What Can Plants Do For You?

We’ve learned a lot over the past few weeks, in terms of looking after carnivorous plants anyway, and it’s time to look back and reflect on what this has done for me and why I would encourage all of us to look after all kinds of plant life.

I personally feel that there are 3 key skills which a botanist develops over time and they are:

  • Patience
  • Discipline
  • Humility

Buddhists popularly keep the Bonsai tree, as this helps them on the spiritual path to a higher understanding of our existence – if you believe that sort of thing. They practiced the art of “penjing” or “pun-sai” which means to create a small landscape in a container or pot and in turn, relates to the Chinese philosophical tradition of Taoism.

Google Search: Image of Buddhist and Taoist New Year Display

Taoism is thinking and living in a natural way and less towards the thinking of modern living. Being one with nature, understanding the flow of life and going with the flow are key parts of what Taoism teaches. Even if Taoism and spiritualism isn’t your thing, you can still better shape your own mind as you get to know the world around you.

Google Search: Bonsai Tree

Meeting this with a child like enthusiasm will make your experience invaluable and enjoyable – even if your like me and struggle in the beginning, it will take time but you’ll get there. I will adapt the new found skills I am developing to my own life.

At first it may not sound very useful, or I may not even spot when it is useful but someone who is well humbled and patient will better handle a disruptive colleague at work, or the dissertation paper you are writing will be easier to find its flow. I myself have not got a particular interest in studying Taoism in depth (though now I’ve mentioned it..), however I’m sure harnessing and practicing these skills over time will aid me in many factors throughout life.

Whether it be carnivorous plants, a bonsai, fruits and vegetables or even plain old daffodils, you can find an abundance of pleasure from cultivating the life that has given so much to us throughout the history of our existence and with the increasing worries of human interference on nature – it is vitally important that we all do our bit to give back to our home.


Beginners Guide To (viewing) The Galaxy

This week sees the first step away from plants and right out into the depths of space, with planets. We’ll cover how and when you can spot planets, and the International Space Station, as the Earth orbits through the Solar System.

I had recently signed up to the free email service from NASA, named “Spot The Station” in which you input your geographical location and you’ll receive periodic emails on when is best to look into the sky to spot the International Space Station (ISS), as it flies over the night sky – weather permitting.

Last night, I combined this with my “SkyView Free” app which shows you what is in the sky wherever you point your smartphone. Very nifty.

Whilst I did see the International Space Station, it’s the above image that really grabbed my attention. I noticed a tiny dot in the sky and pointed my phone at it – Saturn was in visible range (sadly Mars, to its right, was not visible). To make that more understandable, below is the image taken away from the app.

You can just about make out Saturn in the night sky, even with all the interfering light from London. I decided I needed a closer look so I carefully zoomed in and snapped again.

Now you can really see Jupiter, but how can I be sure?

I carefully zoomed into the image once again and had to screenshot the picture, apologies for the low quality image.

Now I was certain – you can even make out Saturn’s rings! Although I feel the above is the best pic of the bunch, I did also grab the below image but this is very low quality.

You’ll have a much better experience if you live outside of London. (Or, quite plainly, if you own a telescope.) But I thought it was important to share this with those who perhaps are novice at sky watching and who didn’t know it were possible to view the sky’s with a smartphone.

I had intended to video the ISS flying over but the smartphone camera made the image too dark to capture, so I only have several images like that below.

Here is the image taken away from the app (sadly, zooming did not make this image any clearer).

Jupiter was also vaguely visible but as you see below, this appears as just a faint dot no matter how much you zoom.

Not ground breaking stuff I know – but remember this is just for anyone who is a novice sky-watcher with a smartphone.

So, to recap, you can see it for yourself with the following steps:

  1. Sign up to the email service Spot the Station (if you want to view ISS fly over – it moves fast! About 6 mins visiblity every 1hr 37mins.)
  2. Download SkyView Free app which is available on iOS devices (unsure about others)
  3. Wait for a clear night sky, point your smartphone and enjoy the show.

There is also an app I’d recommend (but you must pay – £3.99 I think I paid) called GoSkyWatch and it’s a more detailed view of the skies, but you cannot see through your camera view so matching with your eye can be difficult.

It’s a fun and simple way to check out the skies quickly, kids will love this too, and you’ll get to learn the constellations and planets in no time!


Get Inspired.

On April 18th I wrote my first entry to this blog. I decided I’d start from a novice level of science knowledge and learn and grow with the online community as I prepared to enter a 4 year M.Sc course in Planetary Science with Astronomy.

I didn’t plan to stay too strictly with just Astronomy but also explore other chemistries and biologies of science. So far I’ve stuck with the topic of carnivorous plants but I thought I’d throw in a curveball and tell you why I believe it is important for all of us to use our scientific potential whether your into the subject or not.

Throughout the history of Science and the evolution of man we are littered with ingenious discoveries that whilst be from different subjects, all share the same component. They are met with a mind that casts the correct eye and spots the fundamental need for an upgrade, an evolution, a revolution to improve human life.

Galileo, Shakespeare, Mother Teresa, Christopher Columbus, George Orwell, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Stephen Hawking.

These are all names you are probably familiar with worldwide and are just an example of people who all shared a passion and hunger to defy the norm and go against the grain and believe what they thought to be true, despite all the distractions of life and negative influences around them.

But what if we are one short?

That could be you, or it could be me, or it could be anyone of the billions of human beings on this planet. What we don’t know all to well is the people around the pioneers of human life who helped create that key spark of discovery.

Think about what we have invented and evolved, from a technological point of view. Now think about what we haven’t discovered or invented. Think about what we might have missed and our current generation of humans are too distracted or misguided to see fatal flaws. Perhaps we are too advanced or too ignorant to see the room for revolutionary improvement. Because I promise you that every human being has the potential to be a Hawking or a Columbus or a Darwin, it is important to encourage yourself and those around you to reach these heights and enter the history books.


Nepenthes, Bloody Mary

I couldn’t resist jumping straight in with Nepenthes, Bloody Mary (who I named Henrietta to make things even more complicated) and taking a further in depth look at this beautiful carnivorous plant.

Each leaf is accompanied by a sac/pod of liquid

Nepenthes appears to grow these sacs from each leaf, creating a sort of backwards raindrop affect where the sac reaches for the sky instead of hanging low.

Nepenthes ranges into 150 different species coming from all over the globe, such as; China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Phillippines, Madagascar, Australia, India AND Sri Lanka!

Making its own fluid, the trap creates a syrupy goo that drowns any prey who dares wonder inside. This fluid contacts ‘viscoelastic biopolymers’ that could be vital to trapping insects, especially the flying variety. Much like the Venus Fly Trap, Henrietta will use this carnivorous advantage to obtain crucial nutrients that it is unable to get through the soil around it. The inside of the pod also is walled with a wax coating that makes escape near impossible!

The lip of the plant is a structure called ‘peristome’ which creates a slippery surface that any curious insects could slip on – it appears Henrietta is really keen on ensuring she gets her visitors.

Fully grown mature Nepenthes (image taken from Google search)

They do not require too much or too harsh sunlight, instead I will leave mine on the windowsill where the double glazing on my windows will reduce a lot of the glare. They do however, require damp soil but I have been informed not to let them sit in water.

I believe my species in particular to be of the ‘vieillardii‘ which actually descend from New Caladonia. It will be interesting to see how this plant grows into its intricate design. 


Urban Issues

It’s been quite a week as I’ve managed to not only solve the distilled water issue, but also brought another addition to the family.

Introducing Nepenthes, Bloody Mary.

The water issue has been solved as I previously thought boiling water would kill chemicals in the water. It appears that I was wrong and this in fact can make the chemicals more concentrated. Yikes!
Instead, I have a tumble dryer at home which collects water vapour from my clothes and deposits this as distilled water, in a plastic compartment in the bottom. Then, I can remove this and pour the water into a small glass/cup for my plants!

A second issue I have is that the windows in my apartment are double glazed and greatly reduce sunlight to the plants – an issue I had not anticipated in the beginning. I’ve now hung up a pot out the front and will need to purchase some more pots for the west side too.

I’ve cut the flower from Hector (Venus Fly Trap) as the plant will spend all its energy trying to produce a flower and I want it to use that energy to thrive into the heads, instead. Even from the above image you can see how much that head on the right hand side is thriving, now I’m hoping it will turn more of a red colour in the coming weeks.

I’d like to look more into the nature of the Nepenthes, whom I shall call Henrietta, and the sacs that it uses to catch prey so I’ll elaborate on that perhaps in the next day or two. I hope these past few weeks have taught you a thing or two, as they have for me, so please do share your own thoughts and experiences if you wish!


A Carnivorous Advantage

Over the past few weeks I’ve looked at the progress of my Venus Fly Trap and its growth since I purchased it from the local florist. Now, I want to look at it in depth and understand how the carnivorous plant has grown into such a dynamic wonder of our world.

I’ll admit, I’m no biologist but I want to help give you a basic understanding of what makes a carnivorous plant different from a regular plant. Once a Venus Fly Trap snaps shut on an insect it will digest its body, but why? What evolutionary advantage does this present?

It almost sounds like a cruel science experiment gone wrong, however, billions of years of evolution has formed this intricate and beautiful plant on our American neighbours soil, in North and South Carolina. Although I’m sure many of you reading will be living in the US, lucky you to have such a wonder of life on your doorstep!

Carnivorous plants are nothing new to the short span of life on Earth and have existed for thousands of years, becoming ever more specialised as the years went by. There are over 500 different species and they eat a multitude of insects and aquatic organisms, with the Venus Fly Trap being one of the most famous on our lands due to its unique heads and teeth. We’ve even seen it mentioned amongst television shows or movies like Little Shop of Horrors.

The VFT still uses photosynthesis like a regular plant, turning carbon dioxide into sugars and foods, they have adapted themselves to thrive in their humid environments as their soil is fairly acidic so nutrients are scarce.

Due to this scarcity, they have had to find a unique way to obtain key nutrients such as nitrogen (for amino acids), phosphorus, magnesium, sulphur, calcium and potassium. The insects in their environment provide this vital source of nutrients, thus the evolution of a head that can eat. They can identify by what is edible and what isn’t, by the thrashing around of the insect inside its mouth which will encourage the plant to close tighter but because it has no brain it cannot tell itself when it is hungry.

The remains of a small beetle after a meal

Instead it will use acidic fluids to digest the bug over a 12 hour period, leaving nothing but a empty shell of an insect which either falls out or is blown out by the wind. This acid breaks up the insect body to extract its key nutrients, so it’s easy to see why the botanists of our time have been so eagerly fascinated.

I’m very pleased that not only is the next cycle fully thriving, I am also beginning to see new heads form..

My own VFT, Hector, is now unique to its environment here in the UK and will depend on me to help it thrive. I’m considering getting another, or perhaps another carnivorous plant to join the ranks.

P.S. The strawberries aren’t growing just yet but there is life in the soil!

Two tiny leaves have formed from the soil, identity unknown.


Heads Up!

Look around your city, town or village and you’ll find life growing in all sorts of places. One interest of mine in particular, is the way in which plants manage to grow on rooftops or even on the side of buildings.

You can spot green leaves just under the lip of my roof

The way this happens is that seeds land and germinate in between cracks of the concrete and brick and as long as they have sunlight, oxygen, warmth and water, they can survive. As a tree or plant goes through its cycle, seedlings are blown around and it is just pure luck that this is where it has landed and thrived.

If seeds make it up so high, they will have the key ingredients which will allow them to grow with plenty of sunlight, rainwater and oxygen getting to them. A healthy plant makes its own food from the sugars in sunlight, using photosynthesis.

This lonely plant is thriving all by itself

Closer view of the plant

Take a look outside your own front door and I can almost guarantee there is life growing around it, particularly if you live in an older house near a park or forest. We’ve used this technique to manipulate our cities and walls to create intricate and attractive patterns, particularly using vines.
Life is stubborn in such a way that it will try and grow wherever it can, which only emulates the beauty of its presence. Even between the cracks in concrete pavement slabs you will find life growing and a tiny little ecosystem will be growing inside, of which is completely unique to our planet.

An old castle almost completely consumed by vines

As common as it appears to us, all of it is so infinitely rare within the Universe – as are we. You can really appreciate life when you understand how determined it is to find a way to grow any way it can. There are many guides online which will teach you how to allow plants to grow in this vine-fashion if you wanted to emulate this look and it can give your walls a very unique touch.

Google search “ivy garden” for similar looks

Large, naturally growing vines on the roadside