(Revisiting Ray’s Recommendations)
Image by Keith Weller, USDA ARS

It’s been awhile since I wrote about, or recommended a blog I like which I often use as a source of something to share to The Garden Professors Facebook Page, so I thought I’d revisit the topic this month.

Botanist in the Kitchen was launched in the fall of 2012 by Dr. Jeanne Osnas and Dr. Katherine Angela Preston, evolutionary biologists who also love to cook and were often asked by friends and family to discuss the details about plants during dinner parties.

Add a friend, chef Michelle Fuerst, to provide recipes and there you have it.

Our goal is three-fold: to share the fascinating biology of our food plants, to teach biology using edible, familiar examples, and to suggest delicious ways to bring the plants and their stories to your table. To judge by the questions we are often asked at dinner parties (“What is an artichoke?” “Why is okra slimy?”), some curious eaters genuinely want to know which plant part they are eating and how its identity affects the characteristics of the food.

Dr. Nigel Chaffey, an editor of the Annals of Botany journal and their blog, Botany One coined a cool word (which I’ve stolen) for their mix of plant science and cookery … Phyto-Food-Phylogeny while introducing them to a wider audience …

Plants and food? Tell me more! Well, espousing the view that ‘a person can learn a lot about plants through the everyday acts of slicing and eating them’, The Botanist in the Kitchen ‘is devoted to exploring food plants in all their beautiful detail as plants – as living organisms with their own evolutionary history and ecological interactions’.

I first learned about the blog back in 2015 from an article in Business Insider, linking to their post on the various foods we grow, that were bred from one species of plant …

Brassica oleracea

Six vegetables you can find in any grocery store and which most people eat on a regular basis are actually all from this one plant. Over the last few thousand years, farmers have bred Brassica Oleracea into six “cultivars” that eventually became many of the vegetables we eat …

From the blog post

Some species have undergone the domestication process multiple times, and with some of these species, each domestication effort has focused on amplifying different structures of the plant, producing a cornucopia of extraordinarily different vegetables or fruits from the same wild progenitor. Such is the case with Brassica oleracea. The wild plant is a weedy little herb that prefers to grow on limestone outcroppings all around the coastal Mediterranean region.

So if you enjoy learning about plants we eat, and trying various recipes with them, be sure to follow the Botanist in the Kitchen via email.

Previous posts here on the other blogs I’ve recommended:

Scientific Beekeeping 

Frankenfood Facts

James Kennedy on Chemistry

Ask an Entomologist

Nature’s Poisons


Scientific Beekeeping

Apis mellifera
Honey bee (Apis mellifera), Courtesy of Charles Sharp at Wikimedia Commons

When I first moved to the country in the late nineties, one of the first things I wanted to do (after establishing several vegetable gardens to indulge my tomato obsession) was to become a beekeeper.

So I took a six week course sponsored by West Virginia University, read the full documentation available from the University of Maryland and Penn State as well as back issues of beekeeping magazines, and checked with some hobby beekeepers in the area.

Unfortunately, at that time, honeybees were being devastated by an invasive species … the Varroa mite (Varroa destructor), and the amount of effort needed to keep colonies free from them discouraged me, and the message I was getting from experienced hobby beekeepers was one of “be prepared”, and “I’m, regretfully, giving it up because of the effort involved.”

Basically … too much work … not something I was willing to commit to.

But I never lost my fascination with them (and other bees and wasps, for that matter.)

Then in 2006, I started hearing about Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD, and it was while researching it, that I found the site of Randy Oliver, a biologist who also made his living beekeeping.

The site is Scientific Beekeeping.

From his About tab.

I started keeping bees as a hobbyist around 1966, and then went on to get university degrees in biological sciences, specializing in entomology. In 1980 I began to build a migratory beekeeping operation in California, and currently run about 1000 hives with my two sons, from which we make our livings.

In 1993, the varroa mite arrived in California, and after it wiped out my operation for the second time in 1999, I decided to “hit the books” and use my scientific background to learn to fight back.

The site is not a beginner’s “how to”, but a way to share what he has learned with others:

What I try to do in my articles and blogs is to scour scientific papers for practical beekeeping applications, and to sort through the advice, opinion, and conjecture found in the bee magazines and on the Web, taking no positions other than to provide accurate information to Joe Beekeeper.

(If you’ve been following my blog posts here, then you’ll probably recognize the pattern of places that rise quickly in my judgment, as ones I like)

The site has become my “go to” source for all things related to honeybees, and I recommend it to others who want to stay abreast of the subject.

Scientific Beekeeping


Sunset papaya cultivar
Public Domain Photo of GMO Papaya via Wikimedia Commons


The subject of Genetically Modified Organisms, or GMOs, first came to my attention sometime in the fall of 2009, not long after I started following the Garden Professors Blog.

I stumbled across a site called Biofortified, run (at the time) by a couple of grad students in the field, who were trying to accomplish the same thing that the GPs were, combatting myths and misconceptions about a subject, with research based information.

I spent about 2 years lurking there, because much of the information at the time was over my head, and seemed to be targeted to fellow scientists to help with getting the information out.

So I’m incredibly pleased to introduce you to the blog of Dr. Layla Katiraee, a scientist in a related field, but with little to no experience at all with the topic of GMOs, so spent time learning about it and sharing what she learned with the public.

She is now also a contributor to Biofortified.

One of the best things I like about the blog, is her continual checking with “the spouse” to see how her posts might be viewed from someone outside the field.

Here’s a great example:

So, the spouse has often complained that I don’t have a post with an overview of what transgenesis means and the transgenic (GMO) crops themselves. They’re scattered throughout the history of this blog, but not in a single place.

What does this mean? To explain, I have to go to the beginning: the working units within any cell are proteins. Proteins are made up by linking together amino acids in a given sequence. The exact amino acid sequence is defined in the cell’s DNA; the DNA blueprint for a specific protein is known as a gene for that protein. In general, one gene encodes for one protein (of course, there are exceptions). Since there are thousands of proteins, there are thousands of genes. We’re still figuring out what different genes/proteins accomplish.

Another great post on how the science of safety testing works …

The first thing to keep in mind is that there are many aspects to safety. In our example, we have to select an aspect of water safety that we want to examine: health impact, water transportation, water treatment, proper water storage, etc. For our example, we’re going to select “health impact”.

Then, we have to come up with a null hypothesis. Spouse, I know that it’s counter-intuitive and the double negatives in these statements suck, but unfortunately, it’s a key aspect of this whole article. The baseline for much of research is that there’s no impact or no difference. It’s the researcher’s responsibility to disprove that hypothesis, ie. to show that there is a difference or that there is an impact. So for our exercise, our hypothesis will be “Drinking water does not cause cancer”.

So follow her blog, FrankenFoodFacts, or follow her articles elsewhere on Biofortified, or her Twitter feed, and gain some better understanding about the science behind GMOs.

James Kennedy on Chemistry


Caffeine Molecule – Wikipedia


Sometime in the last twenty years or so, the word “chemical” has become a dirty word.  Hard to pronounce words. Unnatural synthesized substances. Mad scientist concoctions brewed in a laboratory.

I used to try to introduce some perspective when I facilitated pesticide workshops for the general public by teaching how scientists and regulators determined toxicity, so comparisons between familiar substances, like caffeine, aspirin, or detergents could be made, to varying degrees of success.

It was the “unnatural synthesized substances” part that I had the most difficulty overcoming.

James Kennedy, a chemistry teacher in Australia noticed the same problem, and started a blog and outreach effort, using infographics to illustrate the chemical make up of familiar fruits and vegetables.

In this NY Times piece, he gives the reason why:

As a high-school chemistry teacher, I made these posters for my students as a visual introduction to our organic chemistry course. I want to erode the fear that many people have of ‘chemicals’, and demonstrate that nature evolves compounds, mechanisms and structures far more complicated and unpredictable than anything we can produce in the lab.

The success of the basic chemical makeup posters led further to include the evolutionary history of fruits and vegetables from their wild ancestors, as explained in this Brad Plumer article at Vox.

Fruits and vegetables have changed a lot since the onset of agriculture 10,000 years ago, as generation after generation of farmers artificially bred crops to select for more desirable traits like size and taste.

But that change can be hard to visualize. So James Kennedy, a chemistry teacher in Australia, created some terrific infographics to show just how drastic the evolution has been.

His blog is simply called James Kennedy, and here are all the infographics, which also can be ordered as posters.

Ask an Entomologist

Aedes aegypti mosquito. The image is in the public domain from Wikipedia Commons

No, I’m not one.  But the folks who run the Ask an Entomologist site are.  You can ask them anything about bugs, and some of their best posts result from questions that come from kids.

Don’t think of it as a place for identification, although they’ll do their best to answer, or direct you to a good place where that can happen; think of it as a way to prompt them to explain some aspect about the science of Entomology that may not be well understood by the general public.

From their About Section

If you’re interested in how insects are related to one another, how they work on the inside, how they behave, current events in the news, or anything else … you’ve come to the right place.

And here’s how they addressed the identification part in a recent post, introducing the science of Taxonomy:

Please don’t take this the wrong way. We *want* to help you, we’re just not qualified. Insects make up 58% of the biodiversity on the planet, with beetles alone consisting of over 350,000 species. People who study scarab beetles may not even have the expertise to help you identify your sap beetle. Joe and I are just two people, and two people just can’t know all the bugs. That’s why we refer you to places where many people with various areas of expertise are present.

And they’re not afraid to tackle controversial issues, with explanations and links to the science to explain how something works.  This one, for example, which addresses the Sterile Insect Technique (SIT) using the new process of genetic engineering to create the sterile insects.

People have asked Nancy and me a lot of questions about the sterile GMO mosquitoes the British company Oxitec is planning to release in Florida. We get these questions on a Facebook page we administrate as well as through this blog. People are really curious about what’s going on with these mosquitoes, and we’re really excited to talk about them!

Since I used to be responsible for a mosquito management program targeting the mosquitoes that spread West Nile Virus, as well as provide general public pesticide education, that post provided a great deal of clarity on the whole topic.  In particular, the part about Rachel Carson and a quote from her seminal work, Silent Spring, which endorsed SIT as a way to reduce dependence on pesticides; a way to selectively manage a pest in a local area at the species level.  That means zero impact on non-target species.  What an exciting possibility!

Two other places I follow to learn more general things about bugs and insects are Gwen “Bug Girl” Pearson, and the Facebook Page Relax, I’m an Entomologist.

For a more specific understanding of pests in and around the home, there’s Insects in the City and everything you need or want to know about ticks, and how to protect yourself from them, Tick Encounter Resource Center.

Nature’s Poisons

Nature's Poisons
An early 17th century “plague panel” from Augsburg. Public Domain picture courtesy of WikiCommons

It’s more than a little bit intimidating to be a part of the Garden Professors team, since I have no advanced degrees, and my undergraduate degree is in Mathematics, with no formal training in Botany, Horticulture or Plant Science at all.

I am, however, an avid and active hobby gardener; I read a lot; and I have a life-long love of learning and sharing what I’ve learned with others, which led to a nine-year stint as a county Extension Educator, implementing a county wide mosquito management program for West Nile, with additional responsibilities for pesticide education and consumer horticulture.

So, what I hope to do with my space here on the GP site, is share some of the other blogs that I read on a regular basis … ones I’ve learned to trust for either the expertise, or writing style, or some additional insight into plants or gardening, or issues that arise in gardening circles.

First up this week … Natures Poisons, a blog written by Dr. Justin Brower a forensic toxicologist – that’s someone who is employed CSI-like, to investigate possible crimes related to toxicology.

His blog isn’t directly related to his profession, however … as Dr. Brower explains:

I also like plants and gardening, and seeing how there are thousands of plant based poisons, there’s no shortage of material.

Some things I will write about:

•Nature’s Poisons – all types chemical and biological
•Interesting poisonings – recent and historical
•Old uses of Nature’s Poisons

So he’s a gardener, like me, and the rest of you folks who follow the GPs.

I like the blog, not only for the wit and wisdom, but also because it puts a realistic perspective around the idea of “natural” … something which we gardeners often mistakenly equate with benign.

Plants make chemicals to protect themselves from being eaten, and the science behind that, and our use, and avoidance of them, is fascinating.

To get you started exploring the blog, here’s one of my favorite posts there discussing Horseradish, or Armoracia rusticana

Not only do you learn a lot about glucosinolates, and other chemicals in horseradish, but also a peek into the mind of a scientist.

Back inside the warm confines of the house, I cut off the tops of the horseradish roots, rinse off the dirt under water, and scrub them clean with a wash rag.

The “typical” method of preparing horseradish is to grate or grind the horseradish with an equal amount of water, wait a few minutes for the allyl isothiocyanate to build up to the desired hotness, then quench the reaction with a tablespoon or two of vinegar. Throw in a pinch of salt, and you’re done.

You’re always cautioned to do this in a well ventilated area or outdoors.

But screw that.

One, it’s cold outside, and two, and most importantly, I’m a Scientist.

If you like the blog, you’ll likely also like this book by Amy Stewart … Wicked Plants.