In this exciting episode, In Defense of Plants explores the fascinating botanical communities growing in a sand prairie in central Illinois. The unique soil conditions makes this place a hotbed for rare plants. Many of these species are disjuncts from further west.
The story of this place began some 14,000 years ago as glacial outwash from the long gone Lake Chicago blew across the landscape and piled into great sand dunes. Join us for a fascinatingly beautiful botanical adventure.
CORRECTION: The cactus is not Optuntia fragilis, it is actually the eastern prickly pear (Opuntia humifusa)… Woops!
Prairies are fire adapted ecosystems. For far too long, fires were sequestered. Today, more and more communities are coming around to the fact that fire can be used as a tool to bring life back to these endangered ecosystems. In this video, we get hands on experience with fire as a prairie restoration tool. Special thanks to Illinois Natural Areas for letting us tag along.
The Columnar Trifecta:
Left – saguaro (Carnegiea gigantea)
Middle – organ pipe (Stenocereus thurberi)
Right – senita (Pachycereus schottii)
Organ Pipe National Monument is the only place in the US where you can see these three cacti growing in sympatry in the wild. The organ pipe and the senita are largely Mexican cacti that barely make their way into southern Arizona. Any farther north and frosts kill them off. Even right here on the Mexican border you can see signs of frost damage on the senita. It was an incredible day of botanizing to say the least!
In this episode, In Defense of Plants goes in search of an aroid native to North America affectionately called “skunk cabbage.” Skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) is one of eastern North America’s earliest plants to bloom and finding its bizarre floral display is always a treat.
Plants like this one are the reason why I love living in a city with a well established botanic garden and several parks with greenhouses. The kola tree, from the mallow family, was one of those exotic plants always pictured in books together with Coffea and Camellia species when I was a kid, and I had never had a chance to see one in person until recently, when it was added to an area under glass at the Glasgow Botanic gardens where many other tropical plants grown for their edible parts or products are kept together in a themed space.
Interestingly, only the alternative common name, kola nut, was on the tag identifying this specimen, and I can’t find any information about species with uniformly orange flowers. Those generally used to harvest what are considered kola nuts are C. acuminata and C. nitida, native to the tropical forests of Central and West Africa, and both with flowers which are similar in shape, but pretty different in colour. These two species are grown commercially in their native area but have been present in cultivation in tropical parts of SE Asia, the Americas and the Pacific. If you’ve already seen what the more widely publicised cocoa (Theobroma cacao) fruit looks like, then you might recognise the similarities in the kola fruit, or seed capsule. Although separated by an ocean, the South American Theobroma genus and the African Cola one are closely related by ancient ties and so the kola fruit is quite similar to that of the cocoa: what’s called “beans” in one are “nuts” in the other, but they are simply their seeds. These have traditionally been chewed as stimulants, and more widely to produce popular stimulant beverages and food products. All parts of the Cola plants harvested for nuts are also part of the traditional medicine of their native area.
I’m so intrigued by this sort of things, so I need to remember to ask the former curator about this mystery plant when I’ll see him in April with the other fellow students to receive our certificates, but if you know more about Cola species or if you see these orange star-shaped flowers, please let me know!
Trees, like animals, can also experience albinism, though it is extremely rare.
the reason it’s rare is because without chlorophyll, the plant can’t get energy, and dies shortly after sprouting unless it has some other source of food. so if you see a plant as big as the one in the picture that doesn’t have any green in its leaves, it’s getting its nutrition from the roots of a neighboring plant of the same species, feeding on the sugars created by the other plant’s photosynthesis.
albino plants are basically vampires.
thats metal af
That or the neighbouring plants are helping to keep it alive.
There has been research saying plants can share resources with one another, such as carbon and nitrogen, when one is deficient, so this plant likely has an abundance of mycorrhizal fungi on its root system that isn’t so much parasitizing from its neighbours as it is borrowing.
It’s not a vampire. It’s a disabled plant being supported by a community of healthy individuals who have more than enough nutrients to share.
The real vampire plant is actually Indian Pipe, which lacks chlorophyll and sucks out nutrients from photosynthetic trees, meaning they can grow in dark places without much trouble. They look badass as well.
this is the coolest thing, because every plant is connected to every other plant by underground fungi! scientists now hypothesize that fungi actually evolved long before plants, so plant root systems evolved with fungi that were already in the soil. fungi aren’t just useful for the survival of plants, they are essential for the survival of most vascular plants! (vascular plants = those with root structures)
networks of fungi under the ground can cover miles and miles, and each fungus sends out very long branches, called hyphae. these hyphae can surround the root tips of a plant (these are called ectomycorrhizae, because ecto = outside, myco = fungus, rrhizae = root), which looks something like this:
(picture source) alternatively, plant roots can be colonized by endomycorrhizae (endo = inside), which are WILD, because they essentially just bust through the plant cell walls and, like, chill directly inside of the root cells? like HI here we are we’re moving in now! that looks like this, on a cellular level:
(picture source) despite the occasional door-busting, this is a good, codependent relationship for both parties, because plants provide the fungi with sugars and energy, while fungal networks can grow even farther than plant root networks, so they transport essential nutrients to the plants as well as helping the roots to gather enough water. fungi are also the world’s greatest decomposers, and break down rotting organic material in the soil to increase the amount of carbon surrounding the root networks!
fungi are uniquely disposed to transport materials and to communicate over long distances because they have a supercool cellular structure! so fungal hyphae are only sort of composed of individual cells, but they’re cells with serious boundary issues. most species of fungi have septate hyphae (septum means boundary or partition), where individual cells have dividers between them, but these dividers have, like, GIGANTIC ass holes in them. the concept is kinda like this:
(picture source) these pores are so ENORMOUS that they can fit entire organelles through them! so one cell can just pass its entire nucleus or mitochondria through a pore to its neighbor, which is WILD! you can literally see these septa when you look at fungi under a microscope, like look at this beautiful bullshit!
(picture source) something like 90% of vascular land plants are colonized by mycorrhizae, so when you are standing outside, know that literally every plant around you, every blade of grass beneath you, is connected to every other plant by a vast network of fungal friends, roommates, and helpers! sometimes a SINGLE fungus will be connecting all of these plants to one another! ALL THE PLANTS ARE HOLDING HANDS.
there are these incredibly intimate, cooperative relationships going on beneath your feet that allow plants to help each other and communicate with one another (or compete with one another), and there is NO WAY that we would have enormous trees like we do without fungi to help them expand their reach and weather different soil conditions! the plants are talking to one another, y’all, and we’re the only ones who can’t hear them.