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#PlantsMakePeopleHappy, How-to, Plant Care

Winter Plant Care

December 13, 2017

Plants are super keen on seasonal changes, and have different needs in the winter as compared with the summer.  In the winter, the sun is setting (much) earlier, swinging lower in the sky, and is often covered with clouds. Although your plants are inside, these changes will impact them. 

Here are a few things to keep in mind:

Mind the drafts – A temperature flux or draft can seriously stress your plants out.  Some plants are extra sensitive to drafts, and will immediately decline if it gets in the low 60’s (I’m looking at you, Tillandsia!)  Keep your plants away from heating units, radiators, fires, and from open windows or front doors that might create drafts.  Remember, if its chilly for you, it’s chilly for your plants! 

Dormancy – In the winter, the days are short- so short that most tropical plants will enter a phase of dormancy from October to February.  Because of this,  it is important to tweak your watering schedule. Allow soil to dry out completely between waterings.  This may mean waiting longer between waterings, or reducing the amount given (but try not to do both at once unless absolutely necessary).  If you know your plant prefers humid conditions, like the Bird’s Nest Fern, mist it weekly so it stays moist but not soaked. Soaked soil can lead to root rot. 

Put away the fertilizer – Give your plant a much deserved break. 

Sunlight – If your plants are leaning towards their light source, gradually rotate them to help them straighten up.  PROTIP: If your plants are spindly and reaching for the light, that means that they are not getting enough light. 

Dust – Dust off leaves bi-weekly.  Closed windows during the winter increases dust and indoor pollution.  Dust and dirt build-up can reduce the amount of light getting to your plant – which can be detrimental when days are short!  To combat extreme build-up, use water with a drop or two of lemon juice or household soap and a soft cloth.

Artificial lighting – Consider supplemental lighting.  The secret sauce?  It’s all in the bulb!  You can use any fixture so long as it’s 1-3 feet from the plant that needs it.  Although there are many lightbulbs on the market, how do you know which is good for you?  Go for a bulb that has >850 lumens of output, ideally in white. Either CFL or LED will do, but plants tend to respond to CFL better (until LED tech gets better).

Winter travel  If you’re travelling, and you’re worried about the plants getting too dry, you can simply move them away from sources of heat including the window.  Temporary light deficit while you’re gone will cause the plant to use less water.  Find more vacation plant care tips here

Some dieback is OK – With less light, plants will drop their leaves to compensate.  If light is food for plants, less light means less food, which means that the plant can’t feed all of its leaves.  Therefore it makes an executive decision to drop them.  However, your plant may have grown to a summer size during the summer, and is now dying back, but not completely dying off.  That is just the plant adjusting to the level of food that it is receiving.  PROTIP: If you know (or sense) that your plant is overgrown, you can pull off a few leaves anywhere to force the plant to not drop any extra leaves.  This is useful for keeping the plant fuller and bushier, as opposed to leggy. 

If you keep your plants happy during the winter, they have a bonus effect  studies have shown indoor plants combat SAD (Seasonal-Affective Disorder).  If you feel seasonal depression or seasonal moodiness, plants are proven to help reduce that stress and anxiety, and even bring happiness to offices, workspaces, and even homes! 

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#PlantsMakePeopleHappy, Holiday Gifting, Plant Care, Plant History, Plant of The Month

Meet the Norfolk Island Pine

December 5, 2017

The Norfolk Island Pine (Araucaria heterophillahails from Norfolk Island – a small island in the Pacific Ocean between New Zealand and New Caledonia. Norfolk Island is extremely important for botanists because it is one of the only islands left in the world with a number of surviving fossil species. Fossil species are species that have existed for so long on earth that there are fossils of them and they are still alive today. Over 50 of the Island’s native plants are endemic (exist nowhere else in the world), and almost half of those are threatened with extinction

Caption Cook Lookout on Norfolk Island by Steve Daggar

This ancient lineage of trees has been on earth for over 200 million years, evolving in the Early Jurassic period.  During the Jurassic, conifers and cone-bearing plants (gymnosperms) were the dominant plant life, and are thought to be a food source for dinosaurs.  During this time, major diversification of the gymnosperms occurred, which was due, in-part to the warming of the earth and rising of the seas.

They would have been lost to history during the Cretaceous Extinction Event (~65MYA, the same one that killed the dinosaurs and 75% of life on Earth), if it were not for a few members of the species surviving on Norfolk Island!  Previous to the mass extinction, Araucarias were spread all over the world, and as far north as Sweden!  Their propensity for growing in perfectly geometric shapes and patterns have given them (and other plants in the family) the nickname “monkey puzzle trees”, but it is no puzzle why these cone-bearing trees are great houseplants–their resilience, vigor, and ability to survive mass extinctions. Just give them plenty of natural light!

Norfolk Island Pines in their natural habitat – Credit

Strangely enough, the Norfolk Island Pine is not even a pine at all – but rather part of a more ancient lineage of cone-bearing trees in the family, Araucariaceae.  Norfolk Island Pines, being related to early pines, split off pine (Pinaceae) ancestors during the Jurassic, have been on the earth for millions of years before today’s pines even evolved. Norfolk Island Pines lack characteristic pine traits.  And although most cone-bearing trees like pines are better adapted for cold conditions, Araucaria heterophylla is actually a tropical plant!  Its quirky yet symmetrical shape has made it a fun, alternative option to the usual holiday tree. 

Norfolk Island Pine in locally-made August planter – The Sill

Norfolk Island Pines make excellent houseplants, as they are low-light tolerant, and help clean the indoor air from toxic pollutants. 

SUNLIGHT

Medium light to bright light.  Some dappled sun is fine- so is a full day of sun.  Adjust water and humidity accordingly. 

WATER

Water weekly. Allow potting mix to dry out before watering (can tolerate drying out, but not for long).  Soil about 1-2” down should be dry to touch. Water more frequently during warmer months, and fertilize during the growing season.  

Do not overwater or keep the soil wet for too long, as this will encourage root rot.  A coarser potting mix that drains well may be necessary, as they do not like to sit in water, but do like to be kept moist – i.e. aim for frequent, well-drained waterings! 

HUMIDITY

Likes higher humidity.  Normal room humidity is fine, but prefers more, if possible.

TEMPERATURE

65°F-85°F (18°C-30°C). It’s best not to let it go below 60°F (15°C)! 

PRECAUTIONS 

This plant is considered toxic by the ASPCA to cats and dogs (and humans) if consumed, but not fatal.  Best practice is always to keep houseplants out of reach of small children and pets. 

Shop Norfolk Island Pines on TheSill.com.

Questions about the Norfolk Island Pine? Email us: help@thesill.com 

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#PlantPorn, #PlantsMakePeopleHappy, Plant History

Do You know Your Corn?

November 17, 2017

Corn (Zea mays) has been a staple crop of the Americas for the past 6,500 years or so.  In fact, since its domestication from the wild teosinte, corn has been extensively bred for different purposes and three general categories of corn exist: corn for popping, corn for mash (and fodder), and sweet corn for eating.  Let’s explore a little bit about corn before getting to the glass gems bit.

Corn Field NJ Christopher Satch

A field of corn in Sussex County, NJ – Christopher Satch

Three Ways We Consume Corn

Not all corn can be popped!  Popcorn kernels have the ability to pop due to the moisture inside each kernel (and have been bred to contain more moisture than other corn).  As the kernels are heated, the water vaporizes and steam cooks the starch. The steam creates pressure in the kernel, and when the pressure becomes too great the steam bursts out of the kernel allowing the starch to expand at such a rate that the entire kernel is turned inside-out!

Corn for mash is often ground up for either animal fodder or corn flour.  This is the stuff tortillas are made of.  This corn cannot be eaten raw or cooked, as the kernels are extremely hard, and will definitely shatter your teeth!  Mash corn is also ground up and fermented, then distilled to make bourbon whiskey (other whiskeys use barley or rye).  Lower grade mash corn, or corn that is unfit for human consumption, is often used in animal fodders and feed.

Sweet corn is the good stuff—higher in sugars than starches this corn is soft when boiled, and is a staple of sizzling summers all across the Americas.  Its softness can be partially attributed to the physical properties of starches versus sugars.  When boiled, the sugars solubilize within the kernel, changing from solid to liquid, and thus softening the corn.  Starch is much less soluble, and when packed becomes much denser and harder than sugars.

transposon corn mcclintock

Variegation caused by transposon activity in corn – © 2002 Nature Publishing Group Feschotte, C. et al. Plant transposable elements: where genetics meets genomics. Nature Reviews Genetics 3, 330.

The Genetic History of Corn

So, now that you’re hungry, let’s talk genes.  Corn is currently the focus of much gene research and otherwise for its importance as a grain.  The entire genome of corn was discovered and sequenced in 2009.  You can read about that team here.  However, corn’s use in genetics goes back even further.

Dr. Barbara McClintock was one of the first few women to earn her PhD from Cornell in Botany in 1927.  Her research focused on maize cytology (cytology is the study of the cell) where she studied the chromosomes of corn cells.  By staining the cells of corn kernels, she was able to see the chromosomes clearly, and the patterns and bands on each one.  By working with an inbred line of corn (inbred lines have uniform genetic makeup), she was able to see correlations with changes in the bands of the chromosomes and phenotype (physical appearance) of the kernels.

More variegation caused by transposons in corn – Carolina Scientific

This was the physical proof for the ‘crossing over’ of genetics, even though the mechanism at that time was still unknown.  This crossing over, she theorized at the time, was due to transposable elements, or transposons – DNA that ‘copies and pastes’ into other chromosomes/locations or ‘cuts and pastes’ into other chromosomes/locations.  Transposons containing color pigment genes were proven to produce mosaic patterns on corn kernels and variegation in the leaves of the corn.  During cell division (mitosis) some cells would randomly receive pigment genes.  This explains why the mosaic patterns were never repeated in any other corn or corn progeny.

Her work would be largely ignored for another 30 years until the technology caught up with her theories in the Genetic Revolution of the 1960’s and 1970’s and other scientists were able to support her theories.  In 1983, she was the first woman to outright win the (unshared) Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her work in the 1930’s for her discovery of transposons.

Glass gems corn can be understood with transposon, and other genetic principles that McClintock and other geneticists have discovered.  Like many species of domesticated plants, a wild population where the crop was first domesticated usually exists.  For example, corn was domesticated from wild corn in Central America.  We call this the center of origin for the corn.  At the center of origin, genetic diversity is the greatest, as wild populations still exist.

As corn was bred and its cultivation spread throughout the Americas, different native tribes were cultivating different types of corn.  It wasn’t until the 1930’s and on that huge monocultures of specially-bred hybrid corn were being planted that corn diversity decreased—heirloom varieties were not being grown because they were not as productive as the hybrid corn.

Although we did lose a lot of genetic diversity, there has been a revival since the 2010s to plant heirloom varieties.  Why plant them if they’re not as productive?  It’s because they have a wealth of random genes for different traits that we could use for plant breeding.  Certain heirloom lines of corn may have resistance to disease, or produce more nutritional corn, even if the size or other attributes are less desirable.

‘Glass Gem’ corn – Greg Schoen

Carl Barnes, a half-Cherokee midwesterner, started to plant heirloom varieties of corn in order to connect with his Cherokee roots.  He had exchanged seeds from collectives from all over the country, and had begun to select for the most colorful corn that popped up.  Over time, these native varieties had crossed with one another (as they do!) to form the Glass Gems hybrid that went viral over the internet in 2012.  The Native Seeds/SEARCH website still sells the popular seeds.

-Greg Schoen

Luckily enough, this corn can be grown successfully in large containers outdoors that’ll be sure to make you the talk of the town… or at least the talk of Thanksgiving dinner!

How-to, Plant Care, Plant History

Daylight Savings Time 101

November 2, 2017

It’s getting to be that time of the year again – that unofficial holiday called Daylight Savings Time (DST). Often, it catches us off-guard, when our digital clocks reset themselves, but our bodies are still programmed to get up at what was the same time.

Ever wonder why we change the clocks in the first place?  

DST was proposed by multiple thinkers in the late 19th and early 20th century, each with their own spin on the concept, but the goal remained the same – to “save” daylight by resetting the clocks so that we can utilize the most sunlight in our day. Although towns in Canada had been implementing DST independently since 1908, the Austria-Hungarian Empire was the first to nationally implement DST in 1916, two years into WWI. Other powers soon followed suit. It is thought that energy is saved by maximizing the use of daylight, by making people get up later in winter (setting the clocks backwards) when the sun rises later, and getting up earlier in spring (setting them forwards) when the sun rises earlier. 

However, there is much controversy over DTS. Opponents claim that since the average person is up for 16 hours a day on average anyway, the time they will be up in the daytime includes when the sun will be up, and that one hour does not make any difference in average energy usage. They also argue that if we simply leave the clocks forward to maximize summer light, that it will work for winter as well without a need to turn the clocks back since the days are so short. Since there has never been any real statistics measuring the efficacy of energy savings, we may never know whether or not DST really does save energy… 

So, the burning question – how does this relate to plants? It is a reminder for those of us who live in temperate zones that the seasons are changing, and that the amount of sunlight is changing too. The sun swings lower in the sky during winter, but the sun is actually becoming more intense! That’s because during winter in the northern hemisphere, the earth is actually closer to the sun than in the summertime. So if we’re closer to a huge burning fireball, why is winter so cold? Well, that’s because angles matter! The earth’s tilting the northern hemisphere away from the sun deflects enough of the sun’s rays to keep the northern hemisphere cold. In the southern hemisphere, the summers are much more intense, being both closer and angled towards the sun. That’s why there are a lot of regions in the southern hemisphere that are not temperate – the summers are much hotter, and the winters, much drier. 

In any case, no matter where you are, be mindful of the changing position of the sun, and adjust plant positions accordingly! Winterize for drafts, and mind your watering as well. If your plants start to drop a leaf or two, take it as an opportunity to give your plant a little more attention then usual, and figure out if it’s just seasonal shedding, lack of light, or a watering issue. 

Plant questions? Shoot our houseplant hotline an email at help@thesill.com! Make sure to include photos if your question is plant-specific.

#PlantsMakePeopleHappy, How-to, Plant Care

Why Your Plant Is Dropping Leaves

November 1, 2017

Does your world stop when your plant drops a leaf or two? 

It is important to keep in mind that for some plants, like the infamous Fiddle Leaf Fig, that leaf drop is a cause for concern, but for other plants, like a Euphorbia, it is nothing to be concerned about. Knowing whether or not leaf shedding is a healthy part of your plant’s lifecyle is important. Some plants seasonally shed leaves, some shed leaves all the time, and some never shed! Many of the tropical houseplants will shed a leaf or two every once in awhile. And some houseplants, like Euphorbs, will shed leaves seasonally, as will temperate plants.

There are also certain situations where plants will shed leaves under stress due to environmental conditions. When a plant is stressed, the leaves will senesce (from the Latin, senex, to age), or fall off to help the plant achieve homeostatic balance.

Let’s explore leaf drop due to insufficient light first:

We may think of leaves as units of production, like plant sugar factories, but just like any other factory, the workers need to be fed! Leaf cells consume about half to two-thirds of the sugars that they make. Photosynthesis alone costs 18 ATP (ATP is the energy currency of the cell) plus two NADPH to generate 36 ATP’s-worth of energy.

ATP = Adenosine triphosphate

NADPH = Nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide phosphate

Although this is a gain, consider that the cell uses most of the gained ATP very quickly, just to sustain itself! The problem with leaves is that although they capture energy to make sugars for the rest of the plant, they are also expensive to maintain.

So, the plant runs into problems if the light dissipates, or if the plant receives less light than it is used to. It has all these hungry leaf cells, but there is not enough light to support them. The plant makes an executive decision to drop the leaf.

Although this might happen quickly in your eyes – “I woke up and my fiddle had dropped 2 leaves!” – it’s a slow process. The plant first needs to suck out all the minerals and nutrients from that leaf and redistribute them throughout the rest of the plant. The leaf will turn yellow, as chlorophyll degrades and photosynthesis shuts down, and may crisp from the edges inwards, those cells being the first to go.

It should be noted that different plants will drop leaves in different ways in response to light. Generally, they will drop random leaves to thin themselves out if not receiving enough light to achieve homeostasis- the idea being that by thinning out the bushiness, more light will hit all the leaves that are left.  The plant will stop dropping leaves when the plant is able to sustain the amount of leaves that are left. A good way to keep a plant bushy and full if it’s dropping leaves is to pull off healthy leaves from the bottom of the plant in order to take away the leaves that the plant cannot support so that it does not randomly drop leaves. This is applicable to all plants that you want to keep bushy if you cannot increase the light!

Another reason for leaf drop can be overwatering:

Overwatering is a common reason for a plant to drop a leaf but not by choice. When soil is too wet for too long, water rushes into the cells, which causes them to swell and sometimes burst. This damage continues up the vascular system, bursting cells, as the excess water has nowhere to go, and finds its way up to the leaves!

This explains why the bottom leaves are generally the first to yellow when a plant is overwatered – the lower leaves are the first to be hit by the deluge of water. The cells flood, changing the pH, and diluting the cells, causing them to yellow and turn slightly transparent, while being bloated and mushy. The cells die from the petiole (leaf stalk) outwards, and in the early stages, the outer parts of the leaves might still be green. If left to continue, the stem will likely become mushy and lose its structural integrity, causing the plant to mush over and collapse. Sometimes, the stem will blacken at the base, and mold fungi (different from mushroom fungi) may be seen at the base as well.

Some plants like cacti or succulents have adapted to dry environments, and are adapted to actually sponge as much water as possible – making overwatering them quite easy and dangerous to them. Others have adaptations for wet environments, like ferns which have primitive vascular systems, or mosses, which have no vascular system at all, making overwatering quite difficult, as all of these plants have adapted to allowing as much water as possible to flow through them.

Which brings us to another reason for leaf drop – dryness:

For the opposite extreme – dryness – plants will behave differently based on how many succulent adaptations they have, as well as their general structure.

For all non-woody/non-fibrous plants, turgor pressure (water pressure) is what holds a plant up! Plants do not have skeletons, and instead use well-managed turgor pressure to keep upright. They’re basically a water balloon. Too much water and they burst. Too little, and they shrivel.

When there is not enough water, the cells shrivel, and the plasma membrane pulls back from the cell walls, causing weakness, which on a macro-level causes drooping.

Water escapes the plant through the stomata, or plant pores, through a process called transpiration. Transpiration is the process where sunlight and heat evaporate water from the plant through the stomata, and pull water through the plant, like a big straw. When a plant has been getting a lot of sunlight, transpiration will pull water from the soil until is depleted, and when there is no more water, the plant will dry out and wilt. ALL leaves will droop or curl upwards and inwards, and that droopiness/curling will progress into the leaves crisping at the edges, with the crispiness working its way inwards.

Note that salt stress mimics this, as an imbalance of salts will cause the same symptoms, but generally with more burning.  In any case, with dryness, depending on the plant, the leaves may turn yellow too, but a paler yellow than they would turn for overwatering. This is caused by the slow denaturing and degradation of the pigments, with the cell structures and fibers intact.

In more succulent plants, wilting will actually manifest itself as wrinkling – the thickened leaves are so waxy and fortified that they cannot wilt, but they can crenate or wrinkle. Some semi-succulent plants like Dracaenas, will both crisp at the leaf’s edges and shrivel at the leaf’s base. Others like cacti will just shrivel at the base. For succulent plants like the cacti, it is wise if one is inexperienced with watering to wait until they shrivel, and then soak them for only one day then leave them out in the sun to dry, to avoid overwatering.

So next time your houseplant drops a leaf or two outside of its usual shedding, take it as an opportunity to check in with your plant: is it receiving less light than usual? Have you been too heavy on the watering? Is it super dry in your apartment? 

Plant questions? Shoot our houseplant hotline an email at help@thesill.com! Make sure to include photos if your question is plant-specific.

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#PlantsMakePeopleHappy, Behind The Scenes, Interview, Plant Care, Plant History

Interview: Lena Struwe

June 14, 2017

Dr. Lena Struwe (Credit: Susanne Ruemmele)

We interviewed Dr. Lena Struwe, an accomplished professor at Rutgers University, as well as the Director of the Chrysler Herbarium at Rutgers University, a leading herbarium in the world for the preservation of important plant taxa samples and records!

Dr. Struwe is the mentor of our resident Plant Scientist here at The Sill, Christopher Satch. Her research involves the order, Gentianlaes, which encompases a few plant families that are extremely economically important – including Rubiaceae (the coffee family), Gentianaceae (the gentian family), Apocynaceae (the dogbane family), and more. These plant families contain countless plants that we use on a daily basis – oleander, coffee, and periwinkle, just to name a few. With this in mind, we asked what she could share with us about what plants have taught her…

Gentiana verna CC BY-SA 3.0, Michael Gasperl (Migas)

What inspired you to choose Gentians to study?

When I started out in grad school my advisor had a grant to work on this group of plants, so I actually didn’t choose gentians. But I quickly fell in love with this family and have worked on them for over 25 years now.

What about Gentians makes them special?

They have a long history of being used by humans as medicinal plants around the world, and they also are incredibly gorgeous. Their flowers come in all colors, even black, and there are gentians on every continent and in every kind of habitat (except on top of glaciers and in the driest deserts).

Are there any easy ways to grow Gentians?

No, gentians are generally rather hard to grow. Some are suitable for rock gardens, but most live in symbioses with fungi and are very specific of what kind of soils they want. Some species in the Gentiana genus are probably the easiest for people in the temperate zones.

Are there any indoor Gentians for the houseplant lover?

Prairie gentians (Eustoma) are sometimes sold as a potted plant, but this species is not long-lived and they often get root rot. The same species is often found at florists as well and is a beloved cut flower.  Gentians are best grown outdoors. 

Eustoma grandiflorum Andrew Dunn, CC BY-SA 2.0

What inspired you to do taxonomy studies?

I have always loved plants, since I was very young. In third grade our teacher made us do a class herbarium and an inventory of a little forest plot, and I loved to explore and figure out what was growing and flowering there. I come from an outdoorsy family that sailed, canoed, hiked, picked mushrooms, etc., and cool plants are everywhere so it never got boring. When I went to college I had planned to do environmental studies, but ended up in botany classes and with an undergraduate part-time job in the herbarium, and the rest is history. The idea to explore the unknown when it comes to biodiversity, which is really what taxonomy is about, is something that fascinates me every day.

Any cool recent finds or new discoveries in the taxonomic world?

The recent news of a million-years old fossil tomatillo plant is a marvelous find. (Learn more!)

Fossil Tomatillo (Credit: Peter Wilf)

I’ve noticed that a lot of houseplants hail from Araceae family. Is there anything special about that family, to your knowledge, that makes them resilient to indoor conditions?

Many of the indoor Araceae plants grow naturally either as epiphytes (on trees) or on the forest floors in tropical countries. They are used to low light conditions, and sometimes droughts. Even in a rain forest it can be dry, especially if you are an epiphyte with no deep roots in the soil, or no way to catch the water that is falling down. 

Do you have any interesting plants in your home or garden?

In our backyard is a large dawn redwood tree planted by the previous owners. It is a tree that is only found wild in a small area in China, but cultivated across the world. Scientists thought it was extinct since it only was known from fossils, but then it was found in the mid-1900s. There are similar stories of other rediscovered conifers, like ginkgo and the Wollemi pine. This is like finding a living Tyrannosaurus rex somewhere on Earth… 

Metasequoia glyptostroboides (Public Domain)

If there’s one thing you want the world to know about plants, what would that be?

If there weren’t any plants, there wouldn’t be civilization, agriculture, humans, food, spices, log cabins, hamburgers, gardens, or cupcakes. Wherever you are there are plants to explore, and they are a lot easier to look at than birds and mammals because they sit still! 

 

#PlantPorn, #PlantsMakePeopleHappy, Behind The Scenes, How-to, Plant Care, Plant History

Carotenoids 101

November 15, 2016

Ever wonder what makes a tomato red or yellow?  The answer is a class of molecules called carotenoids that have great importance to plants – as well as people.  They have so much importance serving as vitamins and pigments, that we cannot live without them.  They are responsible for the colors of autumn foliage – the bright reds, oranges, and yellows.  They are responsible for the color of many ripened fruits – carrots (for which they are named!), corn, beets, and pumpkins. They are also responsible for the colors of flowers, and even responsible for the color of egg yolks! 

an Echeveria with orange flower buds

an Echeveria with orange flower buds

There are over 600 known carotenoids, which are split into two general classes: Xanthophylls and Carotenes. Xanthophylls contain oxygen, while Carotenes, which are purely hydrocarbons, contain no oxygen. Both classes have long, unsaturated carbon chains.  This means that they have numerous double bonds along long chains, and the ability of conjugation – the ability to allow electrons to pass freely along the molecule.  This, in turn, gives the molecule the ability to absorb light.  Longer unsaturated chains = more blue light absorption, which leaves the returning light to be hues of yellow, red, and orange. Chemically speaking, this is how carotenoids get their color! 

sunflower by Olia Gozha

sunflower by Olia Gozha

If we still have your attention – we know it’s a lot to absorb (wink, wink) – let’s talk about what carotenoids do, the differences between the two classes, and what it all means.  We’ll start with animals. Because animals, and humans, are incapable of synthesizing carotenoids , they must be taken in via their diet.  Carotenoids are then stored in the body’s fatty tissue.  Exclusively carnivorous animals obtain them from their prey’s fat!  Think of a flamingo for example.  The rosy pink color of a flamingo’s feathers is due to their diet of algae, larvae, and small crustaceans such as shrimp – which are all rich in carotenoid pigments.  Some might argue that carotenoids are used as ornamental traits in animals because they can be a visible indication of the animal’s health, making them helpful when selecting potential mates. 

flamingos by Seref Yucar

flamingos by Seref Yucar

Carotenoids are also used in vision, eye maintenance, and development – due to their ability to absorb high-energy, damaging blue light.  Xanthophylls are used in the eye to protect the rods and cones from light damage.  High-energy light excites electrons of eye molecules, and the electrons can be safely passed to the Xanthophylls until they rest at a lower energy state.  This helps prevent eye molecules, rods and cones, from forming free radicals and damaging other parts of the eye.  

In plants, Xanthophylls carotenoids play different, but similar roles.  Xanthophylls are involved in photosynthesis, and are currently thought to quench excess high energy electrons in high light environments.  This means that, as high light hits the plant, too many electrons are stimulated to a high energy state, and they are passed to Xanthophylls to quell down.  If they are not quelled, then high energy electrons will break free and form free radicals, damaging other molecules.  In fact, these Xanthophylls molecules are partially responsible for plant variegation!  Plants are thought to have evolved variegation in order to deal with high light environments.  Too much light excites too many electrons, so chlorophyll production is reduced, and xanthophylls are increased, providing a sink, or buffer to all those high-energy electrons.  This also partly helps to explain why plants lose variegation when brought to lower light conditions.  No excess light means no excess damage, which means chlorophyll production is increased, and variegation is decreased. 

fall foliage by Providence Doucet

fall foliage by Providence Doucet

Similar to the example above about plant variegation, because chlorophyll is not present in autumn foliage – the yellows, oranges, and reds of the carotenoids are predominant. These hues are also seen in ripe fruit – after the disappearance of chlorophyll.

autumn leaves by Aaron Burden

autumn leaves by Aaron Burden

Molecules from the Carotene class are also involved in photosynthesis, but sort of in the other direction.  They help capture light and push the excited electrons to the chlorophyll molecule, assisting in photosynthesis.  In ripening fruit, it is thought that carotenoids help protect the inner developing seeds and fruit by absorbing the higher energies of light.  The secondary benefit of carotenoids is the signalling of fruit ripening, and pollinator attraction.  Whether or not plants happened to have evolved this mechanism, or whether this signalling mechanism to pollinators and fruit-eaters co-evolved with animals, remains to be seen.  As far as we know, carotenoids are mainly responsible for light-mediation and gene expression.   

pumpkins by Corey Blaz

pumpkins by Corey Blaz

So when you’re taking a stroll through the park admiring the fall foliage, or through the produce section at your local grocery store, remember there’s a lot more to those hues than what meets the eye.

 

#PlantPorn, #PlantsMakePeopleHappy, How-to, Plant Care, Plant History

Carnivorous Plants

November 14, 2016

Our in-house plant specialist Christopher Satch talks carnivorous plants. Have a plant care question for Chris? Comment below and we’ll tackle it in an upcoming post. 

Carnivorous plants have been all the rage lately – but they might seem more difficult to take care of than even the notorious Fiddle Leaf Fig (Ficus lyrata), right?  The truth is, everything you know about carnivorous plants is probably wrong.  To fully understand why, we’ll need to learn some ecology…

dionaea_muscipula03

Dionaea muscipula, Venus Fly Trap, tato grasso – Own work CC BY-SA 2.5 (image)

Carnivorous plants are polyphyletic groups of plants that trap insects to acquire nitrogen.  They have evolved in environments that are so extreme, that the need to capture nutrients outweighs any energy investment into specialized carnivory structures.  Many carnivorous plants live in bogs, which are high in sunlight, perpetually wet, acidic, and nutrient-poor.  In many bog areas, the waterlogged soil is so acidic that any minerals that would be there have dissolved and washed away.

The NJ Pine Barrens, like many bogs, has extremely clean, salt-and-mineral-free water – in fact, the aquifers that lie beneath the NJ Pine Barrens are one of the cleanest in the entire country!  These acidic conditions and poor nutrient soils prevent most other forms of plants from growing there, with the exception of mosses, liverworts, some species of pine, and so on.  The New Jersey Pine Barrens is one of the few places on the planet with relatively unchanging flora types, having the same heath, oak, pine, and other plant species since the early Cretaceous Period. (Even with species stability, many carnivorous plants are endangered in the wild, so please do not collect plants from outside!)

dionaea_muscipula_closing_trap_animation

Dionaea muscipula, Venus Fly Trap, Mnolf – Own work CC BY-SA 3.0 (image)

And it just so happens that many bogs, where the majority of carnivorous plant species have evolved, are in temperate climates or colder (NJ has a few native species, as does NY).  Therefore, many species of carnivorous plants have a winter dormancy.  So, if you have a carnivorous plant that looks dead – it may just be hibernating.  Many pitcher plants (family Sarraceniaceae), and even the famous Venus Fly Trap (Dionaea spp.), have some periods of dormancy.  However, it’s important to know exactly what type of carnivorous plant you have – because tropical pitcher plants (family Nepenthaceae) do not have any dormancy. They’re native to tropical Asia, and may be kept alive for a year-round display.

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Pitcher plant (Nepenthes sp.) found in Mount Hamiguitan Range, San Isidro, Davao Oriental. Taken from Nov 29-Dec 1, 2009 CC BY 2.0 (image)

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Anatomy of a pitcher plant.  This one is a Sarracenia (image)

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S. leucophylla, common along coastal plains until they became endangered.  Photo taken by Brad Adler, edited/enhanced by Noah Elhardt – Scanned slide CC BY-SA 2.5 (image)

There are even aquatic carnivorous plants (Utricularia spp.) called bladderworts which use a hydraulic suction trap to capture aquatic insects.  Within that same family Lentibulariaceae, are terrestrial butterworts (Pinguicula spp.) whose leaves are sticky like flypaper.

800px-utricularia_aurea_8_darwiniana

Michal RubešCC BY 3.0 cz (image)

There are four general trapping mechanisms that have evolved across carnivorous plants – pitfall traps, flypaper traps, snap-traps, and bladder traps.  Bladder traps are unique to Utricularia (aquatic carnivorous plants), and consist of a triggered aquatic vaccum that sucks aquatic insects into its trap.  Pitfall traps are modified leaves that have curled-in on themselves and fused, to create a pitcher.  This pitcher is the pitcher of pitcher plants, and is coated on the inside with low-friction slime and digestive enzymes.  Insects fall in easily, but cannot escape.

Snap traps, like in the Venus Fly Trap, use hair-triggers to sense when an insect has landed in the appropriate place, then snap shut through a quick hydraulic flux in the hinge of the trap.  Flypaper traps – common in sundews (see photo below) and butterworts (Drosera spp. and Pinguicula spp.) – are perhaps the most rudimentary as they are only modified trichomes, filled with sticky glue-like substances and digestive enzymes.  Trichomes are plant “hairs”, and exist in the plant ancestors and related species.

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A sundew With Insect (Drosera sp.)  NoahElhardt assumed (based on copyright claims) CC BY-SA 3.0 (image)

Now that we know a little bit about the diversity of carnivorous plants, caring for them is easier than you think.  The key, like with many houseplants, is to recreate their natural habitat.  Carnivorous plants need direct sun daily.  That means right next to a window, with southern and western exposure being the best.  The native environments are extremely clean and free from salts that come in regular tap water, so it is important to water them and keep their roots perpetually moist with distilled and purified water.  I have gotten away with using bottled water, which has added salts that may be too much.

And here’s the biggest misconception about carnivorous plants –  do not feed them!  That’s right.  Just.  Don’t.  Do.  It.  The biggest killers of Venus fly traps are those who feed and constantly harass the traps.  Think about it.  The success rate in the wild of catching a bug is pretty slim, yet they get by.  There’s no need for you to feed them.  They have literally evolved to catch bugs all by themselves.  And there are plenty of small bugs around the house (and dust) which they can feed off of just fine.  Harassing the traps just exhausts the plant to death, so don’t do it.

Carnivorous plants are sensitive to water and humidity, and coexist with mosses.  Therefore, a terrarium with a closed lid will be best for them.  I recommend using a glass terrarium – and lining the bottom with a pinch of soil and 3-4” of live, sopping-wet sphagnum moss.  Pop the plants into the moss, place in a warm, sunny window, and add the lid.  Literally set it and forget it until you need to add more water.  The ideal water line is at the 2nd inch of the live moss.  The plants with the highest success rate with this method are pitcher plants, followed by butterworts, then everything else.  A carnivorous plant terrarium is a fun project to put together – and a unique conversation piece for all to enjoy!

 

#PlantPorn, #PlantsMakePeopleHappy, Plant History

Spooky Plants

October 28, 2016

The weather is changing, the leaves are falling, and Halloween is creeping up around the corner – no pun intended!  Creepy times call for creepy plants, which begs the question – did mother nature create some botanical oddities?  She sure did!  In Kingdom Plantae, there are all sorts of horrifying plants – from vampires to werewolves to nutrient-sucking parasitic plants! Check out some of our favorite oddities below – you may want to add them to your Halloween decor this year… 

NuMex ‘Halloween’ By Fiachna - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42100732

NuMex ‘Halloween’ By Fiachna – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Capsicum cultivar NuMex ‘Halloween’ Ornamental Chile Pepper 

Peppers are part of Solanaceae, the nightshade family.  Although ornamental peppers are actually edible, we wouldn’t recommend trying them – they’re incredibly and unpleasantly spicy in comparison to the grocery store version.  The ‘Halloween’ pepper, bred by the Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University, is known for its purple-tinged foliage that gets darker with more direct sunlight, and its pepper fruit that start as dark purple (almost black), then ripen to orange as carotenoids are synthesized.  Grow the ‘Halloween’ pepper indoors or outdoors in as much sunlight as possible for year-round flowers and fruit. (Image

 

Bat Plant By Meneerke bloem - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Bat Plant By Meneerke bloem – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Tacca chantrieri, Bat Plant

Hailing from Southeast Asia, the Bat Plant belongs to Discoreaceae, the yam family – yam as in not sweet potato, which is in Convolvulaceae. The flowers of the Bat Plant can grow up to 12 inches across and its ‘whiskers’  can grow up to 28 inches long. It somewhat resembles a bat in flight, hence the nickname. Definitely a must-have for halloween-themed gardens – the Bat Plant thrives in a shady spot with high humidity. (Image

 

Doll’s Eye By Rizka – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Actaea pachypodia, Doll’s Eyes Plant

Creepy is as creepy does, and Doll’s Eyes Plant is no exception.  Belonging to Ranunculaceae, one of the most poisonous plant families on earth, this plant is native to Eastern North America.  Also known as white baneberry (bane = meaning poisonous/deadly), the white fruit form in late spring, and stay white as they mature – an oddity in the botanical world.  The black stigma scar from the flower creates the illusion of each berry being an eye.  Talk about the feeling of being watched in the woods! And the “doll” nickname doesn’t help with the creepiness factor either. (Image

 

Dracula Orchid By Eric Hunt - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Dracula Orchid By Eric Hunt – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Dracula spp. Dracula Orchid

The Dracula Orchid, native to Central and South America, is a true orchid, but unlike a lot of orchids, which prefer warmer climates, the Dracula Orchid surprisingly prefers cooler weather and a shadier spot.  This Genus of orchids was named for its unusual spurs on its sepals, which are blood-red color in some species, and sometimes the center of the flower appears to have fangs. Perhaps the blood-red ones have already taken a bite out of the living? (Image

 

Monk’s Hood By Schnobby - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Monk’s Hood By Schnobby – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Aconitum spp. Wolfsbane/Monk’s Hood

Wolfsbane (again, bane as in deadly), or Monkshood is also a member of Ranunculaceae – and is poisonous to the touch!  Gardeners are advised to wear gloves when handling this plant.  Wolfsbane/Monkshood poison has been known to kill people, and the symptoms are immediate.  With such poisonous nature, it has been mentioned in literature and movies such as “Dracula”, “Wolf Man”, and “Cycle of the Werewolf”.  While its uses in literature vary from transforming people into werewolves, to killing werewolves, the real deal is a heart-stopping toxin.  It gets the name monk’s hood because its flowers resemble the garb of medieval monks. (Image

 

Witch Hazel By Neptuul - Own work, CC BY 3.0

Witch Hazel By Neptuul – Own work, CC BY 3.0

Hamamelis virginiana, Witch Hazel

The one and only witch hazel, popular as a topical treatment for skin irritations, actually has a semi-mythological history.  Belonging to its own family, Hamamelidaceae, it is one of the only plants in the entire world that bloom in the dead of winter – with snow on the ground!  Because of this virtue, some say that the plant was ‘bewitched’ and is magical.  Others claim that the name originates from the Old English wych (also spelled witch), which comes from the Old English wice, meaning pliant or supple, which also gives us wicker and weak.  “Witch hazel” was used in England as a synonym for Wych Elm, Ulmus glabra.  But if this is true, it does not account for the fact that Hamamelis flowers in the winter, whereas Ulmus glabra does not, thereby making Ulmus glabra not-bewitched.  This play on words is as confusing as it is bewitching, considering Hamamelis is not that pliable. (Image

 

P.S. Have a specific plant question for our in-house expert Chris Satch? Comment below and he’ll answer it in an upcoming post! 

#PlantsMakePeopleHappy, Behind The Scenes, How-to, Plant Care

Seasonal Plant Care Tips

October 25, 2016

Christopher Satch, head of Plant Science and Education here at The Sill, shares his top four seasonal plant care tips below. No green thumb required. 

Autumn is here!  The days are getting shorter, the sun hangs lower in the sky, and most importantly, it’s getting colder.  Your house plant buddies that are taking a summer vacation outdoors need to come back indoors.  Moving plants inside is more than just physically moving them inside- you have to check them for insects, acclimate them to the lower light, trim old growth, possibly repot a few, and optimize your indoor conditions as well. 

Philodendron - The Sill

Philodendron – The Sill

Acclimate the light!

An old horticulture adage says that “even the shadiest spot outdoors is equivalent to the brightest spot indoors”.  Outdoors, light scatters in all directions, whereas indoors, light comes from only one direction, the window.  Bearing that in mind, if your cacti have been sun-bathing all summer, if they do not acclimate to lower light levels before going indoors, they will go into shock and start to look sickly.  Same deal for other plants.  Start them all off by putting them in the shade for about a week before moving indoors.  This will allow them to get used to lower light levels.  

Clean and trim!

Over the summer, your plant has probably bursted over the sides of the pot with new growth, or has shunned older leaves in favor of newer ones.  Remove all dead tissue from your plants.  Do not be afraid to trim your plants, if you do not wish to repot it.  Some plants like Monsteras respond well to a yearly trim or repotting.  Otherwise, if your plant has truly grown monsterous, depending on the plant, you can either split it, or repot it.  We at The Sill have plenty of pots for your plants to have new homes!  Do this before spraying with hort oil, after the plants have acclimated for a week.  Take this time also to dust the area where the plants will go- just to be sure that spider mites haven’t made their home there. 

Repotting a Jade Plant - The Sill

Repotting a Jade Plant – The Sill

Check plants for insects!

Not all insects are bad, but the ones that cling to your plant and make a nest indoors usually are.  Spray all plants coming indoors the day you bring them in with horticultural oil, neem oil, or insecticidal soap.  These oils and soaps work by making the exoskeleton frail, and plugging the air holes, thereby killing the insect.   Spider mites, which are known indoor plant killers love to hitch rides indoors, and have even been observed to ride on dust!  Make sure you dust your home to help prevent any hitch-hikers. 

Watering a Monstera / Healthy and Happy ZZ - The Sill

Watering a Monstera / Healthy and Happy ZZ – The Sill

And for your permanently outdoor collection,

Fall is for bulb planting!  Plant all spring ephemerals/bulbs now to ensure a robust burst of spring flowers next year.  Clear the garden of dead plant matter, as this is where pests overwinter- dead leaves now make for dead plants later if the leaves aren’t composted or removed.  Possibly plant a cover crop like nitrogen-fixing clover- to enrich the soil for next year’s plants.  Remember that what goes out of the soil into the plants, must be replaced in the soil.  It’s the Law of Return- all nutrients taken from the soil, must be replaced for a healthy soil and good yields.  The same goes for your houseplants, but on a smaller scale.  Fertilize well during phases of growth, and whenever you take from the plant tissue- living or dead. 

P.S. Have a particular plant care question for Chris? Comment below!