Plants in History

One of my favorite categories of garden-related science stories is one I call “eye-candy, oddities & miscellany”. It includes articles that celebrate the beauty of nature and our gardens, stories that make me say “wow” – sometimes out loud, and reports of general weirdness. I last posted something on this category in mid-January. Since then, I’ve accumulated so many such stories that I’m breaking the category into three. Let’s start with historical notes relating to plants.

A 2000-year old loaf of bread. Image courtesy of Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli.

2000-Year old Roman bread recipe

While many occupied their COVID lockdown time learning to bake bread, how about a truly historical recipe? Mihai Andrei, editor in chief at ZME Science shares a sourdough recipe from Pompei and how it came to be rediscovered thanks to archaeology and chemistry research.

Close-up of carving on wood, Patrai, Greece (De Agostini via Getty Images)

Drinking culture

In Salon, staff writer Troy Farah interviews UBC philosophy professor Edward Slingerland about his provocative theory and the book it inspired. In his 2021 book, “Drunk: How We Sipped, Danced, and Stumbled Our Way to Civilization,” Slingerland lays out the case that alcohol may have even been the impetus for humans developing agriculture and complex societies. Slingerland found evidence that, as he writes, “various forms of alcohol were not merely a by-product of the invention of agriculture, but actually a motivation for it — that the first farmers were driven by a desire for beer, not bread.”

When asked for examples, Slingerland notes the following. “When I started doing the research, I encountered this movement in archaeology that I think is gaining adherence and seems quite plausible. That’s called the Beer Before Bread hypothesis. So 13,000 years ago or so, we’re coming together, building these monumental religious sites and feasting. And feasting involved eating meat and other kind of high value items, but also drinking beer. Sites like Gobekli Tepe, [the world’s oldest surviving permanent human settlement], we don’t have direct chemical evidence, but we have these big vats. They were drinking some kind of liquid. And we know from other sites in the area, they were making beer at this time. In some cases beer, probably laced with psychedelics. So in that respect, the desire to get intoxicated actually directly led to civilization. It’s what motivated hunter gatherers to start cultivating crops and settling down. And you see this pattern around the world, not just in the Fertile Crescent but also Mideast, which is now the modern Turkey area, where agriculture first got started.”

Heriot-Watt’s International Centre for Brewing and Distilling is using 200-year-old barley in a project with Holyrood Distillery in Edinburgh. Credit: Holyrood Distillery

200-year-old barley for modern whisky

Heriot-Watt University’s Dr Calum Holmes is working to develop new whiskeys using old strains of barley. Experts from Heriot-Watt’s International Centre for Brewing and Distilling (ICBD) are working with Holyrood Distillery in Edinburgh to find out whether old species of barley could create distinctive new whiskies. Over the next six years, they’ll test at least eight heritage barley varieties and provide the scientific evidence needed to classify the flavours and aromas they bring to a dram. “There’s hope that using these heritage varieties of barley might allow for recovery of favourable aroma characteristics.”, says Dr. Holmes. 200-year-old Chevallier is one of the varieties they’ll be distilling. It was the most popular barley in Britain for 100 years but fell out of favour when tax rules changed. They’ll also test Hana, which was originally grown in Czech Moravia and was used to make the first blond Pilsner lager in 1842. Golden Promise is from the 1960s and grows predominantly on the east coast of Britain, from Angus down to Northumberland. It is best known as the barely behind the iconic Macallan bottlings from the sixties. The team hopes that the research will create new single malts for Holyrood Distillery and increase knowledge and awareness about the positive traits of heritage barleys. 

“The Houses of Parliament, Sunset,” by Claude Monet (1913). Image credit: Active Museum/Active Art/Alamy Stock Photo.

Hazy impressionist landscapes

Impressionist artists like Claude Monet and Joseph Mallord William (J. M. W.) Turner are famous for their hazy, dreamlike paintings. However, a new study finds that what these European painters were really depicting in their works wasn’t a figment of their imagination, but an environmental disaster: air pollution. Scientists examined approximately 100 artworks by the two impressionist painters, who dominated the art scene between the mid-18th and early 20th centuries, during the Industrial Revolution. The team discovered that what some art enthusiasts had long believed was Monet and Turner’s style of painting was actually them “capturing changes in the optical environment” that were associated with a decrease in air quality as coal-burning factories began dotting European cities and spewing pollutants into the air, according to the study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The son of study first author Zhuo Feng, of Yunnan University in Kunming, China collecting a leaf of Bauhinia that shows signs of symmetrical insect-feeding damage. Image credit: Zhuo Feng (CC BY-SA).

Plants ‘slept’ with curled leaves 250 million years ago

Each night at sunset, a handful of plants “fall asleep.” Species as diverse as legumes and daisies curl up their leaves and petals for the evening and do not unfurl until morning. Now, a new study suggests that plants may have been folding their leaves at night for more than 250 million years. By tracking the unique bite marks that insects inflict only upon folded leaves, the authors determined that one extinct group of plants were likely nyctinastic — the scientific term for plants curling up in response to darkness.

Evidence of insect feeding damage on the leaf of the now extinct Gigantopterid. Image credit: Current Biology/Feng et al. (CC BY-SA).

“Since it is impossible to tell whether a folded leaf found in the fossil record was closed because it experienced sleeping behavior or because it shriveled and bent after death, we looked for insect damage patterns that are unique to plants with nyctinastic behavior,” study co-author Stephen McLoughlin, curator of Paleozoic and Mesozoic plants fossil collections at the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm, said in a statement(opens in new tab). “We found one group of fossil plants that reveals a very ancient origin for this behavioral strategy.”

After examining hundreds of specimens and photographs of gigantopterid fossils, the authors discovered symmetrical holes indicating that the leaves of these prehistoric plants were mature and folded when they were bitten. The results, published in the journal Current Biology, provide the strongest evidence to date of nyctinasty in ancient plant species.

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