Ethnobotany of Oregon Wildflowers

As many of you may know at this point, Aaron Anderson and Jen Hayes are conducting some amazing research regarding Oregon native plants and their pollinator attractiveness. If you haven’t had the chance to read about their research yet, check out Aaron’s here and Jens here. While those two are producing data to determine the ecological benefits derived from some of our wildflowers, I chose to go down a more selfish route and see what our native plants can do for me. . .forget the bees. Below I have compiled a list of ethnobotanical uses for 6 of the 23 Willamette Valley wildflowers included in Aarons research – California Poppy, Camas, Pearly Everlasting, Oregon Iris, Western Red Columbine, and Goldenrod (my favorite). 

Before you read any further, be aware that I am not an expert in wildcraft, ethnobotany, or herbalism. Never ingest the parts of any plant without being absolutely sure of its effects on the human body. Think of this more as a jumping-off point for your own research rather than any sort of guide or expert recommendation. 

California Poppy – Escholzia californica

Courtesy of Decker Seeds

The California Poppy – the ubiquitous orange herald of summer can do significantly more for you than just adding a pop of color to your yard or garden. E. californica can also be used as a medicine or candy! The flower itself is high in carotenoids and slightly sweet, the whole thing can be eaten raw as a candy-like treat. The ground roots and sap of the plant can be made into tinctures or infusions and be taken as a sedative, pain reliever, and muscle relaxer. California Poppy has been used by herbal practitioners as a “safe and gentle sedative for hyperactive children”. Maybe because they had too much poppy candy earlier in the day.

CamasCamassia leichtlinii:  

Courtesy of Euro Bulb
Courtesy of Honest Food

Camas is perhaps one of the best known plants on this list for its very popular edible bulb. The bulb is the most useful part of the plant and can be prepared in a few different ways. The two most popular are roasting and steaming. The roasted bulb gives off a flavor similar to a potato with a little hint of sweetness. Frying or mashing the bulb after the roasting are also common options to expand the flavor. Steaming camas bulbs is another popular practice which results in a food not unlike an onion. They are gelatinous and rich in complex carbohydrates, a fully browned camas bulb is just as delicious as any caramelized onion. 

Pearly EverlastingAnaphalis margaritacea

Courtesy of Southern Living

Pearly Everlasting, a sweet little flower that has always reminded me a bit of a brilliant white star with a bright yellow center. These little flowers could also be a star of your ethnobotanical handbook considering how useful they are! The slender green leaves can be eaten as a normal green once they have been cooked a bit, perhaps by way of steaming or sautéing. A. margaritacea also offers a whole pallet of dyes all from one plant, depending on the concentration of each, it can provide shades of yellow, green, and brown. Pearly Everlasting can be employed as treatment for a whole range of ailments. The whole plant is filled with metabolites which can act as an anodyne, antiseptic, and sedative. Internally, it can also be used to treat diarrhea, dysentery, and some pulmonary affiliations. Externally, a poultice of the whole plant can be used to alleviate pain from burns, sores, ulcers, and bruises. 

Oregon IrisIris tenax:

Courtesy of Katen Fahey
Courtesy of Mt. Pisgah Arboretum

Oregon Iris is well known and celebrated for its floral beauty, but its grass-like leaves are often overlooked despite their usefulness. The long and immensely durable leaves can be used to make ropes or baskets. The 19th century botanist David Douglas once described Iris tenax’s leaves as “. . .in point of strength it will hold the strongest bullock and is not thicker than the little finger”. Like any craft, basket-weaving requires practice and learning, however the unique texture and color of the leaves are bound to make the product stand out among the rest. 

Courtesy of East Tennessee Wildflowers

Western Red ColumbineAquilegia formosa

The number of uses associated with Aquilegia formosa practically matches the number of bright red petals surrounding its cascading stamens. In terms of edibility, Western Red Columbine boasts edible leaves when boiled and a sweet nectary treat from the flowers themselves, but you have to share with the hummingbirds. Medicinally, treatments can be found from the roots, seeds, and leaves. The mashed roots can be used to relieve aching pains, for diarrhea, to counteract dizziness, and stomachaches. The chewed leaves can be used to alleviate sore throats and calm and upset stomach. Finally, a paste made from mashed seeds can be applied to the scalp to kill lice! 

Goldenrod Solidago canadensis:

Courtesy of USDA Plant Guide

Although sometimes considered cumbersome due to its amazing ability to spread, Goldenrod is one of the Pacific Northwest’s most diversely useful plants. It offers medicinal properties from its internal metabolites, edible roots and seeds, and of course Goldenrod’s signature pigmentation can be harnessed for dying. Infusions made from the flowers can offer relief from a variety of ailments, fever, flu, diarrhea, and sore throats are just some. Roots are commonly eaten smoked and seeds can be eaten roasted or raw. Finally, the flowers can bring a beautiful golden hue to any natural fiber that needs dying, just with a simple soak in warm water.

Further reading – 

California Poppy: 

https://plants.usda.gov/plantguide/pdf/pg_esca2.pdf

https://ethnobotany.csusm.edu/search_details.php?plant_id=9

Camas:

http://naeb.brit.org/uses/species/699/ http://arcadianabe.blogspot.com/2012/06/how-to-cook-camas.html

https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_PLANTMATERIALS/publications/orpmcpg13213.pdf

https://honest-food.net/cooking-blue-camas/

Pearly Everlasting: 

https://practicalplants.org/wiki/Anaphalis_margaritacea

Oregon Iris: 

https://www.mountpisgaharboretum.com/habitats-and-ecology/plant-list-at-mount-pisgah-arboretum/iris-tenax/

http://naeb.brit.org/uses/18060/

Western Red Columbine: 

http://naeb.brit.org/uses/species/303/

https://www.sutrostewards.org/single-post/2017/07/25/Columbine-A-Flower-of-Meanings

Goldenrod: 

http://naeb.brit.org/uses/species/3734/

https://plants.usda.gov/plantguide/pdf/pg_soca6.pdf

Posted in Native Plants | Tagged | Leave a comment

Does Repeated, Lethal Sampling Contribute to Insect Declines?

Over the past few months, I have shared data on bees and other insects that we have collected from Portland-area gardens. For every garden insect we study (except for butterflies, which can be identified to species by sight), we use lethal collection methods. This is because most insects can only be identified to species after close examination under the microscope. In fact, some insects require dissection before we can get them to species.

Bombus sitkensis male, with abdomen dissected, in order to make a species-level identification.

It seems odd that we kill bees in order to help understand how we can build gardens that can help to conserve bees. By collecting and killing bees and other insects, what role were we playing in promoting insect decline? How do projects, such as our own as well as the Oregon Bee Atlas, factor into bee declines?

That’s an excellent question, and one that we often ask ourselves. When we collect bees, we work to make sure that we are not needlessly causing harm. For example, our pan traps are good for collecting small bees, but are not good at collecting larger bees, including reproductive queens. When we hand-collect bees, we avoid taking queen bees. In fact, of the 2,716 bees that we collected in 2017-2019, only three were queens. We limited our sampling frequency to three times per year, and limited our sampling effort to 10 minutes of hand-collecting time and six pan traps, per garden. Even with these precautions, we are still faced with the question: does our research, or the research of others who collect and kill insects, harm the very species we are trying to conserve?

Water pan traps, used to collect garden bees and other small, flying insects. Insects are attracted to the color. When they land in the soapy water, they break the surface tension, drown, and die.

To address this question, I turn to the scientific literature. Gezon and colleagues set up an experiment to see whether lethal sampling for bees using pan traps and netting (the same methods we use in our research) has negative effects on bee abundance or bee diversity. For five years, they sampled nine sites every two weeks during the flowering season. They compared bee abundance and bee diversity in these repeatedly-sampled sites, to metrics from 17 comparable sites that were only sampled once. They found no significant difference in bee capture rate, bee species richness, or bee abundance between sites that were sampled repeatedly versus those that were sampled once. When they partitioned bees according to nesting habit (e.g. cavity, soil, wood, etc.), social structure (e.g. eusocial or not), and body size (e.g. small, medium, and large bees) they also found no significant differences in bee capture rates of single-sample versus repeat-sampled sites. They did catch more pollen specialists in repeated-sample sites than in single sample sites. However, the magnitude of the effect was relatively small, and did not represent a large change in catch rate between single-sample versus repeat-sampled sites. I suspect that the authors caught more pollen specialists at their repeat-sampled sites, because pollen specialists are fairly rare in time and in space. They drastically increased their odds of intercepting a pollen specialist on their repeatedly-sampled sites.

Gezon and colleagues suggest a few hypotheses that could explain why increased sampling effort had no significant effect on bee abundance or diversity. First, they suggest that reducing bee populations by sampling could benefit the bees that remain, by reducing competition for limited resources. If this is the case, bee populations can compensate for some losses due to sampling, by increasing reproduction in the bees that remain behind. Second, they note that if bees were sampled after they have mated and laid eggs, the overall impact of removing a bee from via sampling will be fairly small. Finally, they note that most bees are solitary, and that most solitary bees have short flight seasons. In this case, sampling every two weeks may not result in bee declines, if researchers are effectively collecting a new species during each sampling event.

I can breathe a bit easier. The data suggests that our research is not immediately responsible for documented bee declines. Still, I know that I can personally do more to help protect bees in my own garden. Even though our lab group studies native plants, I have not yet planted Aster subspicatus (Douglas’ Aster) in my own garden. This will be my mission for 2020: to find and plant this gorgeous perennial at home. In 2018 and 2019, it bloomed from mid June through mid November at our study plots in Aurora, OR, with peak bloom (75% or more of the plant in bloom) lasting one month! And, from 2017-2019, it was always a top five plant for native bee abundance. I give this Pacific Northwest native plant my highest recommendation for home gardens! There are plants that attract more native bees, such as Phacelia heterophylla. But, no other plant that we studied offers the triple threat of beauty, bees, and longevity.

Douglas’ aster (Aster subspicatus) is currently my favorite garden plant for bees.
Posted in bees, science | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

What Exactly is “Garden” Ecology?

In the Garden Ecology Lab, researchers are studying specific pieces of the garden ecology puzzle, including soil nutrient levels, pollinators, and native plants. But what exactly is “garden ecology”, and why is studying it important?

Let’s start by defining our terms. If you hear the word “garden”, some pretty specific pictures may come to mind, but it is really a very broad term, encompassing anything from pots on a patio to acres of arboretum. A garden is by definition a human-influenced system involving plants, but there are many human-influenced landscapes that are not considered gardens, such as agricultural fields (though gardens may grow food), golf courses (though a garden could include a putting green), tree farms (though many gardens have trees), and parks (though ornamental plants may grow in parks).

Urban vegetable garden

Brittanica defines a garden as a “Plot of ground where herbs, fruits, flowers, vegetables, or trees are cultivated.”  This suggests that the keys are variety and control. A garden is typically composed of a variety of different plants and types of spaces…not unlike a natural ecosystem! In addition, there is the element of control (cultivation). Human choice and aesthetic sensibilities strongly influence what plants grow in a garden. Even a very naturalistic garden has some human-imposed order in it, or it wouldn’t be a garden.

Naturalistic urban garden

Now we get to “ecology”. Ecology is a relatively new natural science, with beginnings in the early 1900’s, when scientists in Europe and the U.S. began to study plant communities. At first animal and plant communities were studied separately, but eventually American biologists began to emphasize the interrelatedness of both communities.1

The word Ecology (originally oekologie) comes from the Greek oikos, meaning “household,” “home,” or “place to live”, so ecology is the study of the relations and interactions between organisms and their environment – the place they live.  Brittanica further clarifies that “These interactions between individuals, between populations, and between organisms and their environment form ecological systems, or ecosystems.”

The study of ecology most often takes place in natural, or near-natural, areas, such as a forest, meadow or mountain. Ecologists study these wilderness environments, searching for guidance on how to restore degraded ones. This reinforces the common concept of nature as being “out there”, far away from where most people live.

Urban ecology studies parks, greenbelts, and forest preserves – the large, public green spaces of a city. But garden ecology? Can something as small as most gardens have an ecology at all? And why should we care?

Well, if you have a garden, and spend much time caring for it, then you are a part of the ecology of that place. Every person who manages a plot of land, however small, is part of the ecology of that land, and all of them together, along with the other people and parts of a city, form the ecology of that city. What is done on those small plots, what grows and lives (or doesn’t) on each one, multiplied by hundreds or thousands or hundreds of thousands of individual plots, has the potential to influence the ecosystem – and the health – of the entire city.

The deeply-entrenched American reverence for lawns means that, at present, the relatively barren landscape of manicured, often chemical-soaked turf is the dominant ecosystem in most cities. Ecologically speaking, such sites don’t contribute much to the local ecosystem.

But that is changing, as more people become aware that a diverse, densely-planted landscape can support a diverse cast of fauna and provide many ecosystem services, including carbon sequestration. This enriches the local ecosystem immeasurably. If this stewardship ethic can be multiplied by even a fraction of the yards in a city, we will begin to see that “garden ecology” is another name for OUR ecology. It is the interrelationship of we humans to the plants and animals, stones and streams, among which we make our homes. It is part of understanding that nature is not just far away, in pristine wilderness. Nature is right here, sipping nectar from your flowers, nesting in your trees, burrowing under your feet and buzzing past your nose.

1https://www.britannica.com/science/ecology

Posted in garden ecology | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Sharing my Story – Angelee Calder

STEM Leaders Program Professional Head shot

Hello Blog Readers!

I am writing here to share my story! Possibly also to toot my horn a bit. I am extremely proud of what I have been up to lately!

In the Lab…

Me Presenting my Lab Poster at the STEM Leaders Symposium

I joined this lab through the STEM Leaders program. They connected me to the Urban Ecology lab where I started work in January 2019. January 2020, I presented a research poster at the STEM Leaders Symposium on Professor Gail Langellotto’s and Aaron Anderson’s research projects, as well as my role in them. My role is, primarily, to provide support to the Lab’s research projects. My tasks included things like cleaning, data basing, and pinning bees. I also provided help in the field by weeding plants, observing pollinators, and collecting specimens. The research projects I contributed to are amazing and I am proud of the work I have done. I am very thankful for knowledge and skills I have gained along the way. As a result of these skills, I have been able to be successful in school and my other opportunities.

Starting at Oregon State University…

When I transferred to Oregon State University (OSU) from Southwestern Oregon Community College, I knew that I wanted to participate in research. I had no idea where to begin. After earning a spot in the program, STEM Leaders provided me with the tools I needed to be successful in a lab. They then connected me with Gail Langellotto, my first choice in labs. Since starting work, I have gained a new passion for urban ecology and pollinators. I have also learned many skills that will directly translate to, and benefit me, in my journey to a possible master’s degree and my future career.

In my time at OSU, I have been presented with many opportunities. Originally, I was concerned about finding a community here at OSU. I am from the small town of Baker City, Oregon. The biggest town I had lived in, before Corvallis, was Coos Bay, Oregon.  Since my first term, I have been participating in TRIO (student support services), STEM Leader’s, and the Organic Grower’s Club. These programs have provided me with a wide range of support and connections.

Current Events…

From Left to Right: Javier Nieto – Dean of OSU College of Public Health, Allison Myers – Director, OSU Center for Health Innovation, Me – Angelee Calder, Jock Mills – OSU Director of Government Relations

Recently, I have been involved with the OSU Human Resource Service Center’s Advisory Board and the Presidential Student Legislative Advocacy program (PSLA). PSLA is a non-credit course aimed to reach students who want to be advocates for Oregon State University. They work to teach and engage students in policy issues related to our interests. Through this class, I was able to advocate for the program “Coast to Forest”, from OSU’s College of Public Health. This program aims to reduce mental health issues and opioid addiction in four rural counties across Oregon, including Baker County. I was able to advocate for this much-needed program by giving an invited personal testimony to the Oregon Senate Committee on Public Health. This was my first time participating in the public process. For that reason, I was encouraged to pursue an internship at the State Capitol.

Me Sitting at Governor Kate Brown’s Desk with
Senator Arnie Roblan

Later, I earned an internship position at the State Capitol. I am now an intern in State Representative Caddy Mckeown’s office during my final winter term here at OSU. As a first generation, low income, and Agricultural Science student, I never thought that I would have the opportunity to learn about the legislative process first-hand by doing office work in a Representative’s office. I am extremely thankful for this opportunity as I have already learned a lot and have made many new connections. I am looking forward to learning more as we progress through the 2020 legislative short session. Similarly, I am extremely excited for my other upcoming events.

Future Events…

Me Walking and Talking with Representative Caddy Mckeown to a Speaking Event

Next term, my final term at OSU, I will embark on my biggest journey yet! I earned a full time internship at the Monteverde Institute in Costa Rica! This is a huge leap for me! I have never left the country, have hardly left the Pacific Northwest, and have never travelled alone. I could not be any more excited! Here, I will be working with the local farmers to develop farm designs and do soil analysis. I will work to advance the Monteverde Institute’s goal to advancing sustainability on a global level. Additionally, I have the opportunity to design a local pollinator garden at the local elementary school and educate the children on it! In this way, I will be bringing a bit of the Garden Ecology Lab to Costa Rica with me!

Finally, my graduation will be in June 2020, after I return from my 2.5-month internship in Costa Rica. I will have earned a major in Agricultural Science and a minor in Comparative International Agriculture. My time here at Oregon State has been short, yet very fruitful. It is sad to see my educational journey end. I will be eternally grateful to all the people I have met along the way. I would not have made it where I am without their guidance and help. They will not ever know how truly grateful I am and how impactful their presence has been in my life. Thank you, Gail Langellotto for your leadership, knowledge, and the opportunities you have given me!  

I will be blogging from Costa Rica. If you would like to follow this, or learn a bit more about me you can find my personal website at the link below.

https://angeleecalder.weebly.com/

Posted in Lab News | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

A Primer on Parasitoids

You know about butterflies, about bees, beetles, and ladybugs, all of our favorite garden critters – but do you know about the parasitic wasp? Alias: The Parasitoid. Not quite a parasite and not quite a predator, they are the zombie-creating hymenopterans that make your garden their home and hunting ground. Unlike a true parasite, the parasitoid will eventually kill its host, but unlike a true predator, there is a gap between parasitism and host death. The Parasitoid is truly one of a kind, but with thousands of species in over 40 families, there are many of that kind. They prey by laying their eggs in or on the bodies and eggs of other arthropods, growing, aging, and getting stronger as their unknowing host provides their executioner food and shelter until the parasitoid is ready to attack. 

A Trissolcus japonicus parasitoid wasp lays eggs inside brown marmorated stink bug eggs at the USDA-APHIS Quarantine Facility in Corvallis, Oregon. Photo courtesy of Christopher Hedstrom
Parasitoid laying eggs in stink bug eggs. Photo Courtesy of Christopher Hedstrom

 As menacing as their way of life may seem, parasitic wasps are actually one of the most effective biological pest control agents available to home gardeners, and can be an excellent indicator of habitat health for ecologists. As biocontrol agents, parasitoids can effectively manage a very wide variety of pests from aphids and sawflies to weevils and mites, along with many more. They occur naturally if their hosts/prey and habitable conditions are present and it costs little to nothing to maintain their populations. If pest outbreaks are not completely out of control and the site is habitable, parasitoids can safely, easily, cost-effectively, and naturally bring pest populations below economic injury thresholds. Know any pesticides that check all those boxes? In terms of habitat health, parasitoids can drive biodiversity and positively influence ecosystem functions. As such, their diversity and abundance can act as an indicator for the overall health and functionality of an ecosystem – such as your home garden. 

Is it starting to seem like parasitic wasps could be an area of research for say. . .a garden

A Parasitoid collected from a Portland Garden in 2017 during the Garden Pollinator study

ecology lab? Certainly seems like that to me. That’s why this upcoming year I will be taking on an undergraduate research project to assess the parasitoid populations present in the Portland home gardens Gail and I have collected bees from for the last 3 years. Thanks to our sampling methods, we already have lots of parasitoid data to perform this analysis with, so there won’t be any more soapy bowls in your gardens this summer. This is the first of hopefully many blog posts that will accompany this research, so stay tuned as the year progresses to learn more about your new flying friends!

Further Reading and References: 

https://www.cell.com/trends/ecology-evolution/comments/S0169-5347(06)00152-2

http://publications.gc.ca/collections/collection_2015/aac-aafc/A59-23-2015-eng.pdf

http://ipm.ucanr.edu/PMG/PESTNOTES/pn74140.html

Video showing some parasitoid activity:

Posted in Beneficial Insects, garden ecology, science | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Setting up a native-nativar plant study

Natives vs Nativars Recent studies report an increase in consumer demand for native plants, largely due to their benefits to bees and other pollinators. This interest has provided the nursery industry with an interesting labelling opportunity. If you walk into a large garden center, you find many plant pots labelled as “native” or “pollinator friendly”. Some of these plants include cultivated varieties of wild native plant species, called “nativars”. While many studies confirm the value of native plants to pollinators, we do not yet understand if nativars provide the same resources to their visitors.

Echinacea purpurea

Photo Source: Moxfyre – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

E. purpurea ‘Maxima’

Photo Source: Ulf Eliasson – Own work, CC BY 2.5,

E. purpurea ‘Secret Passion’

Photo source: National Guarden Bureau

An Echinacea Example Above are three purple cone flower (Echinacea purpurea) plants: on the top is the wild type, in the middle is a nativar ‘Maxima’, and on the bottom is another nativar ‘Secret Passion’. In some cases, like ‘Secret Passion’s double flower, there is an obvious difference between a nativar and a wild type that might make it less attractive to insect visitors. Since we can’t see the disc flowers (the tiny flowers in the center of daisy family plants), we might assume that ‘Secret Passion’ may be more difficult for pollinators to visit. The floral traits displayed by ‘Maxima’ seem similar to the wild type, but it might produce less pollen or nectar, causing bees to pass over it.

Unless we actually observe pollinator visitation and measure floral traits and nectar, we can’t assume that natives and nativars are equal in their value to pollinators.

Nativar Research One study looking at the difference between native species and their nativar counterparts has come out of the University of Vermont (my alma mater!). A citizen science effort started by the Chicago Botanic Garden is also currently ongoing. My Master’s thesis will be the first to use a sample of plants specific to the Pacific Northwest. We have selected 8 plants that are native to Oregon’s Willamette Valley and had 1-2 nativars available. These plants have shown a range of attractiveness to pollinators (low, medium, or high) based on Aaron’s research. We are including plants with low attractiveness because it’s possible that a nativar may have a characteristic that makes it more attractive, such as a larger flower or higher nectar content.

This example of a Randomized Complete Block design shows 2 garden beds containing a native species (California Poppy and Camas) and their nativar pairs (a yellow poppy nativar and a white Camas nativar).

Experimental Design We have four garden beds in our study, and each bed contains at least one planting of each native species and their nativar counterpart(s). This kind of design is called a “Randomized Complete Block” (RCB). The RCB has two main components: “blocks”, which in our case are garden beds, and “treatments”, which are our different plant species. Above I have drawn a simplified RCB using two of our plants: Camas and California poppy. The bamboo stakes outline each plot and have attached metal tags that label the plants.

We planted our seeds and bulbs in November and will plant out 4″ starts of the other plants in early Spring. Look out for my spring and summer updates to see how these plots progress from mulch and bamboo stakes to four garden beds full of flowers and buzzing insects!

Reference articles: https://www.asla.org/NewsReleaseDetails.aspx?id=53135 http://www.gardenmediagroup.com/garden-media-releases-2019-garden-trends-report

Posted in Beneficial Insects, Lab News, Native Plants, science | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

What Does Permaculture Mean to You?

This week’s post comes from Mericos Rhodes, who is a MAIS student at Oregon State University. His M.A. studies combine the fields of Horticulture, Food in Culture and Social Justice, and Public Policy Mericos’s capstone thesis will be comparing the history, practices, philosophies, available research funding, and scientific basis of four agricultural approaches: biodynamic, permaculture, organic, and regenerative farming. Mericos is a farmer, himself. He’s also a deep thinker and eloquent speaker and writer. We think about farming in two very different ways: I am more of a scientist and he is a practioner and an artist. I look forward to our conversations, because I always broaden my perspective after talking with Mericos. He’s truly been a delight to have in the lab. (-Gail-)

******************************************************

What does the word ‘permaculture’ mean, to you? 

Maybe ‘permaculture’ brings to mind an herb spiral, with rosemary, thyme, and some basil crowning it in summer. Or you may envision intricate systems of swales, which slow down and carry water to ridgelines. Maybe it’s as simple as letting ducks into an orchard. Or maybe ‘permaculture’ means nothing to you, at all!

Permaculture spiral in progress. Photo by James Keller. https://www.flickr.com/photos/semaphoria/2468761366 Creative Commons license.

Well, permaculture is most definitely a thing. Yet it’s a slippery thing, a concept full of emergent behaviors and biodiverse adaptation, unsuited to singular, rigid definition. Permaculture has been growing “from the bottom up,” and its distributed growth takes as many forms as there are watersheds on this planet. Indeed, one of the difficulties of defining permaculture is due to its fundamental principle that no particular crops, tools, or techniques are universally beneficial, for land management and food production. Learn your land. Learn its quirks, its frost pockets, and its native flora and fauna. Let what you learn guide you. Of course, following these principles will lead to vastly different techniques and plantings, across the world’s different ecosystems.

Unlike “conventional” industrial, yield-driven modern agriculture farms, no two permaculture farms will look alike. Even the cultural trappings of permaculture affirm this diversity: instead of “conferences,” permaculture people gather in “convergences,” to share evolving ideas and practices. 

The distributed, evolutionary, informal nature of ‘permaculture’ makes it a nightmare for rigorous research. During my very first conversation with Dr. Langellotto, she brought this up. My application letter had mentioned an interest in applying permaculture to broad-scale agriculture. Just seeing “the P word” made her wary, she said. Luckily, my interest wasn’t a deal breaker, it was an inspiration: Dr. Langellotto suggested that I direct my interdisciplinary research towards defining permaculture in a way that researchers could use to study it.

So part of my inquiry is a simple question with a complex answer: “What is permaculture?”

Along with permaculture, i will also be examining organic and regenerative farming. ‘Organic’ has been codified by the USDA, a process that has directed more funding, research, and legitimacy to that type of farming, but has diluted the whole concept, in the eyes of many elder organic farmers. ‘Regenerative’ is a newfangled, five syllable word that seems to refer to farm practices that actively build soil health, rather than depleting or even simply maintaining it. The word is tossed around more and more, with relative impunity.

Can we create a system that defines, legitimizes, stabilizes, and preserves the spirit of ‘regenerative,’ in a way that ‘organic’ no longer does, for many farmers and ecological eaters? Is that possible for permaculture? That’s the hope, and the motivation for my studies.

If all of this sounds more qualitative than the research that you may expect from a horticulture department, that’s because it is! However, I am loving being a part of the Garden Ecology Lab, and the Horticulture department, because the plant and insect-focused research being undertaken by my peers constantly grounds me. All of these types of agriculture and land management are, after all, just different ways of interacting with plants, animals, and soil. My hope is that my presence here may inspire those who think so beautifully about horticulture and all of its related fields to deeply consider how our work affects the biodiversity of life on this planet, climate change, and the role that our human species can play in healing the Earth.

Posted in Lab News | Tagged , | 2 Comments

How attractive are native wildflowers to gardeners?

For my dissertation research, I am studying which native Willamette Valley wildflowers are most visited by pollinators and natural enemies for use in home gardens and urban landscaping. I’ve previously shared preliminary results from my field study on our blog, namely pollinator abundance and richness. For a refresher, here are summaries from 2017, 2018, and 2019.

Initial survey

Determining which of these flowers are most attractive to insects is only half of the equation — I also want flowers that are attractive to gardeners. To investigate this I developed two surveys — thanks to anyone reading who took them!  The first simply asked gardeners to rank the aesthetic appeal of my study plants, as well as how likely they would be to utilize them in their home gardens. This allowed me to get a baseline understanding of how appealing these flowers are for use in home gardens and landscaping.

As you can see in the figure below, many of the plants most visited by bees (highlighted in orange) were the least attractive to gardeners (Fig. 1), while plants gardeners liked the most (e.g. Iris, Columbine) were hardly visited by bees. However, its notable that many of these native wildflowers ranked around a four on a 1-5 scale, showing that these flowers do have a high potential appeal for use in landscaping! 

Figure 1: Gardener ranked aesthetic appeal of study flowers on a scale of 1-5. Orange bars note plants that were consistently highly visited pollinator plants. N=587

Follow-up survey

The follow-up survey consisted of a subset of ten flowers most visited by bees, and again asked respondents to rank the aesthetic appeal and likelihood of planting for each of these flower species. Then, they were shown facts about and images of bees that visit each flower species, and asked whether they viewed each plant species more favorably, less favorably, or the same. Finally, they were asked to re-rank how attractive they found the flower species and how likely they would be to use the species in their garden, both on a scale of 1-5.

Gardener acceptance

This second survey showed a remarkable increase in gardener acceptance of pollinator friendly native plants after being educated on plant-pollinator associations. Over 80% of respondents stated that they viewed Clarkia amoena as more attractive after gain, and over 60% of respondents viewed Phacelia heterophylla, Madia elegans, and Gilia capitata as more attractive (Fig. 2). 

Figure 2: Percent of respondents viewing flower species as more attractive after learning about pollinator associations. N=184.

Likelihood of planting

After learning about the benefits these flowers provide to pollinators, gardeners were also more likely to plant all ten flower species (Fig. 3). Notably, they were 40% more likely to plant Phacelia heterophylla, (a species that ranked as the least aesthetically appealing overall in the first survey). As a whole, they were also over 20% more likely to plant Solidago canadensis, Clarkia amoena. Similar increases were also observed in likelihood of planting Oreganum vulgare and Nepeta cataria. Many of the plants that showed a smaller percent change are species that started out with a higher aesthetic appeal (e.g. Gillia capitata, Lavendula intermedia, Aster subspicatus), meaning gardeners were already very likely to include these plants in their home garden before learning about the ecological benefits they provide. 

Figure 3:  Percent change in respondent’s likelihood of planting each top pollinator flower after learning about the pollinators associated with each. N=184

Ecological beauty

What does this all mean? This suggests that although native plants are frequently denounced as being less attractive than showy garden species, many home gardeners are still willing to use native flowers in their landscaping. Additionally, this lends credence to the concept of “ecological beauty” – that many gardeners are willing to utilize plants that will increase the habitat value and wildlife diversity in their yards. 

Posted in bees, Native Plants | Tagged , , , , | 10 Comments

Flies as Pollinators

This post comes from Cliff Brock, who is a graduate student in the Contreras (plant breeding), Langellotto (pollinators), and Lambrinos (invasive plants) lab groups. Cliff is studying the impact that plant breeding has on invasiveness and pollinator visits in butterfly bush (Buddleja davidii) and its cultivars. Having three co-advisors can be extremely challenging. However, Cliff has been a true joy to work with, and seems to have navigating the complexities of three labs, quite well.

Cliff decided to write about flies as pollinators. When I asked him why he wanted to write about flies, he mentioned that they usually pollinate flowers that have foul smells, or that may not be as attractive as other flowering plants. He said that he has a special place in his heart for these ‘botanical underdogs’ ~ a sentiment that I thought was sincerely sweet.

***************************************

While bees deservedly get most of the attention regarding their pollination services, many of our most important crops and wildflowers are primarily pollinated by flies.  Generally speaking, fly-pollinated flowers are dark maroons to reds and emit earthy, fermented, or putrid aromas.   The coevolution of plants and flies has resulted in some of the most amazing and unusual flowers.  The largest flowers in the word, Amorphophallus and Rafflesia, are almost exclusively pollinated by flies and beetles.And even our beloved chocolate requires a small midge fly for its sole pollinator. 

Rafflesia is a genus of parasitic plants from SE Asia.  Some have blooms 39″ in diameter.
Photo Source: https://en.wikipedia.org› wiki › Rafflesia

Here in the US, many of our most beloved spring ephemerals have coevolved with flies.  While many Trillium are bee pollinated (e.g. the abundant white Trillium ovatum), species with red and brown flowers are primarily pollinated by fungus gnats.  The iconic American pawpaw (Asimina triloba), which has seen a resurgence in popularity, smells of rotting flesh and is irresistible to a whole host of fly species.

Here we see Trillium erectum (or stinking Benjamin) absolutely covered with fungus gnats.  Photo from Brooklyn Botanic Garden

Asarum, or wild ginger, is a generally diminutive herbaceous plant often grown as a groundcover.  The odd flowers are born close to the ground and are usually hidden from human view.   Yet I find them particular beautiful, and every year I look forward to rediscovering them beneath the mottled foliage.  Asarum takes fungal mimicry to a new level.  Panda ginger, one of the Asian species, is especially funky.  The flowers mimic the colors, textures, and smells of toadstools.

Asarum maximum (as seen on the left)might have evolved to mimic a woodland fungus somewhat like the black morel, below.  Wild ginger photo from Plant Delights Nursery. Morel photo from Ohio mushroom society.

Cited Sources:

Posted in Beneficial Insects | Tagged , | Leave a comment

What’s next in urban agriculture?

What’s next in urban agriculture is going to take place in the cityscape we’ve all heard described before: two-thirds of the world’s 10 billion people will be living in urban areas—mostly across 40 or more mega-cities around the globe—by the year 2050. You’re probably bracing yourselves, waiting for either a list of depressing facts or some ‘hail Mary, technology can save us all’ kind of talk.

Not today. Today we think of green pastures amid concrete jungles.

Urban agriculture is the production, processing, and marketing of produce based on living systems from the land or water located throughout urban and peri-urban areas. Anyone cropping food, flowers, fiber, feed, or herbs from their corner of their city is engaging in a small-lot, local agriculture with an utterly minimized transport chain from grower to eater. These green, vegetative, productive spaces within city landscapes can provide valuable ecosystem services: floral habitat for pollinators, stormwater management, and even mediating the temperature extremes of urban heat islands. People often find urban gardens foster cross-cultural and multi-generational spaces for social interaction. These disparate green spaces, however small each might be, aggregate to large areas across metropolitan regions. A conservative 20 acres of urban gardens in Portland, Oregon, fifty-one acres in Chicago, Illinois, and a whopping 120 acres in Madison, Wisconsin!

More good news: these growing plots don’t stop at the hobby level. Across the United States, counties with significant urban encroachment also produce the lion’s share of fruits, nuts, berries, and vegetables, as well as accounting for most of the farm-gate value of these goods.

But now we come to a bit of bad news, unfortunately. Because while these urban-adjacent farmlands produce the most food in the most high-value agricultural markets, their days are numbered. While not as romantic as the Amazonian forests, some of the most fertile land across this country is being consumed and paved over by sprawling cityscapes. This plight is common due to a mismatch between those who own deeds to land and those who seek the land’s productive agricultural use. Countless urban spaces have seen their productive days ended when the land became valuable enough for someone to decide to sell it off for development.

This is relevant to us today because growing food within the cities themselves is one of the easiest ways to increase our resilience against disruptions to our modern, industrialized food supply chain. Just as victory gardens stabilized many citizens through global wars, we too can use our land and our labor to renovate vacant land in shrinking cities like Baltimore, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Detroit, and the others which are sure to follow the implosion of the last economic boom.

New American farmers—entrepreneurs all—are literally working overtime to access the new niche markets which are springing up across modern urban centers. They’ve surveyed the future and invested in becoming extremely specialized producers of fine agricultural goods. To me, that sounds like taking quite chance: betting it all on a small market with few, discerning clients.

But we might gain some of their confidence if we examine some of their assumptions. Barring extreme, world-altering scenarios like an extinction-event asteroid impact, human population in 2050 is pretty well guaranteed at this point. It’s only thirty years away and average birthrate is not quickly changing. This also means we can be pretty secure in the assumption of continued urbanization. The current population density alone is enough to birth enough humans to further compound the growth of urban centers. This makes the relevance of things like tele-commuting more a question of degree of urban density and sprawl growth. Lastly, many farmers are seeing their emotional investment in the quality of food finally reflected in public policy.

A proposed “new food equation” predicts the end of ‘cheap food’ as global calorie production has been secured. The focus is now changing to include quality, or the nutritional content of foodstuffs. Nations recognize that food production remains a matter of national security in a number of ways. First as a matter of imports and exports. Self-sufficiency means not relying upon another nation to feed your populace. Excessive production enables exports which not only enrich a nation but can operate as the same leverage which is being avoided in the previous example. Lastly, public officials and private people are beginning to attribute more health complications and costs to dietary factors like obesity or malnutrition.

New urban farmers are exploring many novel approaches to urban agricultural production. Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) is taking protected cultural growing techniques and implementing them using modern technology. Managers can adjust a whole palette of environment controls: light, temperature, precipitation, atmospheric composition, hormonal regulation, and genetic alteration.

This is made possible largely due to advances in microelectronic technology. Light-emitting diodes (LEDs) have drastically slashed the cost AND increased the efficiency of artificial lighting. Cost-effective LEDs have revolutionized indoor production like plastic sheeting did for field production. And with the decreased cost of indoor production comes increased innovation as more minds are able to devise feasible plans to grow something worthwhile in artificial conditions. Some of these ideas look to the world’s growing demand for protein and consider growing plant-protein for lab-burgers whiles others simply aim to minimize their livestock and grow insect-protein.

How can someone possibly stay abreast of all these developments? I feel like I’ve listed too many, and yet for each example in this text there are a dozen which could not be included. Well, the first way is to get directly involved! Find and become a part of something in urban agriculture. If you’re in relevant circumstances you’ll need to expend less energy trying to stay informed as this will simply become a common topic of your conversations. You could also set up some phrases to trigger a news-aggregator to your inbox. Look for topics relevant to new urban farming. I reiterate my point about protein production: it’s going to be big at some point and the innovation is going to be discovered by a small operation facing unconventional challenges. While it’s cliché and tastes like papier-mâché to say: apps! Seriously, be on the lookout for apps which facilitate the work of small farmers. If there’s ever going to be a mass mobilization of people into agriculture, then we need to simplify and systematize as much as we can. Trust me, most of them will feel fine if they’re no longer forced to wear so many hats.

If you’re still interested, you might benefit from investigation into various topics which have been extensively researched and greatly overlap with many facets of urban agriculture. Cuba’s organopónicos system demonstrates the practical success of urban food production when actively pursued by many people and policies. The Netherlands  have led global greenhouse production for years, and they continue to innovate and push the boundaries of protected and synthetic production environments.

Space! The final frontier. It’s exciting, isn’t it? I’m excited even just to say the word. I really did shout it out just then. I’m dreaming of going to space one day, how about you? Anyway, astronauts are experimenting with plant growth and crop production in space. It’s all quite enthralling, but too much for this post. If you’d like to know more, keep an eye out for my next post in a couple months!

Further research options:

An article from National Geographic about how The Netherlands ‘feed the world.’ Especially interesting is the third picture showing vertical production of chickens.

An all-encompassing chapter regarding urban soils, from my most favored author on the subject: Pouyat et al., 2010.

A podcast episode about urban growers in early New England who are called “The Diggers.” I suggest starting at either 40 seconds in or at 3:20, then listening through to at least 12:15.

Posted in urban | Tagged | Leave a comment