Darwin’s Bane

I have been battling this ill-behaved plant (with kind of cute flowers) for years now. It has resisted efforts to pull (or dig) it out, and it is just taking over the garden with my Charles Darwin rose. Finally I published its picture and asked for help in identifying it.

Plant
The plant grows like crazy…
Purple blooms
…and the flowers are kind of cute.  Too bad it is invasive. Bad plant, bad!!

My friend Deb recognized it: it is Campanula rapunculoide. Oops. This is a case of good news, bad news. The mystery is solved, which is good news, right? The bad news is that this plant was imported from Siberia and is now regarded to be an invasive weed. Siberia?! Fabulous. There is nothing like an extreme environment to encourage the evolution of wicked adaptations. Wikipedia (the link above) describes it as “an extremely invasive weed” and notes that “eliminating it is nearly impossible”. Oh, no. I took to the internet to see what else I could find.

Hardy plants for hardy souls posted an article about this plant. It is described as “the evil twin” of a better behaved plant, ladybells.  Born to Garden just comes out and calls it “one evil plant”.  Evil. Ugh.

It even gets better. There is an online article that describes this plant as “The Zombie Weed“. Zombies! As in “you can never kill it” zombies. As in “do you think we need a flamethrower…?” As it turns out, even a flamethrower wouldn’t be enough; if I burned all the plants, the roots deep in the ground would live on, and on, and on, sending up new shoots for practically forever . Zombies.

Flowers
I pulled up every leaf  and stalk that I could get my hands on. Evidently the plant has extremely hardy roots and tubers underground (made to survive in Siberia, this one…) and I will never get all of it.  I can slow it down, however. I raked the soil with a claw tool and pulled out a lot of root material, but evidently the root system goes down a few feet.

Evidently this sweet little plant will take over the lawn, is resistant to weedkillers and is just plain a bad ass plant. Great. In evolution terms, Darwin would describe it as extremely fit. Ripley would tell me that I should just take off and nuke it from orbit (it’s the only way to be sure). It looks like my roses are in big trouble here.

That's right!
I told you my money was on the purple spiky plant! As it turns out Darwin’s Bane was a good name after all.

You know, I think that I will make a bricked area for my swinging garden chair where that garden is now. The Darwin rose can start living in a pot. I wanted to make a little more room in that part of the yard, anyway. I’ll put in shrubs like catmint and butterfly bush where I don’t brick; they will grow over this evil, zombie-licious plant and steal its light.

Adapt, migrate or die Campanula rapunculoides.  

Life in Darwin’s Garden can be tough.

 

 

Darwin’s Garden

Over the last two weeks I have had a crazy case of synchronicity going on. Several random events, totally unrelated, unsolicited, but absolutely linking to a theme of… genetics! Bet you didn’t see that one coming. If you are a total geek of the biology type (me!!) it has been a couple of fun weeks. Here’s what went down.

The Gene
One of my favorite authors published his new book. Hello summer reading!!

I’ve been spending my mornings outside in my garden swing reading and drinking a latte with the cats. It has just become the best part of the day for me. Two weeks ago the book of the mornings was this one, and I can’t tell you how much I am enjoying the narrative that weaves genes, history, evolution and personal experiences linked to the author’s genetic heritage together. A wonderful book. A topic that is close to my heart after years of teaching cells, genes and evolution to many, many students. Everyone, in my mind, should know enough genetics to navigate safely through life. While I was reading this picture arrived in my phone:

White squirrel
Yep. That is a white squirrel for sure!

I sometimes get calls from friends and neighbors who have biology tales to share. This picture came from someone who was excited about the “albino” squirrel hanging around his home. It has been running through the trees and chasing another squirrel along the fence so I told him it was probably not an albino, but a white squirrel as it seemed to have good eyesight. He didn’t understand that there is a difference, and therefore sent a picture to provide proof. We got on the phone and finally ironed it out with a little Wikipedia help and some genetics review. Now he’s waiting to see what color the pups will be. It’s an urban experiment!!

After the call I put the book away to start on a little gardening. What garden was next on my list? The one that I call Darwin’s Garden!

Overgrown Garden
That poor little rose bush that is getting swarmed by other plants is my Charles Darwin rose. 

As coincidence would have it, I had just read about Darwin in the book. Time to start weeding! Looks to me like survival of the fittest is a little out of control at the moment…

Plant
I call this Darwin’s Garden because of the rose, but also because there is a lot of natural selection going on. I move plants from other locations to this one and basically let them fight it out. The clear winner is this plant, and I have no clue what it is!! It is spreading everywhere, has tall spikes and little purple flowers that will emerge soon. When I started weeding a lot of this plant got ripped out!
Groundcover
Well, look at this. This ground cover type plant has been growing underneath the spiky plant; I don’t like it all that much, but the plant said “whatever… this is Darwin’s Garden, bitch!” I let it stay; with an attitude like that it deserves a chance. I also found snapdragons, columbines, roses, and some iris. There is a butterfly bush that is swarming some rose plants, but I decided to let them just fight it out for now. 
Johnny Jump-ups
These Johnny Jump-ups have been growing in the rock border by my driveway out front. Since they are escapees from the flower container they belong in I decided to dig them out and move them.
Rooting Hormone
I dipped the roots into this rooting hormone and then popped them into Darwin’s Garden. Let’s see if they can take on the purple spike plant! Maybe they can slap the ground cover plant while they are at it…
Flower in new location
Here they are a week later in the garden. Transplant was successful.

Here’s the next crazy coincidence: that rooting hormone is a type of auxin, which was first discovered by none other than Charles Darwin!! No wonder the transplant to Darwin’s Garden went off without a hitch. Every single one of the plants I moved made it.

Rose
This week things are looking a lot better in the garden. The Charles Darwin rose even bloomed.

Last week I worked at Camp Macusani (which is a whole other post) so the garden suffered a little. Tomorrow morning I will return to the garden swing, my book, and Darwin’s Garden. I’m thinking of moving some angelica that is out of control in there too… Maybe the purple spike plants will be blooming so I can post a picture. If anyone recognizes them, please let me know what they are… Right now I’m calling them Darwin’s Bane.

I’m finally up to the part of the book where we’re getting ready to start genetic engineering. For a biogeek with a molecular biology degree, this is heaven. I can’t wait to see what Dr. Mukherjee is going to say next.

Summer is for geeks!

 

DNA, Evolution, and The Signature of All Things

It seems that my life has become an exercise in synchronicity and random coincidences. I checked a book out of the library, read one that had been sitting on my NOOK for weeks, picked up a book on a sale table at Barnes & Noble, and remembered a video that I used to show my biology classes each winter. Strangely, they all fit together. No matter what I thought the book would be about, it began to talk about DNA and evolution at some point. How bizarre! All three books (The Signature of All Things, The Sociopath Next Door , and Orfeo) echoed things that I remembered from the video series Intimate Strangers: Unseen Life on Earth, which was broadcast in November 1999 on PBS. All these connections are just churning around in my head; here’s my thoughts about the video and one of the books, The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert..

The episode that I’ve become fixated upon while reading these books is the first one in the Intimate Strangers series, The Tree of Life. If you would like to actually watch this episode (and all the others, of course) they are housed at Microbe World. The  biology classes saw this video when they were learning about taxonomy and the kingdoms of life.  In the video we meet Dr. Carl Woese,  a microbiologist of singular vision and drive. Working alone for years, chasing patterns in the mutations of a small, heavily conserved region of DNA, he pieced together the pattern of relationships between living things on earth. Using this information, Woese was able to determine the sequence of descent, establish common ancestors and eventually created a new “Tree of Life”. His work shook up the taxonomy world as domains were created (a grouping above “kingdom” in the normal sequence of “kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species”), and our understanding of evolution was enriched and altered forever. One man, working alone, chasing patterns in the musical score of life that is DNA, was able to change our view of the natural world.

This is what Dr. Woese says on camera in the video:

You have to have your own particular sensitivity to the world, and there has to be parts of it that are beautiful to you, because they’re beautiful to you regardless of what anyone else ever thinks. You see this all the time in an artist, and you see it also in good scientists.

This brings me to The Signature of All Things. In this book we meet Alma Whittaker, the daughter of a botanical robber baron. Raised in a wealthy and enriched environment that encourages learning and allows Alma to meet many eminent people in the scientific world, and possessing the logical mind of her mother, Alma is nonetheless trapped within the small world of her father’s estate. She sets up a lab in the carriage house, explores the land around her, and spends the majority of her life studying the world of mosses and liverworts. Small as her life becomes contained within the estate as she handles her father’s business and the details of life, it allows her to follow her “own particular sensitivity to the world” as she observes the interactions and changes in her moss populations; in truth she sees that mosses living within a timeframe much slower than our own engage in the same behaviors as the animal kingdom around her. It is a life of study in a world that is beautiful to her, and Alma is a good scientist.  Life altering events cause her to leave the estate following her marriage and the death of her father, and she travels to Tahiti and Holland, where the glory and chaos of a larger world help her develop a theory of evolution based on her understanding of mosses. This theory, while never published, propels her into a new life within her mother’s Dutch family and she obtains standing in the scientific community based on her own merits.

This was a good book. I’m a biology geek, so of course I liked it! Is it believable that Alma could have slowly come to a theory of evolution on her own? Sure. This book is a glimpse into the world that gave birth to the original theory. Science can always be pursued by a committed individual of observant and reflective nature. This was the time of Charles Darwin, Gregor Mendel, and Alfred Russel Wallace; Alma would have had access to the same ideas and published works that they had. All three of these men worked alone as gentlemen scientists, observed nature, designed experiments and looked for patterns. They wrote each other and shared their scientific ideas. Darwin and Wallace arrived at the mechanism of natural selection through independent work at about the same time; they published jointly in 1858. Mendel published his work in 1866, which would have been extremely helpful to Wallace and Darwin, but they missed the boat on that one! It will be almost 100 more years before we understood that the molecule of inheritance is DNA, and many more years before Carl Woese read the musical score of DNA to finally see the signature of all things.

Alma never publishes her theory because it can’t explain why all people aren’t sociopaths. Why does altruism exist, she wonders? How can natural selection account for what we see in people around us? Richard Dawkins addresses this very issue in The Selfish Gene. Guess what’s next on my reading list?