Sunday, February 22, 2009

Spring is Here, Oh, Spring is Here

...Life is skittles, and life is beer, at least in the Hartford Convention Center. The Federated Garden Clubs of Connecticut held the Connecticut Flower & Garden Show this past weekend. I was there on Saturday to answer questions at the display from the UConn EEB Plant Growth Facility, and there was a steady stream of people, and the word was that it was difficult to even find a parking space by early afternoon. Things were busy, but I did take some time to do some photography.

Here's the display from the UConn greenhouses. It's a bit heavy on succulent plants and carnivorous plants. No messing around with arborvitaes and forced tulips for us.

Next door to the greenhouse table was Cheri C. from the Connecticut State Museum of Natural History, with an educational exhibit on plants that are sources of fibers. Did you know that course fibers useful for rope making can be extracted from Sansevieria, the omnipresent potted Snake Plant?

The Connecticut Cactus and Succulent Society also had a booth in the educational exhibit section of the show, here manned by longtime CCSS-er Sully. The next big event for the CCSS is their annual show the first weekend in April, in Waterbury.

Out on the main floor, the New England Carnivorous Plant Society had a booth. Shaun M. and Wild Bill could barely keep up with the hordes of budding flytrap enthusiasts asking questions about the miniature garden of terror the NECPS had set up.

The numerous vendors included Judy B. of Lauray of Salisbury, with an eclectic selection of succulents, orchids and gesneriads.

Black Jungle also had a big presence. This was their first year at the Hartford Flower Show, but it seemed like they were keeping busy. In past years, commercial sources of carnivorous plants had been few and far between at the show, so I'm sure there was some pent up demand.

I didn't get many photos of the garden installations, but I really liked this one from the Connecticut Horticultural Society, who put together a charming mockup of an urban garden complete with vegetable patch and compost bin.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Ginkgo, and the Trouble with Living Fossils

Ginkgo lined walkway at the University of Tokyo.

The Maidenhair Tree, Ginkgo biloba, is the last surviving remnant of a group of non-flowering seed plants (phylum Ginkgophyta) that way back in the Mesozoic had a worldwide distribution and were represented by multiple genera and species. Ginkgo came to the attention of European botanists in 1690, via cultivated trees in Japan, though it seems that the original home of G. biloba was the mountains of southwestern China. It is debatable whether truly wild populations of Ginkgo trees even exist anymore, but through cultivation the Ginkgophyta have regained shades of the ubiquity that they had in the age of the dinosaurs.

Ginkgo is a classic example of what are sometimes called “living fossils,” a lone hanger-on from a group that was far more diverse, widespread and ecologically important in the distant past, as revealed by the fossil record. The genus Ginkgo itself is known from the upper Triassic (200 million years ago) onward, with some fossils being quite similar, at least in form, to the modern Maidenhair Tree.

The term “living fossil” bothers me, though. Present day ginkgos aren’t identical to the fossils, and many of the ancient ginkgophytes don’t resemble the modern street tree in the slightest, unless viewed by someone with a background in paleobotany and plant morphology. The basic workings of genetics imply that it is essentially impossible for a real world population to remain genetically static from one generation to the next, let alone for millions of generations. So, Gingko biloba is certainly not a literal living fossil, untouched by the passage of time.

Even non-literal applications of “living fossil” are problematic. Ginkgos qualify as living fossils in large part simply because there weren’t that many of them around before people took them into cultivation, and they were confined to one obscure corner of eastern Eurasia. If it so happened that thousands of species of Ginkgophyta had survived into the present, and they grew in every forest, savannah, patch of desert scrub and vacant lot north of Antarctica, nobody would call them living fossils, never mind that they bore similarities to certain fossil remains.

Old Ginkgo tree at Washinomiya Shrine, Saitama, Japan. This individual has been coppiced: the original trunk was cut, and the tree is resprouting with multiple stems.

In our world, the Ginkgophyta barely squeaked by into the present, and another group of seed plants, the Magnoliophyta or flowering plants, diversified and came to dominate most terrestrial ecosystems. The designation of Ginkgo as a living fossil, and magnoliophytes—for example, petunias—as just ordinary plants, is purely retroactive and largely arbitrary: flowering plants, after all, have a fossil record that extends well back into the Mesozoic. Flowering plants share a common ancestor with Ginkgo, and the two lineages have been evolving for exactly the same amount of time since they diverged. A living fossil is more a matter of perception and lack of familiarity, than anything inherent in the plant.

In some alternate reality where pernicious ginkgophyte weeds infest suburban gardens of edible tomato-like ginkgophytes, and the only flowering plant that has dodged extinction is one species of petunia growing in a remote valley in Peru, perceptions would be different. Ginkgo biloba would be just another street tree, and petunias would be living fossils, a rare and freakish survival from a vanished world.

Reference: Gifford, E.M. & A.S. Foster. 1989. The Morphology and Evolution of Vascular Plants, Third Edition. W.H. Freeman and Co., New York.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Bald Eagles in NY

Eagles at George's Island, Montrose, NY.

On Saturday I got over to Westchester County, New York, to visit some family and friends. The afternoon's amusement was attending Eaglefest, at various sites along the Hudson River in the Croton-on-Hudson vicinity. It went over well: the weather was considerably warmer than it has been lately, and we saw plenty of juvenile and adult Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), flying, perching, and at one point getting chased by a Red-tailed Hawk, which looked puny in comparison. My wildlife photography skills and equipment aren't up to National Geographic standards, but the bird-shaped blobs in the photos are eagles.

George's Island wide view. There are about 20 eagles in the trees.