DECOMPOSITION & DECAY *
In our modern-day human culture, decomposition and decay have often come to be viewed quite negatively, with the former mainly associated with things that are rotten, have a bad smell and are generally symptomatic of death, while the latter is similarly viewed as very undesirable, whether it be in terms of urban decay, or, on a much more personal level, tooth decay. However, they are vital processes in nature, playing an essential role in the breakdown of organic matter, recycling it and making it available again for new organisms to utilise.
I’ve been thinking a lot about strange fruits since last week’s episode on the ghosts of evolution that reside in our produce aisle. Lots of people liked that episode. That makes me very happy. In that spirit, I present this question:
What’s the most annoying fruit ever?
The answer, of course, is the pomegranate. But this isn’t about the pomegranate. It’s about the mango. And the mango comes in a very close second on my Fruit Annoyance Scale™.
I’m pretty handy in the kitchen. I know how to cut one. I’m just left disappointed every time. So much deliciousness remains stuck to that wacky, disc-shaped seed. My only choices are to throw it away or to gnaw at it like I’m afflicted with some sort of crazed, herbivoric bloodlust, covering myself in stickiness and drawing many a raised eyebrow from my wife.
But that little trick, that hidden seed, is part of the mango’s evolutionary magic, its very key to survival and reproduction.
If you watched the video, you remember that the avocado, with its ridiculously big seed, evolved to get swallowed whole, and be pooped out later, so they could grow far away and free from big tree competition. The only problem is that the moving truck-sized ground sloths and prehistoric elephants that munched on them in central America are extinct. Yet the avocado lives on, strangely, no longer subject to that cooperation. It’s an evolutionary anachronism.
That’s the story behind the mango’s über-annoying seed. In southeast Asia, the mango’s native lands, forest rhinos and Asian elephants, who love mangos, are some of Earth’s last remaining examples of the megafauna that dispersed so many of the world’s weird fruits (including papaya, durian, avocado, and many others).
The mango has evolved a stringy flesh that clings to its seed (and whoever took the photo above clearly spent hours excavating that thing). Rhinos and elephants find that just as annoying as we do, so they swallow them after only the tiniest bit of munching. After a long, strange trip through the belly of the giant mammal, that seed gets dropped off with its great reward: A dallop of fresh fertilizer.
When you look at an elephant or rhino, you’re looking at the last giant mammals to still roam dry Earth. Sadly, nearly all of them are critically endangered. I and others have often referred to those strange fruits as “ghosts of evolution”, but those great creatures are close to becoming ghosts themselves. That’s really sad. Sure, we’ve taken over for the large mammals in the mango-growing department, but we shouldn’t save one ghost to spite another.
I hope that you’ll never look at a mango, or avocado, or papaya quite the same way again. And maybe, when you consider the mango, you’ll consider these beautiful creatures:
Let’s do what we can to keep them from becoming ghosts, too.
This confirms it: The fruits that miss the mammoths (and the plethora of other now extinct megafauna) are an unqualified Internet phenomenon! Fall is a great time to see some local examples of these interesting evolutionary anachronisms in New York City; just keep your eyes peeled for gingko fruits (or as I affectionately call them, poo berries), Osage oranges, and pumpkins. ~AR
The most photographed sightseeing spots in the world.
Happy to be part of that yellow blob on the northeast coast of the United States! ~AR
Extraterrestrial basil? Maybe so. In a couple of years, NASA hopes to have terrestrial plants growing on the surface of our moon in order to study the viability of agriculture there. In the long term, it may be a step toward understanding our chances of successfully colonizing celestial bodies beyond Earth.
Before you ask how they plan to do this, though, we’re not just dusting the surface of the moon with seeds. Instead, specially-contained growth environments will be sent on a commercial spacecraft known as the Moon Express lander, mocked up in CG above. With their own growth medium and water reservoir, scientists will monitor the plants’ progress for around a week in hopes of understanding how radiation and reduced gravity on the lunar surface can impact vegetation.
Giant leap? Maybe not quite yet. But it’s certainly a step in the right direction—the direction where I get to live comfortably on Mars with a quaint greenhouse. Click through for the full story. —MN
I’ve struck autumnal gold at the NYBG! :D
Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leafs a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
~ Robert Frost - Nothing Gold Can Stay
Through exploration of the ancestral context of taste, scientists can better understand how modern humans use the sense of taste to make decisions and survive. Evolution has shaped our sense of taste to guide us to seek the food we need to survive, while steering clear of foods harmful to us. It is understandable that early humans who avoided spoiled meat and poisonous berries were able to pass down their genes, giving modern humans the ability to avoid them too. But what explains the countless humans who voluntarily consume, and even enjoy, some bitter foods? Why do we eat bitter greens? Brussels sprouts? Hoppy beers? Why do we tolerate some bitter flavors and not others? Read more…
Photo credit: Melissa McClellan/Flickr
Science + vegetables = delicious! ~AR
What’s beautiful now? The end of leaves.
The leaves are mostly off the trees these days, which means they’re gathering on the grass, amongst the trees, or in the Bronx River. The absence of leaves gives the opportunity to enjoy the architecture of the Garden; to marvel at enormous trees and tiny seed pods. Increased leaf litter makes it easier to spot the birds and animals that make their homes in the Garden.
So, when you visit, yes, you do have to visit the Holiday Train Show, but also be sure to take a turn through the Forest and a stroll through the Ornamental Conifers. Look carefully, listen closely, and see our grounds with new eyes!
For a look at what’s going on today at the Garden, follow us on Instagram and Twitter where we post updates from our staff and visitors. Need help getting around? Our iPhone app can help out there. It’s free and available in the App Store. ~AR
Photos by NYBG photographer Ivo M. Vermeulen.
Winter is coming… Which is okay! ‘Cause it’s a beautiful time for trees. —MN
Plants can be albino too! This is an albino redwood tree, with white needles instead of green because it’s unable to produce chlorophyll. In order to survive, albino redwoods must join their roots to those of a normal redwood to obtain nutrients. Found in Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park and Humboldt Redwoods State Park in the US, there are only around 20 known albino redwoods in the world, and their exact whereabouts have been kept secret as protection.
Read more: http://bit.ly/knM684
Image: Cole Shatto; Wikimedia
Not to be confused on a mechanical level with the Tumblr-popular ghost plant (Monotropa uniflora), which, while also devoid of chlorophyll and parasitic at the roots (it’s a myco-heterotroph, parasitizing trees’ mycorrhizal fungi), is not the product of albinism. These albino redwoods physically graft their roots to those of other redwoods, which is a species-specific talent and the only reason they survive at all.
Oh, and they may also be the proverbial unicorn of the average conifer farmer come the holidays. I’m sorry you’re so objectified, trees. —MN
My office was wastefully throwing out all these nice quality 3in binders with CD holders. Damn right I dumpster dived! They were perfectly upcycled and re-appropriated to catalog all my 100+ types of seeds!
Looks like it works perfectly!!! Great save, no need to waste something like this! Thanks for the shout out :)
Well I’ll be. So this makes me wish I hadn’t thrown out all those binders of CD pages after I digitized my collection. What a simple, attractive, and frankly brilliant way of organizing your seeds! ~AR
Staghorn Fern. cool, right? Just a suspended, self-sufficient ball of weird looking plant.
When you come visit the Holiday Train Show, this is another plant you should look for. We have several in the Conservatory house between the first desert gallery and the last Train Show gallery. Just be sure to look up! ~AR
When a tree falls into the ocean, does it make a new world? What about when a ship sinks? Or when a telephone pole takes a header into a lake? This one is actually easy to answer: Yes.
Evolution has peopled the earth’s water bodies with a cast of characters that can survive on nothing but terrestrially-grown trees or wood. As the author of this article says, “Congratulations, evolution, you have outdone yourself.” ~AR
When trains run over wet leaves, “it actually creates a slurry,” said John Kesich, a vice president at Metro-North.
Has your train been running a little more pokily than usual? Blame the leaves. Leaves contain pectin, the same stuff that makes your jelly gel, and when they’re crushed under heavy trains, things get a bit slippy. This is an interesting little piece on an element of public transportation I never thought about before. Sometimes it amazes me that our mass transit systems work as well as they do. ~AR
How mushrooms ‘make wind’ to spread spores
Mushrooms live in tight quarters on forest floors, often isolated from strong air flows that may easily spread their spores.
This is a very different kind of “making wind” than what your grandfather might joke about at the dinner table. I think we can all be a little thankful for that! But seriously, this is a very interesting development in understanding mushroom reproduction, and if you are an amateur mycologist, it is well worth the five minutes it will take you to read. ~AR