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Friday, 31 October 2014

Beans and bacteria – a complex story of communication

The symbiotic relationship between legumes and soil bacteria has been known for well over a century. The intimate details of this relationship, however, are only recently being revealed. It is a very active area of research as understanding this symbiotic relationship could lead to strategies that help reduce the environmental impacts of food production. 

Rhizobia nodules on the roots of cowpea
(Vigna unguiculata). By Stdout
[GFDL (,
via Wikimedia Commons.
Special soil bacteria – known as rhizobia – reside within the nodules of legumes, such as peas, lentils, beans, alfalfa and clover, which are found along the roots of these plants. The bacteria take nitrogen from the air and convert it into ammonia, which the plant is able to use – a process known as nitrogen “fixing”.

This allows legumes to grow well in nitrogen-poor soils. This nitrogen is taken up in the plant material, which can then be worked back into the soil as a natural fertiliser for subsequent crops.
While this all might sound very straight forward – there are details about this relationship that remain unclear. How do the bacteria get into the nodules? Are there signals that the plant uses to stimulate the bacteria to produce nitrogen?

An answer to a century-old debate

In 2011, researchers from the John Innes Centre in Norwich answered the mystery of how nitrogen-fixing bacteria crossed the cell walls into the nodules of legumes. 

It had been a century-old debate as to whether bacteria produced the enzymes to break down the cell walls or whether the plant did. The researchers showed that it was the plant which supplied the enzymes to break down its cell walls in order to give the bacteria access.

How legumes communicate with their symbiotic bacteria

In 2010, Stanford researchers discovered the gene in plants that triggered the chemical signal required for the bacteria to fix nitrogen. They found that the rhizobia bacteria would just sit around in the legume nodules if the plant failed to produce the protein that’s required to spur the bacteria into nitrogen fixing mode. This was only part of the communication story.

It is energetically costly for the plant to produce and maintain the root nodules in which the bacteria live; usually the benefit of having a supply of nitrogen outweighs this cost. If there is sufficient useable nitrogen in the soil, however, the plant is able to reduce the number of nodules on its roots.
Communication between the shoots of the plant and the roots of the plant help regulate the number of nodules. The leaves transmit a signal to the roots to either develop more or get rid of rood nodules, depending on circumstances. The roots communicate back up to the leaves using molecules known as peptides.

Research published recently has now discovered that the plant shoots use plant hormones, known as cytokinins, which travel down the phloem into the roots to help regulate nodule development.

The environmental benefits of understanding legumes

Understanding the symbiotic relationship between legumes and soil bacteria is not simply a matter of scientific curiosity. The ability for legumes to produce natural nitrogen fertilisers is a trait that US researchers would like to potentially transfer to non-legume crops as a way of reducing the environmental impact of agriculture.

Manufacturing nitrogen fertilisers for non-legumes is extremely resource intensive. It has been estimated that to produce 68 kg (150 lbs) of nitrogen fertiliser – enough for one acre of corn – would be the equivalent of driving a car 1,046 km (650 miles).

Beyond that, nitrogen fertilisers release the powerful greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide, after they’ve been applied. Excess fertilisers also runoff agricultural land into rivers and lakes and eventually out into the ocean. This influx of nitrogen can provoke algal blooms and create oxygen deplete dead zones.

Therefore, there is great incentive to fully understand this relationship legumes have with soil bacteria. The environmental impact of agriculture could be significantly reduced by utilising legumes with their natural nitrogen fertiliser more by using them in more marginal land and using traditional breeding programs to select for drought resistance or temperature tolerance. In some countries, genetic engineering might even be used to introduce nitrogen-fixing abilities into non-legume species. Genetic modification, however, can be an inflammatory issue with considerable debate as to its pros and cons, particularly with respect to its use in food products.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Fruit: the good, the bad and the ugly

By Helen Roberts

Autumn is my favourite season. I love the colours, cooling temperatures and crispness of the air in the morning. One of the things I like most, however, is harvesting autumn fruit to use in cooking, baking and jams. So far, this autumn I have picked bucketfuls of blackberries, autumn raspberries, damsons, plums, apples, pears, quince, crabapples, rosehips and sloes.

It has been a wonderful harvest and my cupboards, freezer and larder are full of these delicious fruits as cakes, jams, jellies, butters or just shoved in the freezer to be used in the depths of winter. These are all fairly common and useful autumn fruits to most of us in the UK, but as I was poking about in my garden the other day I noticed quite an unusual fruit growing.

The fruit of chocolate vine (Akebia quinata).
Photo credit: Helen Roberts.
The fruit belongs to Akebia quinata, commonly known as chocolate vine - a vigorous climber that is growing really well in my garden. I have two plants growing up a north facing wall and a west-facing wall respectively and they are more or less planted in what I can only describe as gravel. They have always been strong growers despite neglect, but they have never produced fruit.

Last winter I decided to prune it back really hard with some hand shears as it was getting unruly. I thought I may have been too severe and they may not make it, but this summer they produced a mass of flowers and early autumn produced some lovely large weird sausage shaped fruit.

The plant is native to Japan, China and Korea. The sweet but insipid fruit pulp can be eaten, while the rind of the fruit is used like a vegetable in cooking - often stuffed with minced meat and deep fried. The leaves are used as a tea infusion.

Inspired by the weird and wonderful fruit in my garden, I ventured to the Botanic Gardens for a tour with botanical horticulturist, Andy Winfield. I told Andy I wanted to see some unusual fruit and seeds.

The Garden's weird and wonderful fruit

The first plants on the tour, which were listed at the welcome hut of current things to see, were sunflowers. The variety, ‘Giant’, produced a rather wonderful forest that rose a couple of metres above us. My sons have grown this variety but the ones in the Garden are colossal by comparison.
Cape gooseberry (Physalis peruviana) fruit is wrapped in
a papery calyx. Photo credit: Helen Roberts.

In the same bed were two species of Physalis, a genus in the nightshade family (Solanaceae). Physalis philadelphica, or the tomatillo, bears small green-purple fruit and are a staple of Mexican cuisine in dishes such as salsa verde. I tried one and it tasted a bit like a very sweet tomato - I wasn’t enamoured, but I think they are better cooked. Physalis peruviana, the Cape gooseberry, on the other hand has a wonderful sweet pineapple-like flavour. The fruit is smaller than the tomatillo, bright orange in colour, with lots of little seeds inside. Just like the tomatillo, the fruit is enclosed in an inflated papery calyx.

Sweet chestnut (Castanea sativa).
Photo credit: Helen Roberts.
Walking towards the hops in the western herb garden we walked past a fairly young Sweet Chestnut tree (Castanea sativa), which had dropped numerous spiky chestnuts, many of which had split to reveal the lovely glossy brown nuts inside. These nuts are roasted in many different countries and used to make stuffings for meat or vegetables. I have a bit of a sweet tooth so I am very fond of the use of these nuts in confections, puddings, desserts and cakes, my favourites being crème de marron and marrons glacés. Chestnuts used to be the food of the poor and were used by peasants as a staple instead of grains in parts of southwest France and parts of Italy. In France the chestnut tree is often referred to as l’arbre à pain, or the ‘bread tree’ as the chestnuts were ground into flour. The trees can grow to an impressive 20-35 metres in height with a 2 metre diameter trunk.

The cocoa tree's tiny flowers are clustered
directly on the trunk. Photo credit: Helen Roberts.
My tour continued into the glasshouses to look at some economically important plants as well as others that are simply weird and wonderful looking. The cocoa tree, Theobroma cacao, was our first stop – after all, who could pass on chocolate? This smallish tree with large glossy green leaves lives in the Garden’s tropical glasshouse and is a native of central and South America. At first glance it’s quite unassuming, but look a bit closer and you can see the distinctive shape of the cocoa pod. I was amazed by the size of the tiny cream flowers that grow in clusters directly on the trunk - a term known as cauliflory – and that these tiny flowers can produce such a large fruit. The pod contains 20-60 seeds within a white pulp, which are the main ingredient of chocolate.

The history of cacao dates back to the early formative period (1900-900 BC) when it was considered a very important part of Mesoamerican culture. The beans constituted both a ritual beverage and a major currency system in pre-Columbian Mesoamerican civilisations.

“We had a volunteer working at the gardens who used to work for J S Fry & Sons – a chocolate manufacturer in Bristol,” revealed Andy. “He said you can make about five bars of chocolate from one pod!”

The citrus known as Buddha's hand (Citrus medica var. digitata).
Photo credit: Helen Roberts.
The tropical glasshouse also houses a weird looking citrus called ‘Buddha’s Hand’, Citrus medica var. digitata, which is cultivated in Japan and China. It looks like a small wizened citron with fingers. The fleshy peel can be steamed and candied fresh or it can be used for its highly aromatic and fragrant zest. The fruit has been an offering in Buddhist temples for a long time.

After the glasshouses, Andy took me to the pond where there is a rather ancient looking medlar (Mespilus germanica) tree, laden with fruit. I see this tree a lot in the various gardens I visit, but I have never used the fruit for anything.
Fruits of the medlar tree (mespilus germanica).
Photo credit: Helen Roberts.
“The fruit needs to be ‘bletted’,” said Andy, “which is when the fruit is browned by rot after a frost or naturally in storage over time. Then it can be eaten raw or used to make desserts, jelly, medlar cheese [akin to lemon curd] and wine.”

I recall my mother making medlar jelly, but I cannot remember ever tasting it. Perhaps I will try making something of the medlars after our first frost. My tour inspired thoughts of jam making sessions with some new and exotic fruits. There are lots of weird and wonderful fruits at the Botanic Garden right now – definitely worth a visit – who knows how it will inspire you?!

Friday, 24 October 2014

Raising the 'green' roof

By Helen Roberts

We currently have a real shortage of housing in the UK and the estate agency Savills has estimated that there will be a shortfall of 160,000 homes in the next five years unless local authorities act. With this in mind, I started thinking of the building industry and how sustain­­able building design has become increasingly important over the last few decades. Not only does the industry consider the sustainability of the materials themselves, but designs aim to reduce consumption of non-renewable resources and minimize waste during and after the life of the building, while creating a healthy and comfortable environment for the occupants.

Within the field of sustainable building design is the subject of green roofs. This is an area of design that holds great interest to me, as I am a landscape architect with previous training in plant sciences. Green roofs play a pivotal role in urban environments by reducing rainwater runoff, reducing energy consumption for heating and cooling, heat island mitigation, creating valuable wildlife habitats and also making an aesthetically pleasant landscape for people to escape from the urban environment. 

What is a green roof?
Green roof on Chicago City Hall. Photo credit: TonyTheTiger
[CC-BY-SA-3.0 (
via Wikimedia Commons

A green roof is a platform or roof on which vegetation is grown or wildlife habitats are created. The basic elements include a waterproofing membrane covered with a growing medium and vegetation. The design, ecology and aesthetics of a green roof can vary considerably, however, and can be adapted specifically to suit a particular location or design brief. Plants in containers on a roof top are not considered to be a true green roof.

The term green roof, however, can also be used to describe roofs that incorporate green technology, such as solar thermal collectors or photovoltaic (solar) panels.

The history of green roofs

Green roofs are not a new concept. Dwellings of the Neolithic period, such as the Neolithic village of Skara Brae in Orkney, are thought to have had turf roofs. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the wonders of the Ancient World, were extravagant green roof gardens, thought to be irrigated by about 35,000 litres of water brought in through aqueducts and canals.
The houses at Skara Brae, Orkney were thought to have
had turf roofs. Photo credit: Antony Slegg
[CC-BY-SA-2.0 (],
via Wikimedia Commons

Turf or sod roofs were common centuries ago in Scandinavia and can still be seen in places like the Faroe Islands. I visited Lund, Sweden recently and saw beautiful turf roofed farmhouses in the museum of cultural history. The turf helped keep dwellings cool in the summer and warm in the winter. However, these structures would most likely have leaked and also would have had the inconvenience of burrowing wildlife!

Modern green roofs didn't develop until the 1970s in Germany, when legislation was passed to encourage the introduction of green roofs. Unlike the historical turf roofs, modern green roof designs include drainage and root protection measures, as well as lightweight growing media.

The UK is somewhat behind continental Europe in terms of using government policy to implement green roof technology. But things are changing and there has been an increase in the use of green roof technology over the past decade. In fact, Bristol’s development policy (Bristol Development Framework Core Strategy; adopted in June 2011) encourages the incorporation of green roofs as a way of enhancing the biodiversity value of new building developments and views green roofs as an essential asset of the strategic green infrastructure network.Bristol  

Green roofs can be extensive, intensive or semi-intensive

Green roofs vary in ‘intensity’ in terms of the depth of substrate used and the level of maintenance needed, which affects the type of vegetation that can then be grown. A typical green roof will have, on top of the roof itself, a layer of waterproofing, a root barrier, protection/moisture retention matting, a drainage layer, a filter sheet, the growing substrate and then the plants. Green technology, such as solar panels, may also be incorporated into the design of the vegetated roof.

Green roofs are classified as extensive, intensive or semi-intensive in nature. Extensive green roofs are less than 100 mm deep and are relatively low maintenance. Their shallow depth means they are lighter but that they can support fewer vegetation types. This means they generally have lower biodiversity value and limited water holding capacity. Most people will be familiar with sedum matting as a common form of extensive green roof.
Construction layers of a green roof.
Photo credit: thingermejig (
[CC-BY-SA-2.0 (],
via Wikimedia Commons

Semi intensive green roofs have substrate depths of about 100 mm to 200 mm, require moderate maintenance, can support a greater range of plant species and have the ability for rainwater attenuation.

Intensive green roofs have deeper substrates (over 200 mm) and therefore require more substantial structural support. The deep substrate can sustain more elaborate plantings, including many different tree and shrub species, which offers a more garden-like space for users. Intensive green roofs require more maintenance and complex drainage and irrigation systems, but can offer rainwater attenuation and a greater degree of species biodiversity.

The aim of the green roof will ultimately influence its design. If, for example, the aim is simply to have an insulating effect on the building, a low-maintenance extensive green roof with low-lying vegetation would probably be sufficient. If, however, the aim is to attract and enhance wildlife, an intensive design is likely required to support a diversity of plant species that can provide a variety of structure and microhabitats. I will discuss biodiversity and wildlife green roofs in more detail in my next blog post.

The benefits of green roofs:

Green roofs help improve the urban environment in many ways, from creating a natural space for office workers to enjoy to helping mitigate the urban heat island effect. Here are some of the benefits of green roofs:

Creating a biodiverse space and a relaxing place

Green roofs can increase biodiversity in urban areas where ground level space has been developed and valuable green corridors lost. Sky-high gardens can be important stepping stones for wildlife and can create habitat and forage for a variety of species, which wouldn't exist with conventional roofs.

These places can also provide a haven for people to visit or to just view and offer a respite from a hard urban setting. 

Green roofs slow down runoff and help reduce flooding

There is a requirement now in the UK (under the Flood and Water Management Act 2010) that new developments mitigate storm water runoff and include appropriate water management systems. An established green roof can significantly reduce the peak flow rates and total volume of water runoff. Water is stored by the plants and substrate and is released back slowly into the atmosphere by evapotranspiration and evaporation. The plants also help filter out pollutants in the rainfall.

Many features of Sustainable Urban Drainage Systems (SUDS), such as permeable surfaces and swales, are not easily incorporated into a hard urban and so green roofs are considered a good solution to reducing storm water runoff. Interestingly, it has been found that in the summer 70-80% of rainfall can be retained in a green roof and in winter 10-35% (due to differences in evapotranspiration in summer and winter). 

The cool down effect of green roofs

Urban areas that are hotter than nearby rural areas are described as heat islands. The additional heat means more energy is used in summer for cooling (air conditioning and refrigeration), there are more incidents of heat-related illness and mortality and there are implications for air and water quality. Green roofs help improve local air quality and cool the urban environment by reflecting more of the sun’s rays compared with conventional roofs. The plants shade and insulate the underlying roof and have a cooling effect as water is released through evapotranspiration and evaporation – the building equivalent of sweating.

Green roofs reduce energy consumption

The thermal insulation properties of green roofs reduce the need for air conditioning in summer and heating in winter, decreasing associated emissions and dependence on non-renewable resources. 

Green roof allotments

There is increasing interest in the use of green roofs for food production and this ties in closely with the provision of amenity space. There is limited green space that can be used at ground level for food production in urban areas, so the logical step is to go up!. Roof-top allotments reduce food transportation and help increase the supply where the demand exists. For the individual household, it can help reduce food costs and provide many benefits associated with growing your own food. For a community, rooftop gardens can become a centre for social cohesion.

Though there are examples of agri-roofs, mainly in Asia, the use of roofs for food production is relatively unexplored and will provide ‘food for thought’ in the design of future green roofs.

Raise the roof on green roofs

With their many benefits, green roofs are likely to become a vital component of building designs in the future. New developments are imminent in the face of a housing shortage and green roofs offer an opportunity to improve the urban landscape, providing habitat for essential species, such as pollinators, and potentially helping respond to challenges with food security. Green space that is lost on the ground needs to be created up above with the transformation of featureless barren roofs into beautiful diverse green places.