Monthly Archives: December 2011

Cerrado ecosystems and the Meskal Daisy on the cover

The Meskel daisy, Bidens pachyloma, from Ethiopia

The Meskel daisy, Bidens pachyloma, from Ethiopia

The third in a series of videoblogs from about the background pictures used on Annals of Botany covers.

The Youtube link is here, and it is best watched in HD/1080p resolution. An outline of the text is below the video insert below, and the text includes some extra links.

A shrubby tree, Plumeria ?rubra from the Apocynaceae featured as the background on the 2011 Annals of Botany cover. The picture was taken in the Brazilian cerrado. The adaptation to fire with the bark and rapid sprouting following the first rains after the fire is clear. This is an exceptional ecosystem with many species. While most people think about the threats to the Amazon forests and its conservation, those to the cerrado are less discussed and potentially as severe, with replacement of the vegetation with crops. Interestingly, one of the most downloaded papers from Annals of Botany each of the last three years has been from 1997 – yes, 1997 when downloads were hardly used – but clearly representing a manuscript well ahead of its time ( )! Again, the GPS-encoded location from the Plumeria shows it was photographed to the south west of Brasilia, in the heart of the cerrado at 16° 5′ 39″S, 48° 17′ 00″W, and quite high at 882.3 m. It was taken about three weeks after the regular fires in the area, and a surprise for me was how rolling the cerrado ecosystem was.

Finally, we get to the launch of the new cover for 2012: the Meskel (or Meskal, Mekel) Daisy Bidens pachyloma from Ethiopia, culturally an iconic flower for the country that symbolises happiness and rebirth. It flowers for a relatively short period in early September around the time of the Ethiopian New Year and an important part of the ceremony of the finding of the true cross. The hillsides of central and Northern Ethiopia are covered with the bright yellow flowers, and it is cut and used to decorate floors and the pyres of the crosses which are then burned in joyful ceremonies around the country. In the January issue, the Meskel daisy is paired with another daisy in the inset picture – an important fossil of an extinct Eocene species from the work of Viviana Barreda in Rio Negro, Argentina ( ). Altogether, a cover that symbolizes the interest of plants – from the cultural to the ecological and through to their evolution.

Bananas on the cover – a videoblog

Banana fruit bunch

Banana fruit bunch

We used a bunch of bananas, one of the species I work with, as the main background image on the cover of Annals of Botany two years ago. I am discussing the cover images in Annals of Botany in three video blogs.

The video blog is directly available in YouTube at – please use the 1080p version if you have a fast internet connection – and a summary with more information is given below.

The video blog is directly available in YouTube at – please use the 1080p version if you have a fast internet connection.

The plant shown on the cover is healthy and has survived a tropic storm, so shows the wind-damaged leaves adapting to this abiotic or environmental stress. But I was visiting the site to see a biotic – organism caused – stress, the devastating Fusarium tropical race 4 disease on other varieties being grown at the same site ( While the picture could have been taken nearly anywhere in the humid tropics or sub-tropics, it was actually taking in Guangzhou, south China, on an island in the Pearl River. Apart from high resolution digital photography, a real advantage for field work has been GPS, and the ability to automatically geotag the locations where photographs are taken, and Google maps can pinpoint the point I stood to take the photograph – 22° 18′ 48″N, 113° 19′ 54″E. Banana originates from the Indo-Malayan Center of diversity, mostly 500 to 2000 km to the south and west of Guangzhou, running from Papua New Guinea through the Malaysian penninsula, parts of China, Thailand and Burma, into India (see for example my review of banana domestication and superdomestication at and from the meeting in China when this photograph was taken). The cover picture shows a cultivar rather than a wild species. The illustrated bunch is a variety called Pisang Awak, and is disease free although rather badly damaged by a tropical storm which came through three days before my visit. However, the main purpose of this visit was to see the devastation of the the tropical race 4 of Fusarium oxysprorum f. sp. cubense, the Panama disease that is destroying the major export variety of banana, Cavendish. You can see me in front of a plant with the infection – the leaves are yellowed and dying, and all the fruit has fallen before ripening. Agronomy and chemical control are essentially impossible for this disease, so only strict biosecurity is controlling its spread outside South East Asia. I made sure I scrubbed my shoes in bleach solution after this visit. More positively, though, as was obvious from the uninfected plants in the same plantation, other banana varieties have resistance to this disease, and hopefully in the next year we will be making more progress to identifying the genes and genetics involved (

Cover pictures: A Video Blog about inserts and roses

Dog rose, Rosa canina, used on an Annals of Botany cover

Dog rose, Rosa canina, used on an Annals of Botany cover

I am discussing the cover images in Annals of Botany in my first video blog today. Each year, we have a large image in the background, and the three videos in this series will discuss the species in these images, where they were taken and why we used them. I have chosen a species that is particularly interesting to the region where the plant grows, ranging from rarer and threatened species, a crop with disease stress challenges, to a shrub in an important tropical savanna region and a species with cultural importance. In the first of the series, I am showing a range of the inset images used on the covers as well, to feature papers in a particular issue.

See the Video Blog here: Please use the 1080p resolution selection if you have a fast internet connection.

The first video blog shows a rose from an SSSI – Site of Special Scientific Interest – in Cambridgeshire in the East of England. Barnack Hills and Holes is an area of grassland on Jurrasic limestone, and is actually a disused quarry, but not from recent years. It provided stone since the Roman times, including for building Peterborough Cathedral. This has left the areas as a rolling, hummocky area, with several quite rare plants including no less than eight species orchids – studied from this site by another Annals of Botany editor, Mike Fay at Kew. Other notable plants are the parasitic Knapweed Broomrape Orobanche elatior, and, actually my first choice for the cover, the Pasque Flower, Pulsatilla vulgaris from the Ranunculaceae and sometimes classified in the genus Anenome. These pictures were taken at the end of May, rather late in the season. Photographically, though, there are a number of constraints for the main cover image. The resolution and printing screen for a glossy cover printed as something larger than A4 is amazingly high, and strains digital cameras – unfortunately your Editor neither has the funds to purchase a Nikon D3 (or even the rumoured D4) camera and lens, nor the muscles and baggage capacity to carry it around. The cover picture is masked and placed onto a generic green dappled forest-floor background. Altogether, the resolution requirements and the hairiness of the Pasque flower meant it was not suitable for the cover, and we changed to a dog rose, Rosa caninin, growing very widely throughout England and Wales, for the final cover.

Pollination mechanisms in palms (Review)

Pollination mechanisms in palms (Review)

Pollination mechanisms in palms (Review)

Understanding of palm–pollinator interactions has implications for tropical silviculture, as well as for our knowledge of the evolution and diversification of Arecaceae. Barfod et al. review 25 years of progress in palm pollination ecology and note that more than 60 studies have been published in this period that provide new insights on autecological, comparative and synecological aspects of palm pollination. However, with detailed studies of only 3 % of all palm species and a strong geographical bias towards the South American region and a taxonomic bias towards the tribe Cocoseae, caution should be exercised when making generalizations across the family.

Single-copy nuclear genes for palm phylogenetics

Single-copy nuclear genes for palm phylogenetics

Single-copy nuclear genes for palm phylogenetics

Molecular phylogenetic studies of palms (Arecaceae) have not yet provided a fully resolved phylogeny of the family. Ludeña et al. test the value of AGAMOUS 1 and PHYTOCHROME B genes as new nuclear markers to improve phylogenetic resolution in the family, using the subtribe Bactridinae as a case study. The results provide new insights into the intergeneric relationships within Bactridinae and the intrageneric structure of Astrocaryum, and the existence of a monophyletic group sister to Astrocayum, corresponding to the debated genus Hexopetion, is supported. The new markers thus provide additional phylogenetic information within the palm family, and should prove useful in combination with other genes to improve the resolution of palm phylogenies.

DNA barcoding: a new tool for palm taxonomists?

DNA barcoding: a new tool for palm taxonomists?

DNA barcoding: a new tool for palm taxonomists?

Although taxonomy of palms (Arecaceae) is fairly well known, many problems remain and this is, in part, due to the difficultly of representing palm diversity with herbarium specimens. For the first time in Arecaceae, Jeanson et al. test the ultility of DNA barcoding, examining 40 out of the 48 species of the south-east Asian tribe Caryoteae (subfamily Coryphoideae). The results show 92 % species’ discrimination, which is a high rate for a barcoding experiment. They find that the two recommended ‘core’ markers, rbcL and matK, have a low discrimination rate and need to be supplemented by another marker, with nrITS2 being the preferred choice for Caryoteae.

Environmental regulation of sex determination in oil palm (Review)

Environmental regulation of sex determination in oil palm (Review)

Environmental regulation of sex determination in oil palm (Review)

In the African oil palm, Elaeis guineensis, male and female inflorescences are produced separately in an alternating cycle that is influenced by the environment: stress conditions promote male flowering, but the underlying mechanisms of this process are unknown. Adam et al. review current knowledge of sex differentiation in oil palm together with perspectives gained from other species, and suggest that at least four different types of factor can be identified that might participate in sex determination and differentiation: abiotic factors (e.g. water stress), metabolic factors (e.g. carbon reserves), hormone status and genetic factors. They present a basic framework as a step towards understanding the interactions between the various parameters of importance in oil palm sex determination.

On our Scoop It between December 13th and December 20th

These are links from our Scoop It page between December 13th and December 20th:

BibliOdyssey: Liber Floridus

These images come from the fabled manuscript, 'Liber Floridus' (Book of Flowers), a Medieval encyclopædia produced some 900 years ago by Lambert, Canon of St Omer, in the NE France/Flanders/Belgium region.


From the always impressive BibliOdyssey site

A vegetable villain as you’ve never seen it before

Here's a little guessing game: what's the object? A sponge, perhaps, or a slice through a bone? Rock canyons on Mars? Foam loft insulation? An aerial view of a nightmarish labyrinth created by Jorge Luis Borges? None of the above. According to your point of view, it's either the flatulence-inducing arch villain of the Christmas dinner plate, or a delicious member of the Brassica family, packed with vitamin C.

Video animation: RNA interference : Nature News

A video explaining RNA interference from Nature Reviews Genetics.

RNA interference (RNAi) is an important pathway that is used in many different organisms to regulate gene expression. This animation introduces the principles of RNAi involving small interfering RNAs (siRNAs) and microRNAs (miRNAs). We take you on an audio-visual journey through the steps of gene expression and show you an up-to-date view of how RNAi can silence specific mRNAs in the cytoplasm. The Amazing Ultrastructure of Snowflakes

They say that no two snowflakes are alike. But all of them share one thing: They are beautiful at any level of magnification. The Electron and Confocal Microscopy Laboratory, Agricultural Research Service, U. S. Department of Agriculture, showcases tons of stunning EM images of snowflakes and snow crystals on their website. I have selected a few of my favourites, but their gallery is worth a visit or two.

Rodomiro Ortiz: uneven effects of climate change and its mitigation

Rodomiro Ortiz discusses the uneven effects of climate change and extreme weather, suggesting opportunities for mitigation with climate resistant crops, eco-efficiency, lower inputs and sustainable intensification.


(You will probably need to type in the above link. Notice to educational video producers: Please, under no circumstances use Vimeo which makes it almost impossible to put in links – Use YouTube)


Rodomiro was a recent guest blogger at

The botanist’s guide to the sexiest plants of the world – travel tips and articles – Lonely Planet

Plants can be sexy. Raise your eyebrows if you will, but to a plant lover, certain plants possess an undeniable allure. And plant-love can make you do crazy things, like scaling a muddy cliff to snap a photo of an extremely rare tropical flower or travelling to a remote corner of eastern Oregon to look for a fern the size of a postage stamp. Not that I know anyone who’s done those things.

A Starfish Flower in a Digital Botanic Garden

Still looking for a star for the top of your Yuletide tree? Why not try Stapelia variegata? There's nice photos on site, though you don't get its unique aroma.

The reason why buttercups glow

Plant scientists have discovered the real reason why buttercups glow yellow under people's chins. Researchers found that the flower's unique anatomical structure – used to attract pollinating insects – contributes to the popular children's trick. Researchers discovered that the buttercup petal's bright and glossy appearance is the result of the interplay between its different layers. The strong yellow reflection responsible for the chin illumination is mainly due to the epidermal layer of the petal that reflects yellow light with an intensity that is comparable to glass. The researchers also found that the buttercup reflects a significant amount of UV light. As many pollinators, including bees, have eyes sensitive in the UV region, this provides insight into how the buttercup uses its unique appearance to attract insects.

When plants may not help

Planting a tree is always a good thing, right? After all, trees provide natural beauty and wildlife habitat, and are good for the environment. But what if, instead of one tree, you’re planting a million trees? Or 10 million? Or 100 million? Such massive expansion of forest cover in North America and Eurasia — proposed by some analysts as a way to combat climate change — could have the surprising effect of altering the environment by increasing temperatures in some parts of the world, resulting in changes in rainfall patterns across the globe, Harvard researchers say.

“There are lots of reasons why planting trees is a good thing,” Abigail Swann says. “There are many local benefits. But when you think about it as a global-scale climate mitigation strategy … we need to think about what some of the side effects would be. We can’t plant our way out of the (climate) problem.”

School (degree?) subjects related to Careers in Technology, Engineering and Science

A helpful diagram to work out which subjects you need to take in your last years at secondary school to prepare for qualifications and careers in Technology, Engineering and Applied Sciences. Or use the diagrams to see where you could go with the subjects you’re currently studying.

I would like to use this approach for plant sciences and experimental biology – any of our readers interested in having a go for, with acknoweldgement to the New Zealand FutureInTech organization?

A Christmas Trilogy, Part 3: …and a peak at Christmas still to come?

Brussels sprouts  Image: Eric Hunt/Wikimedia Commons.

Brussels sprouts Image: Eric Hunt/Wikimedia Commons.

Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas in the Cuttings’ household without Brussels sprouts (which are traditionally eaten – usually reluctantly – on the 25th of December in the UK – but nobody I know knows why…). Sadly, I couldn’t find a festive sprout-related item. But I have one about the next best thing: broccoli.  Why is broccoli the next best thing to sprouts? Both are cultivars of the same plant species – Brassica oleracea (the good old cabbage). Furthermore, both of those cruciferous vegetables are very much ‘acquired tastes’ and frequently shunned by anybody under the age of about 35. But a new variety of broccoli – Beneforté – has been developed by a team at the UK’s Norwich-based Institute of Food Research and the John Innes Centre in which the level of glucoraphanin is 2–3 fold higher than in standard broccoli. Glucoraphanin is a phytonutrient that is thought to help explain the link between eating broccoli and lower rates of heart disease and some forms of cancer, and also leads to a boost in the body’s antioxidant enzyme levels. Glucoraphanin – upon enzymic transformation to sulforaphane – works by breaking fat down in the body, preventing it from clogging the arteries. Beneforté is now available in the food halls of certain Marks & Spencer stores in the UK – in plenty of time for this Christmas!, and due to be rolled out nationwide in 2012. Although Beneforté is probably not quite the ‘all your Christmases have come at once present’ that the sensationalist headline in the Sun newspaper – ‘Super broccoli to fight Big C’ (a euphemism for cancer – Ed.) – would have us believe, it certainly sounds like a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, the excitement surrounding this announcement is somewhat tempered by the revelation that this variety has been on sale in the US states of California and Texas ‘for the past year’! Why? Is the great British public not worthy enough of the health benefits of a UK-created vegetable? Or are the Americans being treated like human guinea pigs by their former colonial masters? These are questions that need to be asked, and answered!

Broccoli Image: Jon Sullivan/Wikimedia Commons

Broccoli Image: Jon Sullivan/Wikimedia Commons

But, in the true Christmas spirit of giving, and in a reciprocity that befits the true strength of the special bond that is the trans-Atlantic alliance (and with the goal of spreading more brassicaceous glad tidings), the USA’s Department of Agriculture (USDA) is no doubt pleased to share news that mineral levels in new varieties of broccoli have not declined in the last 35 years. Using ‘inductively coupled plasma–optical emission spectroscopy’ Mark Farnham and colleagues (Crop Science, 2011) examined 14 broccoli cultivars released in the USA during the last half-century. They concluded that, although there were cultivar differences in respect of several minerals, no significant differences had occurred since 1975, when hybrids became the standard cultivar and the vegetable grew in prominence as a component in the US diet. I have no information on the mineral content of the UK’s Super Broccoli, but such data may be superfluous, because, and in probably the year’s most spectacular PR-marketing faux-pas, we are assured that Beneforté ‘tastes just like the normal version’. Such an admission should guarantee that few people eat it given that the normal reaction is; ‘Broccoli? Yuk!’ – well, nobody under 35, anyway (but that is probably not the target demographic for any cancer-averting properties… and who may not have sufficient disposable income to shop at M&S, ‘a British retailer headquartered in the City of Westminster, London’).

Merry Christmas, Glæd Geol,¡Feliz Navidad!,Joyeux Noël, Nadolig llawen, A Blythe Yule, Beannachtaí na Nollag , God Jul, krismas mubarak, Fröhliche Weihnachten, Noflike Krystdagen, Noflike Krystdagen… etc, Everybody!

P. Cuttings [‘Google’s own’ Nigel Chaffey]


[In case you were wondering how Mr Cuttings had become so polyglot, his secret is out, he’s been to – Ed.]

Acervulate partial inflorescence in Chamaedoreeae

Acervulate partial inflorescence in Chamaedoreeae

Acervulate partial inflorescence in Chamaedoreeae

The palm tribe Chamaedoreeae displays flowers arranged in a complex partial inflorescence called an acervulus. Ortega-Chávez and Stauffer examine ontogeny in Hyophorbe lagenicaulis and show that the acervulus and the inflorescence rachilla form a condensed and cymose branching system resembling a coenosome. Syndesmy results from a combined process of rapid development and adnation, without or with reduced axis elongation. A study of the ten taxa of the Chamaedoreeae show that a more general definition of the type of partial inflorescence observed within the large subfamily Arecoideae would correspond to a cyme rather than to a floral triad.