“It’s not as fun to do yourself,” our tour guide said today.
I wish I could just leave it there, but I guess I should provide the context of that sentence. Papaya trees are trioecious; they produce three different kinds of trees: ones with hermaphroditic flowers, others with only male flowers, and others with only female flowers. This is an adaptation to prevent self-fertilization, because self-fertilization results in offspring that are less fit than the parents. By having some plants that only produce male flowers and others that only produce female flowers, there is no chance that the trees with only one kind can fertilize themselves. So the hermaphroditic plants “do” themselves as a precaution in case there are no other female trees around, but that is inbreeding which is dangerous. That’s why it’s not as fun to do yourself.
Today was special. Then again this whole trip is very special, but today was extra special. I feel that I have a better sense of what I want to do for a career: ethnobotany! A perfect mix of the social sciences and the natural sciences. Brian Yamamoto, a professor of ethnobotany at Kauai Community College, came and toured the National Tropical Botanical Garden where he is an adjunct faculty member, and I came out of it feeling very inspired, like I found a career field that suits my interests. Perhaps a little bit of the charm and draw of ethnobotany will come across in the rest of this post.
Today, we stopped at the grocery store Safeway where, again, instead of a 15 minute stop just for people to pick out lunch food, we waited 30 minutes. It’s a shame because we could be seeing so many more places if people could just get their act together and be time-sensitive. Then we went to the National Tropical Botanical Garden, one of the few tropical national parks on United States soil. There, we visited the Juliet Rice Wichman Botanical Research Center, the library and herbarium upstairs, and several of the trails leading through the gardens. Quite an epic day!
The first striking thing about this place is that there really is no one there. The place must cost a fortune to maintain, and yet the place was nearly deserted. And we are sort of visiting during peak visiting months, winter break for many students. It’s not good that there aren’t people there. We first came to the research center and library building, a very gorgeous place with modern architecture and a small outside. Brian mentioned that the books in this building are extremely rare and so it was important to protect them from bugs. As such, there was a foyer that you entered before you went into the actual building, a buffer from the outside designed to keep bugs out. We had to leave our shoes there because of potential invaders, and we also couldn’t bring in any paper because of the possibility of paper lice which is apparently a thing. They held inside the library first edition copies of the Origin of Species and some book by Linnaeus, in addition to a lot of other super rare books.
We also got a chance to see the collection of preserved insects. There were beetles, butterflies, moths, and all sorts of other ones from all over the world, and among them were the largest beetle the Rhinoscerous beetle, the largest moth, and the largest spider. Some of the insects they had had even gone extinct!
Next, a guy named Dustin talked to us about seed preservation. They have a lab there dedicated to studying the best techniques of preserving seeds. It seems like it could be a very boring subject, but I thought it was fascinating. Seed preservation allows for some pretty cool things, like if all of the crops in an area were destroyed, it would be able to bring out more seed to plant for the next season. Or if a species went extinct in the wild, some of the seeds could be planted later to bring the species back to life. How sick is that! And how long the seeds last depends on the degree to which you desiccate and freeze them, and not all seeds respond the same. Who knows, maybe this will help us one day learn how to bring Walt Disney back to life (just soak his frozen body with some giberellic acid, am I right?).
(Above: the world’s largest seed. According to Wikipedia, comes from a palm tree, it can reach about 12 inches (30 cm) long, and weigh up to 40 pounds (18 kg). The coco de mer tree can grow up to 100 feet (31 m) tall, with leaves measuring 20 ft (6 m) long and 12 feet (3.6 m) wide.)
Then I got to touch a holotype! Yeah! A holotype is what a scientific researcher collects when they discover a new species. They collect a specimen that is called a holotype and they can then name it whatever they want. The one I got to hold was a species from the palm-tree genus, Pritchardia. We went up to the herbarium and looked at herbarium specimens and I got to meet a guy named Tim who works there and his son went to Vassar and it was awesome!
After lunch, we ventured to the gardens where we walked a long loop and Brian gave us a tour. We saw so many robust plants that even though there were so many awesome ones, I gave up trying to take pictures of them all because it seemed like it was taking away from the experience of being there. What was extra nice, however, was hearing the cultural usage of many of these plants. Take the mango tree: it is in the same plant family as poison ivy and poison oak, the Anacardiaceae. They both share the same oils that cause dermatitis reactions on our skins. “Oh snap! What have I been eating all these years!? Am I going to die?!” No, you’re going to be fine, don’t worry. Ripe mangos lose the oils. Mango trees are flowering plants, so they produce fruit, the seeds of which they need to disperse. In order to disperse their seeds, the mango gets rid of its toxins so that animals can eat it and then poop the seeds out later, far away from the parent plant. The lacquer tree, grown in Japan, is used to coat furniture for preservation, as it looks shiny. The Japanese people gain tolerance to the oils from exposure, but foreigners do not. As such, during the US occupation of Japan following World War II, sensitized American soldiers got rashes on their asses when they sat on the Japanese toilets. If only they included information like this in textbooks, world history would be so much more interesting.
(Above: Brian standing in a patch of the Madagascar Periwinkles, the mango tree is on the left behind the people.)
Plants can also be drugs too. We came across the Madagascar Periwinkle, a plant that is found absolutely everywhere back home. It is pink and purple, small, and found as a plant outside of many buildings. The manufacturing of different drugs cures many diseases, and many of them are produced by plants. Two drugs are produced from organic compounds in this plant which help prevent deaths from childhood leukemia. Prior to the invention of these drugs, a child with leukemia was about 50% likely to live. Afterwards, survival was closer to 90%.
Other interesting things we saw were: locations where scenes from Jurassic park and Pirates of the Caribbean were shot, miracleberry plants — the fruits of which make you not taste bad things for a half hour, and Hawaiian mints, which have lost their characteristic smell as a consequence of evolution apart from predators.
(Top left: Hawaii’s State Flower: A native hibiscus: 2nd from top on left: a huge specimen of Psilotum, a well-known non-vascular plant; third from top left: Tiger lily, bottom right: the location where a scene in Jurassic Park 1 was filmed (it’s the point where they find the T-Rex eggs, somewhere around the 60-70 minute mark I think?))
There were so many other awesome plants, but it’s late and I have to get up tomorrow morning at 7 to go on a hike with the rest of the group, so I think I will sign off. Man, it takes me so long (several hours) to make these posts, but I think that they will be nice to look back on one day, which motivates me to keep writing them. So good night and come again tomorrow!