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Feasting on S.C.R.A.PS.

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Tags: plants, horticulture

Created: 6/8/2015      Updated: 8/1/2016

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Apparently it’s been three days north of forever since I wrote a blog post. I realized this recently when our social media guru began dropping subtle hints about it.

 

Angry woman yelling into a phone

(Picture is unrelated.)

What can I say?  I’ve been busy with, you know, spring. But I get it; all y’alls been waitin’ for me to drop some botanical flava on this blog, and I just can’t keep letting you down. So hey, how about a new feature? What if I were to present, in no particular order and with no discernible practical application, an ongoing listicle of botanical wonderment? You down? Good. I think it should look a little something like this:

Stuff that’s Cool and Rad About PlantS

Still with me, despite the puerile, half-baked title?  Then let’s do this.

1.  Graft Chimeras

When it comes to stuff that’s cool and rad and rad and cool, it’s hard to beat a graft chimera.  Few are known to exist, and even these are rarely seen.  But before you can understand the extent of their coolradness, you’ll need a basic understanding of grafting.

Grafting is the age-old process of cutting off a piece of one plant, sticking it onto another, and hoping they get along.  It’s extremely common in certain areas of horticulture, particularly fruit production.  For example, basically every single apple you’ve ever eaten was grown on a grafted plant.  A typical apple variety starts as a branch that just happens to be different from its neighbors on the tree.  An orchardist might notice that this branch produces fruit that is redder, larger, or holds later into the fall.  Perhaps it has a wicked backhand, and the orchardist is in need of a mixed-doubles partner.  Whatever the reason, he or she cuts off a part of this branch, clones it, and then grafts the clones onto the bottom halves of young apple trees that have been selected for their superior roots.  The resulting grafted plants will now produce reams of tennis-playing fruit on healthy-rooted trees.

Typically, the “root” portion of a grafted plant (called the rootstock) and the “shoot” portion (the scion) remain distinct from each other. But sometimes the union between the two gets…fuzzy.  The result is a graft chimera, a plant that mixes two different sets of genes – and thus two different types of growth – into one.  Here are a couple of famous examples.  Below is a +Laburnocytisus ‘Adamii’, and man, do I want one!  Check it out:

+Laburnocytisus ‘Adamii’, a tree that has two different types of flowers -- one is pink the other is yellow.

Yep, that’s one tree with two entirely different types of flowers.  Here’s another example, aptly named a Bizzaria:

A graft chimera citrus plant, containing a fruit that is half bitter orange and half citron.

This harvest-time nightmare is a genetic tutti-frutti of Citrus medica and Citrus aurantium.  It was discovered in Florence in 1640, and is perhaps the best known graft chimera, with none other than Chuck Darwin taking a stab at describing it.

Unfortunately, graft chimeras are notoriously unstable, so individual plants may lose one of their conjoined halves, returning to a non-chimeric state. But that just makes them cooler, right? And rad-er.

2.  The Mountain Buffalo

By now you’ve no doubt glanced ahead at the picture, BUT, before you go getting all excited, I must add a disclaimer to this entry. Most of the information I’ve found about this plant comes from not-so-sciencey sources, so please take it with a grain or two of salt. That being said, just look at this thing:

 A toddler sitting on top of a giant potato

No small potatoes.

That is a tuber which will not be denied. According to this website, it is from a species of Thladiantha that grows in the Yunnan province of China, and if this picture is to be believed, it is one of the largest tubers in the world. Also, someone is trying to pickpocket a baby. (Good luck – babies are notoriously cash-strapped.) As the website helpfully explains, “The tubers are resembling resting buffalos when seen from the distance in dense forest, hence their name.” I’ve done some digging to try and find out more about this beast of a plant, and I can say without doubt that the genus Thladiantha is a real thing and that several species within this genus produce large tubers. But is this photo legit? I want to believe.

3.  Sand Food

No disclaimer needed here; sand food is definitely legit and definitely weird (and cool and rad.) Found only in the Sonoran Desert, this bizarre member of the forget-me-not family is not-forgettable indeed.  Its name is blandly appropriate, since it grows as a ropy stem buried under shifting sands, and it is an important food source for the area’s indigenous people and jawas. Containing no chlorophyll, sand food lives as a parasite on the roots of various desert shrubs. In the spring, it produces a mushroom like flower head, like so:

Sand food 

Photo courtesy of Tatooine Botanical Gardens

How the 10 or 20 tiny seeds that each flower produces manage to locate a suitable host plant is not well understood. Ants or kangaroo rats may carry the seeds underground. Or perhaps they move through the desert by clinging to the feet of lost droids. We may never know, but I would guess that the Force is strong with them.

Seth Harper, Nature Museum horticulturist

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