Author Archives: Jeanne L. D. Osnas

Maca: A Valentine’s Day Call for Comparative Biology

Sometimes food is medicine, and sometimes that medicine is an aphrodisiac. Such is the case with Andean staple maca. What elevates this high-altitude root vegetable above its cruciferous brethren?

The ancient Greek Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, famously said: “Let food be your medicine.” For most of human history, categorizing an edible item as either food or medicine could prove difficult or impossible (Totelin 2015). Even in the current era of modern pharmaceuticals, food and medicine exist along a continuum (Johns 1996; Etkin 2006; Valussi & Scirè 2012; Leonti 2012; Totelin 2015). The traditional Andean food Maca (Lepidium meyenii; family Brassicaceae) can be placed squarely in the middle of that continuum. Herbal medicine markets outside of its native Peru have recently discovered maca and loudly and lucratively promote an aspect of maca’s medicinal reputation that has particular relevance on Valentine’s Day: an aphrodisiac that increases stamina and fertility (Balick & Lee 2002; Wang et al. 2007). Continue reading

Botany Lab of the Month, Presidential Inauguration Edition: Saffron

If you like your spices gold-colored and expensive, find some fresh Crocus sativus flowers and grab ‘em by the…disproportionately large female reproductive organ. Small hands might work best, though it might turn your skin orange. Saffron is probably from the Middle East. If that bothers you, you may want to ban it from your spice shelves, however ill that bodes for the quality of your cabinet. After all, there is a stigma against that sort of thing.

The most expensive oversized reproductive organ in the world

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A pile of dried saffron stigmas (“threads”). Photo from Wikipedia

You may know that saffron is the most expensive spice in the world. A Spanish farmer sold his crop of high quality saffron this year for four euros per gram, which is a ninth of today’s price of gold (36 euros per gram). Saffron is expensive because its production requires a huge amount of labor and land. Saffron production is labor- and land-intensive because saffron is a botanically unique food item that defies mechanical harvest and accounts for a miniscule proportion of the plant that bears it. The saffron threads sold as spice are the dried stigmas of the flowers of the saffron crocus (Crocus sativus, family Iridaceae). Recall that the stigma is the part of the flower’s female reproductive organs that catches pollen. Pollen travels from the stigma through the style into the flower’s ovary (collectively, the stigma, style, and ovary comprise the pistil). Continue reading

Closing out the International Year of Pulses with Wishes for Whirled Peas (and a tour of edible legume diversity)

The United Nations declared 2016 the International Year of Pulses. What’s a pulse? It’s the dry mature seed of a large number of species in the legume family (Fabaceae): various beans, peas, soybean, chickpeas, lentils, peanuts and other groundnuts. 2016 is days from ending, so it’s high time I get up the Fabaceae diversity post I’ve been meaning to write all year long. This rounds out our year of legume coverage, which included Katherine’s posts on bean anatomy, peanuts, and green beans

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Christmas Lima beans (Phaseolus lunatus), soaking before cooking

One out of every 15 flowering plant (angiosperm) species is a legume, a member of the large plant family Fabaceae (Christenhusz and Byng 2016, LPWG 2013). Boasting around 19,500 species in 750-ish genera (LPWG 2013), the Fabaceae is the third-largest plant family in the world, trailing behind only the orchid (Orchidaceae: 27,800 species) and aster (Asteraceae: 25,040 species) families (Stevens 2016). By my count, people only use about 1% of legume species for food (my list of edible legume species is found here), but that small fraction of species is mighty. People eat and grow legumes because they are nutritional superstars, can be found in almost all terrestrial ecosystems around the world, and uniquely contribute to soil fertility in both wild and agricultural ecosystems. Continue reading

Botany Lab of the Month, Easter edition

Dying Easter eggs with homemade vegetable dyes today made for some superb kitchen botany. Making the dyes is easy, fun, and offers insight into the fascinating evolution of plant pigments.

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Pigments serve a variety of roles in plants. Many pigments protect plant tissues from sunburn and pathogens and herbivores or perform other physiological functions (see review by Koes et al. 2005). Most noticeably, however, their brilliant colors attract animal pollinators to flowers and seed dispersers to fruit. Humans are also interested in plant pigments, which color and sometimes flavor our food, are potentially medicinally active, and have been used as natural dyes and paints for millennia.

red cabbage

red cabbage

Today we made green dye from parsley, two different yellow dyes from turmeric and yellow onion skin, and three different pinkish-purplish dyes, from red cabbage, red onion skin, and beets. The basic recipe for all the vegetable dyes is the same: coarsely chop the vegetables, pour boiling water over it (about 2 cups vegetables or 1 tablespoon turmeric powder per quart of water), and stir in white vinegar (about a tablespoon per quart). Alternatively, put the chopped vegetables in a saucepan, cover with the water, and bring to a boil. You can either immediately add the hard-boiled eggs to the vegetable soup and let it sit for 12-48 hours, or you can let the vegetables steep for an hour and strain the vegetable solids out before adding the eggs and letting it sit.

The green color from the parsley comes from the pigment chlorophyll, a key component of the light-harvesting function of the photosynthetic apparatus. Grinding the parsley in the blender released the chlorophyll from the chloroplasts.

The spice turmeric comes from the rhizome (underground stem) of Cucurma longa (family Zingiberaceae), native to tropical southeastern India. Much (if not all) of turmeric’s yellow-orange color (and its distinctive earthy flavor) comes from its curcuminoids, natural phenols. These are likely defensive compounds that help the plant thwart herbivores and pathogens.

color courtesy carotenes

color courtesy carotenes

Curcuminoids are not widespread among plants, unlike other yellowish pigments, most notably the hydrocarbon carotenoids (xanthophylls and carotenes, including vitamin A precursors). The yellow-orange color of the yolks inside our Easter eggs came from the xanthophylls lutein and zeaxanthin that the chickens obtained from their food, ultimately from plant sources. Xanthophylls provide sunscreen to leaves. Carotenes have photosynthetic roles, but they’re mostly known for the color they give to many plant structures. Most carotenes confer yellow or orange color, but the carotene lycopene is bright red and is a primary pigment of tomatoes, red carrots, watermelons, and papayas. Although carotenoids are common, I don’t know much about their use as a dye. The yellow color from the yellow onion skins came not from carotenoids but from oxidative byproducts of flavonoid pigments, notably quercetin.

Red onion color from anthocyanins and quercetin

Red onion color from anthocyanins and quercetin

Red cabbage and red onion get their purple color from anthocyanins, the most common purple and blue pigments found in nature. Beets, however, get their red and yellow colors from betalain pigments, which replace anthocyanins, and to some extent carotenoids, as a pigment source in most families in the botanical order Caryophyllales (see our Food Plant Tree of Life phylogeny page for details on phylogenetic placement of the Caryophyllales; and see this excellent article for the comparative biology of anthocyanins and betalains within the Caryophyllales). That may initially sound obscure, but there are a lot of food plants in the Caryophyllales, all with betalains instead of anthocyanins (See our Food Plant Tree of Life list).

Betalains turn salads with beets bright pink

Betalains turn salads with beets bright pink

Extra Credit: At some point in your primary education you may have done a chemistry lab (like this one) using red cabbage-derived anthocyanins to learn about pH, as the anthocyanins can display an impressive range of color depending on pH. The acid (vinegar) in the dye may complicate this plan, but I wonder if there is a way to take advantage of the pH-sensitivity of anthocyanin pigments in dye making.

Winter mint

This is our second of our two contributions to Advent Botany 2015. All the essays are great!

An early image of candy canes. From Wikipedia

An early image of candy canes. From Wikipedia

The candy cane, that red- and white-striped hard candy imbued with peppermint oil, is a signature confection of the winter holidays. Peppermint has a long history of cultivation and both medicinal and culinary use. Infusions of the plant or its extract have been used for so many hundreds of years throughout Europe, North Africa and Western Asia that the early history of peppermint candies, including cane-shaped ones, is murky. Fortunately, the biology behind peppermint’s famous aroma is better known than the story of how it came to be a Christmas staple. Continue reading

How giant pumpkins got so big: A Q&A with Jessica Savage

Biologist Jessica Savage answers a few of our questions about her research on the physiology behind giant pumpkin size.

In October 2014, a giant pumpkin grown by Beni Meier of Switzerland tipped the scales at 1056 kilograms (2323 pounds) and set a new world record for the heaviest pumpkin ever weighed. Modern competitive pumpkin growers have been imposing very strong selection on pumpkin size for decades. Pumpkin fruit size keeps climbing, and old records are broken every year or two (Savage et al. 2015).

Beni Meier with his 2014 record-winning 2323-pound pumpkin, presumably a specimen of the Atlantic Giant variety of Cucurbita maxima. Photo from here.

Continue reading

Taking advantage of convergent terpene evolution in the kitchen

The Cooks Illustrated recipe masters recently added nutmeg and orange zest to a pepper-crusted steak to replace two flavorful terpenes, pinene and limonene, lost from black pepper when simmered in oil. In doing so they take advantage of convergent evolution of terpenoids, the most diverse group of chemical products produced by plants. Nutmeg and orange zest, though, were hardly their only options.

The terpene swap

Black pepper (Piper nigrum) growing in Cambodia (photo by L. Osnas)

Black pepper growing (photo by L. Osnas)

To develop satisfying crunch, the Cooks Illustrated recipe for pepper-crusted beef tenderloin requires a prodigious quantity of coarsely ground black pepper (Piper nigrum; family Piperaceae). If applied to the meat raw, however, in the recipe authors’ view, this heap of pepper generates an unwelcome amount of spicy heat. To mellow it, the recipe authors recommend simmering the pepper in oil and straining it out of the oil before adding it to the dry rub. The hot oil draws out the alkaloid piperine, which makes black pepper taste hot, from the cracked black pepper fruits (peppercorns).

Nutmeg seed showing brown seed coat folded within the ruminate endosperm

Nutmeg seed

To their dismay, however, the recipe authors discovered that the hot oil also removes flavorful compounds from the cracked pepper, in particular the terpenes pinene and limonene. To rectify this flavor problem, the recipe authors added pinene-rich nutmeg (Myristica fragrans; Myristicaceae) and limonene-rich orange (Citrus x sinensis; Rutaceae) zest to the dry rub, along with the simmered black pepper. In doing so they take advantage of widespread and diverse array of terpenoids in the plant kingdom. Continue reading

Rapunzel

The rapunzel plant (Campanula rapunculus; Campanulaceae). Photo from Wikipedia.

The rapunzel plant (Campanula rapunculus; Campanulaceae). Photo from Wikipedia.

I never suspected that I’d learn something about edible botany by indulging my 3-year-old’s princess obsession, but I have. According to the Brothers Grimm, Princess Rapunzel is named after the cultivated  vegetable of the same name, growing in a witch’s garden. The wording of the story suggested to me that the Grimms’ contemporaries would be familiar with the plant as a vegetable, that it wasn’t a fantastical invented thing. Apparently rapunzel was a popular vegetable in the Grimm’s Europe. Continue reading

Alliums, Brimstone Tart, and the raison d’etre of spices

If it smells like onion or garlic, it’s in the genus Allium, and it smells that way because of an ancient arms raceThose alliaceous aromas have a lot of sulfur in them, like their counterparts in the crucifers. You can combine them into a Brimstone Tart, if you can get past the tears.

The alliums

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garlic curing

The genus Allium is one of the largest genera on the planet, boasting (probably) over 800 species (Friesen et al. 2006, Hirschegger et al. 2009, Mashayehki and Columbus 2014), with most species clustered around central Asia or western North America. Like all of the very speciose genera, Allium includes tremendous variation and internal evolutionary diversification within the genus, and 15 monophyletic (derived from a single common ancestor) subgenera within Allium are currently recognized (Friesen et al. 2006). Only a few have commonly cultivated (or wildharvested by me) species, however, shown on the phylogeny below. Continue reading

The Extreme Monocots

Coconut palms grow some of the biggest seeds on the planet (coconuts), and the tiny black specks in very good real vanilla ice cream are clumps of some of the smallest, seeds from the fruit of the vanilla orchid (the vanilla “bean”). Both palms and orchids are in the large clade of plants called monocots. About a sixth of flowering plant species are monocots, and among them are several noteworthy botanical record-holders and important food plants, all subject to biological factors pushing the size of their seeds to the extremes. Continue reading