Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Design By Nature: Cellulose and Sex

Just read an interesting review of a cool book called "Design by Nature" in the online journal Core 77:


A constant challenge to designers seems to be grounding design in real natural phenomena. Take for example the ubiquitous molecule cellulose, which comprises all plant cells. Cellulose is the most abundant organic molecule on the planet, stronger than tempered steel by weight, incredibly cheap to manufacture (it's built of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, all combined through solar energy via photosynthesis), and it's practically indigestible. In its many uses, both natural and human, cellulose is an incomparable product of evolutionary development.

Cotton boll

But is cellulose sexy? Let's just say it falls way out of the bounds of design concept, probably because it's a hard and fast scientific fact, not someone's idea. If we want to base our design on science, it doesn't hurt to take a closer look at the designs that nature has built over deep evolutionary time.

Termite colony

Ground Cover and the Boundary Layer

As March approaches and the sun becomes stronger there are moments of the day where the light itself seems to impart warmth. The actual weather these days is cool to cold, and rather windy. But on the ground conditions are different. The sunlight that hits the ground is absorbed and held by the soil. The wind at the surface approaches zero, thanks to so many barriers that absorb its energy. Buildings, trees, fences, standing dead plants, topographic features of the ground surface, and finally the small things growing on the ground. All of these features cut the wind and make the soil surface a warmer, more protected environment than the air above it. It's no surprise then that bulbs become activated this time of year, when their immediate matrix is relatively warm and protected.

Succulent Ground Cover

At BU and at the BAC I teach about leaf adaptations to the environment. One of the major adaptations of leaves is "hairiness," something we have all observed in plants. Leaf hairs (which may actually consist of a few elongated epidermal cells emerging from the surface), trap water vapor, protect the leaf from desiccation, shade the leaf, and discourage predators. We think about all these features but we tend to overlook the fact that leaf hairs increase the boundary layer of the leaf. Just like the trees, dead grasses, and random topographical features protect the ground in my garden, leaf hairs absorb the energy of the wind at the surface of the leaf. Hairs maintain the microclimate that surrounds the leaf, cutting wind that would dry the leaf, damaging leaf tissue, and threatening plant health.

Maple Leaves Sculpture

Leaf hairs

Young oak leaves

I think it's amazing that we can look at questions like boundary layer at the micro scale or at a much larger scale. For example, I take my BAC students on a field trip to Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge. A highlight of the trip is climbing the tower, which provides us with an outstanding view of Boston and its environs.

Cambridge panorama

Invariably, the wind at the top of the tower is strong, surprisingly so, even on a day when the air is still and hushed down at the ground level. Extend this idea to the phenomenon we've all experienced when flying. Next time you have access to a TV monitor at your seat, notice the wind speed. The wind at 30,000 feet may be going at hundreds of miles per hour, a real consideration when mapping out flight routes for commercial jets.

Plants figured out strategies for dealing with the boundary layer millions of years ago. Leaf hairs and bulbs are two examples.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Biggest Bread I Ever Baked

So, I've been baking for longer than I'd like to admit. Let's just say since the mid 1970s. My friend Diane Lipsky was the big baker woman on campus and she taught that you must, absolutely must knead for 15 minutes. Longer would be better. Why? Because kneading "brought out the gluten," making the break more elastic and of course, healthier. To be fair to Diane that's what the bread books were saying at the time.

For the last 20 years almost I've been teaching about the breakdown of starch in the environment of seeds. But as often occurs, I didn't understand what was right in front of my eyes in terms of context. Strange, since I try so hard to teach biology in a contextual framework.

What didn't I understand?

Yeast, the first organism to be domesticated by humans, digests starch. When the starch in dough is digested, what's left is the protein gluten. Gluten gives the bread its stretchiness, elasticity, and sometimes, if you've noticed, that enticing coolness to the bread body.

This has nothing to do with kneading. As a matter of fact for the past several years I've been making no-knead breads almost exclusively. About the same time as I figured out how to make it Mark Bittman published the recipe for no-knead bread in the New York Times. If you're interested I'd be glad to send you my recipe.

What does all this have to do with the biggest bread I ever baked?

Biggest Bread

I put some sourdough "starter" in hot water. This is old sourdough dough that has gone beyond its "expiration date." No longer efficacious for making things rise (though I think it could given enough time).

I added sugar, some molasses, and salt. Plus very warm, almost hot coffee. Stirred it all up and added fresh dry yeast.

Biggest Bread Surface

Mixed in rye and white flour, caraway seeds, and let it all sit for a couple of hours. Placed it in a large Dutch oven (here's how it became the largest), let it sit for a couple more hours (We decided not to go out to the movies. It was too windy and cold to ride our bikes), and bake at a hot (350 F) but not super hot (I usually bake at 400 F) oven.

Caraway Seeds

Spoiler alert, I gave away the recipe. But if you'd like to discuss the chemistry of bread some more send me a note and we can talk.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Aesthetics as a Diversity Strategy

I asked my students to do a cool two-week lab project. The first week, people had to choose a two-street study site in the neighborhood (no on-campus localities, no parks or green spaces, no commercial buildings). I asked them to estimate the human population of their study sites, as well as the total number of plants. I asked them to break down the plants into evergreen trees, evergreen shrubs, deciduous trees, and deciduous shrubs.

Boston panorama

Students uploaded their work to our classroom flickr site. This week in lab we did a simple calculation of the biodiversity of each site, using the Simpson equation. You can wiki it if you're interested. The students also printed out the satellite view of their study site and estimated total tree cover (luckily Google Satellite was done during the summer).

Alternative Transportation

Each table prepared a bar graph comparing human population, biodiversity, and tree cover. The groups presented their data and answered a few questions in the presentation, including, "How could an urban plan promote the introduction of more biodiversity?"

Mt. Auburn Cemetery in the Fall

One of my students summed it up best: "Introduce more gardens for their simple aesthetic value." What a great idea. Promoting biodiversity for its own sake is probably a hard sell, something we tree huggers don't seem to understand. But promoting a prettier, more aesthetic surroundings is in and of itself a way to promote biodiversity in cities.

Native garden

Bad Planning

Botany Without Borders is usually a happy place. I like to think about plants, design, evolution, nature, and aesthetics. Don't you? But sometimes there are things that just make me mad.

Every day I cross the BU Bridge twice. About two years ago the State of Massachusetts funded bridge rehabilitation across the Commonwealth and the BU Bridge was one of the first projects.

Back then the planners did such a bad job. While they planned bike lanes for the completion date, they excluded pedestrians and bike riders in the interim plans. I went to numerous meetings, spoke with all kinds of city, local, and state officials, and finally got the message loud and clear: "We don't care."

I made a short video showing the dangers to bike riders and posted it on YouTube. In a couple of days more than 3000 people had viewed it on Boston.com and the Governor's Office called me at my office, "How can we ameliorate the problem?"

Fast forward to today. The pedestrian or bike rider traveling to and from Cambridge has to pass a series of incredibly noisy, polluting, dangerous engines that are supposedly there to keep the bridge from freezing. Hm....it was 52F when I left work this afternoon.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Plant Clones

Plants learned to clone themselves hundreds of millions of years ago and they continue to do so today. Plants spread by asexual (vegetative) reproduction in addition to sexual reproduction.

From a design perspective, we can utilize plant clones to build effective garden spaces, do land reclamation, and grow certain important food crops.

Plant clones can also be harmful, such as when they clog waterways.

We find plant clones in so many settings. Large plants, small plants, land plants, aquatic plants. Underground and above-ground growth. Leaves that clone, stems that clone, roots that clone. And some organisms that look like plants (like Cladonia boryi below), but which are not related to plants.

Enjoy these photos and please click on each one for more details.

Opuntia, a Wandering Cactus

Giant Clones

Garlic clones and Urban Gardens

Palmetto community

Viviparous leaves

Underground flowers in violets

Cloning Iris

Banana shoots

Nutrient mobilization


Water Hyacinth

Invasive Water Species

Cladonia boryi

New England landscape

Coppiced woodland

Redwoods and Ferns

Monday, February 13, 2012

Compost Tea

The other day Janet told me some of her plants looked sickly and could use a shot of fertilizer. Down I went to the basement to set up our vermiculture station to produce some liquid gold.

Compost tea. This wonderful stuff! It smells like a barn. It's brown and dark. It's the consistency of thick coffee.

The worms have been pretty happy lately so the tea was easy to get. Our vermiculture stations sit on top of very large upside-down ceramic planters, so they're easy to reach and to manipulate. I took one of the stations (a large plastic recycle bin) and piled the worms and soil up so they just about filled 2/3 of the bin.

Worm condo

Then I tipped the bin ever so gently so that water could flow down through the soil to the lower side of the bin. I placed a large plastic tub underneath to catch the drippings. I poured in a few liters of water and left it until I came home from work.

The yield was a couple of liters of the best fertilizer you can use for your home or garden. I diluted it to about half a cup to a gallon of water and watered all the plants in the house. Then we put some in a jar and gave it to a friend of Janet's. Good fun and nice to see the product of all we've fed the worms, banana peels, coffee grinds and filters, cardboard egg cartons, vegetable peelings, etc., etc.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Mmmmm Hyacinths

Our potted hyacinths just came into full bloom in a sunny kitchen window. They are fragrant, beautiful, and ephemeral. I bought the bulbs ("Festival Multiflowering Hyacinths") a couple of year's ago from the excellent McClure and Zimmerman's bulbs


What I love about their catalogue is that it's in black and white and has codes for spring blooming, summer blooming, etc., so you have to read it carefully. It makes you slow down, really think about your garden and its problems, and what will work best where. Thanks to M & Z I have about 200 naturalized miniature multiheaded tulips that I can look forward to in a few weeks. Their website is more colorful but the true experience is to be had with the hard copy.

Anyway, I let the hyacinth flowers come and go and nurture the leaves along as long as they last, then just put the whole thing in the basement once the leaves have died off in early summer. In the fall I bring the pot back up, put it in the coldest part of our north-facing curtain window in the kitchen, and when the leaves are a couple of inches tall I move the operation to our sunny south-facing window on top of the toaster oven, where there's a little bit of extra warmth.


At this point I keep things quite moist, which seems to encourage those flowers to pop out. It's sort of like the plants think it's "April showers."

If you don't like the aroma of hyacinths you might not like this plant. But in any case the aroma is not overwhelming.

Just another plug for the McClure and Zimmerman people. I first bought the bulbs three years ago, neglected to read the instructions that they need some weeks of real cold to force blooming, and wrote back that my bulbs never flowered. M & Z sent me a replacement, which I didn't deserve, with the instruction packet folded to the specific part where it specifies cold treatment.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Plants and Transportation

A stretch? Maybe. But sometimes stretching is a good thing.

This morning's New York Times carried an op ed on the irrational transportation bill the republican congress is trying to pass.


The bill will gut public transportation, already crippled in our cities. It will loosen restrictions for oil and gas drilling in environmentally fragile areas. Finally, the bill will encourage increased road and bridge-building instead of initiating much-needed alternative transportation projects.

Public space

You may think I'm crazy but I'm a year-round bike rider. In Boston. Not the prettiest place to ride and certainly not the nicest climate. My commute is only a mile or so each way but in our geographically small town there are lots of people with short commutes. Bike riding, like walking, is emission-free, noise-free, and sustainable. Just like plant transportation systems.

Metermaid's Dilemma

Plant transportation systems?

Consider the flow of water, nutrients, and sugars in the plant. All of this movement occurs passively with no expenditure of energy. Natural pressure gradients are harnessed in the plant, along with the cohesive and adhesive properties of water, to allow free flow of materials to every cell in the plant.

Willow Pattern

What about the spread of pollen, seeds, and fruit? All of this movement is passive too. Gravity, wind, water, and animal partners all give plants a "lift." A kind of natural ride share that benefits the whole community.

Pine staminate cones

We can't all be like plants (you know the joke: "Make like a tree and leave"), but we can look to plants and other living systems to build environments where transportation is minimally invasive and systems for moving people take into consideration the long-run good of our environment.

Young oak leaves

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Coral Reef Ecology and Human Impacts

Seems like the poorer the environment the more heavy-duty the evolution. The other day in class we looked at this in the perspective of the tropical rainforest. This most diverse terrestrial ecosystem thrives on some of the poorest soils on the planet. Today I was discussing this with my class in another perspective. Coral reefs, like tropical rainforests, face some of most stringent physical and chemical constraints in terms of available nutrients.

Coral reef community ecosystems have been busy evolving for hundreds of millions of years. They are some of the oldest and most complex ecosystems on Earth. Their main constraint: Nutrient poor water (warm tropical waters are lower in dissolved oxygen than cool waters, which have abundant oxygen and abundant life). But facing the oxygen-poor water in which they find themselves, the organisms of the coral reef display incredible abundance and diversity, most of it based on symbiotic relationships.

Ramparts in the Rockies

Enter humans. Among the many perturbations of coral reef ecosystems, we have been busy for a century or so changing the chemistry of the ocean around them. In particular, tropical regions that host sugar cane and other crops dump huge amounts of fertilizer and pesticides into the ocean, perhaps not on purpose, but as a result of runoff.

The coral reef species, which have evolved exquisite adaptations to deal with nutrient-poor waters, simply cannot survive in the environment of increased nutrients we have imposed.

Oldest Fossils

I presented these ideas today to what looked like a very eager group of students. That is, eager to leave the confines of lecture hall. I felt a moment of incompetence: How can we explain complex systems like coral reef ecosystems and their relationship to human impact in a single lecture? There is just too much there, too many variables, and no one answer. Water chemistry, temperature, ultraviolet energy, tourism, and many other variables contribute to the extinction of coral reefs. But some coral reefs, comprising thousands of species, span hundreds of miles, respond differently to an array of environmental impacts. How to put them all out there so students can make sense of it?

The same problem applies to scientists trying to explain climate change. Too many factors to explain. The scientists look like they're using "fuzzy logic" and opportunistic politicians create soundbites that serve their own purposes but ignore the message of evidence-based science.

Back in my office not five minutes, I received an email from one of my students. The article he sent me not only confirmed what I was talking about in lecture, it highlighted some of the difficulties of putting together all the pieces when we address habitat degradation. Thank you Matt!

Ancient Fossils

Oh by the way. What are these pictures? Ancient fossilized coral reefs that are now part of the Canadian Rockies. Wow!

Monday, February 6, 2012

Farming in the Mall?

Long ago and far away when we lived in Alaska, there was a commercial greenhouse in town. This was the tiny city of McGrath, way off the grid, an outpost accessible only by dogsled or plane. The Native Corporation, flush with funds from the sale of oil and gas rights, decided to build the greenhouse in town to provide people with fresh veggies and of course, to make money. Here you can see the greenhouse in back of the local tavern, which was ever the bigger money maker. See the moose antlers over the door?

The greenhouse was built on 18 inches of gravel to protect it from permafrost. It was heated by waste heat from the nearby FAA facility. What a wonderful, sustainable idea. Or so it seemed. I was hired as a helper there. That summer we grew cucumbers, tomatoes, and strawberries, most of which no one in town would buy. Who ate fruits or vegetables, especially when they weren't wrapped? Most of the tomatoes our landlady fed to her turkeys.

Within a couple of months the advanced, expensive system of hydroponics got clogged on the peat moss inside. There was a proliferation of spider mites on the strawberry plants that quickly attacked the rest of the crops. Operations were closed for awhile in the fall while prodigious pesticides were applied to the whole space. And that winter people found they couldn't grow anything. Surprise! There wasn't a reliable source of light.

The weight of the first big snow brought the structure down and that was the end of the McGrath greenhouse.

What does this have to do with gardening in malls? Today's New York Times ran a piece on empty shopping malls being used as indoor gardens. It reminded me of our greenhouse which, incidentally, was staffed with a professional horticulturist brought down from Fairbanks.

What can be the fate of a mall garden? Where will the expertise come to run it? How can it provide the kind of light needed for growing plants? One of the people they interviewed for the article found that aphids spread fast indoors. The solution? A container of ladybugs! Do we really buy the idea that this would cover the whole interior of a mall? What about heating the mall? Maintaining it? Keeping it safe? Does anyone think the kale they grow inside will cover the enormous costs of running thousands of square feet of former retail space? The concept that mall spaces, overbuilt in the first place, could provide conditions for indoor growing at a commercial scale seems to me outrageous and as poorly thought out as the malls themselves.

Maybe you think otherwise, I'd love to hear! Meanwhile here's a picture of our little log cabin in McGrath, Alaska, where we lived during 1981-1982.

Our Log Cabin

Saturday, February 4, 2012


In class we've been talking a lot about biodiversity...the measure of how many species there are in an ecosystem and how their interactions lead to the meta-phenomenon of biocomplexity. The more I learn and teach about science the more I understand the importance of biodiversity in terms of a "healthy" ecosystem. One dimension has to do with sustainability. If an ecosystem has lots of species, no one particular pathogen can wipe out all the living things. Consider this garden picture. With the 20-odd species we see here, it would take many pathogens or pests to wipe out the whole system.

Urban garden diversity

Natural ecosystems also feature a wide variety of species. Biodiversity is the consequence of many niches that can be filled. Each plant, animal, fungus or bacteria has its own range of habitats that it can live in.

New England landscape

When there are fewer species in the landscape a single pest can wipe out all the greenery. For example, when I grew up in Chicago the streets were lined with the most wonderful elm trees. The elms formed a green tunnel--a canopy that reached across every street. It was wonderful, shady, quiet, and green. Until Dutch Elm Disease came to the midwest. Then every single tree on the block was killed within a matter of a year or two.

I took this picture in Medicine Hat, Alberta last summer. These are elms lining a street, giving you an idea of what most midwestern towns had about 40 or 50 years ago. I guess the disease hasn't taken a foothold in the climate of southern Alberta, which is consistently bitterly cold in the winter. Perhaps the beetle that carries the fungus that kills the elms can't live in this climate.


There's been a lot in the news lately about Rochester, New York and its ability to survive and thrive after the bankruptcy of Eastman Kodak. Economic experts attribute Rochester's survival to its diverse economy. Though Kodak failed, there are many other sources of economic vitality that keep the city afloat.

In a similar way, diverse communities can survive social, architectural, or economic trends that might otherwise ruin them. Consider our very diverse community of Cambridgeport, Massachusetts, where houses that are almost two centuries old live side to side with contemporary housing projects. Ironically our neighborhood is threatened by upward economic trends (high real estate values) that threaten to chase out poorer residents, artists, the elderly, and families, all of whom contribute to the vitality and diversity of this neighborhood.

Cambridgeport Fall Garden

Cottage Street Cambridge after Snowstorm

How can designers and planners provide flexibility in their designs that will encourage diversity and long-term survival in their communities?

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Plant Flow

Looking at this picture made me think about how much plants experience flow. This vine seems to flow in space, up around itself and moving toward the sunlight.


Inside the plant body water flows up from the roots, into the vascular system, and eventually out through pores, all part of the process of photosynthesis.

Magnolia leaf

Nutrients flow from the roots, but also from the photosynthetic parts of the plant, nourishing flowers, fruit, and buds.


The roots of the plant, which are not photosynthetic, cannot nourish themselves. In order to grow and survive they depend on carbohydrates that are formed through the photosynthetic process. Some of those carbohydrates may be stored in the roots of certain plant species.


In their hundreds of millions of years of evolutionary history plants have experienced flow from one ecosystem to the next. across continents, up and down mountain ranges, and through time.

Livid Morning Sky

Plants provide us with a kind of living memory of the flow of life and its many complex processes.