Human Flower Project

Orrington, MAINE USA

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Princeton, MAINE USA

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Nuclear Power and Plant Life

Nuclear radiation doesn’t just affect people. What are its damages to plants and potential plant benefits?

Japanese nuclear facilities damaged by 9.0 magnitude earthquake on March 11, 2011 have the region and the world on alert for the effects of radiation.

Image: WKRG

By James H. Wandersee and Renee M. Clary

EarthScholars™ Research Group

Current events in Japan have focused the world’s attention upon the effects of nuclear radiation on people.  And now we learn that radiation has damaged spinach crops and milk supplies in the vicinity of the damaged Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Plant. (On Tuesday, the New York Times reported, “The government found radioactive materials at levels exceeding legal limits in 11 vegetables in Fukushima Prefecture…. Shipments of the affected vegetables from Fukushima Prefecture ended on Monday.)

Radiation indeed does have the potential to harm plants as well as humans, yet, as may come as a surprise,  radiation also has been used by botanists to mutate plants intentionally, with the goal of developing new and desirable traits.

Full understanding of radioactivity and its effects on living things requires a grasp of both quantum physics and elementary particle physics; here are some basics.

As of March 2010, scientists know of 118 different elements that together comprise all chemical matter. The phenomenon of radioactivity is observed in heavy elements such as uranium. Radioactive elements are present in nature, and they can also be separated or made with sophisticated tools like centrifuges, cyclotrons, and nuclear reactors.

A radioactive element contains an unstable nucleus which spontaneously changes into a stable element via a process called “radioactive decay.” In this process, energy is released in the form of fast moving particles and waves – what we call “radioactivity”—emitted as alpha particles, beta particles, or gamma rays.  It is this nuclear energy that, among other effects, can cause damage to living organisms—including plants.

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Posted by Julie on 03/19 at 04:54 PM

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

A Fistful of Acorns

Where’s “home”? Allen Bush settled in the mountains of North Carolina, where he birthed Holbrook Nursery. But a Kentucky oak was shadowing him the whole way.

image2010’s bounty from a well-traveled oak in Fletcher, North Carolina

Photo: Allen Bush

By Allen Bush

There was a huge mast crop last October at the end of Lance Road near Fletcher, North Carolina. Thousands of plump acorns carpeted the ground.  They fell from an oak tree that was planted as a scrawny three-year-old whip, brought from my Kentucky backyard.  Planted in the dead of winter in 1980, a few months after I moved to Holbrook Farm, the tree has grown mightily—and cuts a very fine figure—but is nowhere near mature. Time has disappeared in little more than thirty years. And, in the blink of an eye, we have sold the North Carolina farm and swapped-out out for a smaller piece of land in Salvisa, Kentucky in Mercer County, Kentucky, about an hour from our home and garden in Louisville. I picked-up a few handfuls of acorns in North Carolina and put them in my pocket. They were going home to Kentucky.

A few acorns had been sown in 1977 from what I had guessed was a white oak Quercus alba. The mother oak was, and still is, a majestic specimen with a diameter now of six feet.  The tree has grown mercifully for over one hundred years and has withstood home builders and tornadoes. It was exciting to watch one of its progeny grow into a 12” seedling, in its first year, across the street in my parent’s backyard.

Dr. Michael Dirr, visiting Holbrook Farm with his University of Georgia horticulture students one early May in the late 1980s, guessed that the tree – then, all of 15’ tall—might be a swamp white oak, Quercus bicolor. Why question the wisdom of one of the great experts of all things woody? If I’d ever paid attention to the acorns—a helpful key for identification—I can’t recall, but it was clear last fall: the acorns didn’t resemble those of a swamp white oak.

The oak plot thickened. A few days after I returned from North Carolina in late October, a professional group of Cincinnati horticulturists, landscapers, academics and arborists came to Louisville to visit some gardens. John Swintosky, a landscape architect for the Louisville Metro Parks coordinated the tour. He assured me in an email the week before that this would be a great opportunity for “cross-pollination.” I laid-out the acorns and a few pressed leaves for Swintosky, Tony Nold, Steve Foltz, and Scott Beurlein. Their expert conclusion:  it was a hybrid between Quercus bicolor and Quercus lyrata, the overcup oak.

This made sense. Both oaks grow in Jefferson County (Louisville) according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).  Ronald Jones, in his excellent Illustrated Vascular Flora of the Plant Life of Kentucky describes both species as being at home in swamp forests and wet woods, and said the two species will hybridize in nature.  It’s hard to picture my childhood suburban wonderland as once being a swamp forest.  Maybe the oak found a resting spot on top of a heavy piece of clay that stayed wet a little longer than the area’s typical clay-loam soils.

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Posted by Julie on 03/15 at 10:12 AM
Gardening & LandscapePermalink

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Sakaki and Other Offerings

Shintoism appeases the gods with the leaves of an evergreen. But other contributions are accepted.


Sacred offerings of sakaki leaf and paper are prepared for rites in Yasu City, Japan, October, 2010

Photo: Human Flower Project

As Japan and the world respond to the global tragedy of March 11’s earthquake, we think of the deep reverence the Japanese people hold for all the forces of nature, the beautiful and the terrible. And we’re reminded of a simple Shinto rite.

Branches of sakaki (Cleyera japonica) have a place in most Shinto ceremonies. We first saw them clustered with pieces of cut-paper shaped into white lightning bolts, sacred objects we’ve since learned are called “tamagushi” – offerings to the Shinto gods.

The sakaki tree, a shiny evergreen related to tea and camellia, plays a central part in Shintoism’s creation story (or one of them). The sun goddess had fled to a cave after an attack from her brother, the sea god – a conflict eerily real today. In a tale that echoes Greek mythology’s story of Persephone and Demeter, the world waits and watches for the light to return.

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Posted by Julie on 03/13 at 03:03 PM
Culture & SocietyReligious RitualsPermalink

Wednesday, March 09, 2011


There still are places beyond confines and, for now, beyond profitability—at least of the known kind.



Essay and Photos by John Levett

At sometime in the early ‘70s there was a severe shortage of refined sugar in the UK, something to do with a failed sugar crop in the supply line. If such a shortage occurred this day, no doubt the health fascists would light a candle of justification; that is unless they’d fired the sugar harvest themselves. This was still that part of the last century in which no cup of tea was complete without a truck-load of sugar. Queues outside the supermarkets (the traditional corner shop, which still survived in large quantities in the shires, had long gone out of stock); shelf-loads of the white stuff going in a wink; reports of lorry hijacking and picketing of Tate & Lyle in London’s east end; scuffling shoppers; dodgy market traders—the usual suspects all got air time.

Like most of these diversions the shortage passed, nobody died, life returned to the living. It did, however, scratch an itch. I became interested in how rumours began and how one could start one. This, I now suppose, is described as a “meme” in online parlance. I thought that it would be worth a try to start a rumour and see if I could induce a run on an essential item.

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Posted by Julie on 03/09 at 05:21 PM
Culture & SocietyGardening & LandscapePoliticsPermalink
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