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Thursday, March 18, 2010

Lawn Medicine

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I’ve been thinking a lot about lawns lately. I recently attended a lecture series including a captivating talk from LA-based architect and artist, Fritz Haeg. His book, Edible Estates: Attack on the Front Lawn, has been called “…an ingeniously subversive landscaping manifesto..”(Susan Morgan, The New York Times) and rightly so. His approach to helping people reconnect with the food they eat is not your typical utopian fantasy of moving out to the middle of nowhere and starting over. Instead he urges us to awaken the possibilities of reconnecting with nature and with each other by growing food publicly in the places in which we already are.


Haeg’s lecture followed the structure of his Edible Estates book. He took us on a journey across suburban America as he transformed the front lawns of eight families into edible community gardens. If you don’t know much about the historical and cultural history of the lawn I recommend you check out some of the links at the bottom of this post. It really is a fascinating story. But to sum it up, the idea of the front lawn as a quintessential icon of the "American Dream" eventually grew into a kind of obsession for homeowners who will now go to extreme measures to ensure that nothing infiltrates their pristine lawn environment. Did you know that ~ 40,000 square miles of North America is devoted to lawns (Fulford, 1998)? From this perspective, lawn is the biggest crop in the United States, taking up more space than wheat, corn, or tobacco!

This got me thinking about what we might lose if everyone got rid of their front lawns and replaced them with edible gardens. Besides the inherent value of lawn as a place for leisure and recreation, is there anything worth salvaging in the ideal or the reality of a lawn? What about the lawn that exists in the gray area between the highly-manincured monoculture of grass and the edible community garden in front of every Americans home? The plants that live in these gray areas, between the ‘wild’ and ‘managed’ ideals of our front lawns, are most often a variety of European invasive weeds with a long history of medicinal and culinary uses.


Invasive plants and weeds are the “outlaws” of the plant world. Native plant advocates, ecologists, conservation biologists and many other people shudder at the mention of invasive weeds and some may even go as far as to destroy these plants to restore order and goodness to the world. I’ve seen perfectly sane healthy people, furiously ripping English ivy off a tree, yelling and cursing as they stomp the lifeless vines into oblivion. I’ve watched entire communities band together to dig up huge expanses of Scotch Broom by the roots, piling them up, covering them with kerosene and gleefully watching as they burn the helpless plants alive, oohing and awing at the crackling, popping noises of the legume seed pods bursting, scorching out the possibility of life.


Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating just a little, but it seems strange that we call non-native plants growing in our gardens “food” or even “medicine”, but we reserve the term “weed” for non-native species other than grass that happen to take hold in our front yards.


I know some of you might be thinking this is botanical heresy. Some of you may even have your finger on the ROUND UP trigger, just waiting to exterminate the dandelions growing in your front lawn. Wait! Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting we let these plants take over our neighborhoods and gardens. And of course I don’t think we should ignore the environmental impact and misuse of resources that go into maintaining lawns or the isolation that occurs because of the physical barriers that lawns create between our neighbors and ourselves and between humans and nature.


So what AM I saying? Let’s embrace our weeds and build a garden bed this year especially for them! Let’s appreciate their aesthetic, edible and medicinal qualities!


Check out this Wall Street Journal video with Dr. James Duke showing us around his garden of weeds!


And now, to satiate my phytochemical hunger, I thought it would be fun to profile a few of my favorite European invasive weeds. Since there are so many wonderful web resources that present the traditional and medicinal uses of these plants (see the list at the end of this post), I will be brief in this regard. Instead, I will focus on linking in research on the specific phytochemicals that act synergistically (in my opinion) with the vitamins, minerals and other compounds to create the unique medicinal qualities of each plant. Oh, and remember, some plants are poisonous...ask an expert before eating anything you pick from your yard and I'm not making any claims about health benefits of these plants...disclaimer...blah blah...



Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) (Asteraceae)


Medicinal uses: diuretic, laxative, cholagogue, anti-rheumatic, anti-inflammatory, choleretic, anti-carcinogenic and hypoglycemic


Plant parts used: leaves and roots


Bioactive constituents: flavonoids, phenolic acids, sesquiterpenes, triterpenoids and inulin


Notes of phytochemical interest: Triterpene alcohols, such as taraxasterol, are found in high concentrations in Taraxacum officinale flowers, as well as many other Asteraceae. These compounds possess strong anti-inflammatory and anti-tumor activities (Takido et al., 1996).


References and further reading fro Dandelion:


Ovesná Z, Vachálková A, Horváthová K. 2004. Taraxasterol and beta-sitosterol: new naturally compounds with chemoprotective/chemopreventive effects. Neoplasma. 51(6), 407-14.

Takido M., Kumaki K., Tamura T. 1996. Triterpene alcohols from the flowers of Compositae and their anti-inflammatory effects. Phytochemistry 43:1255–1260


Schütza, K., Carlea, R. Schieber, A. 2006. Taraxacum—A review on its phytochemical and pharmacological profile. Journal of Ethnopharmacology.107 (3) 313-323.




Chicory, Cichorium intybus (Asteraceae)


Plant parts used: Root, leaves


Bioactive constituents: Chicory is one of the best commercial sources of the compound inulin, the characteristic storage carbohydrate found in the Asteraceae. The chemical structure of inulin (see image below) consists of many fructose units (from 20 up to several thousand) units and sometimes a terminal glucose. When ingested, inulin can be help to regulate diabetes and hypoglycemia because it does not elevate blood sugar levels. This is because inulin is indigestible to humans and does not break down into single sugar units. Other bioactive secondary metabolites include monoterpenes, sesquiterpenes, coumarins, flavonoids and vitamins


Medicinal and edible uses: tonic, laxative, diuretic and many others. Cichory root can be used as a coffee substitute or even to extend coffee, which is a traditional preparation common in New Orleans. Daniel Leyten talks about the process of making Chicory infused coffee and also provides a nice historical description of chicory use in coffee at his blog, New Orleans Cuisine.


Notes of phytochemical interest: Recent studies have provided some insight into the ecological functions of a class of sesquiterpenes lactones known as guaianolides found in Chicory root (Nishimura et al., 2000). These compounds can act as phytoalexins, which are antimicrobial substances produced by plants de novo in response to attack by pests or pathogens and accumulate rapidly at the site of wounding. For example, the guaianolide found in Chicory called, cichoralexin, possesses strong antimicrobial and nematicidal activities (Nandagopal and Kumari, 2007). This research is being applied to the preservation of processed foods where the addition of dry powder from Chicory rhizomes extends the shelf life.


References and further reading for Chicory:


Bais H.P., Ravishankar, G.A. 2001.Cichorium intybus L – cultivation, processing, utility, value addition and biotechnology, with an emphasis on current status and future prospects. Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture. 81(5) 467-484.


Nandagopal, S. and B.D. Ranjitha Kumari. 2007. Phytochemical and Antibacterial Studies of Chicory (Cichorium intybus L.) - A Multipurpose Medicinal Plant Advances in Biological Research 1 (1-2): 17-21.


Nishimura H.; Kondo Y.; Nagasaka T.; Satoh A. 2000. Allelochemicals in Chicory and Utilization in Processed Foods. Journal of Chemical Ecology. 26 (9) pgs 2233-2241.



Red Clover, Trifolium pratense (Fabaceae)


Plant parts used: flowerheads

Medicinal use: expectorant, analgesic, antiseptic properties, rheumatic aches, treatment of skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis


Bioactive constituents: isoflavones (phytoestrogens), coumarins, saponins

Notes of phytochemical interest: The isoflavone constituents in red clover, in particular, daidzein, genistein, formononetin (shown on left), and biochanin, can act as phytoestrogens in vivo and are currently in Phase II clinical trials for the treatment of hot flashes in menopausal women (Booth et al. 2006).



References and further reading fro Red Clover:


Booth, N. L., Overk, C.R., Yao,P. Burdette, J. E., Nikolic, D., Chen, S. N., Bolton, J. L., van-Breemen, R. B., Pauli, G. F., Farnsworth, N. R. 2006. The chemical and biological profile of a red clover (Trifolium pratense L.) phase II clinical extract. J-Altern-. Complement-Med. 12 (2) 133-9.


Sabudak T, Guler N. (2009). Trifolium L.- A review on its phytochemical and pharmacological profile. Phytother Res 23: 439–446



Plantain (Plantago major) Plantaginaceae


Plant parts used: leaves and aerial parts


Medicinal uses: expectorant, demulcent, astringent and diuretic, anti-inflammatory, wound healing


Bioactive constituents: flavonoids, triterpenoids, irodoid glycosides


Notes of phytochemical interest: One of the most fascinating qualities of Plantain, Plantago major (Plantaginaceae family) is its ability to effectively heal wounds. A. B. Samuelsenin outlines the historical use of Plantain as a wound healer in his review article on ethnobotany and phytochemistry of Plantago major (2001). He describes:

“The traditional use of P. major in wound healing is quite old. It was described by the Greek physician Dioscorides in ‘De materia medica’ in the first century. The leaves were prescribed for treatment of dog bites (Roca-Garcia, 1972). From the ‘Vølsuga saga’ it is known that the Vikings used P. major leaves for wound healing (Nielsen,1969). P. major was also described in the 12–13thcentury by the Islamic author Ibn El Beithar having adopted the knowledge from Greek medicine (Fleurentin et al., 1983). Henrik Harpestreng († 1244) from Denmark wrote in ‘Liber Harbarum’ that P. major could heal everything that was torn apart. Mixed with honey it was recommended on wounds. Boiled with butter and eaten, it could heal any organ in the human body (Nielsen, 1969).”


He goes on to explain that despite intensive research into the bioactive constituents of Plantago major, the actual mechanisms underlying its wound healing properties are still a bit of a mystery:

“There are several of the isolated compounds that may aid the healing of wounds. Plantamajoside and acteoside have antibacterial activities. Some flavonoids and the caffeic acid derivatives plantamajoside and acteoside have antioxidative and free radical scavenging activities. Pectic polysaccharides have been reported to be effective against ulcers in rats and for having immunostimulatory activities. Finally, the long chained saturated primary alcohols that are present in the leaf wax aid the healing of superficial wounds. However, the leaves also contain compounds with anti-inflammatory activity, namely plantamajoside, baicalein, hispidulin, aucubin, ursolic acid and oleanolic acid. Since the inflammatory phase in general is necessary in the wound healing process, anti-inflammatory activity may be undesirable. On the other hand, these substances’ activities when acting together with other compounds present in the leaves are not known at present. Thus, the full picture of P. major as a wound healing remedy may be rather intricate.”


References and further reading for Plantain:


Ringbom T, Segura L, Noreen Y, et al. 1998. Ursolic acid from Plantago major, a selective inhibitor of cyclooxygenase-2 catalyzed prostaglandin biosynthesis. Journal of natural products. 61 (10) 1212 -1215.


Samuelsen, A. B. 2001. The traditional uses, chemical constituents and biological activities of Plantago major L. A Review. Journal of Ethnopharmacology. 71, 1-21.


Turel I, Ozbek H, Erten R, et al. Hepatoprotective and anti-inflammatory activities of Plantago major L. 2009. Indian Journal of Pharmacology. 41(3) 120-124.



For more information on the traditional uses of these medicinal plants:


A Modern Herbal by Mrs. M. Greive


Plants for a Future: A Resource and Information Centre for Edible and other useful plants

Dr. Duke’s Phytochemical and Ethnobotanical Database


Michael Moore’s Southwest School of Botanical Medicine


More on Weed-loving lawns and gardens:


Here's a great article on Edible Lawns.


Weeds in your Garden? Bite Back! By Susan Weed


Making dandelions palatable. By John Kalllus, Ph.D.



History of "the Lawn":


History of Lawns in America


Wikipedia: Lawn

Photo credits: Dandelion head: Ted Kropiewnicki, Monticello lawn: Matt Kozlowski Monticello, Chicory: Anders Bjurnemark, Inulin structure: Florian Fisch, Line drawing of Red Clover: Lalita Calabria

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Phytochemistry in Bloom

Have you ever wondered what makes blueberries blue? Well, I have. In fact, I’m pretty much always wondering about the phytochemicals that make our world such a wonderful kaleidoscope of color. My front yard in the springtime is no exception. The magnolia tree is covered with plump gray fuzzy buds, the forsythia bush is exploding with golden yellow blooms and the quince branches are slowly unfolding their delicate pale red blossoms. But there is one flower in my front yard that epitomizes the arrival of spring -- the Crocus. These hardy beacons of springtime are emerging in all shades of purple and white and I want to know what gives them their beautiful range of colors.
Variation in Crocus color in my front yard
Not being much of a horticulturist, I set out to familiarize myself with the type of “Crocus” growing in my yard. From what I can tell, the cultivars in my yard belong to the species, Crocus vernus, otherwise called “Spring Crocus” or “Giant Dutch Crocus”. This species can be found in a range of bluey-purplish hues from light powdery blue to deep velvety purple. The white variety and the striped variety are also quite common.
Colchicine-the toxic alkaloid found in
Colchicum autumale


There are two types of “Crocus” that I’m NOT referring to here, but are nonetheless worth pointing out due to their interesting phytochemistry. First, I want to mention the highly toxic Autumn Crocus (Colchicum autumnale), which is actually not a true Crocus and is a member of the Colchicaceae family. Colchicum autumnale blooms in the fall (hence the name, duh) and is extremely poisonous due to it’s content of colchicine, an alkaloid with a long history of use in the treatment of gout. But don’t let its medicinal merit fool you. Colchicine poisoning has been reported in humans, dogs, cattle and other livestock and is often compared to arsenic poisoning. 



Secondly, the exotic and expensive spice, saffron is obtained from the stigmas of Crocus sativus, another fall-blooming species that has been used for centuries in folk medicine as an antispasmodic, aphrodisiac, expectorant, narcotic and sedative. Saffron’s characteristic bitter taste is due to the presence of the monoterpene glycoside, picrocin and a related derivative, safranal. The golden yellow color of saffron, which has been used as a natural dye for centuries, results from the presence of the carotenoid, crocin.


Crocin, the carotenoid pigment that gives saffron its golden yellow color





Saffron, the hand-harvested stigmas of Crocus sativus, is the most expensive spice by weight in the world.


So what pigments are responsible for the color variation in Spring Crocus?


The short answer is anthocyanins. But for all you nerds out there, I will also provide the longer version of this exciting phytochemical story.

In nature, there are two main classes of red-violet producing pigments: the anthocyanins and the betalains. The latter group was first discovered in the late 1960’s, by Dr. Tom Mabry, who at the time was working as a post-doc in the lab of Dr. André S. Dreiding at the University of Zurich. Mabry was assigned the difficult project of isolating and characterizing the elusive structure of the red pigments found in beets, which were originally thought to be a member of the well-known and widespread pigments, the anthocyanins (roses, red wine, etc.).

The red-violet color of beets is due to the content of betalains.

Several researchers had previously attempted to isolate the pigments but had failed because of the harsh isolation procedures that degraded the fragile compounds. Instead, Mabry employed a very mild methylation procedure using diazomethane in diethyl ether to derivatize the pigments allowing him to finally establishing their structures. Although this type of derivatization helped Mabry to avoid the harsh conditions employed by previous workers, this method is extremely dangerous. It is well known that in pure form at room temperature, diazomethane is highly explosive- even the slightest contact with a ground-glass joint or even a scratch on a piece of glassware can lead to an explosion. Its not surprising that Mabry chose to carry-out this experiment after hours when everyone had left the lab!

His findings startled the plant world because the compounds were not at all related to anthocyanins. Through the combined efforts of Mabry and other members of Dreiding's research group, they had discovered a completely new class of pigments, which they named the “betalains”. Mabry and coworkers eventually established that betalains were restricted to nine plant families in the Order Caryophyllales, (e.g. the Cactaceae) and some groups of fungi. A chemical survey of the Caryophylallales resulted in no anthocyanins (pigments that are found in over 95% of flowering plants) with the exception of the Caryophylaceae and Molugenaceae, which interestingly, contain only anthocyanins and no betalains (2)!


Delphinidin, an abundant anthocyanadin found in Crocus spp


Unlike the indole-derived betalains, anthocyanins belong to a larger class of compounds known as flavonoids. These water-soluble, pigments, which are the sugar- substituted form of the anthocyanidins, are responsible for the range of blue and purple colors of Crocus flowers. The anthocyanidins, delphinidin, petunidin and malvinadin, are especially abundant in Crocus species. These pigments were named after the flowers in which they were first discovered (Delphinium in the case of delphinidin, Petunia for petunidin and Malva for malvanadin) Interestingly, unlike all other monocotolydons, Crocus species do not produce flowers with red pigments. This may be due to modifications of the anthocyanin structures in Crocus, like malonylation of the attached glucoside units and hydroxylation or methoxylationon the B-ring of the anthocyanidins that causes a shift to more bluish hues (3). These types of anthocyanin modifications are distinguishing chemotaxonomic features in Crocus.Other flavonoids pigments are also present in Crocus, but do not contribute to the purple color of the flowers. For example, kaempferol and its glycosides make up between 70 and 90% of the flavonoids content in Crocus spp. (1). These compounds can act as co-pigments, enhancing the purple color of the anthocyanins. And how about the white variety of Crocus? The low levels of anthocyanin pigments and the high levels of colorless flavonoids give the appearance of a white flower to human visual perception. However, the petals of almost all white flower species absorb in the ultra-violet spectrum, creating special UV patterns called nectar guides that are visible to bees but not humans. Bees and other pollinators use these patterns to find the flower's nectar in return for pollinating the flower.
Photograph showing the visible and ultraviolet light view of a nectar guide on Crocus

I would love to hear your comments and your own phytochemical stories. Thanks for reading!

References:

(1) Flower pigment composition of Crocus species and cultivars used for a chemotaxonomic investigation. Biochemical Systematics and Ecology, Volume 30, Issue 8, August 2002, Pages 763-791R. Nørbæk, K. Brandt, J. K. Nielsen, M. Ørgaard and N. Jacobsen
(2) Pigment evolution in the Caryophyllales: a systematic overview. Clement, J.S., and Mabry, T.J. 1996. Botanica Acta. 109: 360-367.
(3) Anthocyanins from flowers of Crocus (Iridaceae). Nørbæk, R., Kondo, T. 1998. Phytochemistry 47 (5),861–864.
(4) A bees-eye view: How insects see flowers very differently to us. By MICHAEL HANLON

More on anthocyanins pigments:
  • Behavior of 3-deoxyanthocyanidins in the presence of phenolic copigmentsFood Research International, Volume 41, Issue 5, 2008, Pages 532-538 Joseph M. Awika
Photo credits: the "Crocus vernus nectar guide" courtesy of Bjorn Roslett, Science Photo Library.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Moss Revival

When I walk through a forest, three thoughts generally cross my mind. First, I think of the the forest as a chemical library. There is wealth of knowledge just waiting to be discovered! Secondly, I think of each plant, at every moment sensing and responding to a complex web of developmental and environmental signals. I am astounded at the diversity of compounds produced by plants and I want to share this perspective with anyone who is willing to listen. The third thought to cross my mind is "whoa, look at that moss!"

A few years ago, if you googled the word “Moss” you would probably get a picture of a skinny British supermodel. But not anymore. Bryophyte-related blogs, research articles, news and even Youtube videos are beginning to pop up all over the web. Publilius Syrus once said, “a rolling stone gathers no moss”. So, am I a rolling stone who has lost touch with the bryological community while preoccupied with vascular plants and phytochemicals? Maybe. But I'm thinking that what is actually happening is something like a “moss revival”.

Renewed interest in offbeat subjects, such as the study of moss, is nothing new in the world of science. In fact, it’s common for subdisciplines of biology, chemistry and physics, to come in and out of favor among scientists and the public. Advances in technology and changes in economic, social and environmental conditions can all contribute to a renewed interest in old subjects. In fact, these cycles of interest are critical for re-energizing these disciplines with new waves of graduate students, educational curriculum and research programs. In biological research, early studies of a given organism may have focused on answering basic research questions such as “what are the morphological, chemical and physiological features that distinguish this organism?” Modern scientists are now in a position to shift their attention and resources from the question of “what?” to “why and how?” essentially paving the way for a “moss revival”.

To illustrate my point I’ve collected an assortment of inspiring blogs, news, research articles and other artistic and entrepreneurial ventures relating to moss. I’m sure that I have mistakenly left out some paramount works and for that, I apologize ahead of time. If I did miss you, please comment, send me to your site and share your passion for moss with all of us!

My favorite “Moss Revival” links:

1. The blog hosted by the The International Association of Bryologists provides a great starting point for exploring bryophyte web resources. Here you can link to the newly inaugurated Bryosphere, a collection of online bryological resources including, photos, links, news and articles.

2. Moss and Plants and More: A Commentary on all Things Bryological is a blog written by Jessica M. Budke, graduate student in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department at University of Connecticut. Jessica presents a fresh and accessible view of moss research and offers a thorough list of bryophyte-related blogs, websites, books, research labs and more. I highly recommend visiting Jessica’s blog if you’re interested in delving deeper into the world of bryophyte research.

3. Mosses are becoming a popular tool for bio pharmaceutical production. Check it out:
  • Moss bioreactors producing improved biopharmaceuticals. Eva L. Decker, Ralf Reski. 2007.Current Opinion in Biotechnology, Vol 18, Issue 5, 393-398
  • "Moss bioreactors do not smell" - Interview with Professor Ralf Reski
  • Greenovation. This is the company website for the “bryotechnology” described in the links above. All I can say is “wow”.

4. Moss: A Tribute . A Youtube video by multi-talented, freelance Artist/Musician/Monsterologist, Brian Engh a.k.a. “HistorianHimself”. Don’t miss this!


5. And who can resist a live moss cam!!!! Watch moss grow and photosynthesize in real time! The MossCam Project is a joint endeavor by the James San Jacinto Mountains Reserve (http://www.jamesreserve.edu/) (Mike Hamilton and Sheri Lubin) and the Bryolab at UC Berkeley (http://ucjeps.berkeley.edu/bryolab/) (Brent Mishler).


I’m especially jazzed about current research articles relating to the ecological and medicinal importance of secondary metabolites from bryophytes:

6. A nice review on the functional role of secondary metabolites found in moss:

Secondary Metabolites in Bryophytes: An Ecological Aspect
Chun-Feng Xie, Hong-Xiang Lou. 2009. Chemistry & Biodiversity
Volume 6 Issue 3, Pages 303 - 312

7. Bryophytes Collected For Anticancer Screening. This is a very interesting historical account of the collection of bryophytes for anticancer screening by Richard W. Spjut of World Botanical Associates.


8. A thorough review of bryophyte chemistry, largely focused on liverworts:

Bryophytes: Bio- and Chemical Diversity, Bioactivity and Chemosystematics
Yoshiori Asakawa, Agnieszka Ludwiczuk, Fumihiro Nagashima, Masao Toyota, Toshihiro Hashimoto, Motoo Tori, Yoshiyasu Fukuyama, and Liva Harinantenaina. 2009. Volume 77, Issue 1, Pages 99-150


9. An elegant phylogenetic study of flavonoid evolution in the medicinal moss, Plagiomnium, with an ecological and phytochemical interpretation:

Phylogenetic and environmental lability of flavonoids in a medicinal moss.
Biochemical Systematics and Ecology. Eric S.J. Harris. 2009. Volume 37, Issue 3, Pages 180-192


10. In this study, researchers induced the production of a diverse array of volatile oxilipins by mechanical wounding of bryophyte leaf tissue. These compounds are thought to play important roles in defense and hormonal production in plants. The study showed that mosses are a rich source of volatile oxilipins:

Survey of volatile oxylipins and their biosynthetic precursors in bryophytes.
Emmanuel Croisierb, Martin Rempta, and Georg Pohnert. Phytochemistry
Article in Press


Thanks for reading and please comment and send me to other places where I can learn.


Credit for picture of moss: "Muscinae" from Ernst Haeckel's Kunstformen der Natur, 1904

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

You had me at "Moss"

Hello! I'm Dr. Lalita Calabria and this is my new blog. I'm excited to share my perspectives on the intersection between the world of plants and chemistry and the balancing act between my life as an aspiring professor, botanist/phytochemical researcher and as a mother, wife and domestic goddess extraordinaire. Although, this blog will be devoted mostly to my adventures as a phytochemist (hence the title), I cant help but begin with the story of how I fell in love with moss. You see, I am secretly (okay, it's no secret) a huge moss nerd!


There’s something magical about moss. They may seem unremarkable at first glance; they’re small and don’t offer much in terms of economic or social value. Some would say they’re not even “real plants” because they lack vascular tissue. So, it’s no surprise that mosses are the “black sheep” of the botanical community and are notably lacking from floristic surveys worldwide. Yet, mosses are the second most speciose group of plants in the world (after angiosperms) with over 12,800 documented species worldwide (Crosby et al., 1999). They perform critical ecological roles in forests, prairies and urban areas and are important bioindicators of ecosystem health and global climate change (Frahm 2007, Bubier et al., 1995).


Act I: “You had me at moss”

My love affair with moss began as an undergraduate at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. As an amateur botanist, I tried hard to remain an unbiased generalist, devoting equal attention to all major group of plants represented in our local flora. This was a difficult task considering that the Pacific Northwest (PNW) is home to one of the greatest diversity of bryophytes-mosses, hornworts and liverworts- in the world. As a transplant to Washington from suburban Pennsylvania, I had never really noticed moss before. But here, in the temperate rainforest, literally every surface of the landscape, from the canopy to the forest floor, is carpeted with moss. I was mesmerized by their tiny glabrous stalks poking through the duff, like miniature trees sparkling with rainforest dew. Even in the perpetual grey of winter, the world of moss remains a rich emerald green. It’s as if each tiny cell is on the edge of bursting with water, plump gametophytes basking happily in the gentle mist of rain.


In the summer, mosses become different creatures all together by adapting to the drought conditions of the long, dry summers characteristic of the PNW. With all of my senses I can recall my first experience of the striking difference between summer and winter moss. I was conducting a survey of bryophyte and lichen diversity on a coastal bluff at a educational retreat and environmental learning center on the west side of Cortes Island, B.C. called Channel Rock. As I climbed my way up a steep rocky slope to the top of a coastal bluff, a thick, chartreuse carpet of moss and lichens unfolded before me, glowing in the stark summer light. The earthy, pungent scent of moss and decay rose beneath my feet as the brittle blanket of bryophytes crunched under the weight each step. Months later, when the rains returned, I visited this same bluff and delighted in the soft marshmallow pillows of moss buoyant underfoot. So enticing was a particularly deep pocket of Polytrichum that I lay down to relish in the soft mossy bed created by nature.


I guess you could call these romantic revelations the “courting phase” of my relationship with moss. The truth is, if I could have a conversation with my mossy companions, I would not tell them how I cherish their bouncy, spiky stalks or revel in their sensuous, curvy sprigs. It’s much simpler than that. I would just say “you had me at moss”.



Act II: From Moss to Moleclules and Back

Another interest I pursued as an undergraduate was ethnobotanical and medicinal studies of plants. In particular, I was fascinated by the unique secondary metabolites produced by lichens. These chemical compounds, which are thought to act mainly as defensive substances against insects and pathogens, are produced in remarkably large quantities by lichens (sometime up to 40% of the dry weight!) and in some cases can serve as chemotaxonomical tools for understanding the evolutionary relationships between taxa.

My plan was to continue my studies of the chemistry and taxonomy of mosses and lichens as a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin in the Plant Biology graduate program. My Ph.D. advisor, Prof. Emeritus Dr. Tom Mabry, who is often referred to as “the Father of Modern Plant Chemistry”, quickly steered me away from non-vascular plants and encouraged me to expand my knowledge of higher plants and their fascinating chemical diversity. Looking back, I am grateful for Dr. Mabry’s advice. Although my Ph.D. studies focused on the medicinal and phytochemical properties of a small genus in the Sunflower family, Silphium L. (Asteraceae), and not the chemistry of mosses and lichens, this alternate path provided me with numerous opportunities to expand my skills as botanist and integrate them with my newly acquired phytochemistry tools. Ultimately, this path allowed me to pursue my passion for studying the remarkable diversity of natural products produced by plants and has led me full circle back to the beginning of my interest in plants-back to moss!


So, here I am, almost two years post-graduate school. I am back in Olympia Washington, working with renowned forest canopy researcher and Evergreen faculty member, Dr. Nalini Nadkarni on project called the Research Ambassador Program (RAP). The RAP is a scientific outreach program that aims to support scientists in disseminating their research to public audiences who are traditionally underserved. A great example of such an effort is the “Moss in Prisons project” which served as a model for the wildly successful “Sustainable Prisons Project”.



The majority of commercial moss harvesting for the floral industry involves stripping moss mats from tree branches in mature temperate rainforests of the Pacific Northwest. As demand for horticultural moss increases, so does the harvesting impacts on these delicate ecosystems, including reduction in forest biomass and long-lasting changes in species composition. The overarching goal of the “Moss in Prisons project” was to investigate methods to grow mosses for the horticultural trade with the help of inmates at the Cedar Creek Correctional Center. The project was a huge success. The inmates conducted experiments to test different methods for cultivating moss. Not only did the participants gain emotional benefits from working with plants while also learning about the process of science but they also made steps towards providing an alternative to the harvest of wild moss populations.


As the first official Research Ambassador, I am thrilled to be working on a project with similar goals as the “Moss in Prisons project”, accept with a new public audience: Senior Citizens. Seniors living in assisted care facilities and retirement communities are in a perfect position to engage with science. Many seniors have strong minds and spirits but are physically unable to live on their own. Often, these facilities do not have the funding to offer educational programs or opportunities to interact with the natural world. This can start to change with the help of the Research Ambassador Program. We plan to set up some simple horticultural experiments with the seniors to test the best conditions for growing mosses. Each participant will be given a pot of moss to keep on their window sill, a magnifying glass and a notebook to record their observations and growth measurements using different watering regimes (spray vs. watering) and sunlight regimes (full sun vs. shade). To complement our moss cultivation research we plan to offer lectures on ecology, conservation and physiology of mosses at participating facilities. Seniors will also have the opportunities to visit local natural areas for observing moss in their native habitats and enjoying their aesthetic beauty. It is our hope that the Research Ambassador Program's aim of engaging Seniors with the science of growing moss will lead to more than just new methods for cultivating moss for horticultural use, but will also lead to an increased public appreciation for mosses and a strengthened connection between non-traditional public audiences and scientists.


Stay tuned for my next blog entry, which will delve into the medicinal and ecological importance of secondary metabolites found in mosses!