhopper HE DEAD. CC. https://flic.kr/p/fpwPr

Remember how the European explorers had trouble with ‘aguacate?’ Well, the name mangling got worse, as common names often do.

By the beginning of the 20th century, there were at least 40 different names for avocado. These included avigato, albecatta, avocatier, avocatt, midshipman’s butter, vegetable butter, butter pear and my personal favorite, alligator pear. Well, it’s pear shaped and scaly like an alligator, right? Makes sense.

The showdown to choose the correct name happened in the United States. California called the fruit aguacate, while Florida liked alligator pear. Neither of them wanted to change the name. However the powers that be in the U.S. Department of Agriculture decided that alligator pear was unpleasant, and suggested avocado instead. After some scuffles, the name avocado became the industry standard. In a different world, we would have alligator pears in our sandwiches.

A flower with an identity crisis

Avocado flowers. Photo by Cayobo. Avocado Flowers. CC. https://flic.kr/p/zbPB

Avocado flowers. Photo by Cayobo. Avocado Flowers. CC. https://flic.kr/p/zbPB

Avocados make over a million flowers, but less than 0.1% ever become fruit.

Like a lot of flowers, each avocado flower has both male and female organs. Here’s where it gets crazy: the parts don’t work at the same time. The flower only opens for two days. On the first day, only the female organs work. For two to three hours. On the second day, only the male organs work. No other plant does this. I told you avocados were weird. The botany word for this is dichogamous. Isn’t science grand?

Because of this unique pollination system, if a tree is all on it’s lonesome, it’s out of luck. It can’t pollinate itself, so it won’t have any fruit. Growers have to be careful to mix varieties whose male and female organs work at the same time of day. Thankfully there are over 1,000 different avocado varieties, so this isn’t too hard to do.

Berry nice to meet you

The creamy avocado is a fruit, but what kind? Photo by Jaanus Silla. Avocado. CC. https://flic.kr/p/68eBn2

The creamy avocado is a fruit, but what kind? Photo by Jaanus Silla. Avocado. CC. https://flic.kr/p/68eBn2

Avocados are actually berries. In the world of botany, berries are fleshy fruit that grow from a single ovary. Think blueberries, tomatoes, bananas, and even pumpkins.

You can try planting an avocado seed, but it will be five to 13 years before you’ll get a fruit out of it. If you’re impatient like me, you can always pick up one up at a grocery store. It will take 7-10 days to ripen at room temperature. To make it ripen faster, put it in a bag with another ripe fruit like an apple or banana.

Tree time

Avocado tree in bloom. Photo by Cayobo. Avocado Tree In Bloom. CC. https://flic.kr/p/mg7qZw

Avocado tree in bloom. Photo by Cayobo. Avocado Tree In Bloom. CC. https://flic.kr/p/mg7qZw

Avocados grow on trees. They can be up to 60 feet (20 metres) tall, but farmers usually prune their trees to keep them under 15 feet. These trees are tanks. 400-year old wild avocado trees in Mexico are still making fruit.
When a tree is 5-7 years old it yields 200-300 fruit per year. However, the trees like to take a break, so a bumper-crop year is usually followed by a slow year. This can be a problem because avocado demand doesn’t have yearly cycles. People want their guacamole, and they want it now.

Economic boom and bust

The alternating cycle of avocado trees makes life hard for avocado farmers. The industry loses millions of dollars during low crop years. Researchers are trying to find ways of getting the trees to produce the same every year, but no luck so far.

In 1965 California found an innovative solution to the problem of too many avocados in bumper-crop years; freezing then in liquid nitrogen. They could be thawed later to use in restaurants and airlines. Wait, they serve avocados on airplanes? I must be taking the wrong flights.

Sugar or spice. Or both.

People use avocados for all sorts of things, even ice cream. Photo by Kimberly Vardeman. Avocado Ice. CC. https://flic.kr/p/9VsoZE

People use avocados for all sorts of things, even ice cream. Photo by Kimberly Vardeman. Avocado Ice. CC. https://flic.kr/p/9VsoZE

The cool thing about avocados is there is no right way to eat them.

In North America we eat them in salads and sandwiches. In some places in South and Central America an avocado with salt, tortilla and a cup of coffee is a complete meal.

In Brazil, it’s a dessert mixed with ice cream and milkshakes. They have avocado ice cream in New Zealand too. In Java, avocado is mixed with sugar and black coffee.

Ever wonder why we eat avocados raw? Ever thought of cooking one? Well, I wouldn’t try it. Avocados get bitter when they’re cooked, because they’re full of chemicals called tannins.

Weird by-products

Think there's no avocado in this soap? Think again. Avocado oil is popular in lots of products. Photo by Erin Costa. Pink Strawberry Soap_KRISTIE 2. CC. https://flic.kr/p/bmC7W4

Think there’s no avocado in this soap? Think again. Avocado oil is popular in lots of products. Photo by Erin Costa. Pink Strawberry Soap_KRISTIE 2. CC. https://flic.kr/p/bmC7W4

Avocado oil keeps for a long time, up to 12 years at four degrees C. Because of this stability, avocado oil is used to make facial creams, hand lotions and fancy soap. In fact, 30% of the Brazilian crop is made into oil. The leftover flesh is used to feed farm animals once the oil has been squeezed out.
Strangely enough, the avocado’s huge seed contains a white fluid that turns dark red when exposed to the air. The Spanish conquistadors used it as ink.

Now you have something to ponder over your next bowl of guacamole, or avocado milkshake.

References
http://ucavo.ucr.edu/General/ThreeGroups.html
http://ucavo.ucr.edu/General/FruitBerry.html
http://ucavo.ucr.edu/General/Answers.html#anchor738397
http://ucavo.ucr.edu/General/HistoryName.html
http://ucavo.ucr.edu/General/Introduction.html
https://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/morton/avocado_ars.html
http://ucavo.ucr.edu/AvocadoVarieties/Hass_History.html
http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/45866/avocado
https://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/morton/avocado_ars.html
https://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/morton/avocado_ars.html
http://ucavo.ucr.edu/Flowering/Figure3.html
http://ucavo.ucr.edu/Flowering/FloweringBasics.html

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