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. https://flic.kr/p/bbKcST

Photo by Mark S. “Sunflower Seeds”. CC. https://flic.kr/p/bbKcST

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. https://flic.kr/p/9rqvXr

Photo by William Ismael. “Sunflower Seeds.” CC. https://flic.kr/p/9rqvXr

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.

References

http://www.bioenergytrade.org/downloads/vegetableoilstudyfinaljune18.pdf
http://www.kew.org/science-conservation/plants-fungi/helianthus-annuus-sunflower
http://www.britannica.com/plant/sunflower-plant
http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/sunflower/
http://www.canadasunflower.com/production/sunflower-agronomy/
http://www.gov.mb.ca/trade/globaltrade/agrifood/commodity/sunflowers.html
http://www.agr.gc.ca/eng/industry-markets-and-trade/statistics-and-market-information/by-product-sector/crops/pulses-and-special-crops-canadian-industry/sunflower-seed/?id=1174599801414
https://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/afcm/sunflower.html

Enigmatic Echinacea: Consumers’ on-again, off-again relationship with a Prairie herb

Photo by Amelia Buchanan. CC.

I set out to photograph flowers. I may have been distracted by the bumble bees. No regrets. Photo by Amelia Buchanan. CC.

This is a story of colds, flus, and the hope that their annoying symptoms will one day disappear. From patent medicine hacks to million dollar profits, it’s the story of Echinacea.

This purple Prairie plant is mainly marketed as a remedy for cold and flu symptoms. It is also one of the most popular herbal remedies sold in North America today. And it’s native to Canada!

Tiny hedgehog

Chances are you’ve probably seen Echinacea growing in a garden or along the side of a road. In addition to being herbal remedies, they’re also eye-catching flowers that are easy to grow.

Wonder where the complicated name comes from? It’s the Latin name of the genus, or species group. Echinacea comes from the Greek word for hedgehog, and refers to the flower’s spiny centre. Each ‘spine’ is actually a tiny flower, with its own reserves of nectar and pollen. Like sunflowers and daisies, the flower head is actually made up of dozens disk florets in the centre. The purple petal-like things are ray florets, tiny flowers with one huge petal.

Prairie power

In Canada, Echinacea grows wild in the Prairies of Saskatchewan and Manitoba. It does what it can to get by, enduring drought, humidity, and low-quality soil. It blooms from June to August, and is pollinated by bees, wasps and butterflies.

Indigenous medicine cabinet

Photo by Amelia Buchanan. CC.

Photo by Amelia Buchanan. CC.

For over 400 years, Echinacea was used by Great Plains indigenous peoples to treat a variety of infections. European settlers on the prairies followed their example, using the plant as a cure-all for humans and even cattle. In 1897 students made extra money by gathering wild Echinecea, and by 1917 the herb was being recommended by American doctors.

The road to international fame

Echinacea went on to gain international fame and fortune, but it didn’t happen overnight. European doctors had their own medicinal plants, and little interest in finding new ones.

Echinacea was first introduced to Europe by patent medicine salesman H. C. F. Meyer, who sold Echinacea in the U.S. as a cure or just about everything, including snakebites. With hopes of expanding his market, Meyer sent samples to England for testing. The British scientists quickly learned that Echinacea didn’t do most of the things Meyer claimed it did. However, they were intrigued by its possible immune-system boosting powers, and the rest is history. In the 18th and 19th centuries Echinacea became a popular herb for treating scarlet fever, syphilis, malaria, blood poisoning, diphtheria. It probably didn’t work, but that’s what it was used for.

The fall from glory

The dramatic popularity of Echinacea led to over-harvesting of the wild plants. Fortunately for the flowers, in 1950 antibiotics were introduced and became all the rage. Echinacea fell out of favor, mainly because there was little scientific evidence that it had medicinal powers.

However, not everyone had given up on Echinacea. Research on Echinacea’s powers continued in Germany, where there were more liberal laws on the use of medicinal plants and more appetite for research. Today there are over 800 Echinacea products in Germany alone.

The cold-buster

Photo by Amelia Buchanan. CC.

Photo by Amelia Buchanan. CC.

In the 1970s and 80s, North American consumers realized that modern medicine couldn’t solve everything. Take the common cold. On average, adults get 3 to 4 colds a year, and kids get twice that many. Because there are 200 or so different viruses that can cause colds, there is no medical cure. Alternative medicines and herbal remedies to treat colds and flus regained popularity. Today Echinecea is touted as an immune-system booster that can prevent or treat cold symptoms, with estimated yearly sales in the tens of millions.

Does it work?

The short answer is we don’t know. Some studies say yes, others say no. The U.S. National Institutes of Health gives a tentative ‘maybe’ that Echinacea could be effective for treating the common cold and vaginal yeast infections.
Part of the problem is we haven’t figured out exactly how Echinacea works. It seems to decrease inflammation (swelling) but we don’t know what chemical is responsible. When you’re working with plant extracts that contain hundreds of different chemicals, it’s hard to say which is doing what.

One reason science haven’t given us a definitive answer is that the studies so far have used different species, different doses and different products. Part of the problem is the lack of standardization in the Echinecea marketplace. Some treatments can be 1,000 times stronger than others, and consumer reports have identified some products that don’t even contain Echinacea.

Regardless of what the science says, people still swear by it. Health authorities in Canada and the U.S. tell consumers that Echinacea is safe if they follow the directions on the bottle. If you’re allergic to other plants in the daisy family, like ragweed or marigolds, you may be allergic to this too. Also, Echinacea may interact with some medications, so make sure your doctor knows you’re taking it.

Farming a wild plant

Photo by Amelia Buchanan. CC.

Photo by Amelia Buchanan. CC.

Small scale Echinacea farms have sprung up in Saskatchewan, Manitoba, BC, and Alberta, but don’t produce enough to keep up with the growing demand. Before cultivation can go large-scale, researchers and farmers need to better understand Echinacea’s habits, fertilizer needs and diseases. It takes a while to figure out how to farm a wild plant, just ask Saskatoon berry farms. Echinacea in Canada is mainly harvested for the roots, which take 2-3 years to get big enough to gather.

Now you have something to think about next time you see this spiky, purple beauty.

References

http://www.britannica.com/plant/Echinacea

http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/en/article/new-natural-common-cold-cures/

https://nccih.nih.gov/health/echinacea/ataglance.htmhttp://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/druginfo/natural/981.html

https://nccih.nih.gov/about/offices/od/2010-12.htm

http://webprod.hc-sc.gc.ca/nhpid-bdipsn/monoReq.do?id=80&lang=eng

http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/dhp-mps/prodpharma/applic-demande/guide-ld/label-etiquet-pharm/echinace-eng.php

http://www.botanicalgarden.ubc.ca/potd/2014/01/echinacea-purpurea.phphttp://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/PlantFinder/PlantFinderDetails.aspx?kempercode=c5804

http://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/herb/echinacea

http://www.kew.org/science-conservation/plants-fungi/echinacea-purpurea-eastern-purple-coneflower

http://kindscher.faculty.ku.edu/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/Kindscher-1989-Ethnobotany-of-Purple-Conflower.pdf

http://www.gov.mb.ca/agriculture/crops/production/print,echinacea.html

http://www1.agric.gov.ab.ca/$department/deptdocs.nsf/all/agdex578

http://www.agr.gc.ca/eng/about-us/offices-and-locations/canada-saskatchewan-irrigation-diversification-centre/canada-saskatchewan-irrigation-diversification-centre-publications/production-practices-for-echinacea-angustifolia/?id=1193337467277

http://www.agriculture.gov.sk.ca/Default.aspx?DN=7c8fbf9f-10ad-4ffd-a4f9-780db93ee478

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.

References

http://www.ont-woodlot-assoc.org/sw_woodlandplants.html
http://www.biology-online.org/dictionary/Cotyledon
http://ontariowildflowers.com/main/species.php?id=714
http://www.northernontarioflora.ca/description.cfm?speciesid=1002574
http://sunsite.ualberta.ca/Projects/Plant_Watch/plants/whi_tri.php
http://sunsite.ualberta.ca/Projects/Plant_Watch/plants/whi_tri.php
http://www.canada.com/victoriatimescolonist/news/homes/story.html?id=fe609c69-0258-444d-9617-1d59d9f89b64
http://www.louistheplantgeek.com/a-gardening-journal/675-trillium-grandiflorum

Surprisingly sweet sugar beets

On voit le sucre chaque jour, mais on ne pense pas de son origine. Photo par Logan Brumm. Sugar Rush. CC. https://flic.kr/p/7TDG99

Sugar is a big part of our lives, but we generally don’t think about where it comes from. One source grown in Canada may surprise you. Photo by Logan Brumm. Sugar Rush. CC. https://flic.kr/p/7TDG99

Did you know that a quarter of the sugar consumed around the world comes from beets? No, not the red root that turns your pee red. I’m talking about sugar beets.

I learned about these rather miraculous plants two years ago on an internship with a genetics research organization. I was there looking at the challenges of  communicating their complex experiments. During my reading I learned that a lot of the canola and sugar beets grown in Canada were genetically modified. The GMO debate aside, my question was: what the heck is a sugar beet? I’d certainly never seen one.

The ghost beet

Photo par elizabeth.mcquiston. sugarbeet1. CC. https://flic.kr/p/73mfwj

A plump, non-photogenic sugar beet. Photo by elizabeth.mcquiston. sugarbeet1. CC. https://flic.kr/p/73mfwj

There’s a reason I’d never seen sugar beet before. They’re pretty ugly. A big white carrot-shaped thing covered in dirt is not the most appealing symbol for a bag of sugar. In fact, it was hard to find photos of sugar beets for this post.

Sugar beets come from the same family as red beets, even though they look nothing alike. They grow best in temperate climates. In fact, the roots have to freeze for the plant to flower the next year.  Unfortunately Canada’s frigid winters  kill the roots completely, so farmers here  harvest every year. But it’s not big deal because the roots grow very fast over a single season.

Sweet root

Photo par Heather. Sugar Beet Harvest. CC. https://flic.kr/p/gynqqq

Sugar beet pile. Sugar Beet Harvest. CC. https://flic.kr/p/gynqqq

So why do sugar beets make sugar? It’s definitely not for our benefit. For most plants sugar is a temporary energy storage that is generally turned into starch for longer-term storage. However, sugar cane and sugar beets are unique. They don’t turn their sugar into starch, but hang onto it in their  tissues. We humans aren’t complaining, because we can extract it pretty easily. Together, sugar cane and sugar beets are responsible for 90 per cent of the sugar produced worldwide.

Curious crystals

Des cristaux de sucre. Photo par Martyn Wright. Hello Sugar (4). CC. https://flic.kr/p/8TTih5

Sugar crystals. Photo par Martyn Wright. Hello Sugar (4). CC. https://flic.kr/p/8TTih5

In fact, the crystals of sugar beet sugar and sugar cane sugar are identical. They have the same chemical properties, and, most importantly, the same taste.  German chemist Andreas Margaff made this unusual discovery in 1747.His student Franz Carl Achard continued his research on how to make extracting the sugar commercially viable. Today’s sugar beets have been bred to be as sweet as possible, with sugar making up 19 per cent of a root’s weight. I’d like to know what on earth inspired them to test sugar beets, over other sweet roots like carrots. But then again, I’m a bit too fond of carrots for my own good.

Beets of war

La propagande pour encourager l’élevage des betteraves à sucre pendant la guerre. Photo par James Vaughan. WW2- more sugar beets? CC. https://flic.kr/p/7hTDu4

WWII propaganda for sugar beets. It was war that led to the commercialization of the sugar beet.  Photo by James Vaughan. WW2- more sugar beets? CC. https://flic.kr/p/7hTDu4

Sugar beets are nothing new.  Even ancient Egyptians ate them.  However, during the Middle Ages they were somehow relegated to cattle fodder.

After Margaff’s sugar discovery, there were some attempts at industrial production of sugar beet sugar. However, sugar cane from the tropics was popular and cheap, so there wasn’t much incentive to squeeze sugar out of beets.

The quest for another sugar source intensified during the Napoleonic Wars. Great Britain decided to block shipments of sugar cane and other goods from coming into France, much to the chagrin of that country’s pastry-makers. France to quickly bred a sweeter variety of sugar beet and built factories that could extract the sugar. Napoleon encouraged the sugar beet industry and promote the adoption of the finished product. However, after Great Britain lifted the blockade, France went back to using mostly sugar cane. But to this day France remains one of the world’s largest producers of sugar beets.

 

Great Canadian Beet

Photo par Lars Plougmann. Church and sugarbeet. CC. https://flic.kr/p/7PFuq

Huge pile of sugar beets. Photo by Lars Plougmann. Church and sugarbeet. CC. https://flic.kr/p/7PFuq

Canada is 31st in the list of world sugar beet producers. The first factory was built in Farnham, Quebec in 1881. During WWI sugar beets were a pretty important crop in Canada, more so than they are today.

Most Canadian sugar beets are grown in Alberta, Manitoba Ontario and Quebec. Sugar beets work really well in Canada because they can adapt to so different types of soil and temperatures.

Even though we grow sugar beets in Canada, most of the sugar we eat is from imported sugar cane. This boggles the mind, but it’s because producing sugar from beets is still more expensive than producing and shipping cane sugar from the tropics. Sugar beets are used more in the prairie provinces because they are further away from coastal ports where the raw cane sugar sails in. One tonne of sugar beets will give 125 kg of white granulated sugar.

Less sweet byproducts

So how do you get sugar out of a beet? You juice them. Most of the root is liquid, and once the juice is squeezed out there isn’t much left. The solid left-overs are used as high-energy food for cows and pigs. The liquid leftovers include molasses, the sticky black sweeter of gingerbread fame. Apparently cattle like it too.

Another unpredictable sugar beet product is monosodium glutamate, or MSG, a natural flavor-enhancer that boots the taste of certain foods. Even though some people are concerned about MSG, according to the American Food and Drug Administration most people can consume it safely.

Molasses as antifreeze

Apparently the cities of Toronto and Saint John in New Brunswick use a mixture of molasses and road salt for deicing roads. It get so cold that salt alone doesn’t work, so the sugar helps the salt do it’s thing even at -35 Celsius. Not bad for an ugly white beet!

 

References
http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/fr/article/beet/
http://www.ctahr.hawaii.edu/oc/freepubs/pdf/FN-8.pdf
http://sugarbeet.ucdavis.edu/sbchap.html#table1
http://science.howstuffworks.com/life/botany/beet-info.htm
http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/96-325-x/2007000/article/10576-fra.htm

Puzzling Pomegranates

Where do these funny fruits come from, and, more importantly, how do you eat them? Photo by Samantha Forsberg. Pomegranate. CC. https://flic.kr/p/q5bhL8

Where do these funny fruits come from, and, more importantly, how do you eat them? Photo by Samantha Forsberg. Pomegranate. CC. https://flic.kr/p/q5bhL8

Last week I took a gamble and picked three pomegranates off the discount fruit and veggie rack. But when I got  back to my kitchen I realized I was vastly under prepared. Was it normal that the seeds were pink instead of red? Were they overripe? What would rotten seeds taste like? Were they worth the six dollars?

It got me curious about pomegranates, so here’s a few things you may not have known about this so-called “super fruit”.

Allergic to rain

Having a fruit split on the tree is the last thing producers want. Photo by Nicolas_gent. Pomegranate open, exposing the bright red arils. CC.  https://flic.kr/p/dvwm13

Having a fruit split on the tree is the last thing producers want. Photo by Nicolas_gent. Pomegranate open, exposing the bright red arils. CC. https://flic.kr/p/dvwm13

You’d think this juicy fruit was born in a steamy rainforest. But it wasn’t.

Pomegranates came from dry, desert-like places like Persia, Iran and Afghanistan. They love cold winters and hot, dry summers and can live through long droughts.

Humidity does bad things to the fruit. If it rains too much the fruit fills up with water and gets soft and becomes difficult to ship. August rain can split the fruit on the tree, sometimes turning them inside out. In addition, too much rain in the spring may cause Alternaria fungus, which gets into the blossom and rots the fruit from the inside out. Eww.

Ancient refresher

Pomegranates were some of the earliest domesticated fruits. Photo by John Morgan. Pomegranates. CC. https://flic.kr/p/4rnCeQ

Pomegranates were some of the earliest domesticated fruits. Photo by John Morgan. Pomegranates. CC. https://flic.kr/p/4rnCeQ

Pomegranates were one of the first cultivated fruits along with olives and dates. The cool, refreshing tree was brought to other arid regions of India, China, and the Mediterranean. Pomegranates eventually made their way to Spain, where the city of Granada is named after them. Today the world’s main producers are still India, Iran, Turkey and Spain.

The Spanish loved the fruit so much that missionaries brought the fruit to Mexico after the conquistadors had finished slaughtering the locals. The missionaries continued to grow the fruit in their gardens as they expanded north to California, which remains the primary U.S. producer.

Suspicious superfruit

Pomegranates are often marketed as cancer-fighting super heros. Photo by Aaron. Pomegranate. CC. https://flic.kr/p/dkeNTg

Pomegranates are often marketed as cancer-fighting super heros. Photo by Aaron. Pomegranate. CC. https://flic.kr/p/dkeNTg

 

Pomegranates have been aggressively marketed for their heart-healthy, cancer-fighting goodness. This is because North Americans are not eating very many, balking at paying high prices for a fruit that is at best daunting to eat.

The superfruit claims are based on laboratory tests that show pomegranates have antioxidant, antibacterial, and antiviral properties. However, these studies were done in test tubes and in mice, and the effects haven’t yet been seen in human. This means there’s no evidence yet that pomegranates can prevent cancer or heart disease.

This doesn’t mean pomegranates are unhealthy. Far from it. They’re full of vitamin C and important nutrients like calcium, iron, magnesium, and phosphorus.

Funky flowers

Photo by four years. Some people grow pomegranate trees simply for the beauty of their flowers. Pomegranate tree. CC. https://flic.kr/p/7f8maB

Photo by four years. Some people grow pomegranate trees simply for the beauty of their flowers. Pomegranate tree. CC. https://flic.kr/p/7f8maB

The crown on top of a pomegranate is made from the leftover petals from the blossom. Pomegranate plants have male flowers, which don’t make any fruit, and flowers with both male and female parts, which do. They are pollinated by bees.

Many people grow pomegranates as ornamentals because of their attractive orange-red flowers. In tropical America it’s grown in gardens just for show, because, as we know, humidity does bad things to the fruit.

Hedge fund

Most pomegranates grow as bushes or hedges. Photo by Glen Belbeck. Euope 2011 506. Pomegranate bush. CC. https://flic.kr/p/aDP3ux

Most pomegranates grow as bushes or hedges. Photo by Glen Belbeck. Euope 2011 506. Pomegranate bush. CC. https://flic.kr/p/aDP3ux

While pomegranates can be coerced into being a tree, they really prefer to be hedges and bushes with multiple trunks. In fact, hedges are often better for farmers than trees. Pomegranate trunks are very sensitive to frost, and if grown in a bush farmers can lose a few trunks to frost without losing most of their crop.

Amazing arils

Repeat after me: these are not seeds! Photo by Aaron. Pomegranate. CC. https://flic.kr/p/dkeNTg

Repeat after me: these are not seeds! Photo by Aaron. Pomegranate. CC. https://flic.kr/p/dkeNTg

What’s an aril? It’s the little sac of juice around each seed in the pomegranate, the part that actually tastes good.

By definition, an aril is sweet, attractive tissue stuck to a seed that makes birds and animals want to eat them and poop them out somewhere else. Other plants, like yew trees, also have arils.

Pomegranate arils can range from white to dark red. White or pink are usually sweeter than dark crimson.

While we’re on the topic of colour, in North America we’re used to the Wonderful variety of pomegranates with a bright scarlet peel, but the peels of other varieties can range from off-white to yellow to purple.

What to do with them?

Arils are used in snacks, salads and desserts. Photo by stu_spivack. Ricotta cheesecake. CC. https://flic.kr/p/5ZiT9i

Arils are used in snacks, salads and desserts. Photo by stu_spivack. Ricotta cheesecake. CC. https://flic.kr/p/5ZiT9i

My biggest question about pomegranates was how to eat them. Apparently my technique of cutting them in half is not the most efficient answer. The best is to slice off the top near the stem, score the skin into segments and then pull the segments apart. If you put the fruit in a bowl of water while you’re doing this the peel floats to the top and the arils will sink.

Ripe pomegranates look slightly square because the ripening arils push against the sides and flatten them. An unripe fruit is round like an apple. Whole fruit will keep up to 2 months in the fridge, and fresh juice or seeds up to 5 days. The arils can also be frozen.

Grenadine syrup, a flavoring for mixed drinks and an ice cream topping, is made from pomegranate juice. Apparently you can also make pomegranate wine, puddings and jellies.

Now you’ll have something to ponder next time you dissect a pomegranate.

References

http://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/herb/pomegranate
http://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/citrus/pomegranate.htm
http://ucce.ucdavis.edu/rics/fnric2/crops/pomegranate_factsheet.shtml
http://www.crec.ifas.ufl.edu/extension/pomegranates/botany.shtml
http://pomegranates.org/index.php?c=5

Poppies: how a fertility symbol became a symbol of war

Food, drugs, symbols of war and fertility, poppies play many roles. Photo by Jenny Downing. Through the dancing poppies stole a breeze. CC. https://flic.kr/p/bx8qjf

Food, drugs, symbols of war and fertility, poppies play many roles. Photo by Jenny Downing. Through the dancing poppies stole a breeze. CC. https://flic.kr/p/bx8qjf

Last Tuesday was Remembrance Day in Canada, and red felt poppies were everywhere. In Canada, as in many other countries, poppies symbolize those who lost their lives in war.

However, poppies also bring to mind a deadly field in the Wizard of Oz, opium dens and heroin addicts. Where did the poppy, which is arguably just as attractive as a rose, get such a dark reputation?

A one-plant drug factory

Heroin was once a common ingredient in patent medicines. Photo by Karen Neoh. Heroin Bottles. CC. https://flic.kr/p/i4EFNG

Heroin was once a common ingredient in patent medicines. Photo by Karen Neoh. Heroin Bottles. CC. https://flic.kr/p/i4EFNG

Okay, I know everyone wants to know about opium and heroin, so let’s get this out of the way.

Opium and heroin are opiates, drugs that occur naturally in the opium poppy’s sap. Other opiates include the painkiller morphine and the cough-suppressant codeine. Some opiates, like heroin, are more powerful than others.

Out of the 50-plus species of poppies, you can only get opiates from one. The opium poppy, Papaver somniferum, was originally from Turkey. Today it’s grown legally in Australia, India and Turkey to make pharmaceuticals, and illegally in Laos, Thailand and Afghanistan and the United States to make heroin.

Opiates act on the brain and spinal cord to reduce pain and relax muscles. Opiates trick the brain into thinking they are endorphins, the brain’s feel-good chemical. Unfortunately, this also makes them very addictive.

For centuries opium was medicine’s main painkiller. It was taken as pills or added to drinks. Because of its medicinal properties the opium poppy spread from Turkey to Greece, China and India.

In Europe opium was a common ingredient in patent medicines. Morphine was used to treat American soldiers during the Civil war, creating thousands of addicts.

When heroin was discovered in the 1900s, governments quickly made most opiates illegal. After that, the strongest opiates moved underground. Today many opium poppies are grown illegally to feed the habit of millions of heroin addicts.

It’s not all bad. Some people grow the opium poppy for its seeds, used to make oil and birdseed.

A big money-maker

An opium poppy in full bloom. The seed pod sap is where the drugs come from. Photo by Tristan Martin. Opium Poppy. CC. https://flic.kr/p/9XU5WX

An opium poppy in full bloom. The seed pod sap is where the drugs come from. Photo by Tristan Martin. Opium Poppy. CC. https://flic.kr/p/9XU5WX

Today the not-so-strong opiate codeine is one of the world’s most common painkillers. Canadians are some of the drug’s top consumers, spending over $100 million a year on codeine products. All of Canada’s codeine is imported, and some scientists are trying to find ways to make it artificially to avoid import costs.

Origin story

Field of poppies in California. Photo by Rennett Stowe. California Poppies. CC. https://flic.kr/p/4Axv1J

Field of poppies in California. Photo by Rennett Stowe. California Poppies. CC. https://flic.kr/p/4Axv1J

Poppies belong to the Papaveraceae family. Papaver is Latin for food or milk, which refers to the poppy’s milky sap.

Poppies grow all over the place, including the Middle East, China, Europe, Central Asia and North America. Some even grow in the arctic like the strangely named Iceland Poppy actually from North America. The four-petaled Common poppy of Remembrance Day fame is native to North Africa and Southern Europe, but it’s done a good job of spreading itself all over Europe and Asia.

Fabulous Fertility

Poppies have lots of seeds and often grow in farmer's fields. Photo by Bob Shrader. Corn Poppy Red. CC. https://flic.kr/p/jBcoyq

Poppies have lots of seeds and often grow in farmer’s fields. Photo by Bob Shrader. Corn Poppy Red. CC. https://flic.kr/p/jBcoyq

Imagine a poppy seed. You know, one of the black specks in your lemon-poppy-seed muffin. Now imagine 60,000 of them. That’s how many seeds a single plant can make in a single year. This is one reason the Common poppy is a fertility symbol in Europe.

Poppy seeds are patient. They can wait up to 80 years for just the right conditions: churned up and disturbed soil. Poppies love to pop up in newly-tilled fields, so farmers associated them with the fertility of their crops.

Unfortunately, this super-fertile plant started to decline once farmers started using chemical herbicides on their fields. However, poppies still bloom on land farmers set aside, attracting bees and butterflies to pollinate the fields.

Lest we forget

Poppies strewn on a war memorial on Remembrance Day in Ottawa, Canada. Photo by Amelia Buchanan.CC.

Poppies strewn on a war memorial on Remembrance Day in Ottawa, Canada. Photo by Amelia Buchanan.CC.


War also does a good job of churning up fields and creating perfect poppy conditions. Poppies bloomed on many fields after the First World War, inspiring Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae’s poem “In Flanders Fields”. His poem sparked the widespread association between the flowers and those that died in war. Today poppies are a symbol of wartime remembrance in many countries, and artificial poppies are sold in support of veterans.

Tiny edibles

Tiny poppy seeds play a big role in many sweets. Photo by rusvaplauke. Poppy Seed Triangles. CC. https://flic.kr/p/2u5UDW

Tiny poppy seeds play a big role in many sweets. Photo by rusvaplauke. Poppy Seed Triangles. CC. https://flic.kr/p/2u5UDW


What would lemon muffins be without poppy seeds? Poppy seeds are a spice used to flavour cakes and breads. In France they also use the oil of the seed. The bright petals are also used to dye some medicines and wines red, and the young leaves can be eaten like spinach.

Poppies are cultural reminders of war, fertility symbols, spices, illegal drugs and painkillers. Humans owe a lot to this bright red flower.

References

http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/470181/poppy
http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/430129/opium/283761/History-of-opium
http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/430129/opium
http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/en/article/in-flanders-fields/
http://www.kew.org/science-conservation/plants-fungi/papaver-rhoeas-common-poppy
http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/627065/Veterans-Day#ref1089588
http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/en/article/in-flanders-fields/
http://ucalgary.ca/news/march2010/poppygenes
http://www.kew.org/science-conservation/plants-fungi/papaver-orientale-oriental-poppy

7 things you didn’t know about brussels sprouts

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

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


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

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

What’s in a name?

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

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

How did they make it to Canada?

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

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

Rolling in green

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

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


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

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


Speak softly and carry…brussels sprouts?

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

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


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

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

Full of goodies

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

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


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

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

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

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

Cabbage Patch Kids

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

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


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

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

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

Brussels sprout sex

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

Maple Madness

Why is a maple leaf Canada's national symbol? Photo by Theresa Thompson. CC. https://flic.kr/p/5w2XQq

Why is a maple leaf Canada’s national symbol? Photo by Theresa Thompson. CC. https://flic.kr/p/5w2XQq

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. https://flic.kr/p/9z744t

Ontario’s flag reminds us what the Red Ensign looked like. Photo by abdallahh. CC. https://flic.kr/p/9z744t

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. https://flic.kr/p/5CrWow

There a maples in Japan too. Photo by skyseeker. CC. https://flic.kr/p/5CrWow

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. https://flic.kr/p/5FvEvD

Maple Samaras. Photo by Graham Hellewell. CC. https://flic.kr/p/5FvEvD

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. https://flic.kr/p/dkAMJZ

Sugar Maple. Photo by Green Optics. Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum) CC. https://flic.kr/p/dkAMJZ


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. https://flic.kr/p/cfw4UJ

See how different the leaves of the Manitoba Maple are? Photo by Scott Loarie. CC. https://flic.kr/p/cfw4UJ


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. https://flic.kr/p/dsvFmF

A Norway Maple looms threateningly. Photo by Dendroica cerulea. CC. https://flic.kr/p/dsvFmF


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.

References

http://www.pointpleasantpark.ca/en/home/education/forest/norwaymaple/default.aspx
http://www.omafra.gov.on.ca/english/livestock/horses/facts/06-109.htm
http://www.agr.gc.ca/eng/industry-markets-and-trade/statistics-and-market-information/by-product-sector/horticulture/horticulture-canadian-industry/sector-reports/canadian-maple-products-situation-and-trends-2006-2007/?id=1193169758779
http://www.inspection.gc.ca/plants/plant-protection/insects/emerald-ash-borer/recommended-alternatives/eng/1337363806469/1337363875644
http://landscaping.about.com/cs/fallfoliagetrees/a/fall_foliage7.htm
http://www.ontario.ca/environment-and-energy/silver-maple
http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/363558/maple
http://kids.britannica.com/elementary/article-353426/maple?#9353426.toc
http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/maple/
http://www.pch.gc.ca/eng/1363626184104/1363626227047
http://www.cbc.ca/history/EPISCONTENTSE1EP16CH1PA2LE.html
http://www.mapleleafweb.com/features/canadian-maple-leaf-flag
http://maple.dnr.cornell.edu/pubs/trees.htm
http://www.friendsofthefarm.ca/treelocmaplenat.htm
http://www.pch.gc.ca/eng/1363621027468/1363621093514
http://www.cbc.ca/history/EPISCONTENTSE1EP16CH1PA2LE.html
http://www.uoguelph.ca/arboretum/thingstosee/trees/sugarmaple.shtml
https://treecanada.ca/en/resources/tree-killers/plants/norway-maple/
http://www.uoguelph.ca/arboretum/thingstosee/trees/

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!

References

http://www.csus.edu/anth/museum/pdfs/Past%20and%20Present%20Acorn%20Use%20in%20Native%20California.pdf
http://www.hastingsreserve.org/OakStory/Acorns2.html
http://books.google.ca/books?id=tnwAlLgWEhAC&pg=PA114&lpg=PA114&dq=penis+glans+named+after+acorn&source=bl&ots=kMGAkN3DzA&sig=Od-y1vkXd2y2KIQl-3wuCsVajSg&hl=en&sa=X&ei=5t4AVMilCs6_sQSm_4HoCA&ved=0CCMQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=penis%20glans%20named%20after%20acorn&f=false
http://ontariosown.ca/uncategorized/nuts-about-acorns/
http://www.gov.pe.ca/infopei/index.php3?number=1599
http://www.gardenguides.com/101927-oak-trees-canada.html
http://www.ontario.ca/environment-and-energy/white-oak
http://ontariosown.ca/uncategorized/nuts-about-acorns/
http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/422776/nut
http://www.seriouseats.com/2010/04/what-are-the-differences-between-nuts-and-drupes.html
http://www.biology-online.org/dictionary/Nut
http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/423415/oak
http://www.schoolhealthservicesny.com/uploads/Acorns%20Pinecones.pdf
http://www.anaphylaxis.org.uk/what-is-anaphylaxis/knowledgebase/tree-nut-allergy–acorns?page=11
http://blog.onespotallergy.com/2012/11/newstalk1010-interview-are-acorns-a-risk-if-youre-allergic-to-tree-nuts/

Who wants to get pollinated? Delightful Daylilies!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

D: Because my flowers only bloom for one day.

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

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

B: Yah? Do tell!

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

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

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

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

D: It’s kind of a long story.

B: Tell me, I love stories.

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

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

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

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

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

B: Wow, they must really like you!

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

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

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

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

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

B: Do you have other special characteristics?

D: Well, I happen to be a tetroploid.

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

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

D: Works every time!

References:

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

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

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