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Preserving diversity with some peach-mint jam

We are knee deep in peach season, and now is the time to gather the most diverse array of peaches you can find and unite them in jam. Katherine reports on some new discoveries about the genetics behind peach diversity and argues for minting up your peach jam.

Jam inspiration

Fresh peaches at their peak are fuzzy little miracles, glorious just as they are. But peaches cooked into jam and spread across rough toast lose their buttery mouthfeel and dripping juice. To compensate for textural changes, processed peaches need a bit more adornment to heighten their flavor, even if it’s only a sprinkling of sugar. Normally I am not tempted to meddle with perfection by adding ginger or lavender or other flavors to peach jam. This year, however, as I plotted my jam strategy, the unusual juxtaposition of peach and mint found its way into my imagination over and over again, like the insistent echo of radio news playing in the background. Peach and mint, peach and mint, peach and mint – almost becoming a single word. To quiet the voice in my head I had to make some peach-mint jam. The odd combination turned out to be wonderful, and I’m now ready to submit the recipe to a candid world. As we will see below, it’s not without precedent. Mmmmmmpeachmint jam.

Panoply of peaches

Peach season has a rhythm, marked by the staggered rise and fall of short-lived varieties tossing their particular set of colors, flavors and aromas into the mix. Clingstones give way to freestones, miniatures yield to monsters, and a parade of white and yellow varieties debut throughout the summer.

Single varieties can be excellent, but the best peach jam draws on the diversity of colors and flavors that collide at the height of peach season. Candy-sweet fruits complement tarter ones, and an array of creamy vanilla butter rose almond notes round out the flavor. Most peach jam recipes call for a lot of sugar and a splash of lemon juice to counter the sweet; but we are not making lemon marmalade right now, we are making peach jam. Ideally, your fruit will be able to carry much of the sugar-acid balance on its own. In peach producing states, you are likely to find the widest array of peach varieties at farmers markets and roadside stands, but even supermarkets usually carry at least one white and one yellow peach, and if you let them ripen for a couple of days, they can be excellent. (Sadly, 2017 was hard on Georgia and South Carolina peach farmers, and they are not exporting much fruit).

Assortment of peach shapes: three round and a flat (doughnut) peach

Assortment of peach shapes: three round and a flat (doughnut) peach

For all their organoleptic complexity, peaches turn out to be fairly simple genetically. They have very little DNA – one of the smallest genomes of all flowering plants – organized into only 8 pairs of chromosomes that carry a smallish number of genes (Verde et al. 2013). Many of the characteristics we value are under very simple genetic control and are what we call Mendelian traits: they are clearly discrete (white or yellow flesh, flat or round fruit, etc.) and controlled by a single gene whose variants (alleles) are completely dominant or recessive (see examples in Lambert et al., 2016). Such straightforward patterns of inheritance are easy to observe without understanding a thing about DNA – Mendel documented them in peas in the late 19th century – and they have been well known to peach breeders for a very long time. Now that the peach genome has been sequenced, however, a big effort is underway to reveal the genetic mechanisms behind key traits and to identify genetic markers that can be used in meticulously precise breeding programs. 

Does color predict flavor?

The binary categories most obvious to peach eaters are yellow or white flesh, sweet-tart or sweet-sweet flavor, free or clinging pit, and round or flat (doughnut) shape. These four traits are determined by genes on four different chromosomes (Lambert et al. 2013) so they occur independently, and in theory breeders can select for any combination of them. In genetic terms, we say that they are unlinked and follow Mendel’s Law of Independent Assortment. In practice, however, breeders have favored certain combinations, thus white varieties tend to be super sweet (“sub-acid”) while yellow varieties usually balance sweet with tart. Yellow varieties are vastly more common than white ones in the U.S., perhaps because of tradition and perhaps because white peaches turn brown and show bruises, making them less suitable than yellow peaches for shipping or canning. Flat peaches are most often bred to be sweet and white, but tart and yellow varieties exist. Flat peaches develop cracks and are prone to molding at their distal ends (“bottoms”) where the style of the flower was.

Variation in peach shape at the stylar end (“bottom” but really top of the ovary). Clockwise from top left: round bottom; deeply indented bottom of a flat peach, indented bottom of a round peach; pointy bottom. The deep indentations of flat peaches leave them susceptible to mold. CLICK to enlarge

Because all peaches are fuzzy, it’s easy to overlook another binary trait: pubescence, or whether the fruit skin is fuzzy or smooth (glabrous). If a fruit doesn’t have any fuzz, then we call it a nectarine. Astonishingly, nectarines and peaches are just varieties of the same species, and only a single gene with two alternative alleles separates them. But it’s not that peaches have a gene for fuzz and nectarines don’t. Both varieties could make fuzz (specialized epidermal cells called trichomes). Rather, recent work suggests that another gene directs the skin to express the fuzz gene or not, and that the nectarine version of this so-called transcription factor is broken (Vendramin et al., 2014).

Peach fuzz. The style is still attached to this peach at the “bottom,” which is really the top of the fruit from the perspective of the flower. Pale spots on the skin are lenticels, which allow the fruit to breathe. CLICK to see the fuzz up close.

So why do nectarines seem to have their own slightly different texture and flavor profile? All nectarines appear to be descended from a single mutant peach that arose in Europe at least 500 years ago (Vendramin et al., 2014). I’d guess that peaches and nectarines taste and feel different because modern nectarines started with limited genetic variation – a single genotype – and ever since then breeders have been selecting nectarines for their own charming qualities.

Flesh and stone

Flesh texture is yet another binary trait. The peach varieties that we eat fresh usually have what geneticists call “melting flesh” and are very soft when fully ripe. You’ve probably had the joy of biting into a peach and slurping, head tilted slightly back, to keep the juice from running down your chin or forearm. Other peaches, including the popular Elberta variety, are tender but still firm and nonmelting when ripe because they have lost an ancestral gene that causes flesh to soften. Nonmelting peaches ship well (hence the success of Elberta) and keep their shape when canned. (Note that an unpleasant dry or mealy texture is its own phenomenon that comes from refrigeration at the wrong time.)

Yellow freestone peaches, one with a bit of anthocyanin in its flesh

Yellow freestone peaches, one with a bit of anthocyanin in its flesh

Unlike all the other traits described above, the melting flesh and stone adhesion traits do not behave independently of each other. Nonmelting peaches never have free stones, and breeders have been unable to produce this particular combination. Recent work explains the tight association between these traits and has proposed a model to explain their evolution (Gu et al., 2016). Whereas nonmelting flesh resulted from the complete loss of a gene during DNA replication, the freestone trait can be explained by a different mistake. Instead of being cut out, the melting flesh gene was duplicated, resulting in two copies close together on the chromosome. Over time, the second copy accumulated a few mutations that changed its function slightly, and the freestone trait was born. But this new gene also kept its old flesh melting powers, making it impossible for a freestone fruit to stay firm. See Table 1.

Table 1. Black lines represent chromosomes; genes are labeled with trait name. CLICK box to enlarge

If you eat a lot of peaches and nectarines, then over the course of the summer you just might see all combinations of fuzz, color, tartness, shape, texture, and pit adhesion. Since each of these traits is controlled separately, except that no freestone fruits can have firm flesh, there are 48 different possible configurations of just these basic characteristics! Obviously even more diversity comes from other genes. For example, melting flesh peaches can melt quickly or slowly, influenced by a complicated set of interacting loci (Serra et al., 2017), and weak expression of the freestone allele probably causes the semi-clingstone condition (Han et al. 2016). Skin and flesh can have more or less purple-red anthocyanin pigmentation. Most important for us as we contemplate jam, are the subtle flavors and aromas that cannot be explained by simple Mendelian genetics.

Peach flavor and the surprisingly satisfying peach-mint combination

The exquisite charms of a good peach emerge only after the broad initial perceptions of mouthfeel and sugar-acid balance have faded. A recent study detected over 80 different volatile organic compounds emanating from the skin and flesh of assorted ripe peaches and nectarines. Because machines can smell things that humans cannot, a panel of peach tasters recorded their sensory perceptions of the same 43 varieties and the data were compared. Among the measured compounds that were most strongly correlated with intense ripe fruit aroma were two kinds of gamma-lactone (Bianchi et al., 2017). Gamma-lactones impart creamy, coconut, vanilla, and toasted nut flavors – a combination familiar to wine and whiskey drinkers. Wines and distilled alcohol aged in oak barrels become infused with these compounds, which are often called oak or whiskey lactones for that reason.

Given this flavor profile, it is not an obvious move to pair peaches with spearmint. As Jeanne has explained, spearmint’s flavor is dominated by an isomer of carvone, which tastes cool and green, not rich and warm. But as I claimed above, peach-mint is not unprecedented. Classically, the gamma-lactones in bourbon are contrasted with spearmint in mint juleps. Chocolate carries notes of peach fruit and toasted nuts, and it is often flavored with mint.

Peaches are much more subtle tasting than bourbon, and your aim is to brighten them up, not overwhelm them with mint. My peach-mint jam recipe lets you adjust the mint flavor to your taste by steeping a bundle of fresh spearmint in the hot cooked peaches only as long as you wish. Because this recipe contains very little sugar, I recommend refrigerating the unopened jars of jam, even if you process and seal them in sterile canning jars. If you can’t make room in your own fridge, share your jam with friends or, better yet, with those neighbors you have been meaning to meet. After all, the integrity of precious and fragile things, like peaches and democracy, are best preserved by an eternally vigilant community of diverse and peaceful citizens. Jam on


Peach-mint jam

  • 10 to 15 peaches, ideally from several varieties with different colors and flavors (having extra lets you choose the best balance)
  • 1 bunch of spearmint (not peppermint), about a dozen stems, washed. If you have kitchen string, tie the stems into a bundle, which makes them easier to remove.
  • 1C sugar (or less if your peaches are very sweet)
  • 5 or 6 half-pint sized canning jars and lids, sterilized 

1. Wash the peaches and appreciate their shapes, colors, smells, etc. You may use nectarines as well, since they are peaches too.

2. Chop the peaches into bite-sized chunks, keeping the skin on because it adds color and flavor. A small serrated knife works best on resistant skin over soft flesh. As you remove the pits, notice whether they cling. Taste a bit of each peach and sort out any flavorless or mealy fruits. Especially at the end of the season when peach flavor and texture is unreliable, I often dehydrate subpar peaches to use in winter oatmeal. Drying concentrates the flavor and repairs the texture.

An assortment of chopped peaches

3. Put the peaches into a saucepan about twice the volume of the peaches. Add the sugar and let it sit for 10 minutes or so to dissolve and draw out some of the peach juice.

4. Start the peaches on medium heat and stir and mash them with a spoon as they soften. If there is not enough liquid to keep peaches from sticking, reduce the heat until more liquid is released. Eventually the mixture will come to a high simmer, and you want to keep it there.

5. Cook the peach mixture, breaking up the bits with a spoon, until it thickens to your ideal consistency. This can take an hour or more and will depend on how wide your pot is and how juicy your peaches are. Low sugar jams with no added pectin will always be on the runny side.

6. Turn off the heat and submerge the bunch of mint, pressing it with the spoon. If you have a cocktail muddler you can use that, but keep the leaves intact. If you do not turn off the heat, you will boil off the very mint volatiles you want to keep.

7. Stir and taste the jam every 5 minutes or so until it has enough mint flavor for your taste. The mint flavor enters very quickly, so check often.

8. Remove the bundle of mint and scrape as much jam from the leaves as possible without getting bits of mint leaf in the jam.

9. Ladle the jam into the sterile jars and process 10 minutes in a water bath to seal, according to standard canning practices. If you plan to eat the jam right away, you can skip the sealing part. Just be sure to tell your friends and neighbors to refrigerate and eat theirs quickly too.


References

Bianchi, T., Weesepoel, Y., Koot, A., Iglesias, I., Eduardo, I., Gratacós-Cubarsí, M., … & van Ruth, S. (2017). Investigation of the aroma of commercial peach (Prunus persica L. Batsch) types by Proton Transfer Reaction–Mass Spectrometry (PTR-MS) and sensory analysis. Food Research International. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foodres.2017.05.007

Gu, C., Wang, L., Wang, W., Zhou, H., Ma, B., Zheng, H., … & Han, Y. (2016). Copy number variation of a gene cluster encoding endopolygalacturonase mediates flesh texture and stone adhesion in peach. Journal of experimental botany, 67(6), 1993-2005.  https://doi.org/10.1093/jxb/erw021

Lambert, P., Campoy, J. A., Pacheco, I., Mauroux, J. B., Linge, C. D. S., Micheletti, D., … & Troggio, M. (2016). Identifying SNP markers tightly associated with six major genes in peach [Prunus persica (L.) Batsch] using a high-density SNP array with an objective of marker-assisted selection (MAS). Tree Genetics & Genomes, 12(6), 121. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11295-016-1080-1

Serra, O., Giné-Bordonaba, J., Eduardo, I., Bonany, J., Echeverria, G., Larrigaudière, C., & Arús, P. (2017). Genetic analysis of the slow-melting flesh character in peach. Tree Genetics & Genomes, 13(4), 77.

Vendramin, E., Pea, G., Dondini, L., Pacheco, I., Dettori, M. T., Gazza, L., … & Verde, I. (2014). A unique mutation in a MYB gene cosegregates with the nectarine phenotype in peach. PLoS One, 9(3), e90574. http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0090574

Verde, I., Abbott, A. G., Scalabrin, S., Jung, S., Shu, S., Marroni, F., … & Zuccolo, A. (2013). The high-quality draft genome of peach (Prunus persica) identifies unique patterns of genetic diversity, domestication and genome evolution. Nature genetics, 45(5), 487-494.  https://www.nature.com/ng/journal/v45/n5/full/ng.2586.html

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.

2016-03-26 11.58.08

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