Potatoes at the Chelsea Flower Show, again

by Luigi Guarino on May 24, 2016

Nice to see agricultural biodiversity on display at the Chelsea Flower Show, in the form of potatoes, of all things. Scroll down past the very boring flowers to the very exciting tuber display. A similar — maybe the same? — display actually won a prize last year, which I can’t think how we missed.


The Adam and Eve of apples?

by Luigi Guarino on May 24, 2016

It was 1993 and US Department of Agriculture (USDA) horticulturist Phil Forsline flew over the magnificent mountain ranges of south-eastern Kazakhstan in a helicopter. Forsline had not been to the huge Central Asian country before; with the recent fall of the Soviet Union, this was his first chance to visit its wild forests. It was here, scientists now believe, that the ancestors of the apples sold in supermarkets around the globe originally evolved. Forsline was on a quest to find out what was really out there, in those mountain gardens.

The appearance on the BBC website of a long piece on the remarkable apple diversity of Kazakhstan and USDA’s efforts to conserve it, which leads with that mouth-watering paragraph above, reminded me that there was a much weirder little article a few weeks ago on much the same subject that I also wanted to point to. If only for the rhetorical flourishes it unleashes:

There are currently 7,500 varieties of apples in the world today — incredibly though, basically every single one of these can be traced back to a Mother and Father tree in a mysterious Kazakhstan forest.

In these Kazakh forests, bears, being the picky buggers that they are, would only pick and eat the sweetest apples.

Then they’d go and wander around poop everywhere and the seeds of these sweet, delicious apples were spread around.

Then humans cottoned on and were all “hey, sick apples, bears – we’re gonna eat and grow these to stuff in our mouths as well.”

Then we started only growing these apples which is why out of the thousands of apple varieties that originated from these forests, only 15 of them end up in our grocery stores.

So now, thanks to a group of scientists’ gene sequencing magic, we know that 90% of all apples can be traced back to a Mama and Papa tree thousands of years ago – that was most likely eaten by a bear and then pooped out all over the place.

Very cool.

Incidentally, those bear-filled apple forests have recently been formally recognized with the International Carlo Scarpa Prize for Gardens. And of course they’re not new to the attentions of the popular scientific press. And the not so popular, all due respect to Steppe magazine.

But what you really want to know is where that assertion that all apple varieties can be traced to two trees comes from. Well, so did I, and I asked around, including the apple people at USDA. Nearest I can figure it, it may be based on the fact that an oldish paper looking at the taxonomy of apples found a wild accession in the USDA collection that shared a bit of chloroplast genome with many domesticated varieties. According to the abstract:

Two matK duplications were found, one in series Malus and the other in most M. domestica cultivars and one Central Asian M. sieversii accession.

Here’s what that looks like, from a different paper by the same authors with fancier graphics.

Screen Shot 2016-05-24 at 10.09.14 AM

It’s all true about the bears though.

Over millions of years, millions of bears just prior to hibernation slowly and unconsciously selected the larger and sweeter fruits of the neo-apples. Bears do have a sweet tooth, as A. A. Milne noted in Winnie the Pooh. The relative inefficiency of a bear’s jaw in crushing fruit has another unintended consequence. As we have seen above, seeds that remain within the tissue (placenta) of the apple do not germinate. Herb Aldwinckle of Cornell University told me he has noticed that very small apples pass intact and uncrushed through a bear’s jaws and gut and, in one or two cases, were seen intact in the fecal mass. The seeds in the small intact fruits would not have germinated. It does not pay, in a genetic sense, to be a very small apple in the Tian Shan.

LATER: Oh, man, I forgot to link to Jeremy’s podcast.



Our friend Nora Castañeda summarizes the second and final day of Kew’s State of the World’s Plants Symposium. Here’s the first day if you missed it. Thanks again, Nora, and see you next year.

The second day of the SOTWP Symposium was also organized in three sessions: Useful plants, plant health and invasive plants.

Ann Tutwiler, DG of Bioversity International, started the day with the idea of super-superfoods: crops that can help targeting nutrition, adaptation and resilience at the same time. Tutwiler also accompanied her presentation with a review of the different the projects that Bioversity leads with underutilized crops and crop landraces around the world. After Tutwiler, I presented our work on the global priorities for improving the conservation of crop wild relatives in genebanks. Dr Claude Fauquet from CIAT followed me, and reminded the audience why cassava is an important crop for food security in Africa, and why it is also called the Rambo Root. Finally, Dr Olwen Grace from Kew presented her phylogenetic exploration of medicinal uses, and in particular her research on the chemistry of succulents.

After the (much needed) coffee break, Prof. Adam Kleczowski began the plant health session with a review of the impact of (appropriately) coffee diseases. Prof. Gary Foster followed with perhaps the presentation that caught the audience’s attention most, thanks to his particular style. He talked about how we’ve recorded plant pathogens and their impacts throughout history, including the expensive tulip bulbs infected with viruses during Tulipmania, and the devastating consequences of Phytophtora infestans in Ireland in the 1840’s. According to Foster: these did not only include the infamous famine, but also the movie Titanic). Prof. Sarah Gurr the presented her cutting-edge research on pests and diseases, including newly emerged diseases that may affect biodiversity and the need of having a more biosecure world, the distribution of crop pests and diseases (and its economic and physical drivers), and what’s going to happen with climate change. Closing the session, Tony Kirkham from Kew shared some of the challenges he and his team are facing in keep the trees in the arboretum alive, and their field observations on how climatic events are affecting the arboretum. Longer winters and summers, and shorter autumns and springs, are apparently not at all good for some of the species in the gardens.

The last session of the symposium dealt with invasive plants and some of the existing global policies for combating them. Dr Montserrat Vilà presented on the impacts of invasive species at the ecosystem level: in aquatic habitats, to pollination, and to phylogenetic diversity. Spoiler alert: it’s not good. Prof. Philip Hulme continued with his talk on the environmental costs of weedy-ornamental plant species, illustrated with the beauty of an invasive species in New Zealand: lupins. Hulme described how weed risk assessment in as an effective tool for controlling the spread of invasive species. Prof. Yvonne Buckley, from Trinity College Dublin, then presented her work on the drivers behind the success of exotic species in grasslands, the Nutrient Network (a global collaborative scheme studying grassland ecosystems) and how plant abundance in their native habitat can be used as a predictor of invasiveness. Closing the session (and the symposium), Dr Gerda A. van Uffelen provided some insights from a regional perspective on how to manage (and avoid) invasive species in Europe. The question is: does having a single list for all countries fit the need to prevent invasives, or can a country-tailored approach be more effective? The discussion continues…

Some final observations. On the organization, it would be great if future SOTWP symposia (the next is planned for 25-26 May 2017) could involve participants from outside the boundaries of the room, perhaps by video-conferencing to a wide audience. And with regards to the SOTWP report, it will be interesting to see to what extent it is actually used to identify gaps in botanical research, and therefore priority setting. And not just for crop wild relatives :)

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SOTWP Day 1: Climate change, protected areas and extinction risk

20 May 2016

In which our friend Nora Castañeda summarizes the first day of the State of the World’s Plants Symposium. The first day of the Kew symposium was divided in three sessions: climate change, protected areas and extinction risk. Dr Kay Havens from the Chicago Botanic Gardens opened the first session, presenting some of the responses that […]

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Baobabs and palms for sale

20 May 2016

Just a quick follow-up to my post a few days back on the Madrid botanical garden. There is a small shop at the entrance, and you can get some pretty weird plants there, like baobabs, for instance, of all things. Not, alas, any of the local grapes and olives on display within. Which seems like […]

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Blogging the state of our plants

20 May 2016

Our friend Nora Castañeda attended the State of the World’s Plants Symposium a couple of weeks back and was kind enough to send us some of her impressions. We’ll publish them in instalments over the next few days. Thanks, Nora. Last week, Kew organized and hosted the very first State of the World’s Plants Symposium. […]

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Finding a good home for teosinte

19 May 2016

Speaking of botanical gardens maintaining collections of crop diversity, this just in: A large collection of Teosinte seed was recently transferred from Duke University to the Missouri Botanical Garden Seed Bank. Teosinte is the wild ancestor to modern corn and the preservation of its genetic material is important to corn research and supports the long […]

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Blogging the olive plague

19 May 2016

It was inevitable, I suppose. There’s now a whole blog dedicated to the “Diffusion of xylella in Italian olive trees.” The latest post comments on an article in Nature which seems to suggest things are beginning to move in normally sleepy Puglia, epicenter of the apocalypse. Here’s hoping. But I still think they should have […]

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A genebank in central Madrid

18 May 2016

Had a nice afternoon out at the Real Jardín Botánico in Madrid last week, offspring in tow (who thankfully didn’t complain too much). It goes back to the late 18th century, and it’s beautifully laid out, and indeed located, though a cool and wet afternoon in early May did not show it off at its […]

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