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Captain Cook’s Daisy

New York Botanical Garden

This dried-out daisy (Chiliotrichum amelloides Cass.) might not look like much, but it tells the story of one of history’s most ambitious journeys. It was collected by botanists Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander during Captain Cook’s first voyage in 1769. Though the goal of the ship Cook commanded, the HMS Endeavour, was primarily to document the transit of Venus from Tahiti, the ship also acted like a floating science lab for more than budding astronomers. Banks and Solander boarded the Endeavour in 1768 with an ambitious goal: Document everything they could about the plants they encountered as they circumnavigated the globe.

At every stop, Cook’s crew of botanists conducted one of history’s most incredible scientific studies, braving harsh conditions and an inhospitable landscape to collect specimens of an estimated 100 previously unknown plant families and at least 1000 unknown plant species. (Yes, Botany Bay is named after Cook’s crew of frenetic plant collectors.)

Banks and Solander plucked this daisy in Tierra del Fuego, the southernmost tip of South American mainland. When they returned to English terra firma in 1771, the pair became instant celebrities. (Sydney Parkinson, the young botanical illustrator who accompanied them on the voyage, tragically died of dysentery on the trip home.) Everyone wanted accounts of the journey and the seemingly untouched landscapes encountered by Cook and his men, but they also became charmed by something else: the flowers, plants, and botanical specimens the explorers had brought home.

Banks was lampooned as “The Botanic Macaroni” for his fashionably foppish embrace of floral collecting, but the moniker didn’t seem to bother him much. He ended up becoming Britain’s preeminent botanist, advising the king on the makeup of the now-famous Kew Gardens and dispatching seemingly countless explorers to the ends of Earth in the name of science.

But Banks’s reputation came at a cost: the fame of Solander, who died young and whose achievements were eventually buried beneath the weight of Banks’s botanic fame. Solander may have had a stronger scientific legacy if the massive Florilegium, a 34-part book featuring over 700 plant drawings and descriptions from Cook’s first voyage, had been printed during his lifetime.

Despite the sad story of Solander and Cook—the latter was famously attacked and killed by Native Hawaiians on his third voyage—the men and their captain helped spark a flower frenzy throughout Europe. Flower collection hadn’t exactly been Cook’s initial goal—the botanical aspect of the expedition was foisted on him as a condition of commanding the journey. Though Cook often differed with the botanists who overran his boat, they seem to have developed an eventual rapport. Fueled by specimens that had never been seen before, the plant obsession they set in motion lived well into the next century and prompted the development of botany as a serious science.

Once the botanists brought their precious specimens back to England, they were dried and pressed. The specimens eventually made their way into collections the world over—a rare remaining glimpse into one of history's greatest botanical adventures. The daisy that helped start it all is tucked into a folder in the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium at the New York Botanical Garden, a repository that’s home to nearly 8 million plant specimens. It may be nearly 250 years old, but the dried, pressed flower is expected to bear testimony to a swashbuckling era of scientific exploration for centuries to come.

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Why Some Trees in Norway Are Missing Their Rings
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Dendrochronologists are experts at reading tree rings. They can learn a great deal of information—including past climate in an area and the age of the tree—by taking a tree core sample and reading between the lines (literally).

But as the BBC reports, one climate researcher was stumped when she discovered that many trees in the Norwegian village of Kåfjord were missing their rings. Extreme weather and invasive insects can cause some degree of damage to trees, but not enough to render them ringless.

Claudia Hartl, from Johannes Gutenberg University in Germany, knew that these trees dated back to 1945, but that alone wasn't enough information. Two other clues that helped Hartl and her colleagues solve the mystery were location and history. During World War II, Nazi soldiers moored the Tirpitz—the largest battleship of Hitler's navy—off the waters of Kåfjord to intercept vessels carrying Allied supplies to the Soviet Union. The Germans released an artificial smoke containing chlorosulphuric acid to conceal the ship's location, and this is believed to be the root of the trees' problem.

Artificial smoke could have damaged the needles of the trees, halting the photosynthesis process and stunting the trees' growth, researchers found. It takes time for the trees to recover, but it is possible. One tree saw no growth at all from 1945 to 1954, but after 30 years its growth had returned to normal. Hartl presented the findings at the European Geosciences Union General Assembly in Vienna this week [PDF].

"I think it's really interesting that the effects of one engagement are still evident in the forests of northern Norway more than 70 years later,” Hartl told BBC News. She believes her "warfare dendrochronology" will unearth similar findings elsewhere in the world.

[h/t BBC News]

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Palm Trees in Canada? It Could Happen, Thanks to Climate Change
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Human-caused global warming has the potential to transform coastlines, weather patterns, and entire populations. According to a new study published in Scientific Reports, the creep of palm trees into higher latitudes could be another sign that our planet is changing. If our climate continues to warm, the tropical flora could soon be spotted as far north as Canada.

In the new study, reported by Earther, researchers from Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and two Canadian institutions looked at the temperature tolerances of palm species best suited for chillier weather. Many varieties don't need a year-round tropical climate to thrive: As long as the average temperature for the coldest month of the year for the region is above 36°F, some palms can grow in northern latitudes. This is why you can see palm trees in Greenville, North Carolina, where average temperatures for January fall above 36°F, but not Washington D.C., where average January temperatures tend to dip below that number.

But that could soon change. As is the case with most northern states, average temperatures in D.C. are rising and winters are getting milder, which means it's shaping up to be an inviting habitat for palm trees. Not all palm species tolerate the same climatic conditions, and the effects of the species' competition with native and non-native plants in more northerly regions remains to be seen. But if the palms do migrate that far north in the coming years, the Northeast, Northwest, and even parts of Canada could be next.

A future of palm trees in Canada isn't as far-fetched as it may sound. Winters in these areas are already warm enough for people to plant palm trees in their gardens. In a controlled environment, these trees can flower and spread fruit, but average temperatures will need to climb a little higher before palm seedlings can survive in the wild.

[h/t Earther]

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