Any PR is good PR…I think…

Virginia Tech (my institution of employment) does a good job of bringing newsworthy research and outreach stories to the university’s home page.  With a huge college of engineering, robotics seems to be the dominant theme (no matter how lame the robot is) closely followed by solar-powered cars etc.  So it’s a rare and thrilling event when a news items with a horticultural topic is featured on the VT web site!

As I read it yesterday, my heart sank a bit. A little less drama and a little more fact-checking would have gone a long way (the demise of which is a re-occurring gripe here on Garden Professors). I do seriously appreciate that something horticultural made the news,
and the efforts of the writers to make it interesting. I also realize a
great majority of the readers will not split hairs like I have.

If you’d like to read the brief and pleasant article, click on the link. My carping will make much more sense.

In a nutshell, a lab associated with Virginia Tech has developed a tissue culture protocol for the propagation of an Icelandic poppy cultivar at the behest of a cut flower grower.

Hurrah, right? Absolutely. But the article mucks it up a bit.

(On with the hairsplitting!!!)

1) Icelandic poppy (Papaver nudicale) is in no way endangered or about to go extinct. You can buy seed by the pound. The cut flower grower mentioned  (a fabulous grower and just as wonderful a person) has a favorite cultivar. ‘Temptress’  is a selected, named variety of P. nudicale – of which there are many (20? 30?).  Cultivars are lost all the time, but they do not "become endangered" or  "go extinct" – this terminology implies it is found in the wild. Which ‘Temptress’ is not, because it is a man-made selection.  If ‘Temptress’ is indeed a hybrid, the parents could possibly be crossed to hopefully the same end. Extinct…is forever. 

It may be rare, it may be difficult to propagate by the usual means of seed or cuttings, and micropropagation has apparently worked to sustain the variety. Micropropagation has been used to save many heirloom fruits and vegetables.  But back to our poppy.  True, it may not continue to exist if a viable method of propagation is not found, as the grower notes.  But the authors incorrectly interpreting the quote.  The world is not losing a species; rather, one cut flower grower is losing his favorite color of poppy.

2) Though fine scientists in their own right, the two faculty named in the article did not (nor did they claim to) "pioneer a technique known as micropropagation."

I think I just heard Dr. Toshio Murashige have a cow.

Micropropagation (a form of tissue culture) has been around since the 30’s and is now a HUGE industry around the world.  For example, nearly every orchid and fern sold at Home Depot is a product of micropropagation.  

Micropropagation involves many variations on and combinations of plant hormones, growth regulators, minerals, etc.  The researches mentioned (and their staff) formulated a successful protocol (recipe) for this particular species. It was indeed a challenge, and it’s great that they came up with the correct combination of the umpteen variables required to generate root and shoot growth. This is often called "cracking the code" and would have been the correct angle for the article authors to take.  Finally, microprop is NOT a “plant breeding method” as stated in the photo caption. And since the Icelandic poppy is not fragrant, there will be no "fragrant scent wafting." No. Wafting.

Though it sounds lovely.  Thanks for listening.

The Genetically Modified Kentucky Bluegrass Problem (The Anger As Promised)

One of the nice things about my job is that I get to work with a lot of other researchers who work in a lot of different areas.  One of these areas is molecular biology and I certainly know people who have genetically engineered plants to do one thing or another.  Maybe it’s because I know so many people who work with them, but I’m not fundamentally opposed to genetically  engineered crops. Which isn’t to say I’m not concerned about certain genetically modified crops, but in general I think that the systems we have in place to review them have done a decent job of making sure that nothing too terrible is released.

Until now.

A few years ago a grass called creeping bentgrass was genetically modified to be resistant to Roundup.  This grass was never released to consumers, but it was released for testing, it escaped, and now this grass, though not widely distributed, has made a pest of itself in various spots – and we can’t use Roundup to control it. 

The above is obviously a problem, but not the problem I’m concerned about.

This past July APHIS (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service — a department of the USDA) confirmed that a new genetically engineered Roundup resistant Kentucky bluegrass was not subject to regulation because it had been made without using organisms that are considered pests (Most genetically modified plants are).  So, for the first time, the government is actually saying that a genetically modified crop is exempt from oversight.  The other two governmental entities that usually look at genetically modified organisms, the EPA if a plant produces a pesticide and the FDA if a food is being produced, don’t need to look at this grass because it doesn’t produce a pesticide and it isn’t a food.

This, in my opinion, is insane.

This non-native grass is a known invasive across the Midwest where it fares pretty well out on the plains.  In fact, according to the USDA (which includes APHIS) it is listed as an invasive weed in the Great Plains States and Wisconsin.  The USDA also lists one of the preferred controls for this grass as glyphosate (Roundup).


Look, I know this is kind of a tricky thing what with the way that this grass was made and all.  But it seems to me that if APHIS wanted to consider this a potentially noxious weed it could, thereby mandating some review. 

What it comes down to is that I am very scared that the company which made this grass – Scotts Miracle-Gro — might actually release it and cause some problems similar to those caused by the Roundup resistant creeping bentgrass – but at a much larger scale.  Sure, there are other pesticides which can be used on Kentucky bluegrass if it gets out of hand, but losing one that is so effective and so safe (on a relative scale of course) seems crazy.  I guess you could argue that using this grass might reduce the use of other, scarier, chemicals in yards, but jeepers crimeny, wouldn’t you like some non-partisan governmental organization to at least look at it?

In my opinion this whole thing is just nuts.  And let’s not lose sight of something that is potentially even scarier: By figuring out how to avoid government regulation, Scotts Miracle-Gro has drawn a map for other companies to avoid regulation with their genetically modified crops.

Reader input wanted for new book

(Note:  I’ll be doing another blog posting later today.  Just want to be sure I get this out.)

I’m writing a new book on plant physiology for gardeners – a book that explains how plants work and why they sometimes do weird and unexpected things. I’d like to hear what kind of “how” or “why” questions you’d like to see answered in this type of book.  Please add your comments to this post, or send them to me directly. And if there are other gardeners you know who might want to send suggestions, be sure to send them the link!

Smoke ‘em if you’ve got ‘em…

(As an aside, I wrote this before I read Jeff’s Oct. 13 post so don’t read this as a rebuttal!)


One of the hallmarks of science is that it pays to keep an open mind.  We all tend to have biases so it’s good to get a reminder once in a while that some things that seem ‘out there’ can actually work and provide some useful information.


A case in point.  At the American Society for Horticultural Sciences annual meetings I make a point to wonder through and browse all of the poster presentations – even those that appear to have little relevance to issues I typically deal with.  This year one of the posters that caught my eye was by Orville Baldos and his colleagues at the University of Hawaii and the USDA on the use of liquid smoke flavoring to improve seed germination of piligrass.


So first, what’s piligrass and why would you want to improve its seed germination?  Piligrass is a native bunchgrass in Hawaii.  It’s used for conservation and restoration projects and there is increased interested in its use as an ornamental.  It is drought tolerant and fire adapted but production is limited by poor seed germination.  Where does liquid smoke flavoring come in?  Liquid smoke is produced by passing wood smoke through water (I assume someone somewhere has constructed the world’s largest bong to accomplish this).  The water traps a variety of chemical compounds in solution, many of which are useful in giving a delicious smoky flavor to foods that have never been near a grill.  Some of the compounds in liquid smoke are also useful in improving germination of seeds of fire adapted plants, or at least piligrass.


In their study Baldos et al. found that germination of piligrass seeds soaked in distilled water was a paltry 0.5%.    In other words, you’d have to sow 200 seeds for each plant you hoped to produce.   Soaking seeds in gibberillic acid (a common method to improve seed germination for a variety of plants) bumped the germination rate up to 20% (5 seeds to get one plant).  But soaking seeds in liquid smoke did better still and doubled the germination to 40%.


At the end of the day it’s unlikely that I’ll ever use liquid smoke for anything except adding a little extra zing to my family’s secret barbeque sauce.  But this study is a good example that sometimes things that make you go ‘What the heck?’ can have merit in the end.  Just need to take a scientific approach and keep an open mind.


For those interested in the details here’s a link to the poster

Disagreeing With Colleagues

There are lots of things that people write about that I strongly disagree with.  Mostly I keep my mouth shut because my comments would amount to:

A. Preaching to the choir
B. Supporting the phrase "A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still" (I’m not sure who to attribute this saying to — I’ve seen a few different authors named).  My interpretation of this phrase is that you can’t convince someone of something they don’t want to be convinced of.

But I don’t feel that way with most of my colleagues — and I certainly don’t feel that way about any of my fellow bloggers.  We feel, and have always felt (as far as I know) that it’s important for us to disagree openly on things because only through open discussion can we arrive at the truth.  I also think that it’s important that you get to see our disagreements. 

Too often the vision that I think most people have of academic discussions is of a bunch of jerky professor types sitting around a table in a pretty university conference room nodding to each other that, yes, yes, all academics agree and we must now force the public to believe what we do.  If I’m being honest (and I try….) I sometimes feel the same way about topics like global warming.  Sure, many academics agree that global warming has been brought on by humans, but it’s far from unanimous and you need to listen to all of the voices, not just the loudest ones, to get the whole story.  Actually, there are relatively few topics that "all academics" agree on.

I am extremely proud of this website because it allows everyone to see the discussions that professional horticulturists have about various topics.  Sure, often we agree, but sometimes we don’t.  When we don’t agree we hash it out and admit when there isn’t research supporting our ideas.  And we also talk about the research we conduct which is meant to give us answers — and reduce disagreements — such as Bert’s recent post requesting input on which experiment would be most valuable.  All of his proposed experiments would provide answers to questions that we regularly discuss.

Which brings us to Linda’s most recent post.  You can mark me down as being highly skeptical of washing the roots of B&B trees prior to planting.  Linda obviously believes otherwise.  We both have our reasons, and we both agree that more research needs to be conducted.  Until it’s conducted we’ll just agree to disagree and get along with each other fine.  And it’s a nice feeling to work in that kind of environment (Happy post this week — Next week I’m planning on some serious anger!).   

Sugar and Spice and Misnomers

At a lively hobnob with friends and colleagues, the discussion ranged from critique of the Virginia Tech offensive line to the logic/mystery behind commercial carbon offsets.  Someone mentioned Domino Sugar’s efforts in that direction. Apparently their product has been certified “carbon free” by a business carbon offsets program that they pay a fee to. This led to hoots and snorts as to their selection of terminology since it involves a molecule (sucrose) that is 27% carbon.

From the fascinating thus time-eating Serously, don’t click the image unless you’ve got an hour to burn.

I’d forgotten all about it until I saw a post (on of all places) that also brought it up.  The product in question:

Now I can appreciate that the point of this branding/certification is not to advertise a dearth of carbon; rather their good intentions,  as it is Carbonfree, not carbon free.  But the marketing staff perhaps need to be reminded that in addition to the inorganic carbon gases that are of major concern, carbon is a part of all organic life…and essential to both sweet tea and the suffering of Biochem students everywhere.