by Whit Gibbons

December 31, 2006

Friends and colleagues who are botanists constantly remind me that ecology concerns both plants and animals, yet I write mostly about animals. My telling them that plants are mostly pretty dull and that a book about plant behavior would be three pages long if you included the cover does not play well. So, on this last day of the year, in a shameless 11th-hour attempt to balance the books, I decided to find some interesting things to say about plants.

I thought it would be unfair to talk about fascinating plants I have featured before, such as bladderworts, the carnivorous plants that close their underwater, bladderlike traps on tiny animals. Bladderworts may be the fastest organisms in the world when they snap those little bladders shut in less than 1/400th of a second! The giant pitcher plants of Borneo are big enough to capture and digest mice and rats. The voodoo lilies of Southeast Asia with a striking purple flower almost three feet high are another intriguing botanical entity. As part of their pollination strategy, voodoo lilies can heat themselves, sometimes reaching temperatures of 110°F in cool shade. The fact that they emanate a smell like rotting meat to attract their carrion-eating insect pollinators only slightly detracts from their appeal. I have also written before about another remarkable plant, the evening primrose, which can go from a bud to a fragrant, open flower in five seconds.

But I'm sure a retelling of those intriguing behaviors won't satisfy my botanist friends. Let us consider, instead, some everyday plants we are all aware of and that we may encounter in our own kitchens. Coleslaw is a good starting point. Have you given any thought to who Mr. Cole was and why he should be honored by having chopped up vegetables named after him? Well, this question is a red herring. The mixture of cabbage, vinegar, salt, and pepper was not named after anyone. The word "cole" is derived from the Saxon word "cawel," which came from an earlier Latin word meaning kale, or cabbage. According to the OED, coleslaw (spelled "coleslaugh") was first used in print in 1862 by Victor Hugo in "Les Miserables." (Incidentally, since "slaugh" or "slaw" means a salad made from sliced cabbage, "coleslaw" is now redundant.)

Kale, or cabbage, belongs to a plant species known as Brassica oleracea, a species in the mustard family that is native to Europe. That one species includes other well-known vegetables such as collards, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and broccoli. That such different edible plants belong to a single species may seem odd, but remember that these have been cultivated for over two thousand years. Such diversity did not evolve under natural conditions; instead, it speaks to the power of humans to alter evolution through selection of their own. Of course, none of the plants are that much different from each other than dachshunds, Great Danes, and border collies are from one another, and they all belong to a single species, Canis familiaris.

Not all botanists agree on the relationships of the plants assigned to the genus Brassica, but according to some authorities the single genus contains more species and varieties of plants used in agriculture and horticulture than any other in the world. Some varieties, such as broccoli, are noted for their high vitamin C content and the presence of an ingredient that produces sulforaphane, an anticancer compound. And if that weren't enough to make broccoli the Superman of plants, a study at Johns Hopkins found that sulforaphane also can kill an insidious bacterium called Helicobacter pylori. According to the Centers for Disease Control the bacterium is the cause of about 90 percent of all ulcers. So, if the holiday season has pushed your stress level off the charts and you're worried about getting ulcers, eat more broccoli.

In closing, let me go on record as saying that plants are critical to the animal world. Though a book on plant behavior might be short and dull, without plants there would be no animals. That's certainly worth taking note of--and should be at least partial redress for my writing more about animals than plants for lo these many years.

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