Serving Up a Summer Blog Salad

So many plant related news items cross my desk that make me say “huh” or “really?” or “wow.” Or “you’ve got to be (kidding) me!” I had to clean up that sentence using “kidding” for our family-friendly blog but you get the idea.

Let me catch you up on a few of them while I’m filling my own brain at the annual Cultivate 17 conference in Columbus, Ohio.

Using Vinegar On Plants During a Drought

Don’t go pouring vinegar on your wilting plants just yet. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In Japan, scientists say they’ve created greater tolerance for drought conditions in plants by growing them in vinegar.

Scientists at the RIKEN Center for Sustainable Resource Science conducted their tests on the Arabidopsis plant, which is called Thale cress. Interesting fact: this plant is the “fruit fly” plant for plant biologists. It’s ideal for study because it’s small, easy to grow (it’s considered a weed by most of us), and it has a small DNA code. So it’s easy to manipulate.

Normally plants break down sugar for energy, but when presented with drought conditions, the plants switched to acetate. The more acetate they can produce, the better the chance of surviving the drought. Some plants have a mutation to allow them to produce more acetate, allowing them to survive drought. Clever!

So the research team decided to add acetate in the form of vinegar to plants and expose them to drought to see what would happen. They grew plants in seven test groups using water, various types of organic acids, and acetic acid (vinegar). After two weeks, nearly every plant died EXCEPT the ones grown in vinegarThe researchers hope to use the information to genetically modify plants to enhance their drought tolerance. Does this mean you should add vinegar to your plants in Southern California’s arid climate? Not necessarily. Gardeners have recommended watering acid-loving plants like azaleas, rhododendrons, hydrangeas and gardenias with vinegar diluted in water (one cup to one gallon). Gardeners have also used vinegar as a natural weed-killer, although it will only burn the surface leaves, not kill the roots. It’s great as a natural cleaner for hummingbird feeders and as a pet-safe ant repellant. But I wouldn’t go dumping it into your yard anytime soon.

Some Like It Hot, But Bees Don’t

Bees like the Bombus bimaculatus suffer when temperatures rise, which has the potential for serious long term effects on our eco-system. Photo: U.S. Geological Survey

Global warming or not, San Diego has already experienced hot temperatures this summer. We’ll get creative finding ways to stay cool. Have you ever gone to a movie in the afternoon just for the air conditioning?

Urban bees don’t tolerate heat well, but they don’t have the same ability to cool off as we do. A new study from North Carolina State University found many bee species die off as temperatures rise.

Scientists put individual bees from 15 different species into a closed tub, and raised the temperatures until they were “incapacitated.” (We won’t explore that term further here).

Carpenter bees are the most heat tolerant. They could stand a maximum temperature between 122 and 124 degrees Fahrenheit. The green sweat bee and a bumblebee peaked below 113 degrees. Bees showed adverse effects at lower temperatures, too. With temperatures hitting the high 90s in much of San Diego County’s eastern areas, there’s no doubt our local bees are exposed to these temperatures.

Good Earth Plant Company added an urban beehive to our green roof in 2015 and it’s thriving.

The scientists also studied local bee populations at 18 different urban heat islands identified in the Raleigh, North Carolina area over two years. The field study matched the results in the lab. Bees with the lower tolerance to heat died off more quickly when they faced urban warming. One more reason we should be encouraging the addition of green roofs (like mine!) and other cooling elements to urban buildings. We cannot afford to lose our critically important bee population.

Eat Your Veggies In Space

We would write anything about plant experiments in space. Especially during Comic-Con week!

For several years, NASA Researchers from the University of Florida have been working with astronauts on the International Space Station on experiments to learn how to grow plants in an environment with no gravity. You might remember seeing astronaut Scott Kelly eating the first harvest of red lettuce last year. In February, the SpaceX CRS-10 mission successfully launched a new experimental module with plant seeds to the Space Station. Plants will be grown, harvested, and returned to Earth. Once they are back on solid ground, scientists at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences will sequence the genomes to see what changes in gene expressions occurred in orbit.

Learning to grow plants in space will be critical to long-range space missions, like traveling to Mars. But what I also appreciate about these missions is the recognition by the scientists and by the astronauts themselves of the psychological benefits of growing plants on space missions. Having living plants can help with stress and increase the crew members’ enjoyment. It’s a little bit of home for them. In a video about the program, those benefits are mentioned as well.

By studying how plants grow in space, the researchers hope to have a better understanding of how plants might respond to a changing earth, as well as have a stronger base for sending plants into space in the future.

Vegging Out: Science At NASA video explaining how plants grow in space

This project is called VEGGIE, and it even has its own mission patch. That’s as cool as it gets for plant science!