Plant or Fungus: A Curiosity for the Stinking Corpse Lily, Rafflesia arnoldii, by Jack VanBurik

The weirder parts of any scientific field always catch my interest. So of course to satisfy this curiousity, I typed “Weirdest plants” into Google t and stumbled upon Rafflesia arnoldii, more commonly known as the stinking corpse lily. This is not the first time that I’ve have heard of this plant, but the only thing I knew about it was that it smelled bad.

Image of the fully open flower of Rafflesia arnoldii. Source:

The first report of the stinking corpse lily was published in 1821 by botanist Robert Brown. It is native to Indonesia and Malaysia. Rather than sustaining itself, the stinking corpse lily instead opts to steal water and nutrients from from the plants in the Tetrastigma genus. In fact, all the species in the family Rafflesiaceae are parasites of the species in Tetrastigma. There aren’t many plants that are parasitic, in fact they make up only about 1% of flowering plants.

Weird thing #1: The anatomy. The only physical plant feature that Rafflesias have is a vascular system. They are missing everything else that a plant usually has; stems, leaves, roots, and the ability to do photosynthesis. Instead, Rafflesia arnoldii spreads underground with thin fibrous roots more akin to the mycellium of a fungus. As these fine roots spread they invade their host plants roots. After a couple months of taking water and nutrients from its host, an oddly cabbage-like bud begins to emerge from the ground. It takes up to 21 months for this bud to fully grow. And then the flower finally emerges…and then only lasts for a week.

Image of a Rafflesia arnoldii flower bud beginning to open. Source:

Weird thing #2: The genetics. Classifying these plants was and still is a nightmare for botanists. Genetically speaking Rafflesia is the only genus of parasitic plants to contain no remnant of the chloroplast genome (well, that explains why they cannot do photosynthesis). Also, missing are common identifying plastid genes. So, it looks and “behaves” nothing like a plant, and it doesn’t reveal to us it’s genetic relation to other plants. It even steals mitochondria from the host plant.

Weird thing #3: The smell. Imagine giving a bouquet of these to someone you care about. Firstly, good luck because these flowers weigh up to 24 pounds and are up to 3 feet in diameter. Secondly, they smell of rotting flesh so it is more likely to repulse rather than endear the luck recipient. The smell of the stinking corpse lily comes from a combination of over 30 different volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Two of the biggest contenders for smell are trimethylamine, which is known to smell like dead fish, and isovaleric acid, which smells like the cheese that you forgot about in your refrigerator for 3 months. The smell isn’t meant for us however, it is meant to attract the main pollinators of Rafflesia arnoldii, carrion flies and beetles.

However, somewhere in this myriad of compounds, there are potential medicinal uses. People that live in Peninsular Malaysia have used the buds of the Stinking Corpse Lily to stop internal bleeding and shrink the womb after childbirth, as well as a way to treat fevers. The men of Peninsular Malaysia would use it as an aphrodisiac and an energy drink. I don’t know why anyone would even think to try this as an aphrodisiac, but if it works then who am I to judge? A study from 2009 also found that a plant extract increased the speed at which wounds healed in rats.

Image of Rafflesia arnoldii anthers dehiscing pollen. Source:

• Meijer, W. “Rafflesiaceae”. Flora Malesiana – Series 1, Spermatophyta 13, no. 1 (January 1997): 1–42.
• Mabberley, David J. “Robert+brown on Rafflesia”. Blumea: Biodiversity, Evolution and Biogeography of Plants 44, no. 2 (January 1999): 343–350.
• Abdulla, Mahmood A., Khaled A. Ahmed, Hapipah M. Ali, Suzita M. Noor, and Salmah Ismail. “Wound Healing Activities of Rafflesia Hasseltii Extract in Rats.” Journal of Clinical Biochemistry and Nutrition 45, no. 3 (2009): 304–8.
• Molina, Jeanmaire, Khaled M. Hazzouri, Daniel Nickrent, Matthew Geisler, Rachel S. Meyer, Melissa M. Pentony, Jonathan M. Flowers, et al. “Possible Loss of the Chloroplast Genome in the Parasitic Flowering Plant Rafflesia Lagascae (Rafflesiaceae).” Molecular Biology and Evolution 31, no. 4 (2014): 793–803.
• Rafflesia arnoldii page. Accessed March 22, 2021.
• Sugden, A. M. “ECOLOGY/EVOLUTION: Revealing Relationships.” Science 303, no. 5659 (2004).
• Wicaksono, Adhityo, Sofi Mursidawati, Lazarus A. Sukamto, and Jaime A. Teixeira da Silva. “Rafflesia Spp.: Propagation and Conservation.” Planta 244, no. 2 (2016): 289–96.
• “Rafflesia arnoldii (corpse flower)”. Plants & Fungi (blog). Kew Botanical Gardens. 2011. Archived from the originalon 2014-02-20. Retrieved 29 October 2020. note: unverified errata info possibly from Mabberley (1985)

Broccoli: A Product of Horticultural Genius by Mira-Belle Haddad

The various kinds of Broccoli are in the family Brassicaceae also known as the mustard or cabbage family. It is classified in the cultivar group of the spices Brassica oleracea. It has large, dark green colored heads, that are structured like a tree a name offten given to them by children, with its thick stalk, lighter green. Broccoli greatly resemble cauliflower, which are different cultivar within the same Brassica species. Broccoli was bred from a cabbage relative by the Etruscans from the town now known as Tuscany, which historically has been the home of many horticultural geniuses. It has been considered very valuable by the Italians ever since the Roman Empire. When it was first introduced in England in mid 1800s, it was referred to as the “Italian asparagus.”

Tuscany Broccoli Farm

There are three types of Broccoli, the calabrese, sprouting, and the romanesco. Named after the Calabria in Italy, The calabrese is the better known variety, and what most of us think of as the typical broccoli. The sprouting broccoli, which could be both purple or white, has large heads but thin stalks. The purple sprouting broccoli more closely resembles the cauliflower (another cultivar Brassica oleracea), but does have tiny flower buds like the broccoli.  The romanesco broccoli resembles the cauliflower more as well, it consists of medium buds with each even smaller buds all structured together in a spiral.

Broccoli Romanesco with spiral heads (left), and purple sprouting broccoli (right)

Broccoli varieties not only vary structurally but also nutritionally, they are packed with vitamins, and are known to benefit the digestive system, the cardiovascular system, and the immune system, have anti-inflammatory properties, and cancer-preventing properties.  Broccoli is high in fiber, very high in vitamin C, and has potassium, B6, and vitamin A. Although it is a non-starchy vegetable, it still provides a good amount of protein.

The phytochemicals in broccoli are great for the immune system. They are chemicals that are responsible for the smell, flavor, and color of broccoli. They include glucobrassicin, carotenoids,  and kaempferol.  Broccoli is also packed with antioxidants, which are chemicals that can help with locating and neutralizing free radicals in the body that can cause cell damage.

Despite the overwhelming amount of nutrients and benefits of broccoli, it does not appeal to some people and therefore, some myths have been circulating about it. Broccolis are described as goitrogens, which are chemicals that work on suppressing the function of the thyroid gland, it does so by interfering with the iodine intake. Blocking iodine uptake will cause hormones in the thyroid glands to overpopulate and enlarge the glands, and the abnormality known as goiter can result. One group of goitrogens is the thiocyanates, which have the potential to cause hypothyroidism.

Despite the presence of goitrogens , broccoli would only have this negative effect on the body if the person already has very low iodine levels and eats several kilograms of broccoli in one day. Therefore, broccoli should indeed be eaten, due to its overwhelmingly positive nutiritional qualities. Broccolis help with lowering blood cholesterol. The soluble fibers in broccoli can bind to the cholesterol and therefore makes it easier to excrete the cholesterol and lowers blood cholesterol levels.

The leading broccoli-producing states are California, yielding 90 percent of the crop, and Arizona, Texas, and Oregon. Broccoli is also grown on a large scale in Italy, northern Europe, and the Far East. The United States is the world’s third-largest producer of broccoli. China is also one of the top producers, growing over 8 million tons of the vegetable per year.

Some of the pests that are associated with Broccoli variteites include cabbage worms, aphids, flea beetles, and cutworms. The cabbage worms are the larvae of moths and butterflies.  They cause serious damage by feeding on the leaves of the growing broccoli.  The young larvae can be easily controlled using insecticides that contain  Bacillus thuringiensis  ( bacteria used as a pesticide) or spinosad.  The Aphids are very tiny, and soft-bodied insects. They feed on the undersides of the broccoli leaves and cause them to become discolored and wrinkled.  They can be knocked off the leaves by using a strong spray of water from a hose. The Flea beetles are tiny and black insects that leave behind them an abundance of small holes in the foliage. Insecticides for flea beetles should do the trick.

Cutworms hurt the broccoli by cutting off the young seedlings at the ground level. They work at night. To prevent that, you can plant sturdy seedlings instead of seeds, and then you can wrap the area around the stem at soil level with cardboard or cloth-like “collar.”  Protect the plants by treating them with B. thuringiensis or spinosad sprays.

Common pests on Broccoli (top L-R Cutworms, Aphids, bottom Flea Beatle



Aloe: A Plant loved VERA much in the Food and Pharmaceutical Industries by Jordan Schneider

Growing up in northern New Jersey, the bustling suburbs seemed like an odd place to find a “desert cactus.” Yet, for as long as I could remember, our Aloe vera claimed its place on our living room windowsill, overlooking the newly fallen snow each winter that seemed to stretch from October to April. However, after taking Cultural & Economic Botany at Muhlenberg, I soon came to realize that my beloved aloe was not the desert cactus I had thought it to be.

Aloe vera being planted (

Today, Aloe vera is more accurately described as a “lily of the desert” since it was once considered to be a member of Liliaceae, a family of flowering plants that includes lilies and tulips. However, more than 350 species of aloe plants have recently been grouped into a new family called Asphodelaceae (Sánchez-Machado et al. 2017). Typically, these Aloe vera are found to have 12 to 16 green, pointed leaves. Within each leaf are three layers: on the outside, a thick rind rimmed in thorns protects the delicate plant tissue from the outside environment. Beyond this dense wall of protection, the latex consists of yellow sap rich in bioactive molecules such as anthraquinone. However, the bulk of the plant is composed of a clear, gelatinous substance that is said to contain up to 99% water (Maan et al. 2018). It is the gel that makes it a favorite among individuals like those who enjoy long trips to the Jersey Shore, as the gel has been used historically to soothe burns produced from the sun.

Aloe vera with exposed gel (

The most common species of aloe, Aloe vera (L.) Burm.f., is native to regions of South Africa, a long way from New Jersey. However, the use of such plants in the pharmaceutical and food industries has brought aloe to be grown all over the world, including regions of America, Asia, and Europe (Ahlawat and Khatkar 2011). Today, the largest producers of the aloe gel are said to be Thailand and Mexico, while the value of the aloe gel market is estimated to be over $465 million (“Aloe Vera gel market” 2017). Perhaps the greatest reason for the success of aloe gel in the food industry is due to its rich abundance of essential lipids, amino acids, minerals, as well as vitamins like A, C, and folic acid. As a result, aloe gel has been used as a functional and nutraceutical supplement to food items including yogurt, milk, and ice cream. Moreover, aloe has been used as an edible coating in order to prevent food products from browning in response to oxidation and excess moisture (Maan et al. 2018). Oddly, the addition of aloe to food products has also been noted in burgers, as the addition of aloe helps preserve the texture and shape while also enhancing the flavor of the patties (Sánchez-Machado et al. 2017).

Aloe vera in wound care (

What’s next for this versatile succulent, you may ask? Today, scientists are using aloe in the field of tissue engineering to design more optimal scaffolds tissue grafting. By adding aloe to bioscaffolds, transplanted cells can more efficiently divide and invade surrounding tissues, laying down a new extracellular network to heal large wounds. The addition of aloe may help moderate the balance between absorption and degradation of these bioscaffolds, enhancing overall healing time and graft performance (Rahman et al. 2017). Additionally, many argue that the nutritional and pharmacological benefits of aloe could potentially be used to combat cancer by greatly restricting the growth of tumors (Sánchez-Machado et al. 2017). However, these studies seem to contradict the proliferative effect caused by Aloe vera, as previous results suggest that Aloe vera could have oncogenic properties as well. With so many applications, it is easy to see how the aloe industry is estimated to be worth almost $110 billion (Ahlawat and Khatkar 2011). It is equally unsurprising that such a functional plant made its way out of Africa and into the window of my childhood, New Jersey home.

Aloe vera in Ancient Egyptian art (original source unknown)


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The Pineapple: A Once Problematic Fruit with the Potential for Good by Morgan Tietz

Who doesn’t love the nice, juicy, refreshing taste of a pineapple on a warm summer day? I know I do! While pineapples are available all year round, and their peak growing season is March through July which is right around the corner.

The pineapple (Creative Commons)

Aside from their irresistible taste, they also possess some great health benefits. Historically pineapple fruit, peel, and juice has been used in folk remedies to remove corns, tumors, and warts. The leaf juice has also been used as a purgative, emmenagogue, and vermifuge. Most notably, however, pineapples have been used to suppress coughs and loosen mucus. The benefits of drinking pineapple juice to help get rid of a cough are similar to that of drinking a glass of orange juice. The reason why pineapple juice is so effective at loosening this mucus is because of the enzyme bromelain. Interestingly, bromelain is actually toxic in high doses. However, consuming it in low doses in pineapple juice is beneficial. You have to be careful though because if you drink the juice from a pineapple that is not ripe yet, you may experience some of the toxic effects associated with bromelain like soreness in and around the mouth.

Freshly cut pineapple (creative comons)

Pineapples are what are known as herbaceous perennials, meaning that their growth dies down annually but that the roots and underground parts survive all year around. Pineapples are grown by propagating the crown of stiff spikes from one pineapple and planting it. Eventually a new pineapple will grow on top of the stiff stems. Something that is really interesting about pineapples is that they are what is called a “coalesced fruit,” meaning that a pineapple fruit is actually composed of many individual berries joined together. When creating a fruit, a pineapple plant will usually produce about 200 flowers, each of which will develop into an individual berry and these will eventually turn into the pineapple that you know and love.

Developing Pineapple Fruit (Creative Commons)

Unfortunately, the pineapple industry has historically been somewhat problematic. That is, pineapple plantations are exploitative of their workers. I am sure you have walked into your local grocery store produce section and recognized how cheap pineapples are. There are often buy one get one free deals on pineapples. This is because pineapple plantations get away with paying their workers little to no money.

Nearly ¾ of the world’s pineapples come from Costa Rica. In the past 50 years, pineapple production has grown by 400% and has more than doubled in Costa Rica in the last 100 years. You may be wondering why pineapple companies like Dole can afford to sell pineapples for so little money. It is because of the fact that a majority of laborers on Costa Rican pineapple plantations are Nicaraguan migrants workers, many of whom are illegal. Thus, plantations are able to pay these individuals little to no money.

Dole Fruit Company – The source of much of the Pineapple consumed in the US

Luckily, there have been many protests in Costa Rica fighting against the pineapple industry and advocating for fair wages for workers. In response to these protests, Costa Rican pineapple growers have decided to Partner with the UNDP. With the help of the UNDP, Costa Rica is partnering with fair production companies in an effort to promote production and trade that is responsible and fair for their workers and the environment. The goal is to protect the staff at these plantations as well as the general public. Costa Rica has advised other companies like Ethiopia, Ghana, the Dominican Republic, and Indonesia to follow Costa Rica’s action model. 

Pineapple Plantation (Creative Commons)

We want a model of pineapple production where workers are treated fairly, women are able to access leadership positions and are paid the same as their male counterparts, and where production does not contaminate water sources nor harm communities – but rather that the benefits of such production can be enjoyed by as many people as possible,” said Kifah Sasa, UNDP’s Environmental Officer.

Hopefully Costa Rica and other high-pineapple-producing countries continue to put social justice issues at the forefront of their business model so that everyone can enjoy a nice, juicy pineapple on a warm summer day without worrying that what they are eating is the product of exploitative labor. 


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The True Posh Spice: from Ancient Crocus to Lavish Saffron by Cole Geissler

In mid-October as you explore gardens on campuses, local parks or even in your own back yard particularly in raised beds keep a look out for something special: a crocus blooming in the autumn! This striking purple flower is Crocus sativus L., or the saffron crocus, in the family Iridaceae, and is the source of the world’s most expensive spice.


Also known as the autumn crocus, this species has an ancient history stretching back to 2300 B.C. in Greece as the earliest records of the plant are from frescos painted on palace walls in Crete, Greece. However, just because it originated in Greece, does not mean it is native to the area. The saffron crocus is not wild, but rather a plant cultivated from Crocus cartwrightianus Herb., as the species name sativus (Latin for “cultivated”) indicates; this makes tracing the plant’s origins difficult. However, despite its apparent Greek origins and that it is also being cultivated in Iran and India, the geographic origin of its wild ancestor remains a bit of a mystery.

The Saffron Gatherer fresco at Palace of Minos at Knossos in Crete (1700-1600 BC)

C. sativus is largely cultivated and grown for the production of the world’s most expensive spice, saffron. The vibrant red tendrils of this spice are actually the stigma and styles (the most external female reproductive structures) of the flower. Each bloom only produces three, long sets of stigmas and styles that dramatically drape themselves between the petals. Not only are the flowers themselves harvested by hand, but the will-be saffron strands must be separated from the flower by hand as well. As workers separate these delicate structures from individual flowers, their fingers are stained the characteristic warm yellow color by the release of α-crocin, the carotenoid pigment the responsible for both the color and aroma that make saffron so desirable as an herb in cooking. The high price-tag of saffron is mainly because of the manual harvesting and the fact that so many flowers must be harvested and processed for a minute amount of the spice; tens of thousands of flowers are required to produce just one pound of saffron.

The C. sativus plant, itself, is pretty special as well. While the plant produces perfect flowers, containing both male and female reproductive structures, it is sterile and can only be propagated through the division of bulb-like corms under the soil. The plant is also an antispasmodic, diuretic, aphrodisiac, stimulant, antidepressant, and anti-inflammatory. Besides the stigmas and styles being used for yellow dye, the beautiful purple petals can be used for a dye of an unlikely color: a bright teal. This species has also been used to make Roman perfume and has been used in Mesopotamian religious celebrations.

            There are a few concerns surrounding the growth of the plant and the economic side of the saffron spice. The underground corms of C. sativus are nutrient rich, making them the perfect food source for rodents that will dig up the corms and eat them, killing the plant. The saffron bulb mite, Rhizoglyphus robini, is also a common pest that poses some threat to the crop. Being underground, in a dark, moist environment, the corm is also susceptible to rot and fungal pathogens. However, the species itself has not been evaluated for its conservation status, indicating there is not much concern over the occurence of the plant. With regard to economics, as saffron has a high value as a spice, often times substitutes and false crops, like marigold and safflower, will be marketed as saffron with the hope that a cheaper product will pass for the true product, cutting production costs while matching retail success. Similar substitutions are made for other spices such as cinnamon and vanilla extract. When you shop for your saffron, make sure what you are buying is the real deal, or, better yet, pop some Crocus sativus L. corms in your garden and harvest home-grown saffron every autumn.

(Authors note: for those of you on the Muhlenberg College Campus, look for Crocus sativus in the raised beds in Parents Plaza in Mid-October)


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Raised on The Areca Nut: An Asian Tradition with Unexpected Consequences – Priya Tyagaraj

Whenever I visited India as a child, I would always make sure that I was a fast eater. It’s not that I enjoyed the meal so much that I would practically inhale it. It was with what came after the meal that I was more concerned. Paan. I’ve never really thought about what exactly was in Paan that made it so delicious, so my curiosity took over. As I researched the contents of Paan, I found the Areca Nut and what I discovered was a little unnerving. I discovered that a snack that was an integral part of my culture was contains addictive and potentially harmful alkaloids.

Paan is not really qualified as a food. It’s a conglomeration of sweetness wrapped in a leaf that is used as a “mouth freshener” in South Asian culture. It’s similar to that after meal mint people receive at restaurants. Paan cancontain several ingredients in it and goes by different names depending on the geographic region. These ingredients include coconut powder, sweetened rose petals, cloves, fennel, and sugar (Times of India 2018). In fact, Paan itself is such a diverse entity and has several other names associated with it. Not only is it consumed in India, but it is also consumed in China, Taiwan, Philippines and more.

The Areca Nut is mistakenly called the “betel nut” and is taxonomically known as Areca catechu L. from the Arecaceae family. A common misconception is calling this nut the “betel nut”, because oftentimes this nut is consumed with the “betel leaf” as is the case in Paan (Garg, Chaturvedi and Gupta). The Areca nut and the betel leaf come from different plants and families. This nut is found in the tropical areas of Asia, the Pacific and parts of East Africa (Garg, Chaturvedi and Gupta 2014). India, specifically, is the largest producer and consumer of this nut (Hedge and Deal 2014). Trees typically grow best in well-drained soils with sufficient rainfall and temperatures ranging from 10-40 degrees Celsius (Agrifarming). The Areca nut is actually a “drupe”, similar to other stony endocarp carrying fruits like peaches, apricots and cherries (Mozek 2017). The mature fruit resembles a mango in its size and shape (Mozek 2017).

The Areca Nut’s cultural origin is hard to pinpoint, but there are several examples in history about when its use started. It has been used since around 3,000 B.C in the Philippines when a skeleton was found with betel nut stained teeth (Malik, Chowdhury and Chauhan 2002). Chewing the nut as it mixes with saliva produces a red dye that stains the teeth. The use of this nut has been mentioned in Sanskrit medical writings dating to the 1st century A.D. This nut has several uses including as a digestive aid, an expectorant and an astringent (Times of India 2018). Culturally, the areca nut is typically offered with two betel leaves on auspicious occasions, like weddings, to symbolize loyalty and the presence of a strong bond (Bajaj 2018).

Despite it’s benefits, this nut is actually the source of addiction in parts of Asia. It’s contains certain alkaloid properties allowing the chewer to get a slight buzz or warming sensation, similar to the effects of smoking a cigarette or drinking coffee (Iverson 2017). The active molecule, arecoline, acts on nicotinic receptors, to produce stimulating effects on the nervous system. The user experiences feelings of euphoria. The nut’s addictive property is not the only harmful effect. The nut has been linked to all types of cancers like throat, laryngeal and esophageal cancers (Russo 2017). The nut itself contains a lot of carcinogens and when coupled with tobacco can lead to a variety of health issues, including tooth decay (Russo 2017). The nut can also contain teratogenic properties that can harm the development of a fetus if chewed during pregnancy (Russo 2017).

Addiction to the Areca nut is still rampant in areas of Asia. As far as my knowledge goes, no laws or rules have been passed surrounding the selling of the Areca Nut in Paan, which is probably why this is the fourth highest addictive substance in the world currently (Bowers 2016). In the US specifically, the FDA classifies the Areca Nut on the Poisonous Plants Database (Bowers 2016). More health organizations need to increase the awareness about the risks of betel nut chewing, since it seems that not a lot of people know about its carcinogenic properties. Who knew that something that can taste so good could be so deadly!




Dilly on the dill: “Cukes” for relaxation and hydration by Sarah Dilly

Cucumbers are a great snack at any time of the day and year, but particularly in the summer as they are full of water and very hydrating. Aside from the stereotypical usage of sliced cucumbers on the eyes for relaxation purposes, they are consumed in salads, in drinks, and as pickles.

The scientific name for cucumbers is Cucumis sativus (L.) of the Cucurbitaceae family. The Cucurbitaceae contains gourds, including pumpkins, melons and squashes, all of which grow on vines. Cucumbers are a fruit that develops from a yellow flower and contains seeds from the plant. It is more specifically classified as a pepo, which is a type of berry with a hard-outer rind and no internal divisions, even though it is often perceived, prepared and eaten as a vegetable (Toney 2017).

Cucumbers originated in South Asia where they have been cultivated for over four thousand years. India’s moist soil, plentiful shade and warmth are ideal growing conditions for this fruit. The wild form, which is very bitter tasting, still grows in the southern Himalayas. This variety was originally used by Dravidian natives for medicinal purposes. Over time, milder forms were bred and cultivated, and many countries began growing them (Storl 2016). Bees play an essential role in the pollination process. For the cucumber plant to grow, honey or bumble bees deliver pollen grains across plants from the male flowers to the female flowers. If enough pollen is delivered, the fruit will begin to grow. If there is not enough pollen delivered, then the cucumber fruit may abort or grow misshapen. For a plentiful harvest, cucumbers must be pollinated properly and grow fast to produce healthy fruits. Poorly pollinated cucumber plants are tough and bitter tasting (“Why are my cucumbers falling off, or becoming deformed?” 2011).

India still consumes cucumbers in traditional ways, especially given their cooling and refreshing qualities and the extreme heat in the pre-monsoon season. Cucumber water is very thirst quenching and raita, yogurt with grated or pickled cucumbers, is a popular dish (Storl 2016). The health benefits associated with cucumber consumption include promotion of hydration, which aids in weight loss. Cucumbers are low in calories, contain vitamin C and K, potassium and antioxidants. When applied externally, they smooth skin and heal blemishes and rashes (Link 2017). Adding cucumbers to salads, sandwiches or in water are simple ways to add flavor and increase the healthiness of your diet.

The cucumber industry in the U.S. is concerned primarily with harvesting cucumbers for pickling and fresh marketing. In 2009, the U.S. produced more than 97,500 acres of pickling cucumbers valued at over $180 million and over 46,000 acres of fresh-market cucumbers at a value of $220 million. Pennsylvania alone produced 600 acres of fresh-market cucumbers with a value of approximately $6 million (Orzolek et al 2010).


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Helianthus annuus, the Sunflower, a symbol of adoration, loyalty and longevity by Courtney Allen

Helianthus annuus L. (Asteraceae) which is commonly known as a sunflower is also referred to as the “happy” plant. Sunflowers symbolize adoration, loyalty and longevity. The name of the sunflower comes from a Greek origin. “Helios” means sun and “anthos” means flower.  There are sixty-seven species of sunflower. These plants are native to North and South America. Early on they were cultivated by Native Americans and they were domesticated as early as around 1000 B.C.

Sunflowers are now distributed around the world and have became popular in many countries. Spanish conquistadors began to export sunflowers to the rest of the world in 1500. Sunflowers were brought back to Russia by royalty, specifically Tsar Peter the Great. Production in Russia skyrocketed when the Russians found out that sunflower seed oil was not banned during lent. The Russian Orthodox Church banned many other oils so sunflower seed oil became very popular. From there Russia began to plan 2 million acres of sunflowers each year. Canada also sparked an increase in production of these plants after creating a mechanical seed crushing plant.

The makeup of a sunflower plant is intricate. Sunflowers contain bright yellow petals that surround a large center that is filled with brown seeds. These brown seeds are not yet mature and later when they do mature they turn grey. The stem and leaves of sunflowers are hairy and the stems are thick as well. Sunflowers bloom in late August through September. The bright yellow flowers are crowded together on a flat surface and this classifies the sunflower as having capitulum inflorescence. The sunflower has hundreds, or thousands of tiny flowers and these flowers are sessile and do not have a stalk.

Sunflowers have an interesting habit of heliotropism. This means that the flowers track the sun. In the morning the flowers start facing the east and they follow and face the sun throughout the day. The only time that sunflowers do not exhibit heliotropism is when seed production starts. Heliotropism halts because the plant becomes heavier and is not able to follow the sun. Therefore, the sunflowers stay facing east through the day.  To remain healthy and growing the sunflowers need six to eight hours of sun a day.


Sunflower parts have many uses for humans. Sunflower seeds are very nutritious. They contain protein, vitamins A, B, and E, calcium, nitrogen and iron. Native Americans used to use sunflower seeds to make flour by grounding them.  Many birds and animals enjoy consuming sunflowers seeds as well. These seeds are the main ingredient in many birdseed mixes. Sunflower petals are edible as well. Typically, they are cooked and eaten like artichokes. Also, the petals are feed to livestock. Their roots can remove radiation from soils. This technique was used to clean up the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Ukraine in 1986. Sunflower roots are utilized in herbal medicine as well to treat snake bites and spider bites. The stalks are used in production of paper and clothes and the leaves are often made into tea. This tea is used to for relieving fevers, diarrhea and for lung ailments. The tea is an astringent which means it minimizes pores, a diuretic which increases urine production and an expectorant which clears mucus.

Sunflower oil has many health benefits as well as practical applications. It can be added to soap, lubricants and candles. It is a popular vegetable oil due to having low levels of saturated fats and it can withstand high cooking temperatures. In terms of medicinal uses it can help relieve some skin conditions like hemorrhoids and ulcers. It is used as an acne treatment, lowers LDL cholesterol and helps with constipation. Furthermore, it has been said to prevent colon cancer, heart disease and reduce the symptoms of asthma and arthritis.

Sunflowers are spectacular plants with interesting pasts. They have traveled to space with astronaut Don Pettit. Sunflowers are both the national flower of Russia and the state flower of Kansas and the world’s tallest sunflower stood at thirty feet and one inch. Sunflowers are beautiful flowers and truly live up to their name as the “happy” plants.

Can’t (not) Touch This – The humble, sensitive shameplant – Mimosa pudica L. (Fabaceae) by Francine Koitz

Mimosa pudica L. (Fabaceae) is colloquially known by many names, including the shameplant, sensitive plant, touch-me-not, humble plant, and live-and-die. All of these names reflect the plant’s most curious characteristic: rapid movement in response to environmental stimuli, notably by touch, but also by shaking and electrical stimulation. Nastic movements in plants are those that are caused by environmental stimuli, M. pudica exhibits thigmonasty (rapid movement to touch stimulus) in addition to nycintasty (leaf movement in response to light/dark changes). The movement in response to touch stimulus is thought to be a means of defense from herbivores, which could be scared by the rapid movement. Additionally, the closed leaves of the plant look like a less satisfying meal, and the closed leaves expose the thorns that the plant possesses. Nyctinastic movements are thought to be a measure for water preservation, and is a trait found in other members of the Fabaceae.

The shameplant is native to Central and South America, and has been introduced to Australia, South and Southeast Asia, and many Pacific Islands, where its regarded as an invasive species. Intentionally, it is cultivated as an indoor houseplant, mainly for its curiosity value. As a weed, M. pudica affects crops, and can also be found as a forage plant in pastures (where its presence is tolerated/valued, unlike in the middle of a crop field). The plant is shade-intolerant, and grows mostly in nutrient-poor conditions. Like many of its family members, the plant forms a symbiotic relationship with nitrogen fixing bacteria, which lives in its root nodules. These bacteria convert atmospheric nitrogen into a form usable for the plant.

The sensitive plant is used in many capacities in traditional medicine. In India, pulped leaves are used for glandular swelling, and leaf sap is a treatment for sinus disorders and sores. In the Republic of the Congo, the entire plant is pulped and applied as a treatment for pain in the body side and kidneys. In Senegal, the leaves are used as a treatment for lumbago and nephritis. In Southeast Asia, the plant is used for sleep disorders.

More generally, traditional medicine also uses M. pudica to treat dysentery, urinary complaints, snake bites, glandular tumors, and uterine cancer. The root extract has antibacterial activity, and is additionally thought of as an aphrodisiac. The seeds have purgative and emetic properties. The green parts of the plant are used as analgesics, antispasmodics, anti-asthmatics, mild sedatives, and antidepressants. High doses can be toxic, and the plant is not yet used in Western medicine as pharmaceutical companies are still researching its properties. Scientific studies have shown that the plant has properties of a diuretic, it can depress duodenal contractions, promote regeneration of nerves, and reduce menorrhagia. In terms of environmental healing, the plant has been shown to have the potential for phytoremediation of arsenic polluted areas.

The plant has been used in memory research, to test if plants can habituate to a stimulus and remember that behavior over time. Experiments have showed that plants dropped from a non-harmful distance learn to habituate to the stimulus, and stop closing their leaves in response to the dropping stimulus. However, this is not due to exhaustion- once a novel stimulus, like shaking, is applied, the plant will close its leaves once more. Once the plants habituated to the dropping stimulus, they were left alone. 28 days later, the plants still “remembered” that the drop was a non-harmful stimulus, and upon being dropped did not close their leaves. Another study was done similarly, but tested plants grown in high vs low light conditions. Since the closing of the plant’s leaves impedes photosynthesis, researchers hypothesized that those plants grown in low light conditions would habituate to dropping faster than their grown in high light counterparts. This hypothesis proved true, and even upon moving the plants to different light conditions, the plants still “remembered” that the drop was not a stimulus worthy of reaction.

This curious plant grown for its interesting behaviors, is also and invasive species, weed in crop fields, forage plant, medicinal plant, plant consciousness research tool, and more. The sensitive plant M. pudica occupies a large varieties of functions and ecological niches, and has enchanted many people with its bashful behavior.

Known as Aguacate or Alligator Pears: The Folklore, Food and Health Benefits of the Avocado – Sara Dilly

Avocados are a popular fruit consumed in a variety of ways including on toast underneath a sunny-side-up egg, on a rice cake, sliced up in a salad, featured on BLT sandwiches and as the infamous primary ingredient of guacamole. The scientific name of the tree that bears avocados is Persea Americana Mill. (Lauraceae) which can grow up to 65 feet tall. The most common type of avocado is the Hass, however, there are about 500 varieties of avocados, including the Bacon, Fuerte, Gwen, Lamb Hass, Pinkerton, Reed and Zutano. Different types of avocados vary in size, color and shape. Avocados are classified as a fruit, according to the University of California Agriculture & Natural Resources (“Name, Taxonomy, Botany”, 2018). Fruits have tough outer layers, a middle fleshy layer and encase a seed. Because the avocado is a soft, fleshy fruit with only one tough seed, it is a single-seeded berry as opposed to a drupe. This seed referred to as the “pit” can be buoyed in a cup of water by toothpicks to grow an avocado tree. When picking an avocado, the ripest ones will be browner in color and feel soft when squeezed (Wellness 2017).

Avocados originated in south-central Mexico and were cultivated as early as 500 B.C. Spanish conquistadores originally called this fruit “aguacate” while others called them “alligator pears” given their bumpy green, leathery outer-coat. The first English-language mention of the avocado was by Sir Henry Sloane in 1696, and then in 1871, Judge R.B. Ord of Santa Barbara introduced trees from Mexico into the U.S. Avocados were commercially grown in the early 1900s and by the 1950s, California was the main state shipping them. In 1935, Rudolph Hass patented the “Hass” avocado and it expanded the industry, becoming the leading California variety by the late 1970s. California remains the leading producer of avocados, warranting it the nickname of “the avocado capital of the nation”. Avocado trees grow year-round and yield about 200 pounds of fruit, averaging about 500 pieces (“History of California Avocados” 2018).

Given the extensive history and popularity of the avocado, there is some folklore surrounding this fruit. According to Aztec legend, a man named Seriokai living in Guiana, a country in South America, loved avocados and usually spent the day gathering them. One day while he was out, a tapir wandered into his camp and made Seriokai’s wife fall in love with it. The next day, Seriokai and his wife went out to collect avocados. As he climbed down one tree, his wife hit him over the head, causing him to fall and sever his leg. She ran away with the tapir and the basket of avocados. A neighbor found Seriokai and helped him heal, replacing his leg with a wooden stump. Seriokai then followed the trail of growing avocado trees that had grown as they fell out of his wife’s basket. He found the runaway couple at the end of the world, and shot the tapir in the eye. The tapir leaped off the edge from the pain, and Seriokai’s wife followed her love and jumped as well. Seriokai also jumped off, and the three are said to have turned into Orion (Seriokai), Pleiades (the wife) and Hyades (the tapir with a bleeding eye) in the sky (Neal 2017).

Aside from this and other entertaining myths, Avocados also provide substantial health benefits. Although avocadoes are high in fats, majority of the fat is oleic acid which is a monounsaturated fatty acid, or a “healthy fat”. It has also been linked to lowering LDL cholesterol and increasing HDL cholesterol (Gunnars 2018). Their high potassium and antioxidant content support healthy blood pressure levels and eye health. The antioxidants are also anti-inflammatory agents (“Avocado” 2005). Avocado oil can soothe and heal skin, treating sclerosis and psoriasis. In addition to medicinal uses, avocados are also used as scents for bath and shower gels and hand soaps (Palsdottir 2016).










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