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The Building Blocks of Life: Phosphorus


Phosphorus is essential to the growth of plants, especially young plants, and without it crops simply won’t grow. It’s a relatively easy macro-nutrient to get your hand on in the states, but elsewhere in the world this mineral is scarce (or poorly divvied out). In under-developed countries, purchasing fertilizer is a risk; not only are the bags expensive, but an unlucky growing season plagued by pests could mean a total-loss of crops and in some cases a total-loss of life. None risk more than small African countries, such as Malawi, where the soil is so acidic that the phosphorus binds with iron or aluminum oxides before it’s able to reach the plants. In acidic soils such as these, farmers can’t rely on phosphorus so they must rely on something else; thermic compost.

photo by taurus.ag

Unlike the rest of the world, countries with acidic soil must get creative with their crops. For most of them their livelihood depends on it; 8 out of 10 Malawi workers are farmers. Sometimes phosphorus isn’t just too expensive to purchase, it’s unavailable. Phosphorus reserves on Earth are expected to last for centuries, but the reserves are so unevenly distributed around the planet that it’s sometimes not possible to obtain for smaller/poorer countries. While all farmers need phosphorus, there’s only so much to go around and there are only a few countries where phosphorus naturally exists. Five countries control 88% of the remaining phosphate reserves. Morocco alone has 75% of the estimated global reserves. When politics and greed combine, the smaller poorer countries can’t compete and thus fall even further behind. Thanks to thermic composting there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

To fix these countries’ phosphorus problems, they must address the real issue; the soil. A mineral fertilizer can’t restore the structure of the soil, but thermic composting can by adding organic matter back into the soil. Healthy, productive soil, is not just dirt with nutrients, but a living ecosystem. Composting keeps all of these organisms alive and keeps the soil healthy year after year. The organisms have many jobs to do, but one of their most important jobs is solubilising; or freeing phosphorus and other nutrients from their bonds. This makes those nutrients available for new plants. Composting in poorer countries could even solve deeper issues such as sanitation, by re-purposing waste. Thermic composting isn’t like your traditional kitchen scrap compost pile, but a calculated layering of waste designed to create a more efficient, faster, nutrient-rich compost.

You can read more on the subject, as well as watch videos of the Malawian people, here.

English Ivy

English Ivy, a traditional ground cover, has been scaling buildings and reaching new heights since the advent of man-made structures. The fast growing vine clings to and eventually overtakes old structures and trees. It creates a unique look shared by most historical buildings, Ivy League schools, and of course Wrigley Field. But, with so many older structures engulfed in the plant, what effect does the Ivy have on what it climbs? It was a serious question posed by a conservation team at Oxford University. The vast majority of historical buildings in the UK are covered by Ivy, so naturally scholars wanted to find out the plant’s effects on such rich history.

photo by Monrovia.

Their hypothesis was that over time English Ivy damaged buildings and trees. It was evident the old stone buildings were deteriorating, but was this merely an effect of time or was the Ivy to blame? After three years of studying, what they found was quite interesting. They discovered that Ivy can be harmful to a structure or a tree, but only if the host (for lack of a better word) is already damaged or in decline. I just used the word “host” but Ivy actually isn’t parasitic, it establishes itself by extending tendrils and rooting themselves everywhere they land. And here lies the “root” of the problem.

If you have a healthy structure, then the Ivy will subsist on the surface without risk. In fact, researchers found that Ivy-covered walls (in relation to bare walls) were 15% warmer during the winter and 36% cooler in the summer; casting Ivy as a versatile insulator throughout seasons. Their research concluded that healthy trees sporting ivy vines weren’t at risk either. The Ivy merely used the trees as a living ladder; scaling the trunk and branches until reaching the canopy. The vines also provided birds with much-needed shelter and food (in the form of berries) during the harsh winter months. Unfortunately for English Ivy, the positives end here.

Once Ivy reaches the canopy it begins competing with the tree for vital sunlight. It inadvertently suffocates the sunlight-starved leaves, preventing photosynthesis and leading the tree to its eventual death. Structures suffer the same fate, but the process is a little more complicated and drawn out. Ivy roots burrow into any crack in the foundation or walls, accelerating the process of decay. The vines squeeze in between vinyl siding and dry-stacked walls, remove paint and stucco from walls, and damage gutters. The openings created by its roots allow entry for other pests and insects.

English Ivy is a bittersweet vine; its elegant tendrils scaling the side of old stone and trees are a sight to behold. However, it’s that same Ivy that will ultimately be those buildings/trees downfall. Whether you have Ivy growing on the side of your home, or you would like to incorporate the look in your landscape, I would caution against it. Even if your building is new, and the bricks are in excellent shape, they will eventually falter or crumble and the Ivy will take advantage. I would advise using English Ivy as a ground cover, as it was intended, quarantining the plant to controlled areas and limiting its grip on those nearby.

The Wood Wide Web

Several months back we shared a video on our Facebook of the “Wood Wide Web”, an intricate underground hyphal network created by mycorrhizal fungi and used to share information between host plants. A network in which trees and other large rooted plants send and receive sugars and nutrients to aid survival. If a tree belonging to a certain network is malnourished, its peers send the necessary supplements to bring the tree back to health. It’s a fascinating exchange of information and it’s all happening right beneath our feet.

What’s even more impressive is the trees altruistic nature. If a tree is sick or on the verge of death, they will dump their resources through the fungi network and to other trees that would benefit from the nutrients; effectively giving their life for the greater good. Trees also know when others around them are shaded and not receiving adequate sunlight; in which the trees will combine resources to make up for the lack of light. It’s a remarkable and complex relationship between symbiotic fungi and a “family” of trees that are all looking out for each other. They can sense when other trees are in danger and send extra resources to combat the treat. A tree under attack will also send a signal through the network warning others to ready their defenses.

But not all trees are willing to play nice. Some trees, such as the black walnut in which the video mentions, behave in a very sinister way. They hijack resources intended for other trees; selfishly absorbing any and all nutrients they can. Another tactic these “bad” trees (as I will call them) deploy is to poison their peers by sending bad nutrients through the network. These trees work to destroy their so-called “rivals” using the very system that is intended to promote their survival.

After watching this video, I am not only fascinated but intrigued at what we don’t yet know. Why are some trees seemingly programmed to be “good” and others meant to sabotage the network? Did one bad black walnut tree ruin it for the rest of them? And what methods do the “good” trees use to get back at those “bad” trees sucking up all the network’s resources? Either way, nature never ceases to amaze me and there is so much we still don’t know about this complex “Wood Wide Web”. One thing is for certain, I will never look at a forest the same way again. A forest isn’t a bunch of different trees acting independently from one another, but rather one giant organism swapping information and resources in a bid to survive.

You can watch the “Wood Wide Web” BBC video we shared on Facebook by clicking the link here.

The Morel Mushroom

Morel mushrooms, or “woodfish” as I’ve always called them, are one of the most sought after fungi in the world. Unlike more common mushrooms, morels are not commercially grown and have to be harvested in the wild. You can find them in and around forested areas of the Northern Hemisphere, sprouting up in early spring as the ground starts warming to temperatures of around 50 degrees. Their earthy, meaty taste is a mainstay in expensive dishes around the world. Here are some tips for harvesting these delicious mushrooms.

picture by Field & Stream.

Look for morels in fairly-open patches of forest and in areas that are disturbed or damaged. Some examples include ground that was previously flooded, wildfire sites and logging areas. Check southern-facing slopes (as the sun will warm those areas first) and the northern-facing slopes later in the season. Morels are prevalent around the bases of large or dying trees, especially Oak, Ash, Poplar and Elm. What’s the best advice when “hunting woodfish”? Be patient. Morel mushrooms blend in with the forest floor by design to avoid foragers and animals alike. If you’re having trouble finding them, don’t worry. Take a deep breath and look over the same area again; chances are they are hiding in plain sight. Still having trouble finding morels? Try foraging after a light spring rain. A 60-degree day after a morning shower is perfect for the mushrooms to grow. Oh, and if you see one there are bound to be more.

Why aren’t these mushrooms grown commercially? While there’s no shortage of demand, the production costs needed to replicate the perfect environment for morels is just too expensive. In the wild, morels are the result of a symbiotic relationship between fungus and the root systems of trees or other larger plants; the mushrooms provide minerals in exchange for nutrients. The mushrooms are bound to the life cycle of the host, sprouting when trees sap up in spring and also when the trees die. However, this relationship has to be just right for morels to grow.  No one has figured out how to produce the mushrooms without the introduction of trees in a commercial environment (or enough of them to profit).

I think the fact that these aren’t commercially available only adds to the appeal and overall appreciation for morels. Hunting for “woodfish” has been a spring tradition for my household ever since I can remember. It’s a great way to experience the outdoors, be self-sufficient, and spend time together as family. It’s really a win-win for the younger ones as well, they get to be out in nature exercising and also participating in what feels like a scavenger or Easter-egg hunt. Once you spot one, it’s almost addicting trying to find more. There’s nothing better than a plate full of morels, flash-fried with a little flour. Take my advice this spring and try foraging for these delicious mushrooms, you won’t regret it!

The Sunflower

A sunflower rather obviously gets its name because of its resemblance to the sun, but this isn’t the only reason. It also gets the name from its behavior as an adolescent. During early stages of growth the sunflower tracks the sun across the sky in a motion known as heliotropism. This subtle movement is the plant’s way of facilitating the maximum amount of growth in the shortest amount of time. Once a sunflower matures it will no longer exhibit movement and will remain facing in one direction; almost always east. Moreover, a field of sunflowers will all face the same direction (which, you guessed it, is most likely east).

image from Lion’s Roar.

Scholars have traced the sunflower’s origin back to North America, with the first domestication of the plant in modern-day Tennessee around 2300 B.C. The earliest discovered seeds were found in Mexico and date back to 2600 B.C. Indigenous people, such as the Aztecs and Incas, associated the flower with their solar deity and thus held the flower in extremely high regard. It wasn’t until the 16th century that the sunflower made it to Europe by way of Spanish explorers. From Europe, the sunflower was imported to Russia where it soared in popularity during the 18th century. Russia was one of the biggest cultivators of the sunflower particularly for its oil; as members of the Russian Orthodox Church were allowed to consume it during Lent.

Oil production didn’t slow down, in fact the demand was so high that machinery for crushing the seed into oil were commercialized and distributed to keep up with demand. Despite their best effort, the Russian’s found out that they alone could not keep up with the global demand. Not only was the sunflower being used for oil, fields were set aside for traditional standalone seed production, ornamentals, and for silage feed. To meet such an incredible demand, the commercial production ramped up in Europe an eventually made its way back to North America.

A sunflower’s seeds are arranged on the flower in an ingenious way; a way that yields the maximum amount of seeds possible. The flower head consists of five florets that grow in a spiral motion, oriented toward one another at the golden angle, or 137.5 degrees. Typically there are 34 spirals in one direction and 55 in the other, however bigger sunflowers have 89 and 144 respectively. This pattern, which is a natural representation of the Fibonacci sequence, produces the maximum amount of seeds per sunflower head.

Growing sunflowers is quick and easy, and they are a perfect flower to plant for new/young gardeners. Sunflowers are remarkably tough plants that tend to withstand drought and heat. They really only suffer when the soil becomes too waterlogged. To accommodate all that sun-chasing growth, make sure you dig your soil deep so the flowers have a couple feet to spread their roots underground. Be aware that sunflowers need ample space above ground as well, because the plants have the ability to grow quite tall. For example, the tallest sunflower ever recorded was a whopping 30 feet tall!

The Rose

The rose was first grown and cultivated in China over 5,000 years ago, but it didn’t garner attention until much later. It was actually the ancient Greeks and Romans that popularized the thorny flower. They used it’s petals in perfumes, medicine and even shredded them for use in confetti. The rose is closely related to the goddess Aphrodite, the goddess of love, and it’s a reoccurring symbol in many works of literature. In the Iliad, Aphrodite protects Hector with the “oil of the rose”. Furthermore, in the story of Adonis it’s said that the rose was stained red from Aphrodite’s blood. After the Christianization of the Roman Empire the rose became synonymous with the Virgin Mary. A “rosary” unsurprisingly gets its name from the rose. But the flower wasn’t exclusive to the Greeks and Romans.

image from Business Insider.

Roses were also grown extensively in the Middle East region. The name “rose” is derived from the Latin “rosa”, but was first translated from a few extinct Iranian languages; most notably from the word “war” in the Parthian language. Ironically enough the rose went on to become a symbol of war in England during the fifteenth century. As factions fought against each other to control the throne, roses were used to show an individual’s allegiance; white roses were displayed for the York’s and red roses for the Lancaster’s. The conflict even went on to become known as the “War of the Roses” and eventually eliminated the male lines of both families.

The war lasted over thirty years and inadvertently made the rose one of the most sought after flowers on the planet. Roses were in such high demand that they were considered legal tender throughout the sixteenth century. Napoleon’s wife, Josephine, was so in love with the flower that she curated her own collection of the most exotic and sought after breeds. Even with interest sky-high, people were interested in growing the rose not gifting it. It wasn’t until the eighteenth century that the rose really became commonplace as a cut flower. They were bred to be disease-resistant and survive in extreme climates, making them the perfect flower for growers and buyers alike.

Those interested in growing roses should plant them in a sunny spot; roses love the sun, at least 6 hours of it per day. Adding banana peels to the soil supplies the flowers with a much-needed kick of phosphorus to help them grow. Alfalfa is also another nutrient-rich meal for roses, providing nitrogen, calcium, iron, phosphorus, and a fatty acid that specifically promotes healthy growth. Apply a 2-3 inch layer of coarse organic mulch to protect against foliage disease, as it greatly reduces the amount of splashing water onto the roses. And one last piece of advice; roses need to be carefully and regularly pruned.

The Weeping Willow

The Weeping Willow originates in Asia and parts of northern China, however, a mistranslation of the bible has led to confusion surrounding its origin story. Psalm 137 states that “Hebrew slaves wept for Zion under willow trees”. Naturally, this must be where the name “weeping willow” comes from, right?

photo by thespruce.com

Wrong. As it turns out, Babylon Willow trees were actually a form of Poplar. So in actuality, the name “Weeping Willow” is nothing more than a derivative of the trees appearance; it appears to “weep” when it’s raining, with “tears” dripping from its drooped branches and leaves.

The willow tree is valued or its numerous implications in modern society. Historically, the weeping willow has been used medicinally to treat fever and aches. Its bark contains salicin, an anti-inflammatory agent and one of the main components of aspirin. Scholars have wrote of the willow providing headache and pain-relief since before 500 B.C.

As we look further back in history, the willow tree has been used to make baskets, fish nets and for basic crafts. Some of the oldest fishing nets discovered date back to 8300 B.C. The branches of the willow are still manufactured today for nets, baskets and numerous other products. The bark of a willow, when not used for its salicin, is crushed and formed into charcoal pencils.

There are many mystical and spiritual properties associated with the willow and the tree is often depicted offering wisdom or protection throughout ancient folklore. In China, for example, it’s still common practice to include willow branches outside of a home or bedroom to ward off evil spirits. In Japan the willow is thought to bring about ghosts wherever one is planted. Ukrainians hold the willow in such high regard that it is their national tree.

In true “live fast, die young” fashion, the willow tree is among the fastest growing plants on the planet; growing up to ten feet each year. However, the lifespan of a willow relative to other trees is fairly short.  A willow tree will live thirty to fifty years before dying, but if they are lucky (or rather in an ideal situation) some have known to live upwards of seventy-five years.

If you wish to incorporate a willow tree into your own landscape, placement is key. The weeping willow needs an excessive amount of water to support its fast paced (fast growing) lifestyle, so often they are planted beside ponds or areas prone to flooding. Its roots are thick and they spread out under the ground searching for nutrients so avoid planting the willow tree near sidewalks or close to sewer pipes. But, don’t be too worried, the roots aren’t always destructive. Strategically planting willow trees can help stop erosion and is an adequate drainage solution for areas experiencing higher volumes of water.

The Venus Flytrap

The Venus flytrap (Dionaea muscipula) has been the subject of fascination for centuries, and for good reason. The carnivorous plant is indeed a trap; a scientific marvel in every right. An unsuspecting insect or spider perched on the flytrap’s bright pink leaves will rarely escape. The key to this intricate trap? Tiny hairs protruding from the leaves.

The hairs act as a trigger mechanism for those unfortunate enough to make contact. If potential prey touch a hair, a timer is set. The Venus flytrap gives the visitor twenty seconds to flee and live to see another day. However, if one of the hairs is touched a second time within the twenty seconds then the “jaws” of the trap spring closed, trapping prey inside.

Jagged “teeth” line the edge of the leaves, snapping shut like a bear trap and offering little chance of escape. The teeth don’t completely close, however, allowing smaller prey a second lease on life. It’s a calculated move by the Venus flytrap; anything small enough to pass through its teeth wouldn’t be worth digesting. If this is the case, the trap will open up again within twelve hours, its sweet nectar ready for the next unfortunate guest.

The Venus flytrap has mastered the art of conserving energy, it’s even smart enough to distinguish between a potential meal and non-beneficial stimuli such as raindrops. It can also gauge the size of its prey by using its tiny hairs. Once the trap is closed these sensitive hairs feel for any movement or signs of a struggle. If the hairs are touched five times in quick succession, the flytrap’s grip tightens and the digestion process begins.

It’s an ingenious trap, and one of nature’s most interesting creations. Most think of the Venus flytrap as this exotic plant, exclusive to rainforests and foreign lands, but the flytrap is actually native to our region. The plant was first discovered and documented by North Carolina’s governor in the late 18th century; a plant he named the flytrap. Growing a Venus flytrap has its challenges, but nonetheless it can be achieved. If you want to grow some flytraps of your own try reading this guide here.

The Tulip

The tulip was synonymous with wealth and power among Sultans and became interwoven in middle-eastern folklore. According to legend, there once was a prince who rode his horse off a cliff after learning his lover had died. He, of course, died as well and it’s said that a scarlet tulip grew from each drop of blood (I imagine there were lots of tulips). This is why, historically, the tulip has been depicted as a symbol of true and perfect love. Scholars speculate that the name “tulip” is derived from the Persian word for “turban”, which the flower broadly resembles.

photo by J. Parkers

The tulip is the national flower of Turkey, the country from which the flower is said to originate, however its true origin is much harder to pinpoint. Records suggest botanists from the Ottoman Empire were the first to grow tulips and their influence was much greater than modern-day Turkey. The Ottomans occupied stretches along the Black Sea, Russia and even Asia; where the flower was cultivated before even the tenth century. The tulip would remain exclusive to this far-reaching empire for centuries, until western diplomats observed their beauty in the 1500’s. After successful trading, the flower was introduced to Europe where it was met with frenzied acclaim.

Europeans were dazzled by the tulip’s beauty, but none more enthralled than those from the Netherlands. Carolus Clusius, the recently appointed head botanist of Western Europe’s first botanical garden, was determined to get his tenure off to a good start. After seeing beautiful drawings of the exotic flower, Clusius became obsessed with bringing the tulip to his fellow Dutchmen. Through a connection in Asia he was able to obtain some bulbs and began testing the flower for any medicinal properties. However, when the flower produced little to no hope in the medical field, he decided that it would be best used as an ornamental. Little did Clusius know, others had also seen the drawings and the tulip was about to soar in popularity.

Carolus Clusius was the only person in the country who had access to the flower and only sold them away to the highest of bidders; mainly royalty and those well connected. It wasn’t long before bulbs were stolen from the botanist’s home and the rest is, well, history.  Bulbs from the newly imported flower made their way around the country with demand sky-high and a price-point to match. It was “Tulip Mania”; a term still used today to describe an economic bubble. The Netherlands love affair with the tulip never ended, however, and they are now the largest producers of commercially grown tulips in the world; cultivating nearly 10 billion flowers each year.

The petals of a tulip most commonly form in shades of red, pink, yellow or white. The bottom of the petals will usually have some variation in color on the interior side. The bulbs should be planted 4-8 inches below the ground and 4-6 inches apart. The tulip is a perennial so plant it in late summer or fall and expect to see blooms in the spring. Join in on the mania and plant some tulips today!

The Lotus

First appearing in India and East-Asia, the Lotus flower has been intertwined with eastern culture and religion for thousands of years. It’s a sacred symbol of purity and rebirth in Buddhism and Hinduism. The aquatic perennial, not to be mistaken for a waterlily, is also the national flower of both India and Vietnam.


Like most plants, the Lotus flower was originally grown as a source of food and also used medicinally. The Indians would make tea from the leaves and pedals, and Asians would eat the seeds and rhizomes. The Lotus was cultivated from special water gardens and provided beauty and a meal to those farming the crop. It also provided them with something else; mystery. The farmers were mystified by the Lotus’s nightly routine. Every night the flower would submerge underneath the murky waters and breach the surface with the next day’s rising sun. The Lotus would emerge just as beautiful as the day before, its petals clean and unfazed by a night in muddy water. It was this daily “rebirth” that made the flower so sacred throughout eastern culture and religion.

A beautiful flower born and reborn from the mud each day, it’s not hard to see why the Lotus was associated with purity, divinity and the Gods. In Buddhism it’s said that the Buddha himself (Siddhartha Gautama) first appeared on a floating Lotus and that the flower grew wherever he stepped. Hindus associate the divine flower with many of their Gods, such as Vishnu and Lakshmi, and the Lotus is frequently depicted alongside them in paintings and statues.

It’s not just the Lotus’s daily “rebirth” that associates the flower with divinity. The Lotus can actually live for over a thousand years; an unnatural longevity that draws parallels with the immortality of a God. The seeds are even still viable after a thousand years, which was proven in the 90’s when a Lotus bloomed from a 1300 year old seed. As if living for a millennium wasn’t cool enough, researchers from Australia’s University of Adelaide discovered something else remarkable. They found that the Lotus has the ability to regulate its temperature within a very narrow range, much like humans or other warm-blooded animals. They suspect that the flower maintains a warmer temperature to attract cold-blooded pollinators.

Planting the Lotus flower is quite easy if you already have a water source, and if not you can create your own water garden. The water should be at least one foot deep and no more than 8 feet. If you plant them in too shallow of water they won’t be able to perform their nightly “rebirth” ritual. Plant them deeper than 8 feet and they aren’t able to reach the surface. Lotus love the mud so make sure your soil is nutrient-rich and made up of sand, silt and clay. Three months after planting you will have beautiful flowers ready to be harvested. After 4-8 months you can eat the seeds, just make sure they have turned black. After 6-9 months the rhizomes will be mature enough to consume. However, if you are like me, I won’t be harvesting the Lotus at all, I’ll be admiring its beauty.

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