Add your own seaweed pun here

Moving up a little in the oceanic plant world, we get to algae. There are two categories, micro algae which are, as they sound, tiny, and macro algae which is where seaweed fits it and is what I’ll be looking at.

We tend to think of seaweed as the annoying, slimy stuff which litters the beach and wraps around our feet as we try to paddle in the sea but seaweed is a very diverse term. In general, seaweeds need saltwater, light to photosynthesise and somewhere to hold onto.

Algae are used in so many ways and can be found all around us. In the late 17th century it was discovered that soda and potash (important to the soap and glass industries) could be extracted by burning kelp. Today, we find algae in cosmetics, in soaps, in paints, as fertilisers, in foods as well as as a food item itself for both humans and animals.

Like with other marine life, algae may also have useful scientific properties. For example, some have developed protection from UV light and understanding the process and chemicals involved may help develop new protective products. Algae can also help open our eyes to other ways of being, pushing our thinking, our expectations and our world view. As a species we are terrestrial centric and macro centric, focusing heavily on land based large species such as trees and lions but there is so much we can learn from other species, including the under appreciated algae.

And talking of underappreciated… Seaweed allowed women to carve out a tiny niche in the scientific world in the 19th century, a realm dominated by men.

Whilst the hobby of collecting seaweed can be traced back to the 17th century, it grew in popularity in the 19th century. And in doing so, it created space for women to engage in science and, to a limited extent, to contribute to science.

Male seaweed collectors were able to join in with scientific endeavours but women were encouraged to see it as a hobby. Seaweed scrapbooking became popular and it’s alleged that even Queen Victoria dabbled in it. It was framed as a hobby rather than a scientific undertaking and the social aspect was emphasised for women. However, some women managed to make a name for themselves:

Amelia Griffiths, 1768-1858

Griffiths was an ‘amateur professional woman of science’ who specialised in collecting seaweed and who raised awareness of the diversity of marine plant life in Devon where she lived.

Her reputation proceeded her and a species of red seaweeds was named for her in 1817. She was also able to correspond with leading algae experts which I suspect was a significant honour in her day.

Margaret Gatty, 1809-1873

Gatty was a children’s book author who took up seaweed collecting when she was convalescing by the coast in 1848. She eventually published an illustrated field guide to British seaweeds, an endeavour which took 14 years and included 200 specimens.

However, instead of placing herself as scientist, she framed herself as interested in seaweed because it was an expression of God creating beauty in nature.  She would also use her children’s books to preach this message, teaching that god and nature were not to be treated separately and she argued against Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Anna Atkins, 1799-1871

Like Gatty, Atkins published a book about seaweed but this is also of note as it was the first photo illustrated book ever. She used cyanotype prints to document different species and part one was published in 1843.

And today?

Women still play an important role in seaweed collecting; in most developing countries, the majority of people involved in seaweed farming are women.  In Zanzibar, for example, it’s estimated that 80% of seaweed farmers are women.  The seaweed grown and gathered by these women becomes our toothpaste, food additives, shampoos and medicines.  Definitely food for thought next time you find yourself on the beach getting tangled by its slithery ‘arms’!

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When did you last thank the phytoplankton?

“Every breath you take you need to thank the ocean for generating oxygen and capturing carbon. We should respect the photosynthesis that feeds small animals, that then provide sustenance for the large animals.”
– Sylvia Earle

In our oceans there are tiny plant-like organisms called phytoplankton which are eaten by tiny animals called zooplankton.  And so the food chain moves up.

These phytoplankton float along at the mercy of the sea’s tides and currents and indeed, the word plankton comes from the greek for wandering.

Despite their size, some are invisible to the human eye, the entire* ocean ecosystem is reliant on phytoplankton.  As photosynthesisers, they introduce the sun’s energy to organisms which live below the waves, and many organisms who live above the waves as well such as humans.

*there are some very deep sea creatures which live off vents which aren’t but there always has to be a rule breaker!

It’s not just their role in food production that we should be thanking phytoplankton for though.  They have a huge impact on the air we breathe and the climate we live in.

As part of photosynthesis, phytoplankton release oxygen into the water.  This oxygen is estimated to make up between 50 and 80% of the earth’s oxygen. So as you breathe in, don’t forget to thank this overlooked little plant.

But it’s hard work isn’t over, it has the job of controlling atmospheric carbon dioxide to do as well.  By holding on to carbon, they reduce the amount that is in the atmosphere, storing it even after they die; they sink to the bottom of the sea where they accumulate and eventually turn into oil.  So that’s another thing we need to thank the humble phytoplankton for!

But some phytoplankton have a darker side…  There are over 5000 species worldwide and about 2% of those are harmful or toxic.  They produce these toxins as a strategy for dealing with predators, competitors and parasites.

When these phytoplankton bloom, the chemicals are are released.  A lot of these blooms are red, creating phenomena which has led to the name of the red sea, the vermilion sea and a term called the red tide.  These blooms can have harmful affects on fish and other marine life.  For example, causing harmful changes to development, affecting reproduction and impacting on the immune system.  In 2004, 107 bottlenose dolphins died in Florida because they had ingested affected fish.  Other more direct ways of being affected are through ingesting the toxin itself or through inhalation.

The summertime feeding grounds of the Right Whale coincide with seasonal blooms from one of the toxic phytoplanktons.  Zooplankton eat the phytoplankton, become contaminated with neurotoxins and are then eaten by the whales who experience altered feeding behaviour and altered respiratory capabilities.  This then impacts on the overall population of a whale which is already endangered.

Sea turtles may feel the impact of toxic exposure as lethargy and muscle weakness which can lead to them being washed off course or washed ashore.

Humans are also affected if we eat contaminated fish and because of this, blooms are carefully monitored.

11.30.18 Edited to add: I stumbled across a phytoplankton poem and had to share it!

Surviving the winter: Plants and animals

Whilst I struggle with winter, at least I have a warm and cosy flat and somewhere dry and comfy to snuggle up.  Plants and animals don’t have it so easy.  Over time they have adapted a number of different ways to cope with the harsh weather that winter brings.

There are four main strategies for coping with winter:

  1. Stay active, but adapt
  2. Hibernate
  3. Die, leaving offspring behind in a form that lets them survive
  4. Migrate

Before we look at the options, let’s consider the problems that plants and animals face in the UK.  Obviously it’s cold.  There are frosts and this is a really significant factor as most organisms are made up of a lot of water and frost can lead to their tissues freezing which leads to death.  Other problems include reduced food supply, shorter days can mean less time to find food, lack of light, shortage of water in a liquid form, after all, you can’t drink ice.

Plants and animals know when winter is approaching by sensing environmental cues such as lower temperatures and shorter days.  This knowledge means they can start preparing, for example by building up fat reserves, shedding leaves, hoarding food etc.

Stay active, but adapt

Some organisms continue to be active despite the challenging weather and are able to do this because over time they have adapted strategies to help them.  Growing thicker feathers or fur is one such adaptation; the house sparrow has 11.5% more feathers in winter than in summer.  Squirrels which hide away nuts for the winter are another example of adapting to the weather.

Social behaviours change.  Birds which are normally solitary or found in pairs form flocks for the winter.  This increases food efficiency, reduces heat loss and increases protection from predators.

In the plant world, we see evergreen plants toughing it out.  The main issue for them in the winter is lack of water.  Their needle shaped leaves reduce surface area and this reduces water loss.  They also have a waxy layer which further prevents water loss.  This means the tree retains water throughout the winter and thus are better able to survive.  A lot of adaptations however mean trade offs.  In this case, the shape of the needles makes them less efficient in the spring and summer.

Deciduous trees also struggle with reduced water over winter and it’s also harder to photosynthesise when there is less light.  They’ve dealt with this issue by letting go of their leaves.  Before they do so, they move the water, sugars, minerals etc from the leaves to the woody part of the tree.  Then the chlorophyll in the leaves is broken down and reabsorbed into the main tree.  This leaves behind other pigments which aren’t useful to the tree such as orange carotenes and yellow xanthophylls which is why leaves become the gorgeous colours we associate with autumn.

Hibernation

Some animals will go into a full state of hibernation whilst others go into a sort of semi-hibernation which is affected by weather conditions.

In hibernation, the metabolic activity reduces significantly which helps them to conserve energy and survive the winter.  This includes incredibly low heart rates, as low as 10% of their normal heart rate.

Before hibernation, these animals must eat a lot of food and store it as fat.  Whilst this strategy allows animals to survive the difficult winter, it is imperative that they find food again soon after emerging.

Hedgehogs are one example of a true hibernator.  Depending on the weather, they may enter hibernation any time between October and December and emerge again in March or April.  During this period, their heartbeat can fall from 190 beats per minute to 20 beats per minute and its body temperature drops from 35˚C to just 10˚C.

Other UK hibernators include bats, dormice, some insects such as ladybirds, amphibians and reptiles.

Die

This might sound a drastic solution to facing winter but it’s one a number of species implement.  For example, annual plants will complete their life cycle in a year.  During the summer they release their seeds and then they start to die, but leaving behind lots of babies in the form of seeds.  Seeds are a much better form to face the winter in than as a leafy, lush plant which will not be able to cope with frost.

Another organism which often uses this strategy is butterflies.  Many butterflies die shortly after mating and laying eggs and their young then face winter as caterpillars and chrysalises which is much safer.  Some butterflies have adapted to hibernate over winter instead.

Migrate

About 40% of the birds that breed in Britain don’t spend winter here, instead heading off for sunnier places.  But it’s not just birds that migrate, caribou, reindeer, monarch butterflies and other insects all do as well (obviously not UK examples!).

Migration allows animals to find warmer places with better food supplies and less risk of freezing to death.  However, it’s not an easy option.  It’s estimated that swallows suffer 67% annual mortality, much of which is during migration.  Migration is an expensive venture in terms of calories and brings with it risks of predators, shooters and ….

Whilst you might not think it, more northerly birds do migrate to the UK for our comparatively warmer winters.  This includes many kinds of ducks and geese as well as fieldfares, redwings and bramblings.

Migrant butterflies include red admirals and painted ladies which arrive in vast numbers so their caterpillars can hatch here and enjoy the thistles and nettles in the summer.

A likely overlooked migrant is the basking shark which heads to our shores over the summer to eat the concentrated numbers of plankton found here.

Useful links

November’s resources

I’ve found this to be another fascinating topic.  I was slightly concerned that there was going to be lots to think about when it came to animals and humans and significantly less when it came to plants.  I’ve been proven wrong.  Perhaps it’s obvious that since we are so connected, our lives so indebted to plants, there was going to be plenty of fruit to harvest.  But again, that plant blindness has fooled me.  If nothing else, my key takeaway from this month is the value of plants and how overlooked they are.  I hope in the future, I see plants through a different eye, that I can learn more names and get to know my local plants more intimately.  This has been something I’ve been working on very slowly this year but I’m terrible at remembering what things and people look like so it’s not coming especially naturally.  But I  feel I owe it to the plants, and to myself, to try.

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Books etc

  • A little History of British Gardening by Jenny Uglow
  • Plants are Magic Magazine
  • Creative Countryside Magazine
  • The day of the triffids by John Whyndham
  • Yorkshire Through Placenames by R.W. Morris
  • Folklore and Symbolism of Flowers, Plants and Trees by Ernst and Johanna Lehner
  • An Empire of Plants by Tuby and Will Musgrave
  • Gossip from the Forest by Sara Maitland
  • What a plant knows by Daniel Chamovitz

TV

  • The Secret History of the British Garden with Monty Don
  • Botany – A Blooming History
  • 73rd St Productions – lots of really interesting talks
  • Ken Albala – his youtube channel has a lot of fascinating information about the history of food and drink, something I’ve not covered too much here but which provides a lens into the history of humans and plants
  • Why Fruits Change Color and Flavor as They Ripen
  • How aspirin was discovered
  • Into The Imagined Forest
  • Little Shop of Horrors (on Prime)
  • It’s stretching things a bit but The Martian involves a botanist who uses his plant knowledge to survive, I enjoyed it anyway! (Netflix)
  • A monster calls (Prime)

Websites and articles

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The holly and the ivy

This month, looking at plants, is nearly at a close but before we head into December, I thought it would be timely to consider plants and Christmas.  I’m not especially into Christmas but there is a lot of tradition surrounding it which can be interesting.  Also, I’ve not yet looked at holly or ivy in my plant spirit posts and was already planning to, so this will kill two plants with one blog post as it were.

According to the telegraph, the song relates to ancient fertility mythology and the association of the male with holly and good and the female with ivy and evil.

Holly

Holly is a broad leaved, evergreen which is found in most of Europe.  In Britain, it tends to grow as an understory beneath oaks.

Holly is well known for it’s spines which are obviously there to deter predators, and less sharp leaves can be found higher up the plant.  For those intrepid herbivores who still take a bite, the leaves contain bitter tasting alkaloids.

It is a slow growing plant which can live for 250-300 years which has become iconic at Christmas time.  It’s wavy edged leaves and prickly spines, glossy and rich green take a long time to decay.  This may be one aspect of the holly’s nature which has contributed to it’s association with eternal life, with it’s evergreen demeanour being another.  In the midst of winter, when all is dark and cold, the holly continues to rule with dignity, facing the challenging weather head on.

Holly is considered masculine to the ivy which is feminine, possibly because the holly is spiky and defensive where the ivy is more graceful?  Interestingly, the nature of the holly brought into the house is supposed to determine or predict whether the house will be ruled by man or woman in the coming year.  The smooth edged type signalling a woman’s rule. Another tradition says the same but for holly and ivy, with the plant first brought into the house marking the future year.

Holly was planted near homes as it was said to protect against lightning strikes.  As with the oak, it is said to be associated with thunder and hence Thor.  Bringing twigs into the house wards off evil spirits, which I imagine are particularly active in the dark nights of winter.  Another seasonal link is found with the holly king who rules the year from mid summer to mid winter, when the oak king takes over.

Whilst the tradition of bringing holly into the house goes back much further, Christianity has appropriated it as a representation of Jesus.  Holly is said to be representative of his crown of thorns, the red berries his blood and the white flowers a reminder of purity and his virgin birth.

Ivy

Ivy is another evergreen plant and also represents eternity.  It can grow in difficult environments and climbs upwards, using other plants, to reach the sunlight.  Given enough time, they can also bind together other plants which has been taken to mean it is symbolic of unions, whether friendships or more.  It can also mean fidelity and peace (as it brings together different plants).

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As we’ve just seen, ivy is considered feminine and apparently in Ancient Greek mythology, there was a dancing girl who danced herself to death, dying at the feet of Dionysus.  He was moved by her dancing and transformed her into the ivy plant.  Moving to Rome, ivy is said to be linked to the god of wine, Bacchus, Dionysus’ counterpart.  I wonder if this is in part due to the way ivy grows in a similar way to grape vines?  Don’t try eating ivy berries though… they’re poisonous.

On Owlcation, Edith Rickert, who researched carols from 1400-1700, is referenced as noting that many holly and ivy carols existed during this time period and often involved a debate about the relative merits of men and women.

From a Christian perspective, Ivy, with it’s need to use other plants for support, is said to be a reminder that we need to cling to god for support…

If you’ve read some of my animal spirit posts, you’ll have realised that virtually everything is a symbol for an aspect of Christianity.  Hence my cynical tone here is not about the religion, it’s about the shoehorning of symbolism.

And a tiny note about mistletoe

Mistletoe was thought to protect from evil and was also associated with fertility.  Whilst we use it today for Christmas, it was thought to be bad luck to bring it into the house before New Years Eve.  On a basic level, this makes more sense for the current practice of kissing under mistletoe, surely you want a new relationship to start as the year starts not as it dies?

It was used in homes to protect from lightening and evil but because it is associated with paganism, it’s said to be banned from churches*, except York Minster.  Here, it is laid on the high altar on Christmas Eve.  Then a proclamation was made which pardoned and granted freedom to “inferior and wicked people”.

*Although in practice I’m not sure this is actually the case…

November’s reading

Naturally there was been a large element of fairy tales in this month’s reading!  And we’ve taken a look at plants and trees in literature, folklore, poetry and nursery rhymes already.  So here I’m going to look a little more closely at a few less well known poems.

What the trees do by Laura Scott

This might be the poem I’d have tried to write this month if it hadn’t already been written.  Of course, I ‘m not saying I could have pulled it off as well as Laura does – this poem was Commended in the resurgence prize 2017 awards.

“a long time ago
one of them
caught the heel of a girl”

Such a relatable opening, a moment we get drawn in by, we’ve all been there, our shoes caught by a tree branch or root.  But oh, how the tale continues, weaving us into the girl as the girl is woven into the tree.  The delightful, childlike, opening stanza becomes ominous in its repetition at the close.  A warning, a cry for help, a lesson to be learnt.  Be careful when you enter the forests, for you never come out the same.

Aside: When I did a search to refind the link to the poem, I came up with an article called Not All Trees Are Meant to Bear Fruit: Laura Scott on Living Childless by Choice.  I have no idea if it’s the same Laura Scott but it could be another lens through which to read the poem.

Don Paterson, Two Trees

Don Paterson reads ‘Two Trees’ from Faber and Faber on Vimeo.

 

Two Trees has a different structure to What the Trees Do and at first this makes the poem feel upbeat and positive and indeed, Don Miguel achieves the challenging task of entwining two trees.  Trees, which like lovers in old age, become tangled up and inseparable.  The poem could easily have ended there.  Miguel, master of a magic tree, infamous in the village.

But in steps an unnamed name.  And I think it’s important he is nameless.  We feel like we know Miguel, we have a sense of him and obviously his name.  The lack of name emphasises a sense of distance between us, the reader, and this man and his actions.  As the nameless man hacks away at the tree, separating what had grown so close, and on a whim, we mourn for the tree.  In the tree, we see a malicious man destroying strong relationships for no particular reason.

But the trees survive, against the odds, resilient, like we are.  They have weathered their particular storm and they live on.

The nameless man, who has no dreams, is clearly very different to Miguel who gets out of bed one morning with the idea.  Miguel is portrayed as a dreamer, but one with practical skills and perseverance.  The nameless man feels brutal and cruel.  He has no reason behind his actions and whilst the trees do not die, that may not have been the case.  One man is creator, the other destroyer.

I like the irony of the last two stanzas.  This poem is about trees, and it could well be all it’s about.  It could easily be an anecdote being shared but I doubt that many of us read it that way.

Covered by the Forest by Elizabeth Rimmer

I love this poem.  I’ve not really got a lot to say but I really enjoyed the way I felt when I read it.  It was like I was sinking into the forest, grounding myself, connecting with the moment and getting lost amongst the trees.  Whilst this echoes the subject matter, I think the careful choice of words and rhythm guided my transition from reader to tree.

She has another, seasonally relevant, poem called Naming the Autumn (at the bottom of the page, beneath an interesting sort of bio written by Rimmer), I also really like Slow Plant Crossing (a little way down the page).

Who speaks for the trees?

“Like most people, I have a particular tree that I remember from my childhood”
– Hope Jahren

I was intrigued when I read this.  I know I have a number of particular trees from my childhood that I remember deeply and which were very important to me.  But then I had a wood in my garden growing up.  Do children without this access have trees they remember later in life?  I suspect my school friends remembered my tree house, the trees they climbed when they came to play and running through the woods at night on bonfire night.  But what about other children?  I’d love to know, partly because it fascinates me, but also because, if we never get to know a tree deeply enough to remember them, how can we speak for them?

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To speak for trees may sound like a job purely for a treehugger.  For an ardent activist.  And yes, it might be, but it’s also a job for me, and a job for you.  It’s a job for all of us.  For politicians, voters, businesses, scientists, forestry people, walkers…  We all need to speak for the trees, for what are we without them?

But we cannot speak for a tree if we don’t know what it is telling us.  We need to know our trees, deeply and personally.  We need to read it’s bark like a memoir, it’s leaves like flags.  We must hear from the plants and the animals and the birds that live in and near the tree, for without them, the voice is incomplete.

It is easy to assume a tree can stand it’s own ground.  They are personlike. They are sentinel, on guard.  They are in many ways, like man with arms and legs and a head and a trunk.

It is easy to assume that everything in a trees life is fine, that they are happy and satisfied. Their constant nature, the sense that they protect us can trick us into thinking they are ok.  But to glance at a tree is not to know the tree.  To glance at a tree is not to respect the tree.  To glance at a tree is not to cherish the tree.

“We do not realise that the fields and the trees have fought and still fight for their respective places on this map – which, by natural right, belong entirely to the trees”
– Thomas Murton?

Unless we get to know our trees, we cannot speak for them.  These magnificent, seemingly unassuming, beings have much to offer us, if we just approach, and listen.

“Because they are primeval, because they outlive us, because they are fixed, trees seem to emanate a sense of permanence. And though rooted in earth, they seem to touch the sky. For these reasons it is natural to feel we might learn wisdom from them, to haunt about them with the idea that if we could only read their silent riddle rightly we should learn some secret vital to our own lives; or even, more specifically, some secret vital to our real, our lasting and spiritual existence.”
– Kim Taplin

“Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.”
– Hermann Hesse

Who should speak for trees?  All of us.  And yet no one.  No one but she who has taken the time to listen.