Staff September 26, 2016

Photos: iStock unless otherwise noted.

1. Did you know: that plants may arrange their flowers in order to attract bees? Smarter than we thought. Researchers from the University of Edinburgh determined that the way in which plants arrange their flowers can affect the flight patterns of bees, thus maximizing plants’ chances for reproduction. According to a report from the University and summarized by the website Science Daily, the researchers studied the flights of bumble bees a s they collected nectar from wild larkspur flowers in Canada: “They found that when the plants’ flowers were present on only one side of the stem, bees would more often fly vertically between flowers. By comparison, when a plant had flowers all around its stem, bees would be less likely to fly upwards. The findings are helping to aid scientists’ understanding of how plants can control how their pollen is spread by foraging insects.” The study is said to help scientists understand how plants may control how their pollen is distributed; more to the point, it may also “inform the development of plant crops with high yields, by enabling scientists to understand how plants can transfer pollen most efficiently.”

2. Did you know: that regular old grass has the potential to produce cheap, clean, renewable energy? Enter Scottish scientists, again, to demonstrate that sunlight and a “cheap catalyst” can be employed to glean hydrogen from fescue. Researchers at Cardiff University have proved that hydrogen can be obtained from “garden grass” in sufficient amounts to qualify as fodder for renewable energy. The cellulose found in plants is apparently a promising source of hydrogen, and through the process called photoreforming (or photocatalysis), the scientists combined sunlight and a simple catalyst — nickel — to convert cellulose and water to hydrogen. Let’s let professor Michael Bowker explain: “Up until recently, the production of hydrogen from cellulose by means of photocatalysis has not been extensively studied. Our results show that significant amounts of hydrogen can be produced using this method with the help of a bit of sunlight and a cheap catalyst. Furthermore, we’ve demonstrated the effectiveness of the process using real grass taken from a garden. To the best of our knowledge, this is the first time that this kind of raw biomass has been used to produce hydrogen in this way. This is significant as it avoids the need to separate and purify cellulose from a sample, which can be both arduous and costly.”

3. Did you know: that Ojibwe legend says that the bark of the birch tree received its dramatic coloration because it protected Waynaboozhoo? One bitterly cold winter, Waynaboozhoo’s grandmother sent him to obtain fire from the Thunderbird. Disguised as a rabbit, the young lad reached Thunderbird’s home and asked for shelter and warmth. While Thunderbird had his back turned, Waynaboozhoo rolled in his host’s fire and fled, carrying the fire with him, his back ablaze. Thunderbird, of course, was enraged, and followed him, flinging lightning bolts. Fearing for his life, Waynaboozhoo hid behind a birch tree, which promised to protect him. The bolts missed Waynaboozhoo but struck the tree, scarring its brilliant white bark with charred spots. Thus, the birch appears to bear burn marks on its skin.


4. Did you know:that there’s a “world’s oldest tree”? Of course there is. Leave it to the Nordic peoples, that hardy lot, to host what’s thought to be the world’s oldest living tree. Way up atop Fulu Mountain in Sweden, there’s a raggedy looking Norway spruce that’s estimated to be nearly 9,560 years old. Scientists had once thought that spruce was relatively new to the Swedish mountain region in Dalarna province, but it turns out — ha! — they were wrong. (Warning: Don’t ever tell a Swede he’s wrong.) Cones and wood found beneath trees at the peak in Fulufjallet National Park were tested, and results revealed trees that were 375, 5,660, 9,000 and 9,550 years old (the study results were reported in 2008); clear signs indicated the material carried the genes of the trees. (Testing was performed at a carbon-14 dating lab in Miami. Go figure.) Leif Kullman is given credit for the discovery, and the oldest tree was named “Old Tjikko” after Kullman’s dog.


5. Did you know: that there’s a “world’s most dangerous tree”? It’s true. According to a story in Mental Floss, that must-read publication for all things factual and trivial, Hippomane mancinella (“arbor de la muerta” or manchineel tree) holds the Guinness World Record for world’s most dangerous tree. Most notably found in the tropical paradise of the Caribbean (as well as South America and even parts of Florida!), nearly every part of the tree is toxic. Bark, leaves, fruit? You can’t trust any bitty bit. So don’t touch it, don’t eat it and don’t even stand under it. Simply touching the bark can result in chemical burns (so, y’know, hands off!), water dripping from leaves can scald your skin, and its fruit can be deadly. The whole darned plant is a toxin factory, but the worst of it is the compound phorbol, found — you guessed it — everywhere in the plant. Indigenous peoples of the Caribbean used the tree to make poison arrows, and although it hasn’t been proved, poison from the manchineel tree is said to have killed explorer Ponce de Leon. Our advice? Stick with the mangoes. (That is, unless you’re allergic.)

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