Tuesday, February 28, 2023

The perplexing case of the spiral leaves

Spiral leaves

I was walking along a sidewalk path during one of my afternoon strolls, when I suddenly spotted a specimen that seemed to be a bit unusual. 

It was growing next to a construction area, and when I came closer to take a look at it, I realized it was because the plant had quite attractive spiral leaves.

Was this a genotypic attribute of the species or variety, or a result of some abiotic or biotic condition that was fleeting and would disappear when the condition was removed?

When I got home I immediately started googling for any other cases of this phenomenon. 

I did find a sedge that had really twisty leaves called Juncus effusus 'Spiralis', but the specimen I found looked different. There was also talk about how such a form seems to be prevalent in arid and windy regions, perhaps in order to resist the damaging effects of wind. Others hypothesized that such a form would be optimized for photosynthesis, since no matter the location of the sun, some part of the leaf would be placed to intercept its rays. The grass Danthonia spicata has twisted wiry leaves when dried, but these leaves were fresh looking and new, and not wiry at all, so I did not think it was this species.

Twisting or spiral appearance of the flag leaf can be caused by low temperatures (Lindsey et al, 2020)

I also found a paper that noted that the flag leaf of winter wheat (usually Triticum aestivum) can form a spiral when damaged by freezing temperatures (Lindsey et al, 2020, see image above). This effect was accompanied by yellowing or browning of the leaf, something which I did not see in the specimen.

Intrigued by this mystery, I took the specimen home with me, noting that the soil on which it lodged was extremely dry and hard. After placing it in a pot with potting soil, I watered it thoroughly and have been keeping watch on whether any new leaves would bear the same twisting phenotype, and whether the spirals on the older leaves would disappear. It would also give me the chance to identify the plant once it flowers or grows enough blades to be minutely examined.

More on this mystery later, I am sure.

Literature Cited

Lindsey, Laura & Alt, Douglas & Lindsey, Alexander. (2020). Freeze symptoms and associated yield loss in soft red winter wheat. Crop, Forage & Turfgrass Management. 7. 10.1002/cft2.20078. 

Saturday, February 25, 2023

Ideas are like Grass

Osage Plains Prairie in Missouri, by Pat Whalen. To learn more about the importance of protecting original prairie in Missouri, and how you can get involved, please visit www.moprairie.org

I was scrolling through some posts about the Disney Plus TV show Willow when I came upon a quote that immediately resonated with me.

It is seemingly a direct quote from a novel by the well known author Ursula K. Le Guin, in her 1974 novel The Dispossessed.

I admit that I have never read any of her novels, although perhaps I now should, but the quote went thus:

It is of the nature of idea to be communicated: written, spoken, done. 

The idea is like grass. It craves light, likes crowds, thrives on crossbreeding, grows better for being stepped on.

I like the analogy, and her science is mostly correct as well.

Grasses are creatures of open habitats. Most despise the low lit interiors of forests. Grasses crave light, much as we do.

Grasses also tend to exist in numberless crowds. There are of course times when individual shoots are the norm, such as when environments are not ideal, or the flow of a species' history channel it into a solitary existence. But for the most part, grasses thrive in crowds.

Grasses share. Not only via the usual hybridizations, but also through fascinating processes like lateral gene transfer.

Her contention that a grass "grows better for being stepped on" is a bit more complicated. Trampling on first look is not that good for individual grasses. However, when viewed from the perspective of entire populations or grassland ecosystems, trampling can be very beneficial.

This is because some grasses and their ecosystems have evolved to benefit from grazing. For example, trampling by herds of animals can maintain grasslands by removing weeds (such as tree saplings). Herds can also help mulch the soil through the trampling of vegetation into the soil, and break hard soil crusts. So in that sense, Ursula K. Le Guin's contention that ideas and grasses benefit from trampling is quite tenable.

 Now, excuse me while I go and see whether I should buy one of her novels...

Saturday, February 18, 2023

A Taxonomist's Conundrum (Or, A Poem on How I Lost My Hair Identifying ^$%^#^%!!! Grasses)

Thanks to Paul Marcum of the Facebook group "Midwest Graminoids - Grasses, Sedges, and Rushes, Oh my!" 

The Identification of Grasses

by H.D. Harrington

A grass can be “glumey” in more ways than one,

When its classification remains to be done;

You pull off the parts, and soon feel your age

Chasing them over the microscope stage!

You peer through the lenses at all of the bracts

And hope your decisions agree with the facts;

While your oculist chortles with avid delight

As you strain both your eyes in the dim table light.

You are left on the horns of quite a dilemma,

When you count the nerves on the back of the lemma;

Then you really get snoopy and turn each one turtle,

To see if the flower is sterile or fertile.

And then the compression, no problem is meaner —

Is it flat like your wallet or round like a wiener?

“How simple,” you think, “for a mind that is keen” —

But what do you do when it’s half-way between?

You probe and you guess how the florets will shatter,

For you know later on it is certain to matter;

You long for the calmness of labor that’s manual,

When the question arises — “perennial” or “annual”?

And that terrible texture, the meanest of all,

Is one of the pitfalls in which you can fall;

“Cartilaginous” maybe — or is it “chartaceous”?

Has even the experts exclaiming “Good gracious!”

Then you wail as you wade through the long tribal key,

“Oh, why must this awful thing happen to me?”

“Grasses are easy,” our teacher declares,

As he mops off a brow that is crowned with gray hairs!

(B) is the bent awn of the fertile floret that is being hidden between the enclosing glumes, and (A) is the rudimentary spikelet which sits on a pedicel. The axis segment that connected the unit to the next spikelet pair is labeled (C), and you can see at the top where it was detached from the raceme.

Monday, February 13, 2023

The use of open grasslands as a movie trope in epic quests (Willow 2022-2023)

The start of the quest (Willow 2022)

The new Disney Plus series Willow is a sequel to the beloved 1980s movie of the same name. It is an epic fantasy where the heroes go on a journey to rescue a prince from the clutches of a rising evil.

I had decided to watch the show during a particularly slow day. I was not expecting much from it, because I tend to like science fiction, but I was very pleasantly surprised when the series captivated me, and I now highly recommend it.

It was funny, deliberately cheesy, and somewhat campy in that the creators of the show introduced modern colloquialisms and music into the episodes. I also learned that the deceptively simple storyline was actually replete with symbolism and layers of complexity after watching a fantastic podcast called What the Force.  

Like many other high fantasy shows, the plot involves an epic quest. Interestingly enough, the director of the show depicted the start of the long journey by using wide angle shots of the protagonists on horses as they travelled across the open expanse of beautiful grasslands (the show was shot in Wales, and featured gorgeous scenery throughout the series). This scene was reminiscent of some other movies and shows that I had watched, and I realized that open grasslands are oftentimes used as a trope to characterize long epic journeys.

The quest continues (Willow 2022)

Movie or film tropes are a way of telling a story by using metaphorical language and scenes. They are used fairly often, and some common examples of cinematic tropes include the use of black for villains, and the frequent use of comedic sidekicks.

The use of open grasslands in Willow and in other shows made me think of why such landscapes are frequently selected to depict journeys or quests. I seldom see long epic journeys on fantasy films starting out with the protagonists hacking their way through the thick constricted underbrush of some deep dark forest.

A barrier between the open grasslands (Willow 2022)

When one thinks about the start of an epic fantasy quest in the movies, one cannot help but imagine that the journey will be filled with wondrous adventures and travels to exciting and far off lands for the protagonists. Thus, the director of such films needs to match his vision with the expectations of the avid watchers of the show, and the use of dark, cramped, and confined landscapes (such as the interiors of forests) would likely not entice them to ease happily into the story. 

Instead, he or she would opt for wide open spaces, panoramic scenery, and limitless vistas, attributes which are inherent to vast grasslands, as anyone who has ever stood in awe in the middle of old growth grasslands (or even grain fields) knows.

So the next time you watch high fantasy, such as LOTR, the Hobbit or Willow, see whether you can spot the ways the film producers use open ecosystems as a trope to entice and settle viewers into their equally expansive and sweeping world creations. 

The heroes meet up with the "Chosen One", Elora Danan (Willow 2022)