Category Archives: Featured

Bananas and their future on BBC Radio 4 The Food Programme @BBCFoodProg

Six banana varieties and banana products bought in Leicester, UKSix banana varieties and banana products bought in Leicester, UK

Six banana varieties and banana products bought in Leicester, UK

Bananas are our favourite fruit: you can hear lots about them on BBC Radio 4 The Food Programme, produced by award-winning BBC producer Emma Weatherill  and presented by Sheila Dillon, a University of Leicester graduate. A short version will be broadcast at 12.30pm today Sunday 8th August on BBC Radio 4 and the long version will be on Monday at 3.30pm on BBC Radio 4. You can listen to it via the iPlayer from this page. And from Monday afternoon you will be able to download a podcast of the programme from here (which might be useful for those of you living outside the UK.) In this piece, I will show some pictures of the things I talked about and amplify some of the points discussed.

Eating a banana curry from a banana leaf plate.

Eating a banana curry from a banana leaf plate.

As consumers in the UK, we are largely familiar with only one variety of banana – Cavendish. Can you imagine if we only knew about one model of one make of car? There are more than 1200 banana varieties known, each with its own distinctive flavour and texture. We also know about only one use, as a sweet dessert banana – this may be versatile as we eat them fresh, on toast, sliced in our cereal or in banana custard, but much of the world uses cooked bananas as a savoury starch instead of potato, or eats fried chips and even fermented beer. For the Radio programme, I was able to find six contrasting varieties of banana from Belgrave Road in Leicester, as well as different types of chips. The varieties shown and probably talked about in the programme include the ubiquitous Cavendish and the much smaller and fatter AAB Silk or Figue Pomme and smaller Prata (both very popular in West Africa and Brasil). These are more citrus and apple flavours, with some dry starchy mouthfeel in Silk as well. We also had three larger fruits of plantains: one was sweet enough to eat fresh, the others would be cooked or deep-fried, with the largest one being popular in West and Central Africa, Latin America, Brasil, India and Philippines. The medium sized one is and East Africa cooking banana, eaten as matoke, a steamed and mashed dish served with nearly every meal.

Harvesting bananas: the whole fruit bunch weights about 30kg and has 10 to 20 hands that we typically buy.

Harvesting bananas: the whole fruit bunch weights about 30kg and has 10 to 20 hands that we typically buy.

Bananas hold a world record: they are the world’s largest herbaceous plant, with many being 5 m or 15 feet tall. They are not trees since they do not have a trunk or produce wood – the stem (‘pseudo-stem’) is actually mostly made up of leaf bases, like a grass. After flowering and producing the fruit, which takes 9 to 12 months, the stem is cut back, and another side-sucker allowed to grow to produce the next generation. After 2 to 8 crops, the plants are replaced typically with new, disease free plants. We do occasionally see banana plants, and their close relatives Canna, as ornamentals, but the leaves have other uses as plates for food or as building materials. Wild bananas have seeds, but most of the cultivated types are sterile.

A wild diploid banana with large seeds surrounded by only a little pulp. Most cultivated bananas are triploid and sterile.A wild diploid banana with large seeds surrounded by only a little pulp. Most cultivated bananas are triploid and sterile.

A wild diploid banana with large seeds surrounded by only a little pulp. Most cultivated bananas are triploid and sterile. without seeds (although unusually, the fruits still develop in the absence of the seeds).

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Proteaceae, Banksia, Macadamia nuts and the Annals of Botany Cover

Leucospermum flowers in the family Proteaceae on the cover of Annals of Botany

Leucospermum flowers in the family Proteaceae on the cover of Annals of Botany

Our videoblog discusses plants in the family Proteaceae, a well-known Southern hemisphere family with many beautiful and well-known representatives in Africa and Australia. The striking red flowers of the genus Leucospermum, from South Africa feature on the cover of the Annals of Botany for this year. Banksia is a well-known Australian genus, the bottle brush flowers, with attractive flowers and remarkable cone-like fruits. Protea, the type genus for the family, is from South Africa; the name of both genus and family is apposite, being named after the Greek God Proteus who was very variable in his form. Interestingly, there are no important food crops originating from Australia, despite its large area and range of climatic zones, and the now world-wide importance of Eucalyptus as a tree for construction timbers and paper-making fibre. In the family Proteaceae, Macadamia is the most internationally-significant food plant of any Australian native species; it’s very fat-rich nuts (75%) are widely available and much appreciated.



The videoblog is on YouTube:

Functional Structural Plant Modelling to return to Finland

Functional Structural Plant Modelling image

Plants have always attracted human interest as evolving structures, Leonardo da Vinci’s studies on trees as an early example. Today not only intellectual curiosity but also increasing pressures on vegetation management (e.g. food security, biodiversity conservation, and control of global green house gas cycles) call for integrating all aspects of plants into models.

Leonardo considered that trees fork like river systems. He obviously had an idea about compatibility and unity of functional and structural characteristics of trees. Since his time plant morphology, anatomy, physiology and from the late 19th century plant ecology have developed as independent branches of plant science. From mid 20th century a whole plant physiology that tries to grasp a plant as one integrated entity has emerged. The evolution of systems approach and computer simulation techniques have facilitated this development.

An example of the progress made in the 1960’s is the book “Prediction and measurement of photosynthetic productivity” (Centre for Agricultural Publishing and Documentation, Wageningen, 1970). It deals both with the functional and structural aspects of development of plants and plant communities. Simulation models that stemmed out from this tradition have been called process-based models. They commonly consider physiological processes and give a detailed account of metabolism and plant growth in terms of mass variables. The architectural structure of plants has usually been described in a less detailed manner and in a model-specific way.

Further developments, the Lindenmayer systems as the most prominent example, have led to a possibility to deal with the structural part of plant development in a systematic and concise manner. In the late 1980s a new plant modeling paradigm started to develop that attempts to describe explicitly the structural development of plants. It increases the capabilities to study the interaction of plant structure and physiology. It allows to approach the problem of plant development as a complex interaction of environment, physiology and developmental processes at different spatial and temporal scales.

In 1996, a few modelling groups gathered in Finland to discuss advances in integrative plant models. Since this small start the Functional Structural Plant Model (FSPM) meetings have expanded to cover a great diversity of integrative plant models, combining plant architecture, molecular genetics, plant physiology, and environmental influences with computer science and mathematics. The next meeting will be held 9-14th June 2013 again in Finland (Saariselkä, Finnish Lapland).

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Plant Growth Modelling coverOne of the most recent publications in the Annals of Botany is Contributions of leaf photosynthetic capacity, leaf angle and self-shading to the maximization of net photosynthesis in Acer saccharum: a modelling assessment by Posada et al. You’ll need a subscription to read this latest research. Our special issue specifically on Functional-Structural Plant Modelling is also subscription only till November. A couple of papers from the issue do have free access, including this one on the science behind the iPad app TreeSketch (TreeSketch is free on iTunes). However, last year’s special issue on Plant Growth Modelling, which has some relevant papers, has recently become available with Free Access.

The Enormous Influence of Microscopic Marine Plants


Diatoms by Randolph Femmer / USGS Library of Images From Life via pali_nalu@Flickr

Many phytoplankton share a common feature with their larger non-aquatic cousins, the land plants: chloroplasts. Therefore they are also united in their ability to photosynthesize and their environmental requirement of sunlight. Phytoplankton occupy the surface waters of our oceans where sunlight can penetrate. They account for more photosynthesis, carbon dioxide fixation and oxygen production than all the worlds rainforests combined. As the primary producers of the oceans they provide the basis of the oceanic food chain and have contributed to the evolution of the largest living creatures on earth. Phytoplankton feed zooplankton and these minute organisms in their billions make up the diets of hundred ton whales, alongside other filter feeders. Many predatory fish such as mackerel and tuna feed upon these filter feeders, which we humans in turn enjoy.

The range of darks blues, bright turquoise hues to deep greens of the world’s oceans is attributable to the range of different compositions of microscopic algae populating different regions. This is also true when more unusual areas of colour such as pinks and reds appear – a result of algal blooms. This spectrum of colours is due to the variety of photosynthetic pigments present in the microscopic organisms. Despite their beauty, not all of these blooms are beneficial to life. Some produce toxic compounds that in high concentrations can exert harmful effects on both the marine and coastal life. For example Karenia brevis secretes neurotoxins potent enough to lead to fatalities of marine life and birds which feed upon them. However algal blooms need not produce toxins to be fatal. Unusually large numbers of phytoplankton in an area can tip the balance from providing vast quantities of food for feeding marine life to producing a fatal depletion of oxygen.

Stirring Up a Bloom off Patagonia by NASA Goddard Photo and Video

Prior to seeing these organisms at higher magnifications it is too easy to instinctively imagine the constituent parts of algal blooms as relatively undifferentiated globular organic material. The reality of their cellular architecture couldn’t be further from this depiction. Magnified several hundred times the intricate structure of individual unicellular plants is revealed to be highly structured, some with crystalline characteristics reminiscent of snowflakes drifting in the water. Upon first glance at a collection of micrographs, the diversity and complexity between species appears potentially infinite in their highly differentiated conformations. This is just one example of how in nature the closer you look, the more intricate organization presents itself in surprising forms.


Diatoms by Randolph Femmer / USGS Library of Images From Life via pali_nalu@Flickr. Licenced under a Creative Commons BY-NC licence.
Stirring Up a Bloom off Patagonia by NASA Goddard Photo and Video. Licenced under a Creative Commons BY licence.

New Special Issue: Plant Mating Systems

We have a new special issue out on Plant Mating Systems, with a couple of free access posts. Gynodioecy to dioecy: are we there yet? by Rachel B. Spigler and Tia-Lynn Ashman is a review of the evolution of sexes and sexual strategies in plants. The natural history of pollination and mating in bird-pollinated Babiana (Iridaceae), by de Waal, Anderson and Barrett remains free access, as is Karron et al’s introduction to the issue.

You can access the journal at our site, and there are summaries of the papers on what will be our expanding Special Issues section of the blog.

Roses are red – but they don’t need to be, if you know how to use food dyes and Fibonacci

A rainbow rose

A rainbow rose. Photo by Ryan Amos

Valentine’s Day is here and unless you share the cynics’ view that this is a holiday invented by the flower industry, you might set off to buy a bunch of flowers for your other half on the day. Next time, why not do something completely different this year and create your own unique flowers?

The procedure is very simple (but requires planning ahead!). You will need white flowers and water stained with food colouring. Cut off the flower stems at an angle and leave them in a glass with the dyed water to soak up the fluid over night.

If you are a botany ninja and up for a serious challenge, have a go at creating a rainbow rose. Peter van de Werken (‘River Flowers‘) developed the technique based on his knowledge about plant phyllotaxy. Rose petals are arranged in a  Fibonacci spiral. This means that petal number one and six will be on the same vertical imaginary line. When you cut the stem vertically into four equal parts and transfer each end into a different glass with coloured water, the petals will take up the dye depending on their position in the spiral. Pretty, isn’t it?

“Rainbow Rose” reference: António A. Monteiro, Roberto Lopez and Jules Janick. “Gilding the Lilies: Rainbow Roses and Confetti Poinsettias“. Chronica Horticulturae – Volume 48, Number 1, 2008. 

Photo: Rainbow Rose by Ryan Amos. Licenced under a Creative Commons BY-SA licence.

Palm Harvest Impacts in tropical Forests

Palms may be the most useful group of plants in tropical American forests and in this project we study the effect of extraction and trade of palms on forests in the western Amazon, Andes, and Pacific lowlands of South America. In 2008 the European Community’s 7th Framework programme signed a contract with six European and four South American universities and research institutions to execute a multidisciplinary research project concerning the effects of extraction of palm products from tropical rainforests with the aim of providing scientific bases for the implementation of sustainable management and harvesting procedures.

Children and fruit

Palms are a vital economic resource in many countries. See more images at our Facebook or Google Plus pages.

We determine the size of the resource by making palm community studies in the different forest formations and determine the number of species and individuals of all palm species. The genetic structure of useful palm species is studied to determine how much harvesting of the species contributes to genetic erosion of their populations, and whether extraction can be made without harm. We determine how much palms are used for subsistence purposes by carrying out quantitative, ethno-botanical research in different forest types and we also study trade patterns for palm products from local markets to markets that involve export to other countries and continents. We study different ways of palm management and we propose sustainable methods to local farmers, governments, NGOs and other interested parties. Finally we study national level mechanisms that govern extraction, trade and commercialization of palm products, to identify positive and negative policies in relation to resilience of ecosystems and use this to propose sustainable policies to the governments. The results are disseminated in a variety of ways, depending on need and stake holders, from popular leaflets and videos for farmers, reports for policy makers to scientific publications for the research community. The team behind the proposal represents 10 universities and research institutions in Europe and northwestern South America (Aarhus and Copenhagen universities in Denmark, Universtät Bonn in Germany, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid in Spain, Institut de Recherche pour le Developpment in France, Kew Gardens in the UK, Universidad Nacional, Bogotá in Colombia, Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador, Univarsidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos in Peru, and Universidad Mayor de San Andres in Bolivia).

During the first three years of the project its various activities has produced a large amount of information and many papers (popular and scientific) have been published. The great challenge that remains is to bring together all this information in a synergistic conclusion, which is the challenge over the next two years (2012–2013). It is also a great challenge to the project to incorporate the results of other research. In this respect the special issue of the Annals of Botany that appeared towards the end of 2011 is of great inspiration. The focus of that issue is much more on genetic manipulation and developmental biology than the research of our PALMS project, which is more oriented to the ecology and socioeconomics of palm uses. We are convinced that this special issue of the Annals of Botany will contribute to more synergy between palm researchers in different disciplines, and we believe this will place the results of our project in a more forceful context.

Guest post by Dennis Pedersen. You can read more about the project at