14 September 2014

Book Review: Botany Fifth Edition by James D. Mauseth

While it's taken me 15 months to read this book; I can't praise it enough. Sometimes it felt overwhelming and never ending, but that's because most of the concepts and ideas where things that I'd never read about before. Luckily the author knows Botany so well that even with the scientific terminology, he has been able to communicate the ideas at a level even I could understand.

This book is large, not only page-wise (652 before a good size glossary and index), but also physically (28.2 cm by 23.5), but not a single page is wasted. The author is keen to make sure the students not only understand plants, but also other organisms so that we can learn by comparison. The book is split into 4 parts covering Plant Structure, Plant Physiology and Development, Genetics and Evolution, and Ecology. Within these parts are chapters that break the material into sensible chunks and within these chapters are a set of features that make the book highly readable and very interesting. These include, part openers that introduce the part of the book, which are followed by concept section that introduces the reader to each chapter.

The author is also keen on students knowledge being expanded from the basics of Botany and as such other features include: Alternatives, which look at if what plants typically do can be done in other ways, such as photosynthesis without leaves. 'Plants Do Things Differently', are boxes that compare plant biology with human biology, providing comparisons on things such as 'Calcium: Strong Bones, Strong Teeth, but Not Strong Plants'. Plants and People boxes are essays on the way that plants and people influence each other, with topics such as, 'Controlled Growth Versus Cancerous Growth'. The final set of boxes are Botany and Beyond, which provide learning beyond the essential plant science material, including 'Cacti as Examples of Evolutionary Diversification'.

Something that really helped me get to grips with the written material are the stunning illustrations, from diagrams of cells and functions, often accompanied by micrographs showing the minute functions and parts of plants, to photographs chosen to provide a really clear visual aid.

This is not how I remember text books back from my school days. Either I just wasn't interested, which made the books boring, or the books were just boring! But this book has been written with passion and it comes through in the text and the choice of additional material and illustrations. Even for someone like myself, who became interested in Botany less than 3 years ago, this book provides information at an understandable level.

As with any scientific area, there is a lot of terminology in the text, but this is backed up with an accessible glossary. Each chapter comes with a set of questions. There is even a companion website, but I haven't used the code for that yet, as access it only for 1 year and I want to make sure I have time to really get the most out of it.

I can't recommend this book highly enough. For anyone that really wants to learn how a plant does what it does, then read this book. Sure, it might be tough going in places; but afterwards when you read botanical topics, it'll be easier to understand. I really appreciate that my mother-in-law and sister-in-law gave me this book as a Birthday present 2 years ago - especially as now I've finished reading it; I feel a real sense of achievement.

26 August 2014

Book Review: The First Eden by David Attenborough

This book is my souvenir from our recent trip to Brownsea Island. Along with a new NT shop, there is also a room of second hand books being sold for charity, and this is where I found this book.

This book (a companion to a television series of the same name) takes us on a journey around the Mediterranean, from the Gibraltar Straits at the western end all the way through to the eastern edge including Egypt and Turkey. From pre-history to modern times and encompassing a great deal of human and natural events.


Broken down into four chapters broadly covering natural history, archaeology, history, and ecology, this book provides information on a massive range of topics. In true David Attenborough style, the book revolves around various stories that highlight the point being made. Whether it's in the first chapter, The Making of the Garden, where we're told of the pigmy elephants and giant dormouse; or in the final chapter, Strangers in the Garden, where we follow the story of the aphid that destroyed a great many wine vineyards in the late 1880s.

The first chapter really entices the reader with the wonderful creation of the Mediterranean and giving us a glimpse of the animals and plants that have made their way to the islands and having found their niche, evolved and in some cases, sadly, become extinct there. From pigmy animals of hippo and elephant that lived on islands such as Malta, to the 50-odd species of beautiful orchids that live around the Mediterranean; life on, in, and around, the Mediterranean has been a busy one. Spectacles, such as the millions of jersey tiger moths that hang to the moss-clad rock in the Petaloudes Valley are surely a wonder of nature.

The second chapter allows us to investigate the archaeology and pre-history of the Mediterranean, including the wonderful artwork that adores the walls of caves. These are all of various animals, but non more important to these people than the bull - which allowed them to develop a rather fascinating religion. However, it was plants, such as the olive, that really allowed the people to live and prosper.

The third chapter delves into the history of the Mediterranean has been turbulent, showing us that war in the region is not just a recent occurrence. Territory passed from empire to empire, from Roman to Visigoth, to Huns, etc. All stripping the Mediterranean of  its resources in the never ending quest of solidifying and then extending the amounts of land (and people) under the control of the empire. The Moors, however, brought paradise to Spain, in the form of a garden - in Arabic the same word is used for both paradise and garden. Their management of water allowed stunning gardens to be made in places of little rainfall. When I think of the Mediterranean landscape, I see blank spaces of land with bits of scrub, but this book shows that the Mediterranean used to be a forested landscape that was cut down and destroyed in the name of warfare. In one particular battle, the battle of Lepanto, is has been calculated that for all the fleets fighting that day, over a quarter of a million mature trees will have been felled. What a waste of life - and that doesn't even include the human cost of such pointless battles or the loss of habitat for the other animals, plants, fungi, etc.

In the final chapter, Strangers in the Garden, we see how much humans have changed the Mediterranean. From the building of canals through countries, such as the Necho's canal and the modern day Suez canal, to shorten voyages - allowing the movement of aquatic species into new habitats that they would never naturally reach. Also the mass movement of plants into and out of the Mediterranean, which seems to have started in the 7th century and never stopped. However, Attenborough is an optimist and see that while the Mediterranean may, arguably, be the oldest humanised landscape, very few species have actually gone extinct. He posits that the Mediterranean should be the place that allows us to learn from our mistakes, and as the countries of the Mediterranean have come together to protect the wildlife in their waters - the countries of the world should take this example and come together to protect the Earth. amazing thinking for a book that was published in 1987 - just another example of the wonder that is David Attenborough.


18 August 2014

Anatomy of an apple - A Short Study

The apple is just one member of the massive Rosaceae family that contains over 2800 species located in 95 genera. Lots of these species are useful as food products and the apple must be among the most popular of these. The apple is also classified in a subtribe called Malinae. This subtribe contains around 1100 species in 28 genera, including hawthorn and cotoneaster. The fruits of Malinae are accessory fruits called pomes, which is derived from pōmum, which is latin for fruit.


Folklore
As the saying goes "An apple a day keeps the doctor away", but where does this saying come from and what does it mean?
The earliest variant of the saying comes from a 1866 edition of the Notes and Queries magazine which states: "A Pembrokeshire proverb. Eat an apple on going to bed, And you'll keep the doctor from earning his bread." It's worth knowing that in Old English the word apple (æppel) could mean any type of fruit or just fruit in general.
However, we now know that it's not just a nifty saying. The apple contains many chemicals that are useful for us from vitamin C to a range of phytonutrients (substances found in plants that have nutritional value) that can mop up free radicals. Apples have also been used as a 'poster boy' recently to point out that everything is made of chemicals and that not everything man-made is terrible for us - click here to view.

The apple is abundant in our history; from apples bobbing being a traditional halloween activity to the cockney rhyming slang for stars (apples and pears). While never specified as an apple, most people associate the apple with the forbidden fruit of Genesis that Adam and Eve ate - however this may be due to the painters of the Renaissance needing some sort of fruit to paint. It is suggested that the Renaissance painters entwined the greek mythology of the tree of life and its golden apples with the Genesis fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

The apple occurs so much in our history and folklore, that books could be written about it! For more information, try an Internet search. For now, let's move on to the anatomy of the apple.

Flower of an apple tree
Anatomy
The anatomy of fruits is interesting and the apple is a helpful fruit in helping to understand it. If you eat multiple apples off the same tree, or if you buy a brand of apples (such as Granny Smith apples which reputedly germinated from an Australian woman's compost heap); you know that the apples from a single tree/cultivar taste the same. 

This is because apples require cross-pollination, so the seeds of each apple may have been from pollen of many different trees (anthropomorphically speaking: from many fathers), all the apples from a single tree only have one mother. So, as the part of the apple we eat is developed only from the mother (1n), all the apples on a single tree will taste the same. As seeds are from both parents (2n), growing an apple tree from seed will lead to apples that taste different from both parents - sometimes this will lead to a tasty new variety; but often this is not the case.

An apple is known as an accessory fruit, meaning that not all of the fruit is from the ovary. In the case of apples (and pears), the fruit flesh is from the hypanthium. The hypanthuim is also known as the floral cup and is the base of the perianth (outer part of the flower) which connects the sepals, petals, and stamens. As you can see in the photo below, the hypanthium enlarges greatly after fertilisation and becomes the fleshy (and rather tasty) part of the apple. The pedicel is the stalk at the top of the apple, which originally held the flower and goes on to hold the fruit as it hangs from the tree.


The semi-circle mark on the left of the apple was left by something that got to the apple before me!



The flowers of the Rosaceae family often work in multiples of 5. In the flower photo above, you can see 5 petals and 5 anthers. In the fruit photo above you can see the marks of 10 stamen (apologies the the cut mark and the bug hole hiding 2 of them!) as well as 5 ovary chambers. 

So, the next time you eat an apple, be thankful for the enlarged hypanthium that is enriched with many phytonutrients that will keep you healthy and taste great!

References

Mabey, Richard. Flora Britannica. 1st edition. London: Chatto & Windus / Sinclair Stevenson, 1996.
Allaby, Michael. A Dictionary of Plant Sciences. 3 edition. Oxford: OUP Oxford, 2012.
Apple Anatomy Cross-Section. 2014. Apple Anatomy Cross-Section. [ONLINE] Available at: http://appleparermuseum.com/AppleAnatomyCrossSection.htm. [Accessed 18 August 2014].