Biodiversity Gardening Miscellany

Tulips and Weasels

Greetings fellow plant lovers, this crazy-busy time of year continues so it may be another week or so before I can resume my regular science-based posts. In the meantime, allow me to share some observations about spring in Ottawa.

Ottawa Tulip Festival

This past Wednesday morning, I joined a group from the Ottawa Horticultural Society for an exclusive tour of the tulip beds at Dow’s Lake. Our tour guide was none other than Tina Liu, Landscape Architect for the National Capital Commission and the artistic genius behind the gorgeous tulip bed designs that have made Ottawa’s Tulip Festival a must-see event.

Tina Liu showing members of OHS around at the Queen Julianna tulip bed, Commissionaire’s Park, Dow’s Lake, Ottawa. Photo by R. Last.

We met at the Queen Julianna bed, one of the “drive-by” flower beds that entice passing motorists to slow down and maybe even stop to smell the flowers. Tina explained that this bed features the earliest tulips and is also where the bulbs gifted annually by the Dutch government are planted. Contrary to popular belief, tulips in all the other beds at Commissionaire’s Park, Dow’s Lake, are purchased by the National Capital Commission (NCC). Ensuring there are enough tulips, flowering at regular intervals during the festival period, on a relatively modest budget makes the design exercise both a logistical and accounting challenge as well as an artistic one!

Stately Elizabeth Arden tulips are supposed to be a later variety. However, the combination of rain and warmer temperatures saw them blooming early this year, underlining the challenge of ensuring continuous blooms. Photo by R. Last.

Tina is a font of knowledge about the history of the tulip festival. During WWII, members of the Dutch royal family sought refuge in Ottawa. Princess Julianna was born in Ottawa’s Civic Hospital, which is located just west of Commissionaire’s Park. Members of the Dutch royalty must be born on Dutch soil to have a claim on the throne. Accordingly, the Government of Canada declared the maternity wing where Julianna was born to be temporarily designated as Dutch sovereign territory.

As a thank you for Canada’s hospitality, after the war ended, the Dutch government began a tradition of gifting tulips to Canada. The Federal District Commission (predecessor of the NCC) initially wanted to plant the tulips on Parliament Hill but Prime Minister Mackenzie King thought the site too solemn to host such colourful blooms. However, while Mackenzie King was away on business, the FDC snuck up to the Hill and planted the tulip bulbs anyway. Since they were underneath the turf, no one knew they were there until the next spring. It seems Mackenzie King wasn’t too upset about this guerilla planting because the NCC archives include a photo of him smiling in front of the tulips.

This exuberantly coloured bed of double tulips was inspired by Tina’s father, whose favorite video game is Candy Crush.

Least Weasel

Thursday afternoon, I worked with a couple of my MG colleagues to offer advice to gardeners visiting Beetbox Farm in Ottawa’s west end. It was a lovely sunny day and a wonderful way to spend a few hours outdoors in a bucolic setting.

Master Gardeners in Training Kathleen Atkinson (L) and Adrian Barber (R) at the MGOC advice clinic at Beetbox Farm. The heavy chain in the foreground helped to hold all our papers in place, as there was a pleasant breeze.

For me the most notable event to occur during this advice clinic was that we spotted a least weasel, which was living in the mound visible at the extreme left of the photo above. The least weasel (Mustela nivalis) is the smallest weasel and one of the smallest carnivores in North America. Although their size varies and there are several sub-species, the little fellow we saw was about the size of a chipmunk but sleeker and perhaps slightly longer in the body. Apparently they are classified as least concern by the IUCN, due to their wide distribution and large population. Yet, this was the first time I had ever seen one.

Alaskan least weasel (Mustela nivalis eskimo). Photo by Cecil Sanders.

As a fan of Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows, I grew up thinking of stoats and weasels as the bad guys. Indeed, the least weasel is apparently a fearsome predator and has been known to take down prey several times its size and weight. Relative to its body size, the weasel has a stronger bite force than a lion, tiger, hyena, or even a bear. To the Toad, Mole and Ratty, heroes of Wind in the Willows, this would make them formidable foes. But I find it hard to square the awe I felt at seeing this tiny, cute creature with the band of cutthroats portrayed in Grahame’s classic.

From Reading Kingdom, The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, is one of the Reading Kingdom’s recommended books for children.

We are privileged to live in a world with so many other wonderful creatures. Seeing this little least weasel was a reminder to me of how precious they all are, and of our responsibility to steward these creatures and protect their habitats to others can also enjoy them.

Climate Change Food & Agriculture

Changing Diets

This is the third and final post in my series on how we are responding to those twin threats to our food supply – climate change and peak oil. My own experience, from several decades of trying to grow my own food, is that self-sufficiency is not possible without both more land that I have in my tiny suburban garden, and a much more concerted effort than I’ve been able to muster. However, the biggest successes in my edible garden have been from perennial plants. They take much less work and produce far more food than most of the annual veggies I grow.

Serviceberry in bloom in Rebecca’s front garden. Photo by R. Last.

In the early 2000s, I started studying and implementing permaculture practices. I planted my garden with edible woody plants such as currants (Ribes spp.), hazelnuts (Corylus americana), a Nanking cherry (Prunus tomentosa) and a serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis).

Cover art on Stephen Barstow’s book, which is still my bible for learning about edimental plants.

About a decade later, I attended a talk by an amazing, if slightly mad, Englishman called Stephen Barstow. Barstow introduced me to the concept of “edimentals” – a term he uses to describe ornamental plants that are also edible. I loved the idea and bought a copy of his book. His Edimentals website contains hundreds of postings describing how he uses the many plants that grow in his garden. By the way, Bartstow’s garden is in northern Sweden, not far from the Arctic Circle. If he can grow it, then I can too, here in Ottawa. The big difference between edimentals and permaculture is the the former focuses much more on herbaceous, rather than woody, plants, and it introduced me to the idea of eating plants that I’m already growing for their looks. A couple of years ago, I even gave a short talk on this topic, which you can still find on YouTube. So let’s dive into how changing our diets might help save the planet, and how the twin threats of climate change and peak oil might force us to change our eating patterns anyway.

 Two recent global events – COVID 19 and the war in Ukraine, serve to highlight the fragility of our globalized food system. More recently, a flurry of stories out of the UK highlight the perils of nationalism. Brexit has not worked out well for anyone in the UK interested in eating fresh food! See for example:

Photo from The Guardian UK. Empty fruit and vegetable shelves in a north London supermarket. Photograph: James Veysey/REX/Shutterstock.

Empty supermarket shelves symptomatic of a dysfunctional system

Writing in The Guardian UK, Jay Rayner puts current UK food shortages into the larger context of a food system where the retail sector is dominated by just a dozen companies and where food challenges are exacerbated by a government that prioritizes cheap food over healthy food from sustainable sources. He describes how local growers are being pushed off land so it can be used to build houses. He notes the idiocy of post-Brexit seasonal work visas that aren’t long enough for farmers to bring in workers for the full growing season. Then came the energy crisis. The government chose not to subsidise the energy costs of growers. Last week APS Group, one of the largest tomato growers in the country, admitted it had left some of its glasshouses unplanted for the first time in almost 75 years. Rayner argues that cheap food is not the answer. He writes, if we structure our food system so that those in poverty can access it, we will only further damage our agricultural base. We need on the one hand to deal with the functioning of our food system and on the other with poverty, with a chronically unequal distribution of wealth. We need to stop talking about food poverty and just call it poverty.

Graphical abstract. Credit: One Earth (2023). DOI: 10.1016/j.oneear.2023.01.005

Can we produce all our own food?

One logical response to both climate change and peak oil is to shorten supply chains. Researchers from Leiden University in the Netherlands asked if nations could produce all their own food. According to the study published in One Earth (2023), for half of the world population the answer would be yes. For the other half: maybe? Leiden environmental researcher and head author Nicolas Navarre explains, “With improvements to crop yields, reductions in food waste, and changes in consumption patterns, 90% of people could live in countries that don’t need to trade for food.”

From Smithsonian Magazine “Five Ways to Start Eating Insects” by Emily Matchar. Photo caption and credit: Fried insects, anyone? © Steven Vidler/Corbis.

Using insects as food for humans and livestock

Giving a whole new twist to the term “grub’s up”, wo pairs of academics are making the case for using insects as a food source in Perspectives pieces published in the journal Science. The first pair, Arup Kumar Hazarika and Unmilan Kalita, with Cotton University and Barnagar College, respectively, both in India, argue that a strong case can be made for using insects to meet the growing need for food around the world in the coming years. Arnold van Huis with Wageningen University & Research in the Netherlands and Laura Gasco with the University of Torino in Italy argue that there is a strong case to be made for using insects as feed for livestock.

In the first paper, the authors note that humans eating insects is not novel. People have been eating them for as long as there have been people. And many people in the world today still eat them; however, most do not. In the second paper, the authors note that currently, most livestock feed is made from fishmeal and soybean meal. They also note that the production of meat worldwide uses between 70% and 80% of all agricultural land and yet produces about 25% of the protein consumed by humans. They suggest that replacing conventional feed with feed made from insects would free up large parcels of land now used to grow food for livestock. It would also be a healthier food source for the animals. Also, farming insects is likely to become more feasible as the planet continues to warm.

Credit: pbd Studio/shutterstock

Cool things to know about pulses

Writing in The Conversation, researcher Nadia Radzman explores the food potential of an under-used category of plants. If insects aren’t to your taste, consider pulses. Each year on February 10, the United Nations commemorates what probably sounds to many like a strange occasion: World Pulses Day. But, as a researcher focused on forgotten and underutilised legumes, I think the initiative is an important step towards food security. Getting people to eat more pulses can ultimately help achieve UN Sustainable Development Goal 2: Zero Hunger. Pulses are the dried seeds of legumes. Among the promising aspects of pulses:

  • The legumes that grow pulses thrive in poor soil and don’t require nitrogen-based fertilizers. In fact, most legumes fix their own nitrogen by forming symbiotic relationships with friendly bacteria known as rhizobia.
  • Thanks to their nitrogen-fixing ability, pulses are nutritional powerhouses: high in protein and fibre, and low in fat.
  • The common bean (Phaseolus vulgaris) comes in many varieties around the world. It’s able to fix nitrogen in different environments, making it a resilient legume species.
  • Among the oldest domesticated plant, the pea (Pisum sativum) inspired Gregor Mendel’s pioneering work in plant genetics. The rich genetic diversity of the pea is also a valuable resource for important crop traits that can withstand various weather conditions due to climate change.
  • Many pulses are drought tolerant and use less water for production than animal-sourced proteins, especially beef. Chickpea (Cicer arietinum) is known to be highly drought tolerant. Scientists are looking for beneficial traits that can reduce the yield loss in chickpeas during drought. This may contribute to a more secure food source in the midst of climate change.
  • White lupins (Lupinus albus), yellow lupins (Lupinus luteus) and pearl lupins (Lupinus mutabilis) can form special roots to get more nutrients without the need for additional fertilisers. These plants have unique root modifications called cluster roots that can liberate phosphorus from soil particles when the nutrient is low. These cluster roots exude negatively charged compound called carboxylate that can liberate phosphorus from the soil and make it available for the plant to use. So lupins do not have to rely on phosphate fertilisers and can even help neighbouring plants by increasing the phosphorus level in the soil.
Microscopy image of PulseON® flour showing starch, stained blue, inside intact chickpea cells. Credit: Cathrina Edwards, the Quadram Institute

Bread made from a new type of flour keeps you fuller for longer

As an example of how useful pulses can be, consider this new types of bread made from whole cell pulse flour. It an can lower blood glucose (sugar) levels and keep you fuller for longer. A study published recently in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition by researchers from King’s College London and the Quadram Institute looked at the effects of replacing regular wheat flour with ‘cellular chickpea flour’ on feelings of fullness, fullness-regulating hormones, insulin and blood sugar levels in people who ate it. The study is the first of its kind and is based on the design of a new pulse ingredient that is now being commercialized for food industry use as PulseON by Pulseon Foods Ltd. Eating healthy pulses including chickpeas, lentils and beans is known to help support healthy weight maintenance and decrease the risk of heart disease. A lot of the benefits seen from these foods are due to the fiber structure of the pulses themselves, with normal flour milling generally considered to reduce the beneficial effects of fiber structure. However, new methods in food technology developed by the scientists have allowed them to make whole cell flours that preserve the dietary fiber structure of the whole pulses, providing a new way to enrich flour-based food with beneficial nutritional qualities for improved health.

From a 2014 advertising poster by Intermarché, a French grocery chain that aimed to reduce food waste by charging less for “ugly” produce.

‘Ugly’ fruit and vegetables could tackle food waste

The world is facing a significant food waste problem, with up to half of all fruit and vegetables lost somewhere along the agricultural food chain. Globally, around 14% of food produced is lost after harvesting but before it reaches shops and supermarkets. The authors go on to elaborate the how consumers’ desire for perfect-looking food contributes to food waste. (If you thought women have difficulty living up to unreasonable expectations about our appearance, try being a vegetable!) When imperfect fruit and vegetables don’t make it to supermarket shelves, it can be due to cosmetic standards. Supermarkets and consumers often prefer produce of a fairly standard size that’s free of blemishes, scars and other imperfections. This means fruit and vegetables that are misshapen, discoloured, or even too small or too large, are rejected before they make it to supermarket shelves. A growing trend of selling such “ugly” fruit and vegetables, both by major supermarket chains, as well as speciality retailers appeals to some customers, but not others. So how can producers and retailers boost the amount of non-standard fruit and veg that not only reaches our shelves, but also our plates? Our recent research suggests a separate channel for selling ugly produce would increase profits for growers, lower prices for consumers and boost overall demand for produce. The researchers propose six strategies:

  • Educating consumers
  • Reducing supermarkets’ cosmetic standards
  • Direct sales from farmers
  • Encouraging supermarkets to donate ugly food instead of wasting it
  • Using the ugly produce to create value-added food (e.g, for soups, casseroles, etc.)
  • Composting anything that cannot be salvaged
‘Ugly’ produce might be just as delicious but still gets rejected based on looks. Rosie2/Shutterstock

More on Breaking Glass

Back on January 14, my post on Eye Candy, Oddities and Miscellany included a piece on the 2022 Wheelwright Prize lecture by Aleksandra Jaeschke. I subsequently received a very gracious email from Aleksandra including two photos of her work.

At the Poznan Palm House (Poland). Photo by Aleksandra Jaeschke.

Aleksandra also provided a link to her presentation on YouTube.

The second image she sent is eerie and highlights her project’s theme of seeking strategies for a more equitable “greenhouse ruralism”.

A greenhouse in the Netherlands. Photo by Aleksandra Jaeschke.

Thank you, Aleksandra for sharing your work!