Tag Archives: sagebrush

nepotism and plants

I enjoy odd botanical science stories, and this was one of the stranger ones I’ve read in a while: Plants will look after clones of themselves but won’t lift a petal to assist an unrelated plant of the same species. That’s the controversial result of a study published in Ecology Letters and publicized in yesterday’s BBC Magazine.

Richard Karban of the University of California, Davis and Kaori Shiojiri of Kyoto University in Otsu, Japan studied the Great Basin sagebrush, Artemisia tridentata. They found that there’s a chance that a plant will alert another identical clone of a species when danger is near. But when two unrelated Great Basin sagebrushes are placed next to each other, the strangers won’t do anything to help each other out. (How the plants communicate wasn’t part of the study. Details…)

Artemisia tridentata drawing(Left: Artemisia tridentata. Britton, N.L., and A. Brown. 1913. An illustrated flora of the northern United States, Canada and the British Possessions. Vol. 3: 530.)

These findings sound a lot like another study I’d mentioned just a little a year ago, where seedlings from the same parents will coexist happily in a pot, while seedlings of the same species that come from different parents will try to out-compete each other. Similar processes might be going on in both of these studies.

All this is interesting when you think about horticultural plants versus wild populations. Many plants in horticulture and some in agriculture are grown from cuttings, or are grafted or budded or layered. Each resulting plant is a clone of another and will have identical, predictable characteristics. If you buy a Fuji apple tree, you’d like to be assured that you get a Fuji apple, not a random seedling.

According to findings in the new study, identical horticultural plants might actually have some temporary advantages. For instance one plant might help its neighbor brace for immediate hazards in their environment, maybe something like an insect attack. (Someone should try out how a pot full of cuttings behave compared to the same species grown from seed from unrelated parents.)

While gardeners might enjoy predictability, biologists would still say that this is a bad thing from a long term evolutionary standpoint. An ailment that could wipe out one plant could wipe out all the plants with identical genetic makeup. Nepotism among clones of the same plant might be useful for the plant’s immediate circle, but is likely to be a dangerous thing for the future of the species.

live, from california…

A plant’s name can often help give you a sense of place as to where the plant originated. I’ve been noticing recently that a lot of plants in the garden have species names that are either “californica” or “californicus.” I guess you can’t get much more California than that.


First is our ever-popular state flower, the California poppy, Escholzia californica. Most of you are familiar with this form, the bright orange one that comes in California wildflower mixes. I planted some seed a decade ago, and these come back every year, some where they did the previous year, some a few feet away. But for me they’re not the wandering world traveler that they are for some people. (They’ve naturalized in parts of Chile and are on the pest (but not invasive) species list for Tennessee.)



This year I’m also growing from seed the form of the species that you actually find in this part of the state, Escholzia californica maritima. The flowers are about a third of the size of the orange version, and are gold shading to a yellow-orange. My pampered plants are taking their time flowering, so these are images of plants in the winds, on the bluffs overlooking the ocean south of Del Mar. Once these start blooming, I’ll probably cut back the orange ones so the two strains don’t hybridize.


And here’s the classic orange poppy in the garden growing in the middle of a prostrate form of California sagebrush, Artemisia californica ‘Canyon Gray.’ While most of the forms of sagebrush are, well, brushy and upright, this selection from the Channel Islands off the coast of Ventura grows near the ground and sprawls a bit. The plant can get a little leggy in the middle, so a well-placed volunteer poppy seedling can be the best way to conceal that fact.


I wrote last year about this wild ranunculus, Ranunculus californicus, or California buttercup. It disappears not long after flowering, but it’s a nice presence during early spring.


The coast sunflower, Encelia californica, continues the yellow-to-orange theme. My plants were planted only recently and aren’t blooming yet. This is a stand of it at Torrey Pines Preserve this past Monday, doing just fine with natural rainfall. (It won’t be quite so ornamental once the moisture gives out, however.)


The last one I’ll share today has got to be one of the more spectacular Californians, the bush anenome, Carpenteria californica. The flowers began to open just this week. This species hails from the Sierra foothills where it can become quite the large shrub. My plant has tripled in size in one year, though it’s still not more than three feet tall. It can triple in size again, and then I’m getting the pruning shears. Pretty flowers, though, no?