January 14, 2009  
Horticultural News Update

Here is my promised (at least annual) update. Please forgive me, if it's a little late. I think it's important to provide this kind of brief snapshot of horticultural related doings around the world that are influencing history, economies, health and nutrition, and increasing awareness in this huge field of study.  

Scientists and land managers have elucidated a disturbing relationship involving climate change, insects and forest fires. A July lightning strike in Cold Springs, Oregon started a fire among drought stressed trees already dying from bark beetle infestations and a "whole suite of diseases and insects", said Susan Hummel, a U.S. Forest Service researcher. The many millions of dollars and the many square miles of forest at risk each year have prompted the development of new ecological models to study for environmental threat assessments in the hope of creating more accurate predictions to tie in with annual aerial surveys. 

It sounds like a sci-fi horror movie scenario. New York is under siege by an army of three individual pest invaders from abroad that can wreak havoc economically, ecologically, and financially. The three are the Emerald Ash Borer, the Asian Longhorned Beetle, and the Hemlock Wooly Adelgid. Their favorite hosts are maples, ashes, willows and hemlocks, all of which play such vital roles in watersheds and several industries that one expert, Mark Whitmore, an extension associate at the Department of Natural Resources at Cornell University said, …"We have no idea what we will do without them." In such tight economic times, the costs of defense strategies will likely challenge shrinking staffs and budget cut-backs, perhaps, with disastrous consequences. Stay tuned. 

Senior researcher, Karyne Rogers, with GNS Science, developed an isotope test that can tell whether a vegetable was grown with organic or industrial fertilizer. It can even determine whether the vegetable was grown hydroponically or in soil. This should be a great benefit to consumers who insist on knowing how and from where their food is coming to them. 

We know that buying organic produce costs more than industrially grown produce, but the invisible savings are knowing that you are not going to be consuming pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers, and you're not paying for the fossil fuels used to transport the produce to your table from thousands of miles away. Buying locally is our first choice, but in a flagging economy and with uncertain availability of funds, we're tempted to reverse direction.  

With this in mind, ShopSmart's September issue, from Consumer Reports, reminds us we have intelligent choices to make. If you have to buy imported, ShopSmart suggests buying imported grapes, cranberries, nectarines, peaches, strawberries, pears, apples and cherries only if they are organic, or don't buy them at all. The same applies to the following risky imported vegetables: green beans, sweet bell peppers, celery, cucumbers, potatoes, tomatoes, peas and lettuce - buy them only if they are organic. Even then, imported organic produce may not meet US standards. Better yet, stick to local whenever you can. Winter Farmers' Markets are appearing around our region. Whoopee!  

The Salisbury Journal from England reports that insect pests are being recruited as valuable indicators of climate change. Aphids are known worldwide for their sucking large amounts of sap from plants, spreading viruses, and leaving behind their residue, a sticky material we call honeydew, which supports a sooty mold fungus that inhibits photosynthesis. Their appearance provides a key indication of how mild or severe a winter has been, as well as what lies ahead, and what measures need to be taken. An example is the catching of a peach-potato aphid on April 25, 2008, nearly four weeks ahead of the 42-year average. This should prove to be a potent tool.  

An article dated Oct. 27, 2008 in Medical News Today, reported that a team of scientists from the UK and other European countries created a purple, genetically modified (GM) tomato that could "…fight cancer and increase life span". This new tomato "…offers a potential benefit for all consumers". A comment, however, states that considerable public opposition to GM foods might hinder its going on sale in the near future in Britain.  

A month earlier, The Hindu News Update Service headlined a story with "Plant hair may reveal secret of disease resistance in humans". Sticky hair-like projections on some plants, tomatoes among the more prominent, secrete certain chemicals, trichomes, that show links between plants, animals (insects), and humans that have not previously been considered. Stay tuned.  

On Dec. 19, 2008 published a story announcing the development of a new nature friendly pesticide extracted from garlic. The variety of sulfur compounds contained within effectively breaks down the cell walls of both bacteria and fungi, thus preventing plant diseases. In addition, these same elements kill insect pests by irritating their shells. An added bonus proven in a three-month controlled experiment is that the time required for plant growth is substantially reduced when the garlic pesticide is applied. One cabbage farmer reported his fields were pest free, his cabbage larger in size and 25 days earlier than normal.  

We hear with regularity about phenols, polyphenolic compounds, and the associated powerful anti-oxidant properties found in certain herbs, spices, blueberries, red grapes and more. The Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry published an article in August 2008 on the anti-oxidant properties of culinary basil (Ocimum basilicum). Three cultivars were studied. Statistically high phenolic contents were present when nitrogen fertilization was kept to the lowest applied levels. Fertilize less to achieve the most benefit.  

After decades of assaults to Birch trees in the Northeast, homeowners and landscape contractors can rest easy. The disfiguring "Birch leafminer" has finally met its match thanks to entomologists from URI and other institutions. Their studies led to the introduction of a bilological control agent, a natural enemy of the leafminer, a parasitoid, Lathrolestes nigricollis, brought here from Europe. Finally, it appears complete control of a pest that's been a problem since 1923 in the Northeast is with us to stay. Congrats and thanks to all who contributed to this victory. 


Larvae make blotch mines that eventually give leaves a brown, wrinkled appearance.

Photographer: E. Bradford Walker, Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation, United States. (background and size slightly altered for display in this article).  

From The Garden of Ed. Submitted for publication in The Towne Crier on January 14, 2009

© 2009 Ed Mues. All Rights Reserved.