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

Throwback Thursday Thanksgiving feast

We’ve got several posts in the pipeline – and this year we are contributing to Advent Botany – but meanwhile, we bring you posts from the past to nerd-up your kitchen as you cook. Don’t forget, nothing deflects from an awkward personal revelation or a heated political conversation like a well-placed observation about plant morphology.

We wish you a happy, healthy Thanksgiving!

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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.

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Triple threat watermelon

Will seedless watermelons make us superhuman or turn our children into giants?  Hardly, but they do give home cooks the power to count chromosomes without a microscope.   Just a knife or a hard thunk on the sidewalk are enough to get a watermelon to spill its genetic guts.

If you were reading a Hearst Corporation newspaper in late 1937, you might have thought humanity would eventually be swallowed up by giant carnivorous plants, unwittingly unleashed by uncontrolled biotechnology.  The San Francisco Examiner reported on November 21st of that year that the discovery of an “elixir of growth,” meant that “…science may at last have a grip on the steering wheel of evolution, and be able to produce at will almost any kind of species…”  including “…a plague of man-eating ones.”  In 1937 Americans had much more important things to worry about, just as we do now.  Still, that discovery may in fact have threatened one cherished aspect of the American way of life by triggering the slow demise of late summer state fair watermelon seed spitting contests.  It doubtlessly paved the way for seedless watermelons, and in 2014 the total harvest of seedless watermelons on American farms – nearly 700 thousand tons – outweighed the seeded watermelon harvest more than 13 to 1 (USDA National Watermelon Report). A similar pattern is emerging this year.  Is there no stopping the attack of the seedless watermelons?

Image from microfilm of an actual page in the San Francisco Examiner, published Sunday November 21, 1937. Found in the Media and Microtext Center of Stanford University Libraries.

CLICK to read. Image from microfilm of an actual page in the San Francisco Examiner, published Sunday November 21, 1937. Found in the Media and Microtext Center of Stanford University Libraries.

And more important, how is it even possible to get seedless fruit from an annual plant?  From a plant whose only mode of reproduction is through those very seeds?  From a plant that cannot make suckers as bananas do and cannot be perpetuated endlessly through grafts like fruit trees and vines?   Such is the challenge posed every single year by watermelons, but thanks to the “elixir of growth” discovered by Albert Blakeslee and subsequent work by Hitoshi Kihara, one of the most prominent agricultural geneticists of the 20th century, the world has an elegant solution. Breeders continually improve the varieties available, and consumer demand keeps growing, yet seedless watermelon production methods have remained essentially unchanged for three quarters of a century. Continue reading

The new apples: an explosion of crisp pink honey sweet snow white candy crunch

What’s in a name?  An apple with an old fashioned name could taste as sweet, but it might not sell.  The most sought after branded varieties reveal what people look for in an apple: sweet and crunchy and bright white inside.  Do the fruits live up to their names?  Are Honeycrisp apples crunchier than others?  Do Arctics actually stay white?  We zoom in on the cells to find out.

Some of you will remember the era when the Superbowl halftime show repeatedly featured Up With People.  That was around the time when Granny Smiths arrived in our supermarkets and finally gave Americans a third apple, a tart and crunchy alternative to red and golden delicious.  Those were simple days.  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

Apples: the ultimate everyday accessory

Infinity scarves? No. They won’t keep doctors away. Apples are the ultimate everyday accessory (fruit). Katherine explains where the star in the apple comes from. Could it be due to a random doubling of chromosomes? We also give readers the chance to test their apple knowledge with a video quiz.

Although apples are not particularly American – nor is apple pie – they color our landscape from New York City to Washington State, all thanks to Johnny Appleseed. Or so goes the legend. Everyone already knows a lot about apples, and for those wanting more, there are many engaging and beautifully written stories of their cultural history, diversity, and uses. See the reference list below for some good ones. There is no way I could cover the same ground, so instead I’ll keep this post short and sweet (or crisp and tart) by focusing on apple fruit structure and some interesting new studies that shed light on it.
Of course if you do want to learn more about apple history but have only 5 minutes, or if you want to test your current knowledge, take our video quiz! It’s at the bottom of this page. 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

DSC09511

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