Why we are here:

Our signature Bible passage, the prologue to John's Gospel, tells us that Jesus (the Logos) is God and Creator and that He came in the flesh (sarx) to redeem His fallen, sin-cursed creation—and especially those He chose to believe in Him.

Here in Bios & Logos we have some fun examining small corners of the creation to show how great a Creator Jesus is—and our need for Him as Redeemer. Soli Deo Gloria.


Monday, May 25, 2009

About alien mustards and other cruciferous oddities

After more than a month without a bloggy condiment from the bioman, it’s about time I snatched the Gulden’s from the fridge and spread the word about the Brassicas or Crucifers—the mustard family, that is. It’s also called the cabbage family. Take your pick. Either is correct, because botanical taxonomists are a fickle lot—keep changing their minds and the names of plant families. So technically, it’s either Cruciferae or Brassicaceae.

We can’t do justice to all the members of the family. After all, they include a whole range of your favorite—or not—veggies, not just cabbage, but broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, beets, radish, wasabi, and of course, mustard. We eat their flowers, stems, roots, leaves, seeds—raw, boiled, steamed, slawed, mashed, ground—whatever.

But wait—that’s not what this piece started out to be about. As you can see by the photos, it is supposed to be about a couple of pestiferous members of the family—invasive aliens that can ruin things for our native wildflowers.

The most infamous is of course the white-flowered one, Alliaria officinalis, the dreaded and deadly Garlic Mustard, which has virtually taken over many wooded areas and crowded out and poisoned out many native wildflowers. Once it grabs hold, it is almost impossible to eliminate, try as we may, by pulling or cutting, as witnessed by the photo of the hapless soul wading in a sea of the stuff (Sorry, Jim—didn’t make it to the last pulling session.)

The yellow-flowered species is another alien, one that prefers sunnier fields and meadows instead of shady woodlands. It’s called Winter Cress or Rocket. No one seems to get exercised by its appearance, perhaps because it’s prettier and doesn’t transform its environment into a weedy mess, as does its white-flowered relative. Its massive displays of sunny yellow brighten the early spring scene, so we usually don’t get xenophobic about it. Probably the worst thing it can do is to crowd out other aliens.

These mustards are masters at conquering the landscape because they are fast. They sprout fast; they bloom fast; they set seed fast, in stringy pods called siliques. So if you don’t get rid of them fast—before they go to seed—they will foil any attempts to eliminate them for years to come.

Their fastness also makes some mustard species valuable research plants. In fact, a University of Wisconsin geneticist has bred a really fast version of the common mustard, Brassica rapa. The plants bloom fourteen days after planting, so students can study their complete life cycle conveniently in the classroom. Appropriately, they are called Wisconsin Fast Plants®. Read about them

There is another Crucifer that has made its (really long) name in the science lab, a tiny weed called
Arabidopsis thaliana. Because of its short life cycle and convenience for laboratory culture, it has become what biologists call a model organism—one that has been studied extensively in hundreds of labs and has taught us more than almost any other about the genetics, embryology, growth and reproduction of the flowering plants.

One final Brassica-related fact, one that may disappoint or even distress you, is that there is no such thing as a canola. If you use canola oil in your kitchen (and I wish you wouldn’t—but that’s another story), I’ll bet you have wondered where it came from. I’m sorry to inform you that it came from Rapeseed, Brassica napus. Rapeseed oil is valuable as a lubricant—but it tastes awful and can be poisonous because of its high concentration of erucic acid. But some Canadian growers bred a low-acid version whose oil is suitable (some say) for human consumption and named it Canola—short for Canadian Oil Low Acid. My advice is to stick with olive oil, even though it’s not a Crucifer. It’s an honest oil, one that has nothing to hide.

We have wandered far in field, forest, laboratory and kitchen here. But now it is time to give thanks to the Creator for His gift of the Brassicas, alien or not, pestiferous or not, edible or not, for their contributions to nutrition, research and natural beauty. They are master architects and biochemical engineers, whose unimaginable complexity we are just beginning to recognize. Even Charles Darwin acknowledged their imagined evolutionary origin (along with all flowering plants) to be an “abominable mystery.”

And I will be thankful for getting through this piece without using the expression, “cut the mustard,” whose etymology I recently read about, but the details of which I promptly forgot. Maybe eating more cruciferous vegetables would help my memory.

Soli Deo Gloria