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Logo of annbotAboutAuthor GuidelinesEditorial BoardAnnals of Botany
Ann Bot. 2015 July; 116(1): iii–v.
Published online 2015 June 23. doi:  10.1093/aob/mcv102
PMCID: PMC4479759

Plant Cuttings

Hay makes cheese holier…?

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As if to prove that every story has a botanical link – if you look hard/close enough – how about this cheese-based revelation? For many years the formation of the holes that are found within certain Swiss cheeses – such as Emmental[1] and Appenzeller[2] – has been attributed solely to the CO2-producing activities of bacteria[3] (now known to be Propionibacterium freudenreichii[4]). However, recognising that those trademark holes became much smaller when the milk used in cheese’s manufacture was extracted using ‘modern’ methods[5], and no doubt concerned about the cheeses losing some of their distinctiveness and no-doubt USPs[6], producers and retailers were understandably perplexed. What is it about modern milk extraction that affects the holes so markedly? Apparently, it’s down to the fact that there’s no contact with the atmosphere when milk is removed directly from the cow’s teats into a collecting vessel in modern-day machine-milking[7]. Which contrasts markedly with the traditional hand-milking of cows wherein the milk is accumulated in an open-topped bucket. This allows for particles of hay to settle in the milk, and it’s these that provide the nucleation sites for the CO2 bubbles that subsequently give rise to the holes[8]. This study was undertaken by members of the Agroscope Institute for Food Sciences[9] and the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology[10]. And what is hay? Hay is ‘grass, legumes or other herbaceous plants that have been cut, dried, and stored for use as animal fodder, particularly for grazing livestock such as cattle, horses, goats, and sheep’[11]. So now it seems that the ‘holey of holies’[12] of cheese mysteries has been solved. Blessed indeed are the cheese-makers[13–15]. What other cheese myths (botanically based ones, please!) are there to be busted?

[As a confirmed fromagophile, this is a … er … grate[16] (sic intentional) cheese story … – Ed.]

Image: ‘June’, from Il Breviario Grimani. Anonymous, circa 1510.

[1]; [2]; [3] Journal of Dairy Science 1: 91–113, 1917; [4]; [5]; [6]; [7]; [8]; [9]; [10]; [11]; [12]; [13]; [14]; [15]; [16]

Bearded bardic botanist, bruised but not bested?

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An association between botany and literature is extremely old, from the agricultural references in the cuneiform script of the Code of Hammurabi (ruler of Babylon from 1792 to 1750 bc[1,2]) and the parable of the lilies in the field as featured in the Holy Bible[3,4], to the gardening exhortations in the 9th century Capitulary of Villis[5,6] of Charlemagne, Holy Roman Emperor[7,8] and John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids[9] in the 20th century. Now that association seems to have been forever cemented/underscored in dramatic fashion by the discovery of the likeness of the man widely regarded as the ‘greatest writer in the English language’[10] in a 16th century herbal, ‘a collection of descriptions of plants put together for medicinal purposes’[11]. The ‘writer’ in question is none other than William Shakespeare[12]: the book is The Herball, Or Generall Historie of Plantes by John Gerard, published in London in 1597[13]. Gerard[14] was an Elizabethan[15] botanist and herbalist whose herbal was reportedly the most widely circulated botany book in English in the 17th century. The announcement of the discovery was made by Mark Griffiths (‘one of Britain's leading plant experts … Editor of The New Royal Horticultural Society Dictionary of Gardening, the largest work on horticulture ever published, and the author or editor of numerous other books on gardening and botany’[16]) after he and Edward Wilson (BLitt, MA, FSA, FLS, Emeritus Fellow of Worcester College, University of Oxford, UK[17]) had spent five years consulting Latin and Shakespeare scholars before going public[18], their work having involved the deciphering of an Elizabethan code[19]. Not unexpectedly, the claim – that this is the only likeness of Shakespeare produced in the wordsmith’s lifetime – is disputed[20], not least because the revelation was made in Country Life[21], which, whilst it may be the ‘quintessential English magazine’[22], is not a peer-reviewed journal[23]. So, as is this modern way, this ‘publication’ is being subjected to vigorous post-publication peer review[24]. Whilst we at Cuttings HQ aren’t qualified to rebut all of the arguments, we can contribute our botanical expertise in debunking one of them. Professor Michael Dobson (Director of the Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham[25]) pooh-poohs[26] Griffiths’ interpretation[27] on the rather flimsy grounds that he ‘can’t imagine any reason why Shakespeare would be in a botany textbook’. Well, we can. So here goes … References to plants and botanics feature widely in many of Shakespeare’s plays[28–31] and it has been claimed that Shakespeare’s ‘botanical sophistication is at a level near that of the herbalists of the time’[32]. Both Shakespeare and Gerard had a shared interest in members of the Solanaceae and Cucurbitaceae[33], with examples of native species and those newly introduced to Europe from the New World featuring both in the Bard’s plays and Gerard’s Herball. Furthermore, it’s been proposed by Griffiths that Shakespeare actually helped Gerard in preparation of the herbal with Greek and Latin translations, and acted as a ‘script doctor’[18]. So what better way than for a noted herbalist to link his work with those of dramatist and playwright Shakespeare as a mark of mutual respect, and to thank him for script-editing services (and maybe also in the hope that more botanical references may feature in the playwright’s work, which may have a knock-on effect in additional interest in, and sales of, Gerard’s herbal …)? Not that this is necessarily evidence – it’s certainly not been subject to peer-review (although my botanical mate Dave has given it the once-over!) – and doesn’t express a view on the disputed drawing, but it is at least a botanical counter to Dobson’s objection. After all, if Shakespeare* is a botanist, then we fellow botanists – we few, we happy few, we band of brothers[34] – must stick up for him, and each other!

* Anyway, what literary figure’s image would be better to illustrate such a herbal, Christopher Marlowe’s …?[35–38]. Discuss …

[For those curious to see the image that’s caused such interest, Gerard’s tome can be viewed online thanks to the Wageningen UR Library[39] – the page in question is within Icons 1–6 … – Ed.]

Image: From The Herball, Or Generall Historie of Plantes by John Gerard. Published by John Norton, London, 1597.

[1]; [2] International Journal of Business and Social Science 2: 108–117, 2011; [3]; [4]; [5]; [6]; [7]; [8]; [9]; [10]; [11]; [12]; [13]; [14]; [15]; [16]; [17]; [18]; [19]; [20]; [21]; [22]; [23]; [24]; [25]; [26]; [27]; [28]; [29]; [30]; [31]; [32] Economic Botany 24: 81–94, 1970; [33] Horticultural Reviews 40: 215–258, 2012; [34]; [35]; [36]; [37]; [38]; [39]

Looks like leaf-like lizards live longer

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How I overlooked this Christmas Eve 2014 gem previously I’ll never know, but it’s too good not to share. So by way of a belated Christmas present, here goes. We may be used to animals that mimic plant parts, such as leaves or twigs[1–4], but those are usually static mimicries. A study of gliding lizards (yes, miniature ‘dragons’ that do sort of ‘fly’) in Borneo by Danielle Klomp et al. takes leaf-mimicry by animals to a new level[5]. They found that the patagia (the extensible, rib-supported membranes that enable the owners to glide between trees[6]) of different populations of Draco cornutus[7–9] differed in colour. They also realised that those colour differences matched the different colours of the freshly fallen leaves typical of the vegetation where the lizards lived – reddish amongst mangroves, and green and dark brown in the rainforest. But, and importantly, the colour-matching was in terms of how the leaf colours would appear to the eyes of birds that might eat the lizards. The team thus surmise that patagial colouration mimics the colour of falling leaves so when in flight – and presumably more vulnerable to predation – the lizards might be ignored by birds as if they were falling leaves. I suppose a direct way of testing this hypothesis is to translocate mangrove lizard populations to the rainforest – and vice versa – to see how camouflaged the aerial reptiles are in a different environment. But I suspect there may be ethical prohibitions on that sort of experiment. However, whilst this feat is certainly impressive, maybe the leaf-mimicking honours should go to a plant, the woody vine Boquila trifoliolata[10] (a monotypic genus in the amazingly named family Lardizabalaceae[11]), which is able to mimic the leaves (‘in terms of size, shape, color, orientation, petiole length, and/or tip spininess’!) of the host plants over which it scrambles, and which can mimic several hosts simultaneously[12]!!! ‘Leapin’ lizards!’, as one Little Orphan Annie might say[13]. Indeed!

[For more on mimicry by plants, we recommend Spencer Barrett’s review Mimicry in Plants in Scientific American[14]. For a blog entry about the Bornean fallen-leaf mimics, see Ambika Kamath’s item from August 2014, which predates the published article by several months[15]. And to find out how to add an ‘aura’ to a poster, it’s worth looking at Danielle Klomp’s blog[16] – Ed.]

Image: Klomp et al., Biology Letters 10: 20140743, 2014.

[1]; [2]; [3]; [4]; [5] Biology Letters 10: 20140743, 2014; [6]; [7]; [8]; [9]; [10]; [11]; [12] Current Biology 24: 984–987, 2014; [13]; [14]; [15]; [16]

Botanists on the move

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Nobody ‘does’ botany for the money (well, I don’t!!), but at least it’s a career that can involve life-changing travel. And as if to underline the global (well, pan-European at least!) portability and employability of plant scientists, we’re pleased to report a botanical ‘merry-go-round’[1,2] as follows. The ten-strong team of Professor Yrjö Helariutta has moved from the Viiki Campus of the University of Helsinki (Finland) westwards to the University of Cambridge (UK)[3,4], where it will continue its research into the processes that establish and maintain vascular tissues[5]. Continuing the westwards trajectory, and from the University of Cambridge, is Dr Jill Harrison[6] – who specialises in such fundamental aspects of plant structure as branching patterns[7] – and who has been appointed to a proleptic* lectureship in the Life Sciences at the University of Bristol (UK)[8]. Jill is also noteworthy for her role as a Handling Editor for the Annals of Botany[9]. By the time this item is published, her lab should have been installed in their brand new building in the West Country. And travelling eastwards is another Annals’ Handling Editor, Professor Simon Hiscock[9]. Currently Professor of Botany[10] and Director of the University of Bristol Botanic Garden[11], Simon takes up the post of Director of the Oxford Botanic Garden[12]** and Harcourt Arboretum[13,14] at the University of Oxford (UK) in July 2015. From horizontal translocations, to a vertical (and upwards!) one now. Whilst she hasn’t actually moved from the University of Oxford where she is Professor of Plant Development at the Department of Plant Sciences[15], we note with pleasure that Professor Jane Langdale has recently been elevated to Fellowship of the UK’s Royal Society[16] for a body of work that has transformed our understanding of how plants make leaves and how leaves changed during major evolutionary transitions. It is therefore likely that Jane might have to spend some time at that august institution’s headquarters in London, and/or at its venue for residential events in Buckinghamshire[17]. So, what we now need to know is whether anybody has relocated from Oxford to Helsinki, thereby completing that little botanical circularity. Or is anybody about to …? Do let us know!

* Readers unfamiliar with this term might try to make sense of it when I reveal that when used in the context of jobs it apparently refers to ‘the appointment of a well-qualified candidate to a consultant post in which a period of up to one year’s training or secondment, either whole time or part time, is made a condition of the appointment, to be accepted by the candidate and the employing authority’[18]. I’m so glad we cleared up any confusion!

** Given the importance of botanic gardens to future food and ecosystem security[19] we wish him all the very best in that role!

Plants and the diamond connection

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The much-derided ancient ‘wisdom’ that is the Doctrine of Signatures (DoS[1,2]) has it that God wanted to show Man what plants were medically useful by providing signs in their structure, shape, colour or whatever. Thus plants that bear spines might help treat injuries caused by arrows or spears, or even office staples; plants with leaves that look like body organs are suitable for treating ailments associated with those parts, etc. Far too obvious! I believe that any Creator is more subtle than that – i.e. works in even more mysterious ways than the DoS would have us believe. How does Mr P. Cuttings arrive at this conclusion? Well, it’s all down to work by Stephen Haggerty (Florida State University, USA), which reveals that Pandanus candelabrum[3,4] appears to grow uniquely in soil that’s associated with kimberlite deposits[4], in north-west Liberia anyway. So? Well, kimberlite is ‘an igneous rock best known for sometimes containing diamonds’(!!) and occurs as so-called kimberlite pipes[5]. Now, whilst there’s no guarantee that there’s a stash of diamonds and a source of unimaginable riches beneath every candelabra[6] screw-pine (an inverted case of hiding a bushel under a light[7]?), it does help point people in the right direction to start digging (providing they know their plants …). And, furthermore, if indeed this phytodiamondine association is truly an act of the Divine One, it also suggests that Botanists[8–10] (or geologists[11], or geobotanists[12] …) are His/Her favoured creatures amongst the human population*. I don’t know, diamond-prospecting using plants: a ‘pipe-dream’[13] come true?

* And one in the eye[14] for those pesky zoologists[15] who think they’re God’s gift[16] to the Life Sciences!

[One wonders if this is the sort of forward-lookingness by Botanists that a recent Nature Plants Editorial[17] had in mind … – Ed.]

Image: Keith S. Brown/Wikimedia Commons.

[1]; [2]; [3]; [4]; [4] Economic Geology 110: 851–856, 2015; [5]; [6]; [7]; [8]; [9]; [10]; [11]; [12]; [13]; [14]; [15]; [16]; [17] Nature Plants 1: 15086, 2015.

Nigel Chaffey


Chaffey N. 2015. Plant Cuttings, July. Annals of Botany 116(1): iii–v.

Articles from Annals of Botany are provided here courtesy of Oxford University Press