24 December 2008

Peace and respite

I'm off for a brief visit to the land of my birth, south of the Equator. Hope to see you all again in 2009.

Image by TahoeSunsets.

18 December 2008

Fallen giants of Easter Island

Buried in lake sediments on Easter Island are fossil pollen grains. These pollen grains indicate that a now-extinct species of palm tree once grew there. All suggestions as to what it might have looked like are inferred from the similarity of its pollen to that of the giant Chilean wine palm, Jubaea chilensis. The Easter Island palm disappears from the pollen record around the year 1650. Some say its demise is inextricably linked to that of Rapanui, the ancient Easter Island society...

The extinct palm has been named Paschalococos disperta. Some archaeologists have suggested that the palm would have proved most useful to the ancient Easter Islanders. Could they have felled the trees and used their trunks as rollers to help transport those large moai stone statues from the quarry? Perhaps they used the hollowed out trunks as canoes to get to far-off fishing waters. This idea sounds rather romantic, but they probably used reed ships made of totora bulrushes, not hollow palm trunks. It's quite likely that trees were cut down to get at the edible heart of palm... And so the speculation continues. The bottom line is that we don't know exactly why the palms of Easter Island were annihilated. All we know is that a day must have dawned when someone, for whatever reason, decided to cut down the last tree.

With the island completely deforested, societal collapse seemed inevitable. The lack of trees led to severe soil erosion, still apparent to this day. Other species of animals and plants declined, including the toromiro tree, which was saved from extinction when Thor Heyerdahl collected viable seed on his expedition to the island in the mid-20th century. The toromiro was subsequently entered into a breeding program at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. If only Paschalococos had been that fortunate. Even modern biotechnology will not resurrect this species - the fossil pollen from the lake beds and empty coconut shells found in caves yielded no DNA whatsoever.

Now more than ever, it is clear that our survival is tied to that of our environment. No, not just survival. Our very essence. Everything that defines culture - food, shelter, clothing, medicine, stories, fears, songs, beliefs, temples, tools, traditions, games, dreams - is shaped and nurtured by the plants and animals and microbes among us. Satellites watch Madagascar bleed red earth into the ocean now. Survey ships document tonnes of plastic garbage collecting in the gyres of the North Pacific. The IUCN keeps adding new species to the Red List. Easter Island was a prediction of what happens when biodiversity is lost. Or perhaps not a prediction. A warning - we should know better now. We finally have the tools to manage a whole planet. Collapse is not inevitable.

Respect for nature is respect for human life. 

Photo credits: moai heads by exploraChilean wine palm by badthings; single moai by Jean Delard de Rigoulières.

21 November 2008

How to buy an orchid at the grocery store

It's winter in the northern hemisphere and Phalaenopsis orchids are literally everywhere. The elegant moth orchid can now be found not only near the register at most garden centres, but also at your local greengrocer, favourite supermarket, and the houseplant section of many large department stores. The single best place to buy an orchid is, of course, from a local orchid nursery. Such orchids are fresh and raised under expert care. Plus, it's always a good idea to support the local hobbyists: they are often talented breeders in their own right, and make exciting and exclusive new crosses available to the community. However, sometimes those sexy Phalaenopsis at the store can be so tempting that you almost don't realize you've got one propped between the corn flakes and fat-free yoghurt, until you're unpacking your trolley at the conveyor belt.

I am not a total orchid snob; those store-bought plants can be rewarding. Indeed, most of them originate from giant nurseries in such places as Taiwan and Florida, where they are bred to be appealing and raised to be vigorous. Problems arise when the plants are delivered to the point of sale - supermarkets are not the best of growing environments, and store attendants tend to give the orchids the same treatment as conventional houseplants. How often have neighbours complained of the mysterious and untimely demise of their latest acquisition, mere weeks after purchase! Well, fret no more, folks! The Electric Orchid Hunter is happy to provide some essential buying tips you should know before succumbing to orchid fever in the produce aisle.
  1. Buy your orchids as fresh as possible. The ideal would be to get them as soon as they are unpacked, but it is seldom possible to gauge in advance when the next delivery will arrive in the store. The dry supermarket atmosphere can severely shorten the life span of the flowers, and cause unopened buds to abort. Flowers should be waxy, not papery, and buds should be swollen and unwrinkled.
  2. Check for any instore damage. This includes cracked leaves, snapped aerial roots, bruised flower spikes and torn petals. 
  3. Make sure the plant is in prime health. Leaves should be mid to dark green, not yellow, firm and slightly succulent. Look in between the leaves at the crown of the plant - if this is damaged in any way, a Phalaenopsis will usually be unable to recover and will eventually just fade away. Most commercially grown orchids are sold in clear plastic pots to allow the green aerial roots to grow into the medium. These are sometimes slipped inside more aesthetically pleasing clay pots - take out the plastic pot and inspect the roots for healthy growing tips.
  4. Consider the type and condition of the growing medium. Don't buy anything slick with algae or with little ferns sprouting in it. Avoid plants struggling in mushy medium that has completely broken down - you don't want to have to repot your purchase as soon as you get it home. Consider what you're comfortable with: are these orchids planted in bark, or sphagnum moss? Moss holds onto moisture for longer, but bark can be more forgiving of mistakes. Remember that orchid roots need air in addition to water.
  5. Look for a bargain. Sometimes resellers will discount Phalaenopsis once the flowers are spent. It's pretty much a lucky dip at this stage; you won't know whether you've got a large white or a dainty pink candy stripe until you get it to flower again. If the leaves have some red pigmentation at the bases or underneath, that's sometimes an indication of darker-coloured flowers. Unfortunately, commercial varieties are almost never shipped with name tags, and if they are, these rarely provide a clue to the colours you can expect. Bargain bin anonymous orchids might be worthwhile if the plants are still vigorous. Avoid orchids that are marked down because they are obviously on the brink of death.
  6. Go for quality, not quantity. A plant with flowers of good shape and substance and with bold colours will be more rewarding at subsequent flowerings than one that has a few more blooms but the flowers of which are insipid or of poor shape. Perhaps I am an orchid snob, after all.
Let's prevent further disillusionment and unwitting cruelty to houseplants. Two final pieces of easy advice that will help you on the road to success with your new moth orchid:
  • If you're unsure of whether your orchid is getting sufficient light, that means you should move it to a brighter location. 
  • If you're unsure of whether to water it, that means you should wait another day before you do so. 

Photography credits: potted Phalaenopsis by Thomas Tamayo; dead Phalaenopsis by Kristin; helathy Phalaenopsis roots by Andrea K. Please visit the photostreams of these Flickr users for more flights of photographic fancy.

9 November 2008

Introducing (E&E)² zen: electric orchids

Get your daily dose of links and images exploring our world by subscribing to the RSS feed at my new tumblelog
electric orchids. Easily digestible tidbits perfect for tea time or a lunch break!

Naturally, this blog will still be the place to read those really in-depth features you've come to expect. Think of
(E&E)² as the main digital garden, and electric orchids as a sunny windowsill!

12 October 2008

The Orchidhunter at the Denver orchid show

I made my way to Arvada on a rainy, colourless Saturday morning. The grey day held tropical promise, though: the Fall Show of the Denver Orchid Society. Traditionally held at the Denver Botanic Gardens, the show was moved to Echter's Garden Center this time around because of construction. But what a show! I'd love to share some of my photographs with you.

The theme for this season's show was Picture Perfect Orchids. The organizers and exhibitors put in a lot of effort to get their displays looking great, with artful use of picture frames and actual orchid art, from local artists to prints of famous works by
Martin Johnson Heade.

I must admit that I was disappointed by the small amount of species orchids on display. To be fair, Colorado orchid growers face particular challenges - such as the altitude and the climate- that growers in warmer, wetter areas need never worry about. The abundance of beautiful hybrid orchids shown more than made up for this; and the species that were on display were of exceptional quality and were kinds not often seen. The substance and colours of the flowers and the immaculate condition and vigor of the plants proves that Colorado growers can beat the odds and compete with the best.

A table of breathtaking Vandas caught my eye immediately. This Vanda Robert's Delight 'Garnet' won a red 2nd place ribbon. It's obvious why. Those flowers are as big as my hands!

This is one of the most beautiful examples of Vanda Rothschildiana I've ever seen. The coloration is just superb. It's a classic old hybrid between the Indian Vanda coerulea and Euanthe sanderiana from the Philippines. This rightly received a blue 1st place ribbon and the award for Best Flowers in its class.

Shows are a great place to see some of the bizarre things found in the orchid family. Bulbophyllums excel at being weird. This is Bulbophyllum Jersey, a lovely cross between B. lobii and B. echinolabium which marries the best features of both parents.

Resembling a hard-boiled quail egg nestling on a patterned saucer, Paphiopedilum (wenshanense X godefroyae) was a joy to behold. It received a 1st prize ribbon, as well as the award for best flower in its class.

The best Cattleya was this delightful miniature: Sophrocattleya Mini Purple 'Candy Tuft'. Good shape, waxy substance, perfect symmetry, heady fragrance... I could clearly understand why the judges chose this as recipient of the Ed Horton Memorial Award for best flower in the Cattleya alliance. May I have a division of it, please?

This was one of my favourite things on show: Cycnoches chlorochilon. Also known as the green-lipped swan orchid, this species has a subtle, understated elegance. It is usually found in hot South American forests, from Panama to Venezuela. Not only do the flowers smell kind of like banana popsicles, but Cycnoches are also some of the few orchids to have separate male and female flowers, which are totally different in appearance. These are male flowers: if you look closely, some dislodged pollen is visible, stuck to the right petal of the middle flower.

I had a most enjoyable afternoon, inspecting the myriad of blossoms on display, and talking to some of the growers. I took way too many photographs to showcase them all here. If I've whetted your appetite for more, please visit my Flickr photo set for the rest of them and some pictures from orchid shows past. If you'd like to find out more about the Denver Orchid Society, visit their
web page, or go to one of their monthly meetings.

10 September 2008

Four tonnes of pale awesome

Be sure to visit the historic coastal town of Augusta if you're planning a trip to Western Australia. This is because it's the temporary home of an albino Southern Right Whale calf and its mother. They are expected to hang around in Flinders Bay at least until October before venturing down to the chilly feeding waters of the Southern Ocean for the summer. The calf weighed two tonnes at birth and will end up weighing about fifty tonnes when it reaches adulthood.Local news and Naturaliste Chartes, a whale watching company, held a contest to choose a name for the hypomelanistic cetacean. The Western Australian Noongar tribe picked the winning name: Wilgi Manung, which means - appropriately enough - White Whale. Wilgi Manung is one of only ten albinistic whales known. According to conservation officers, the whale does not totally lack melanin and is therefore not a true example of albinism. Rather, it shows reduced pigment and is an example of leucism, similar to the famous white lions of southern Africa. Wilgi Manung is expected to go grey with age (but not to be confused with a Gray Whale).Right Whales are fat. Nearly 40% of their body weight is blubber. They were therefore considered the "right" whales to hunt: they float when harpooned and can easily be hauled in from the ocean. After years of successful conservation efforts, the Southern Right Whale was recently moved to Least Concern status on the 2008 IUCN Red List. The North Atlantic and North Pacific Right Whale species, however, remain Endangered.

Photography credit: for more photos and info, visit PerthNow.

5 September 2008

Java, 1895

The Eurasian hunter Charles te Mechelen photographed with a young Javan rhinoceros in Ujung Kulon, Java, in 1895. What I'd like to know is: as things change, do we stay the same?

12 August 2008

Deceptive petals: 7 orchid mimics

Like the Genovese and the Gambino, the Orchidaceae are an intimidating family. With about 25,000 species, it's also the largest family of flowering plants. This does not make it any easier to identify a member, however. So let me ask you: how do you know when a flower is an orchid? Most people will probably answer, 'you can tell by the differently coloured lip'. This would be a mistake. Many plants with brightly coloured lips aren't orchids at all. Many others just have a gestalt that screams 'orchid' in hot pink tones, but you'd be wrong again. Botany is sometimes confusing. Let's take a look at a few examples of flowers that seem to mimic those of the orchids.

Bauhinia blakeana [Fabaceae - the Legume family]. It's easy to see why this is called the Hong Kong orchid tree, for the resemblance to an orchid blossom is rather striking. In 1880, Sir Henry Blake - then British Governor of Hong Kong and a keen botanist - discovered the plant growing near the ruins of a building on the shore of Pok Fu Lam. It has since become the floral emblem of Hong Kong. A popular tree for highway medians and parking lots in hot cities, it's large heart-shaped leaves make it attractive even when out-of-bloom.

Alpinia zerumbet [Zingiberaceae - the Ginger family]. Many members of this gorgeous plant family produce flowers that appear orchid-like, complete with glowing lips in the correct, lowermost orientation. Unlike orchid flowers, those of ginger do not possess a column, the central structure formed from the fusion of male and female parts. Shell ginger is a good example. This Chinese evergreen rapidly forms large clumps of lush tropical foliage when grown in frost-free areas with partial shade.

Tacca chantrieri [Dioscoreaceae - the Yam family]. After seeing the diverse array of
black orchids out there, it is tempting to classify this sinister thing as an orchid. The bat flower, as it is affectionately known, actually belongs to the plant family that includes yams and other herbaceous vines. What appears to be large, darkly coloured petals are in fact involucral bracts, and not floral structures at all, just like the festive red 'petals' of the poinsettia. The real flowers are the cup-shaped structures within, surrounded by distinctive whiskers. If you can grow Phalaenopsis orchids really well, this Malaysian terrestrial should be well-suited to your conditions: it likes shade, high humidity and good air circulation.

Zingiber spectabile [Zingiberaceae - the Ginger family]. Another ginger species, the beehive ginger should not be confused with the related Z. officinale, the
beloved culinary ginger. The plants grow quite tall, with the inflorescences typically carried beneath the attractive foliage. The beehive structure of the flowerhead is - once again - formed from colourful bracts, with the orchid-like flowers themselves appearing from between these. Gardeners and florists have many varieties to choose from, with flowerheads in orange, pink, yellow, red and several bicoloured combinations.

Strongylodon macrobotrys [Fabaceae - the Legume family]. The jade vine produces pendant clusters of totally unique aquamarine flowers. Once you've walked under a pergola festooned with these, the watery blooms of a wisteria seem positively wistful by comparison. It's not only the Orchidaceae that produce flowers of unusual colour, it seems. The jade vine hails from the Philippines, that trove of botanical marvels, where its blooms are visited by rainforest bats. It was first collected in 1854 on Mount Makiling on the island of Luzon by botanists of the U.S. Wilkes Exploring Expedition. Perhaps not surprisingly, it is now exceedingly rare in the wild and faces threat from deforestation.

Catalpa speciosa [Bignoniaceae - the Jacaranda family]. Just as orchids are not confined to the tropics, so orchid mimics can be found in virtually every environment. The Northern catalpa is a deciduous ornamental tree from the United States, orginally found along the Mississippi River basin, but now naturalized throughout much of the Midwest and considered invasive in places. It is known by several names in the vernacular, cigar tree and Indian bean being the most common, refering to the long, slender pods formed in mid-summer after flowering. The showy flowers bring to mind those of a unifoliate Cattleya, being large, white, ruffled and with distinct streaks of colour toward the interior.

Elettaria cardamomum [Zingiberaceae - the Ginger family]. Cardamom is a giant among gingers, growing to a height of almost 4 m. By contrast, the inflorescences are minute and held close to the ground, bearing several small blossoms. It grows wild in moist forests of the Western Ghats on India's Malabar Coast. An expensive spice, cardamom needs to be hand-picked daily at the moment of perfect ripeness. Few gourmands realize that the cardamom they praise so highly for the beauty of its aromatic fragrance has equally beautiful flowers. These blossoms are truly deserving of the moniker 'orchid-like'.

As we have seen, pretty petals do not an orchid make. So what is an orchid, and what isn't? This question can be answered most decisively by genetics. Simply put, an orchid is any member of the family Orchidaceae. Like the New York crime families, it's an exclusive club; they don't allow just anyone in and it doesn't matter if you look the part. However, in lieu of having a full-fledged genetic fingerprinting lab at your disposal the next time you're poking around your favourite nursery, remember that orchids usually exhibit these characteristics:
a prominent lip (labellum) different from the other petals and sepals
resupinate flowers twisted through 180°, leaving the lip lowermost
pollen formed into sticky masses called pollinia
a column (gynostemium) composed of both style and stamen
fruit in the form of dehiscent capsules
very small, almost dust-like seed
close associations with mycorrhizal fungi
And then remember that there are exceptions to almost all those characteristics. Good luck...

Photography credits: Bauhinia blakeana ©
Christoph Diewald; Alpinia zerumbet © Avelino Maestas; Tacca chantrieri © Julia; Zingiber spectabile © Tony; Strongylodon macrobotrys © David Midgley; Catalpa speciosa © Cindy Ware; Elettaria cardamomum © Gopu P. Please visit these exceptional Flickr users for more floral excellence.

5 August 2008

The shores of phantom islands: 100 posts later

"At 2 a.m., saw land ahead, luffed and cleared it. It appeared an island 5 or 6 miles in length, running N.E. and S.W., with a high round bluff on the N.E. end, with low land to S.W.: between N.E. and S.W. ends there appeared a valley covered with ice and snow; we passed it within a quarter of a mile, going ten knots: lat. 39° 20' S., long. 120° 20' W.: the position for lat. and long. may differ a few miles by reason of not having had proper observations for several preceding and following days."
-log of Capt. Dougherty of the James Stewart, 29 May, 1841

We are the first people in the history of the Earth to have developed technology that affords us a truly objective view of our planet. Ancient maps are wonderfully inaccurate, decorated with fantastic monsters and indicating shapes of countries that are as much reflections of the cartographer's skill as his sense of whimsy. The Latin inscription on the 16th century Hunt-Lenox Globe comes to mind: HC SVNT DRACONES. And why shouldn't there be dragons, after all? Back then, many places were still considered terra incognita - unknown land - or terra pericolosa - land no-one ever returns from...

On 29th of May, 1841, Captain Dougherty of the British whaler James Stewart reported passing within six hundred yards of a six mile-long island in the Great Southern Ocean. On the northeastern end was a high bluff, while the southwestern end was lower and tapered to a point. The captain said that he could see a deep valley with vegetation and some snow. Although none of the navigators saw any signs of human habitation, there were many birds and evidence of animal life. The place was named Dougherty Island, after its discoverer, and received a mention in Findlay's 'A directory for the navigation of the Pacific ocean', published in 1851 by Oxford University Press. On 4th of September, 1859, Dougherty was sighted by the Louise, a ship from Bristol. The captain of the Louise noted the island to be dark in colour; he estimated that it rose only eighty feet above the surface of the water. The coordinates given by the captain were 59° 21' S., 119° 7' W. In 1886 came another report of Dougherty, this time from the barque Cingalese. Her captain affirmed that the island was six miles long, and that the northeastern part was high while the southwestern point was low. However, he described the island as barren, with no vegetation of any kind.

Try to look for Dougherty Island on any modern map. Use Google Earth and the documented coordinates. You won't find it. And that's because Dougherty doesn't exist: it's a phantom island. The fateful 1921-1922 Shackleton–Rowett Expedition - the one that would claim Ernest Shackleton's life - was the last voyage in search of it and several other doubtful isles of the southern hemisphere. The Scott Polar Research Institute lists 15 of these in the Antarctic Ocean alone: The Aurora Islands, Burdwood's Island, The Chimneys, Dougherty's Island, Elizabethides, Emerald Island, Isla Grande, Macey's Island, New South Greenland, Nimrod Island, Pagoda Rock, Royal Company Island, Swain's Island, Thompson Island, and Trulsklippen. All discovered and charted, only to quietly slip off our maps once they proved to be non-existent. The Aurora Islands continued to appear on maps of the South Atlantic until the 1870s, even though their last sighting was in 1856. First spotted by the Aurora of Spain in 1762, this group of three islands was supposedly located east of Cape Horn, halfway between the Falklands and South Georgia. Some experts claim that the Aurora Islands are merely the Shag Rocks, six small islets 150 miles west of South Georgia. Curiously, the Shag Rocks are known as the Islas Aurora in Spanish to this day.

Phantom Islands are no longer reported. We have grown sophisticated, and make fewer navigational errors. We have grown knowledgeable, and can identify icebergs, fog banks, or oceanic and atmospheric optical illusions for what they are. We now have the power to see the whole surface of the Globe from space, to penetrate its waters with imaging equipment and scope out the topography of mountains under the oceans. But the world does not give up its secrets that easily. There are many places still hidden from view, many secrets not yet revealed. Glowing lights in the dark depths of the ocean, the catacombs of forgotten cities, the airless tropical swamps protected by leeches and disease, the mute progression of evolution captured in the DNA of every creature known and unknown, abandoned treasure on the high wastelands of the Earth: in 100 posts, (E&E)² has attempted to share some of these things with you, dear reader. As we deftly set sail for the terra incognita of our next 100 topics, my hope is that the wonder of the unknown will inspire and excite you as much as it has thrilled and stimulated me.

Picture credit: a big thank you to
Dalyn for her visionary artwork combining elements of several famous maps. Can you spot them all?

6 July 2008

Horticultural ardour: the allure of vanilla

It had been venerated by the Totonaca and Aztecs of Mexico for centuries before European explorers introduced it to the Old World sometime during the 16th century. Thereafter, many perished on long ocean journeys undertaken to obtain it. It is one of the world's most expensive spices, even today. So how did something as extraordinary as vanilla become a byword for the ordinary? If we want the simple, unadorned variety of something, we ask for the 'vanilla kind'. Vanilla is not so vanilla. How can the orchid spice be considered boring or commonplace? Its very name is derived from the diminutive of the word 'vagina'. I'd like those connotations to be reinstated, thank you very much. Warm, wet, sensual, exotic, erotic, heady, mysterious, sultry, complex, alluring vanilla, how you fill me with desire…

Our mistress vanilla is no cheap harlot. For a start, the very act of cultivating it constitutes a labour of love; it is agriculture of the most intensive kind. Vanilla is the only orchid cultivated on a large scale for a purpose other than decorating hotel lobbies and winning ribbons for pretty petals at flower shows. The favoured species for production is the original Vanilla planifolia from Mexico, although V. pompona from Tahiti and others are also sometimes used. It is a vining orchid genus, attaining lengths in excess of 35 m. They are typically grown supported on trees, poles or latticework, such that the flowers are within easy reach. This is essential. Almost all orchids require very specific insect pollinators in order to reproduce, and vanilla is no exception. In the wild, it seduces a rare and localized bee species, which obviously cannot be relied on for global commercial purposes. Every vanilla pod is the result of hand pollination by a plantation worker using care, diligence and a small wooden tool. New flowers open on the inflorescences at dawn, wilting by dusk. Open blooms have to be sought out in the humid plantation and pollinated every day. Quite a different exercise to just watching the corn grow. Pregnant with promise, the green bean-like seed pods are harvested about nine months after pollination, at the moment of perfect maturity just before splitting open. This is just the beginning: at this point the beautiful vanilla fragrance is entirely absent. The laborious task of curing follows.

Now for a brief chemistry interlude. The primary chemical found in vanilla extract is the phenolic compound vanillin. Notice how closely its molecular structure resembles that of adrenaline. Neurologist Alan Hirsch of the Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation found that vanilla induces sexual arousal: the smell alone can significantly increase blood flow to the penis. So much for Viagra, then. Synthetic vanillin can be easily synthesized from oil of cloves, lignin (a waste product from the paper industry), or more often from petrochemical precursors produced from creosote. Yummo. That's not all, folks: biotechnological advances have enabled bacteria to make it from rice bran, and Japanese scientists have recently extracted it from cow dung. These products are inferior, I feel, and certainly less romantic than obtaining vanilla from orchids and hard labour under a tropical sun. The truth is that the full, complex vanilla flavour is not only due to the presence of vanillin, but also hundreds of other, related chemical compounds. Natural vanilla's perfect balance of these molecules keeps it in high demand. Erm, where were we? Oh yes: the curing process.

In the fabled Bourbon method, the freshly harvested vanilla pods are briefly blanched in hot water to stop the ripening process. For several weeks, the pods are laid out on woolen blankets in the morning sun, wrapped up by midday and stored in airtight containers overnight. During this fevered process, enzymes are at work, liberating vanillin and friends trapped in loveless β-glycosidic linkages with sugar molecules. Maximum aroma is achieved after several months of drying and careful storage. The pods, now brown, become frosted with a white coating of fragrant phenolics. The labour of love is finally complete and the pods (now called vanilla 'beans' to the chagrin of botanists everywhere) are graded, packaged, and shipped to vendors worldwide.

As with all luxury items, the demand for natural vanilla exceeds supply. Finding good quality vanilla is sometimes difficult, especially when looking for vanilla extract - the flavouring agent produced by percolating macerated vanilla beans in alcohol. Artificial impostors abound - true vanilla extract is not clear, not dark and murky, but rather a golden amber colour. Although vanilla beans themselves cannot be faked, they do vary in quality. When choosing vanilla, opt for the longest beans you can find. They should have an oily glisten or the tell-tale frosting of vanillin crystals, and should definitely be devoid of mildew. Vanilla is now cultivated all over the world, from Mexico to Indonesia, with Madagascar and the other islands of the Indian Ocean being the biggest producers today. Local climate and cultivation methods have a definite influence on flavour development, same as any good wine. It's called terroir, and is not to be sniffed at.

Perhaps vanilla gained its reputation for mediocrity from its near-ubiquity. It is found in everything these days: cheesecake, Chanel No. 5, pound cake, aromatherapy oil, crème brûlée, fabric softener, glühwein, Kit-Kats, cough syrup, butterscotch pudding, cream soda, Yankee scented candles... oh, and ice cream, natch. We should not forget how precious it can be, how complex its composition and lengthy its production. Let vanilla regain its luxury status. After all, it's damn sexy.

Photography credits: vanilla flower ©
Brock; hand pollination © Helen Graham; grading table © Jonathan Talbot; vanilla pods © Kendiala; crème brûlée © Markii. Please visit these tremendous Flickr users for more deviant deliciousness.

13 June 2008

Blue tape and found objects

I am still in the lab on a Friday night. It's after 21:00; a dark and curious place when no-one is around. Fume hoods and laminar flow cabinets cast a ghostly ultraviolet glow. The -80°C freezers hum quietly, a tune in the language of machines. It's a working environment that often seems cold and sterile. Those who occupied bench space here before me have left traces of themselves: small, personal attempts at humanizing this lab, a place where the very essence of existence gets reduced to a few bands on a gel, strings of ACGTs...

At the bottom of an asparagus green filing cabinet I find a set of film negatives, neatly slotted into a sheet of yellowed wax paper. I take out a strip and hold it up to the light. It reveals images of a young woman sitting outside a log cabin in the mountains, smiling a black smile, her white pupils burning hot into the lens. The photographs appear to have been taken in the early nineties. The last three frames of the set are of experimental plants - wheat, or perhaps barley - with their illegible tags a white on black blur. Why were these left here? I turn them over in my hands and bits of brittle wax paper break off and fall to the floor. Even though our acids and organic solvents are safely kept in a chemical cabinet, pieces of paper tend to curl and yellow much more rapidly in the lab. Old Far Side cartoons stuck up with autoclave tape are stained brown, splashed with something that's presumably hazardous to your health.

I am the only person working in this particular lab this summer. New faces are scheduled to arrive in the fall, but until then it is just me. And the ghosts. Who were these people? Why were they stockpiling polypropylene weighing boats so excessively? Vials of formamide line the doors of the freezers in various states of consumption. Bottles of expired extraction buffers gather dust on the shelf above the pH meter. This is my inheritance. That and - oh, I don't know - let's say about 87,000 clones in a badly cross-referenced EST library. There are too many signs posted, too many notices. They remind me of something we used to say in the 4th grade: if you notice this notice you'll notice that this notice has nothing to notice. So I elect to take them down. I remove all the signs while waiting for the thermal cycler to finish my PCRs, take down every last remnant of tacky blue tape. Put up too many notices, and people stop paying them any attention: I know this to be true. So I print new signs in hot colours for the fume hood, the chemical cabinet and the radioactivity area. I opt for Franklin Gothic, the official typeface of the Museum of Modern Art. This shall now also be the typeface of the Crop Genomics Laboratory: fresh, bold. The user manuals for surplussed equipment are recycled, dust bunnies are extricated from behind the Corning Water Still, past personalities are exorcised. I choose new names for the five freezers. Auden, Byron, Chaucer, Dylan, Eliot. English poets from different ages to bring a new mnemonic to the cataloguing of their biotech contents. This new version of the lab will be my legacy, until my efforts are torn down by future inhabitants. Until then, I might as well make myself at home here.

30 May 2008

First contact: a lost tribe of the Amazon

These images were published today by officials of the Fundação Nacional do Índio (FUNAI), the Brazilian government's National Indian Foundation. Taken from a passing helicopter, the photographs show a tribe of Amazonian Indians, covered in bright bodypaint, taking aim at the helicopter with bows and arrows. This instantly piqued my interest.

It is estimated that there are almost a hundred tribes left on the planet who choose to have little or no contact with the outside world. Half of these are said to live in the dense Amazon rainforest of Peru and Brazil. Often so-called 'uncontacted' tribes have actually had encounters with the outside in generations past, usually in the form of prospectors and loggers. Since these experiences are almost invariably violent, the 'uncontacted' tribes are forced ever deeper into seclusion. According to Miriam Ross, spokesperson for Survival International, "First contact is often completely catastrophic for 'uncontacted' tribes. It's not unusual for 50 percent of the tribe to die within months after first contact. They don't generally have immunity to diseases common to outside society. Colds and flu that aren't usually fatal to us can completely wipe them out."

Now, their way of life is being threatened - not by helicopters, but by encroaching development. The forests are shrinking. As logging continues unabated in Peru, which has placed less emphasis on protecting areas for indigenous people than Brazil, these and other groups are forced across borders. Imaginary lines drawn in the mud by people they have never met, for reasons they do not understand. Distress. Disinheritance. Disease. Death. Welcome to the modern world.

For more on this fascinating story, visit Reuters or The Associated Press.

26 May 2008

Paradise lost

As you've no doubt noticed, I've been a tad busy lately. I had to study for finals, did a load of microscopy, got my first tangible results in the lab, and went on a roadtrip across the Southwest US. Now I'm home, listening to the rain (and Róisín Murphy), but thinking about deserts.

When I was very young, I discovered an old book on the dark shelves of my grandfather's house during one of our December holiday visits. The text and photographs in this book detailed vanished cultures and the mysterious objects they left behind: the jungle ruins of the Maya, the moai of Easter Island, the standing stones at Carnac. The most arresting image in the whole book was of a gravel plain in the Sahara simply littered with abandoned millstones. That was the moment I realized that the environment is not a static thing: the Sahara was green once. Buried beneath its dunes and sand drifts lie intricate networks of river valleys carved into the bedrock. Some 10,000 years ago, the continued retreat of the European ice sheets of the last glacial period had shifted the monsoons to the north. This converted the plains of the Sahara to grassy savannah and covered the slopes of its mountains with forest. Humans settled in the area; the art they created illustrated herds of cattle and a menagerie of wild animals like antelope, elephants, giraffes and even crocodiles. About 6,000 years ago, the Sahara began to dry out again. Rock art from this period depicts the rapid loss of once-plentiful grazing land, as well as subsequent battles over the diminishing resources. The savannah and the forests are gone. The Sahara is a place for nomads now.

The Ténéré is a vast sea of dunes bordered by mountain ranges in the Sahara region of Niger. For centuries the Tuareg have run their azalai salt caravans through this hostile environment, traditionally with caravans numbering up to 20,000 camels - as witnessed by French colonial forces in the early 20th century - and using smaller convoys of off-road vehicles today. In this featureless wasteland, bereft of water and shade, grew a solitary, stunted Acacia tree. Even though its height was no more than three metres, it was visible from miles away. It became an important desert landmark, a sacred place for repose and the only single tree to be indicated on maps with a scale of 1:4,000,000. With its closest neighbours more than 400 km away, it was the most isolated tree on Earth: the last surviving member of the ancient Saharan forests.

In 1939, a well dug by the French military at the Tree of Ténéré revealed that its roots reached down to the water table, 35 m underground. To the Tuareg this tree, estimated at 300 years old, was not only a navigational point of reference but also a symbol of life itself, protected from harm. Not a single leaf was fed to a camel, not a single branch was broken for firewood. In his notes for 21 May 1939, Michel Lesourd, Commandant des A.M.M. of the Service Central des Affaires Sahariennes, wrote, 'There is a kind of superstition, a tribal order which is always respected. Each year the azalai gather round the Tree before facing the crossing of the Ténéré. The Acacia has become a living lighthouse; it is the first or the last landmark for the azalai leaving Agadez for Bilma, or returning.' A true miracle, this tenacious tree. So why am I writing about the Arbre du Ténéré in the past tense?

When Raymond Mauny travelled to the tree during the 1959 Berliet-Ténéré Mission, he noticed with alarm that the tree no longer resembled Lesourd's photograph from 1939 (above), noting that, 'It was the victim of an automobile accident; a military lorry, backing, had broken one of its principal branches. This branch had been sawn up and used, and the bit of trunk that remained had been trimmed. Is it not still considered to be taboo?'. Fellow explorer Henri Lhote, who had previously seen the tree in 1934 remarked, 'Before, this tree was green and with flowers; now it is a colourless thorn tree and naked. I cannot recognise it - it had two very distinct trunks. Now there is only one, with a stump on the side, slashed rather than cut, a metre from the soil'.

In 1973, an - allegedly drunk - Libyan truck driver lost control of his vehicle, veering off the road and right into the Arbre du Ténéré, the only tree in a 400 km radius. The tree did not survive this second collision. On 8 November 1973, the dead Tree of Ténéré was taken to the Niger National Museum in Niamey, where it can still be seen, caged off in a sad little enclosure. A sculpture has been erected where it once stood, a metal tree that doesn't require water, doesn't mind a couple of knocks. And so the slow and inevitable desertification of the Ténéré region was completed, albeit with a little help from us and our machines. The Sahara desert is inexorably expanding, drowning the Sahel to the south, reaching with sandy fingers towards the Mediterranean. Time brings change. Although not in our lifetime, or even that of our children's children, a time will come when the Sahara will be green once more, rest assured. In geological time, one wretched little tree means nothing, I know this. Yet I can't help feeling sad for its passing. Not in my lifetime. Not in my lifetime...

Photography credits: Ténéré desert landscape © Alessandro Vannucci; the Tree in 1971 © Peter Krohn; new tree sculpture © Shepherd family; Please visit these astounding photographers for more desert delights.

19 April 2008

Banquet of the bizarre

A Saturday morning is perfect for wandering the stalls of your local farmer's market. Not only is it a great place to pick up fresh produce on the cheap, but it is often also a place where nutrition turns exotic. Markets, grocers and fruit 'n vegetable stalls are infinitely fascinating to me; there are always new varieties of old favourites and by now you've sussed that I'm a sucker for variations on a theme. There are often strange and wonderful new things that entice me: weird fruit from the tropics, or sometimes from someone's backyard; strange vegetable shapes that the Korean lady assures me you cook "like potato". The world is too big and life is too short to bore yourself with green beans and Golden Delicious apples. We should indulge in the variety of tastes and textures that sprout from the Earth (except for okra - that stuff's wholly inedible). So let me unpack my electronic brown paper bag onto my digital countertop here, and I'll share with you some of the virtual veg I scored at the Cyberfarms Cybermarket this morning. Be a love and put the kettle on, will you?

Romanesco Broccoli [Brassica oleracea var. botrytis]. Isn't this gorgeous? It's the mathematician's favourite vegetable, Romanesco broccoli. Which is technically classified as a type of cauliflower, not broccoli. Something to do with the maturity of the developing flowers, apparently. Cruciferous systematics aside, isn't it just the coolest thing? It has an alien symmetry. The whorls of florets have a fractal nature. Some people find it too pretty to eat. I don't: it's delicious simply steamed whole and tossed in butter with some pine nuts and crushed green peppercorns.

Tamarillo [Cyphomandra betacea]. Hailing from the forests of the Andes and now found in gardens everywhere, the tangy tamarillo is a delectable beast. Bursting with colour and zip, I used to eat these straight off the tree. Just don't try the bitter skin; the easiest way is to halve it and spoon the refreshing pulp within. Gorgeous with ice cream, they also make fine chutneys, jellies, jams and compotes. The best thing about the tamarillo is that you can get a giant fruit-bearing tree in as little as two years from seed. This explains why tamarillo seeds are such popular fodder in gardener trades, but also why the trees tend to be rather tender, with shallow root systems. Protect them from frost and strong wind and you too can have juicy freshness straight from the garden.

Water caltrop [Trapa bicornis]. Depending on your frame of reference, it resembles a steer skull charred by a brushfire, or the Baron of Hell from the Doom universe. The water caltrop is the seed of an aquatic plant, which grows with its roots anchored in the mud of lakes or slow-moving rivers. It was cultivated in China for thousands of years as an edible crop, and has recently regained prominence on the international food markets. They need to be cooked in order to be edible, and can then be used in an analogous way to the (unrelated) Chinese water chestnut. Water caltrops feature in several Asian dishes and I shall search them out at the Asian markets in Denver, although they do look rather intimidating, I must admit!

Horned melon [Cucumis metuliferus]. Hello, what's this? In essence, the horned melon is a cucumber gone psycho. Slice it open to reveal the green gelatinous inside, filled with seeds resembling those annoying underdeveloped white ones found in watermelons. Those who can overcome their fear of pips are rewarded with a refreshing taste somewhere between passion fruit, lemons and, well... cucumber. These beautiful and bizarre cucurbits grow in the red soil of the Kalahari desert and so represent one of the few commercial fruits - along with the watermelon - to have their origin in southern Africa. They'll make a colourful and surprising addition to any fruit salad, especially when combined with the white flesh and pink skin of the fabled dragonfruit, the pitaya.

Crosne [Stachys affinis]. Another Chinese introduction, and a member of the Mint family, no less. These made their way to France in 1882 and were long cultivated in the area of Crosne, whence the name. Crosnes are also known as knotroot because of these small, ridged tubers. They are kind of difficult to clean (a potato brush works best) and have therefore proved not to be very popular. However, they are very versatile and can be employed in roasts, or to add a nutty crunch to salads. Crosnes can be stir-fried in olive oil, then sprinkled with parsley and drizzled with a balsamic vinaigrette as a dish on their own.

Mangosteen [Garcinia mangostana]. The single most astounding fruit I ever had the privilege to taste. I found these at the famous Mercat de la Boqueria in Barcelona, and couldn't resist purchasing a couple. Dubbed "the queen of tropical fruit" by the American explorer David Fairchild in 1903, the dark, sexy rind full of tannins hides virginal white segments, resembling those of the orange. The biggest segments contain one seed each. They are originally from the Malay archipelago and historically did not travel well. However, mangosteens have been popping up on the dessert menus of fancy restaurants in North America, imported from Hawaii or Puerto Rico. Lucky foodies in big cities might even find them at the fresh food markets now, where they typically retail for about $10 apiece. And what did it taste like, I hear you ask? A combination of muscadel grapes, muskmelon, lychees, vanilla ice cream, raspberries, yellow cling peaches and somehow none of those things. In short, it tasted like mangosteen.

Tell me about the strange fruits and vegetables you've eaten, grown or fondled in some exotic marketplace. Links to pictures are welcome. More tea?

Photography credits: Romanesco broccoli © rattyfied; tamarillo © evag29; water caltrop © Exif; horned melon © Nadia McIlhany; crosne © @rgs; mangosteen © sasithorn_s. Please visit these talented Flickr users for more exotic produce.