Category Archives: Uncategorized

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

Buddha’s hand citrons and a wish for peace on earth in 2017

Winter is the season for citrus fruit, and January is the month for breaking out of old routines, so stop staring at your navel and learn about one of the weirder citrus varieties.

I’ll never forget the day one of my general botany students brought to class a Buddha’s hand citron, pulled from a tree right outside our classroom. I had only recently moved to northern California from Indiana, and I’d never seen anything like it: it was a monstrous mass of a dozen pointed twisted fingers splayed irregularly from a stout base. It had the firm heft and girth of a grapefruit and the unmistakable pebbled skin of a citrus fruit, so I wondered whether my student had found a grossly deformed grapefruit; but the oil in the peel smelled heavenly and not at all like a grapefruit. In class we cut through a big finger and found no juicy segments, just white citrus pith all the way through.

Immature Buddha's hand on the tree

Immature Buddha’s hand on the tree

We eventually discovered that this fascinating fruit was a Buddha’s hand citron, Citrus medica variety sarcodactylis, meaning fleshy (sarco-) fingered (-dactyl) citron. Since that day many years ago I’ve become an unapologetic (if surreptitious) collector of the fruits from that same campus tree. The citrons do not drop from the tree on their own, yet I often find one or two lying nearby, probably torn off by a curious tourist or student and then abandoned. Obviously these fruits need a good home, and where better than the window sill in my office?

The first time I left one closed up in my office over a weekend, I opened the door on Monday morning to a waft of fruity floral aroma. It turns out that many people in China and India use the fruit to scent the air, although in west Asia and Europe the fleshy fingers are more often candied or used to flavor alcohol. I do both: the fruits make my office smell nice until they are fully yellow, and then I cook them.

It can be difficult or expensive to get your own hands on a fingered citron, but it’s easy to find a navel orange almost any time of the year. Fortunately, the patterns underlying the morphology of the fingered fruit can also be seen in an everyday navel orange. Between our photos of Buddha’s hands and your own navel orange, you should be able to follow along at home. 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

Virgin birth and hidden treasures: unwrapping some Christmas figs

Enjoy Jeanne and Katherine’s holiday take on figs and figgy pudding which will appear on December 19th in Advent Botany 2016. For a longer read, check out our original 2013 version.

Figs reach their peak in summertime, growing fat enough to split their skins under the hot sun. It’s nearly impossible to keep up with a bountiful tree, and many a neglected fig is extravagantly abandoned to the beetles.  

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Beetles gorge on a fig. Click to enlarge

But here we are, halfway around the calendar in dark and cold December, and we feel grateful for the figs we managed to set aside to dry. Their concentrated sweetness is balanced by a complex spicy flavor that makes dried figs exactly the right ingredient for dark and dense holiday desserts. As we mark another turn of the annual cycle from profligate to provident, what better way to celebrate than with a flaming mound of figgy pudding?

Well, except that the traditional holiday pudding contains no figs. More on that later, along with some old recipes. First, we’ll unwrap the fig itself to find out what’s inside. Continue reading

Who wants some green bean casserole?

Is there anything good about green bean casserole? Not much beyond its association with Thanksgiving, so Katherine will be brief and just keep you company in the kitchen in case you are stuck assembling said casserole.

Since this year is the International Year of Pulses, we have been focusing on legumes, whether they count as pulses or not. Green beans do not count as pulses, but only because they are eaten as tender and fresh immature whole fruits. The very same species (Phaseolus vulgaris), when allowed to mature, could yield black beans, white beans, kidney beans, or pinto beans depending on their variety – dry seeds that are perfectly good examples of pulses.

This Thanksgiving week we are going to welcome green beans into the fold and give them a special place. It’s too bad that Thanksgiving so often presents them out of the can, overcooked, with funky flavors, and buried in a casserole. Even Wikipedia promotes this peculiar tradition : “A dish with green beans popular throughout the United States, particularly at Thanksgiving, is green bean casserole, which consists of green beans, cream of mushroom soup, and French fried onions.”

And once again, international observers ask themselves what on earth are Americans thinking? That cannot be good for them. But in the American spirit of inclusivity we invite green beans of all sorts to our tables and try to learn something from them. So if you are preparing green beans this week, take heart, take up your knives, and take a closer look.

The outside of the bean Continue reading

Buy me some peanuts!

As part of our legume series, the Botanist in the Kitchen goes out to the ballgame where Katherine gives you the play-by-play on peanuts, the world’s most popular underground fruit. She breaks down peanut structure and strategy, tosses in a little history, and gives you a 106th way to eat them. Mmmmm, time to make some boiled peanuts.

Baseball is back, and so are peanuts in the shell, pitchers duels, lazy fly balls, and a meandering but analytical frame of mind. Is this batter going to bunt? Is it going to rain? What makes the guy behind me think he can judge balls and strikes from all the way up here? What does the OPS stat really tell you about a hitter? Is a peanut a nut? How does it get underground? What’s up with the shell?  A warm afternoon at a baseball game is the perfect time to look at some peanuts, and I don’t care if I never get back. 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.

Botany Lab of the Month (Oscars edition): potatoes

This month we introduce a new feature to the Botanist in the Kitchen: Botany Lab of the Month, where you can explore plant structures while you cook. In our inaugural edition, Katherine explains why she would like to add her nominee, Solanum tuberosum, to the list of white guys vying for Best Supporting Actor.

In one of this year’s biggest and best movies, Matt Damon was saved by a potato, and suddenly botanists everywhere had their very own action hero. It’s not like we nearly broke Twitter, but when the trailer came out, with Damon proclaiming his fearsome botany powers, my feed exploded with photos of all kinds of people from all over the world tagged #Iamabotanist. The hashtag had emerged a year earlier as a call to arms for a scrappy band of plant scientists on a mission to reclaim the name Botanist and defend dwindling patches of territory still held within university curricula. Dr. Chris Martine of Bucknell University, a plant science education hero himself, inspired the movement, and it was growing pretty steadily on its own. Then came the trailer for The Martian, with Matt Damon as Mark Watney, botanizing the shit out of impossible circumstances and lending some impressive muscle to the cause. The botanical community erupted with joyous optimism, and the hashtag campaign was unstoppable. Could The Martian make plants seem cool to a broader public? Early anecdotes suggest it’s possible, and Dr. Martine is naming a newly described plant species (a close potato relative) for Astronaut Mark Watney.

In the film, that potato – or actually box of potatoes – was among the rations sent by NASA to comfort the crew on Thanksgiving during a very long mission to Mars. After an accident, when the rest of the crew leaves him for dead, Watney has to generate calories as fast as he can. It’s a beautiful moment in the movie when he finds the potatoes. In a strange and scary world, Mark has found a box of old friends. They are the only living creatures on the planet besides Mark (and his own microbes), and they are fitting companions: earthy, comforting, resourceful, and perpetually underestimated. At this point in the movie, though, the feature he values most is their eyes. Continue reading

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

Sugar

This is our first of two contributions to Advent Botany 2015.

Sugar plums dance, sugar cookies disappear from Santa’s plate, and candied fruit cake gets passed around and around. Crystals of sugar twinkle in the Christmas lights, like scintillas of sunshine on the darkest day of the year. Katherine and Jeanne explore the many plant sources of sugar.

Even at a chemical level, there is something magical and awe-inspiring about sugar. Plants – those silent, gentle creatures – have the power to harness air and water and the fleeting light energy of a giant fireball 93 million miles away to forge sugar, among the most versatile compounds on earth, and a fuel used by essentially all living organisms.

Sugar naturally occurs in various chemical forms, all arising from fundamental 3-carbon components made inside the cells of green photosynthetic tissue. In plant cells, these components are exported from the chloroplasts into the cytoplasm, where they are exposed to a series of enzymes that remodel them into versions of glucose and fructose (both 6-carbon monosaccharides). One molecule of glucose and one of fructose are then joined to form sucrose (a 12-carbon disaccharide). See figure 1.

Sugars: glu, fru, and sucrose

Figure 1.

Sucrose is what we generally use as table sugar, and it is the form of sugar that a plant loads into its veins and transports throughout its body to be stored or used by growing tissues. When the sucrose reaches other organs, it may be broken back down into glucose and fructose, converted to other sugars, or combined into larger storage or structural molecules, depending on its use in that particular plant part and species. Since we extract sugar from various parts and species, the kind of sugar we harvest from a plant, and how much processing is required, obviously reflects the plant’s own use of the sugar. Continue reading