Jorge, Plants

Green plants appear green due to a pigment called chlorophyll that primarily absorbs blue and red wavelengths of the visible light spectrum, but reflects a portion of green wavelengths. This green light enters our eyes and hits the light-sensitive retinas, in which there are cone cells, that once stimulated, sends a signal to our brain that interprets the information, giving the colour green. Therefore it can be stated that the colours of an object is dependent on what colours are reflected (or transmitted) back to our eyes. (Technically speaking,  visible wavelengths have no colour. Colour is created in the brain.)

Most humans are trichromats, and possess three types of cone cells sensitive to red, green and blue light, named L M and S respectively. Each cone allows us to distinguish around a hundred shades, so the total number of combinations is at least a million. Colour is determined by our brains that interpret the different ratios of these three colours.

The visible light spectrum ranges from approximately 400nm to about 700nm. Our brain attaches different colours to different wavelengths with blue at about 475nm, green at about 510nm and red at about 650nm. Picture Credit: Vanessaezekowitz (2007) licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Not all humans, or all animals, perceive colour in the same way. Dichromats, such as dogs, possess two types of cone cells and can distinguish blue and yellow, but not red and green. Their vision is similar to some colour blind humans, who only have two working cone cells due to either an absence or a malfunction of a third type of cone cell. Not all colour blind humans are the same as they can have different combinations of working cone cells (or none at all), and thus are unable to see different colours, resulting in different colour spectrums.

Some animals are tetrachromatic and able to distinguish to four primary wavelengths of light. Birds, for example, are even able to view ultraviolet light, which is beyond the visible light spectrum. (Interestingly, humans with Aphakia can also view ultraviolet as their lens has been surgically removed. For the rest of us, our lens blocks this light.)

Some women are tetrachromatic as they possess four types of cone cells, which allows them to see a hundred million colours. The extra cone cell has its origin in their fathers’ colour blindness, who possess two working cone cells and one mutant one. This mutant one is passed on to the daughter, who then has four cone cells. It is probable that tetrachromats have to train themselves to see such an array of colours, as the natural world will not have such a diversity of colours for the brain to learn to use the fourth cone. As such, it is likely that most will go through life without recognising their potential.

The absorption spectrum of a bird (Estrildid finches) four cone cells.

So tetrachromats, both human and non-human, can distinguish many more hues of green than  the rest of us, and plantlife may appear very different. For animals like birds this may be very useful for distinguishing between plants to find sources of food or shelter.  For the rest of us, our trichromatic vision proves very useful in allowing us to quickly identify between opportunities for profit and sources of danger, such as when fruits are ripe.

Plants need to absorb light in order to carry out photosynthesis to produce glucose, which can be used for metabolism and growth, or stored as starch. Photosynthesis is a chemical reaction that inputs sunlight, water and carbon dioxide and outputs glucose and oxygen. It is a two step process, comprised of light-dependent and light independent reactions. In the former sunlight plays a key role by providing the chlorophyll with energy to kickstart the complicated chemical reaction.

In green plants, there are two types of chlorophyll: chlorophyll a and chlorophyll b that both absorb different spectrums of light. They both complement each other with a absorbing more red light and b absorbing more blue, and this allows the plants to fulfil its energy requirements. As you can see in the graph below, chlorophyll still absorbs green light but not to the same extent as they do red and blue.

Picture Credit: Daniele Pugliesi (2008) modified by M0tty licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

However, this is not the full story. The above graph represents the absorption spectra of extracted chlorophyll molecules. As part of a plant, chlorophyll never exist alone but are bound to molecules that influence what it absorbs, and as such plants absorb about 70% of green light.

There are other pigments (accessory pigments) inside green plants that play a role in photosynthesis such as carotenoids. They primarily absorb green and blue, but reflect yellow, orange and red. It is these pigments that give many plants’ leaves their autumnal colours, and signal the presence of ripe fruit, once the amount chlorophyll is reduced. These accessory pigments are useful as they allow the plant to capture more of the sun’s energy by broadening its absorption spectrum.

So, what about plants that aren’t green? While all plants that photosynthesise contain chlorophyll a, they can contain many different types of accessory pigments, giving them different colours. For example, many reddish-purple plants contain the pigment anthocyanin in such abundance that acts to mask the green chlorophyll pigments.

So, why do plants use red and blue light more so than green? And why do they not absorb all visible light (and henceforth appear black)?

It is believed that today’s plants evolved from a common ancestor (green algae) that used chlorophyll to photosynthesise. Why no alternative dominant pigment emerged is an unanswered question, although many hypotheses have been proposed. Evolution is a product of multiple processes such as random mutation, random selection and natural selection, and henceforth plants can’t design or choose the best pigment to use. It is therefore probable that once chlorophyll proved successful no new alternative dominant pigment emerged, thus enabling green plants to dominate the landscape. Although, there is a possibility that (primarily) utilising a narrow band of wavelengths (red and blue) for photosynthesis is mechanically superior, and this allowed early organisms to outcompete other lifeforms.

For more discussion on why plants use chlorophyll, and are henceforth green, can be found here, here and here.

Why do plants use the visible light spectrum for photosynthesis?

In general, plants only absorb trivial amounts of light outside of the the visible light spectrum. This is because the sun produces the most light in the visible light spectrum, and chlorophyll have evolved to utilise it. (If you look at the graph above, chlorophyll a’s absorption spectrum is almost exclusively confined within the visible light spectrum.) There are other mechanical reasons for this. Visible light is perfect as it provides just enough energy without causing damage to the plants’ cells. By contrast, ultraviolet is damaging and infrared contains insufficient energy. In addition, a lot of ultraviolet light is blocked by the ozone layer.

Composting, Gardening, Jorge, Plants

mycorrhizal fungi
A mycorrhizal fungus as viewed under the microscope. Picture credit: Dr. David Midgley (2007) licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5.

Mycorrhizal fungi rootgrow has become a common feature of garden centres of late, and has been advertised as a product that can greatly boost your plant’s health. But does it really work? And when should I apply it?  Before delving into such questions, it would be worthwhile to explain what are mycorrhizas.

What are Mycorrhizae?

The etymology of Mycorrhiza comes from the Greek mykos “fungus” and riza “root”. And this is precisely what mycorrhizae is, a symbiotic relationship between fungi and plants. It occurs in nearly all plant life on land and is thus suspected of being one of the key factors that allowed plants to colonise the land.

The relationship is symbiotic as the fungi and plant provide one another with nutrients that each are maladapted to garner independently. It has its origin in the fact each are different types of organisms, with fungi being heterotrophic and plants autotrophic. Heterotrophs, such as humans, absorb their nutrients from organic sources, but can’t produce energy from inorganic sources. Autotrophs, on the other hand, can produce energy from inorganic sources such as sunlight. Plants do this through the process of photosynthesis that produces carbohydrates. As autotrophs, plants also find it difficult to absorb essential nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus.

endomycorrhizae
Mycorrhizal fungi located inside a flax root’s cortical cells as viewed under the microscope.

And this is where the fungi come in. The fungi that can easily absorb such nutrients interacts with the plant’s root system, which the plant willingly allows, providing such nutrients in return for the carbohydrates that itself cannot produce.  It does this through expanding its roots’ surface area that can absorb nutrients and water. They also provide the additional benefit of increasing a plant’s resistance to pathogens, preventing root disease.

As a side-note, the mycorrhizas were once divided into broad groupings, the ecto (outside) and endo (inside) varieties, with the former (usually) coating the root cells and the latter intermeshing into the plant root cells; although today they have been divided into new sub-categories or superseded with new typings. The endo varieties are difficult to spot, while the ecto varieties presence may be hinted at with the appearance of toadstools, or coated, oddly-branched roots.

The Leccinum aurantiacum – an ecto variety of mycorrhizal fungus. Picture Credit: Tomas Čekanavičius (2006)  licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5.

Do I Need to use Mycorrhizal Rootgrow?

It is suspected that neither fungi nor plants could survive in many situations without such a relationship. Mycorrhizas is fairly ubiquitous throughout the soil, and can infect a wide range of plants, so it is highly probable that suitable plants will become infected in their lifetime. There may be some exceptions to this, such as heavily cultivated soil and isolated rocky outcrops, but more on this later.

Scientifically, there is little evidence supporting the use of mycorrhiza rootgrow. The British Standards Institution, which produce technical standards on an array of products, does not recommend using the rootgrow for planting trees as a matter of routine. At Texas A & M University, a team grew plants in soils with and without mycorrhizas and found that the infected plants grew slightly better at the planting-out stage, although any advantage disappeared completely after two seasons in the ground. This was because all the plants ended up infected with mycorrhizas anyway. Finally, a test by Which? Magazine found that the potting compost brand that contained mycorrhizas performed poorly, although such an outcome may be down to other factors.

So are mycorrhizas products any good at all? In all probability mycorrhizas products will be unlikely to confer any long term benefits to your plants, unless you have good reason to suspect that your soil is deficient in mycorrhizas. (It is important to check that your plant can benefit from mycorrhizas in the first place.)

Heavy use of phosphorus in agriculture reduces the incidence of mycorrhiza in the soil. The element is also used to ignite matches.

As already stated, heavily cultivated ground may reduce the occurrence of mycorrhizas. This is because fungicide is naturally destructive to fungi, although, interestingly, it is phosphorus-rich soil that is especially detrimental to mycorrhizas. Mycorrhizas usually function to gather this rare resource for plants, but an abundance of it, usually created by fertiliser, actually suppresses it. Why this is the case is unclear, although it can be in a sense expected, as messing with the ecosystem can have untold effects. Sadly, in this case using mycorrhizas rootgrow is unlikely to have any effect, as if the soil is not conducive to mycorrhizas, the best option will be to stop using phosphorus rich fertilizers, and wait for the mycorrhizas to return naturally.

There may be reason to use mycorrhizas in some cases, perhaps for isolated plants, and plants that are indoors (although such cases are unlikely to be common).

Jorge at PrimroseJorge works in the Primrose marketing team. He is an avid reader, although struggles to stick to one topic!

His ideal afternoon would involve a long walk, before settling down for scones.

Jorge is a journeyman gardener with experience in growing crops.

See all of Jorge’s posts.

Hedging, Jorge, Plants

alternatives to buxus

Forgoing box is a real shame as it possesses all the characteristics required for low maintenance natural hedging. It responds well to clipping, and is slow growing, often needing to be cut only once a year, with growth usually between 10 and 15cm. It is also frost resistant and native to the UK, being cultivated since at least Roman times. Sadly, due to the current box blight epidemic, box is no longer the premium option, as the disease can destroy years of work to which the gardener can do little to stop. However, using other plants can be seen as a great opportunity to experiment, which makes gardening so enjoyable in the first place. There are so many underappreciated alternatives that can produce stunning delineated gardens.

Obviously, no plant will be exactly like box and the shape (and colour) of your hedge could be very different. If you wish for a substitute for box, however, Privet (Ligustrum ovalifolium) is a highly popular choice that is extremely hardy and small leaved, although sadly fast growing; henceforth, it will need to be trimmed multiple times in the summer to encourage dense growth. As it is only semi-evergreen, there is also the possibility of the plant shedding its leaves in extreme bouts of cold. Another possibility is switching to artificial topiary that is visually identical to box, and virtually indestructible, although its shape is limited to the manufacturer’s designs.

alternatives to box

Other worthy alternatives include the Griselinia littoralis, Euonymus japonicus and Elaeagnus ebbingei. The Griselinia is notable for its soft glossy leaves, average growth rate and responsiveness to clipping. The Euonymus is usually two-tone with cream bordering the edges of its otherwise green leaves, although it can variegate greatly in full sunlight. The plant is hardy and suitable for nearly all soil types, although will need maintenance to ensure denseness. The Elaeagnus is a great alternative as it is dense, hardy and responsive to clipping. It is also fragrant in the autumn with the emergence of white flowers.

One of the best species of natural hedging has to be the Taxus baccata, commonly known as the English Yew or Common Yew; it is very hardy, average growing, dense and great for birds, which love its berries. For more colourful alternatives, lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) and sometimes heather, can be grown into hedges. Key for lavender is to cut it before it flowers, or otherwise it will lose its shape. It is great for wildlife, fragrant and evergreen.

common yew

Due to the box blight epidemic, the RHS Garden Wisley are currently trailing 25 alternatives to boxwood. The varieties that have performed well include such plants as the Kilworth Cream (Podocapus nivalis), Sunshine (Ligustrum sinense) and Tom Thumb (Pittosporum Tenuifolium). The team has found that the Podocapus versatile, and responsive to clipping; the plant itself can be described as extremely small leaved, and darker in colour than box. The Ligustrum is slow growing with vibrant yellow leaves, the Pittosporum purple and compact. Also of interest is how the Pittosporum is a source of food for animals in its native New Zealand and is thus hardy and responsive to clipping.

Do you have any experience growing hedges? We’d love to hear from you. Post in the comments below!

Jorge at PrimroseJorge works in the Primrose marketing team. He is an avid reader, although struggles to stick to one topic!

His ideal afternoon would involve a long walk, before settling down for scones.

Jorge is a journeyman gardener with experience in growing crops.

See all of Jorge’s posts.

Gardening, Hedging, How To, Jorge, Pest Control

treating box blight

Ever since the 1990s, gardeners have had to witness the destruction of their natural hedging projects due to the emergence of new fungal diseases targeting Boxwood (Buxus sempervirens). This has only been exacerbated with the introduction of the Box Tree Caterpillar (Cydalima perspectalis) that began appearing in gardens since 2011. (It was likely imported from the Far East in 2008.) This has affected many famous gardens and gardeners with even Monty Don witnessing the decimation of his 15 year ornamental hedge project. The blight is so deadly that the preferred option for many gardeners is to simply destroy the affected plants, as even plants that appear to recover are often destroyed with the re-emergence of the fungus. Others have abandoned Box entirely by switching to Box alternatives. However, one need not abandon box altogether as both problems are preventable and treatable, although the blight requires great time and effort to combat. Other less common problems include: Box Rust, Box Sucker, Box leaf-mining gall midge, box red spider mite and mussel scale.

Treating Box Blight

The two most serious forms of Box blight are Cylindrocladium buxicola and Volutella buxi, which often appear together. The former is highly destructive and can kill a plant in a matter of days. It is characteristic for producing discoloured leaves that are white on the underside with brown lesions on the top. In humid conditions, the fungus may result in black streaks on stems. The latter turns leaves yellow, darkening them to a shade of tan. How they enter the plant is also different as the Cylindrocladium enters through leaf cuticles in humid weather, while the Volutella requires a cut leaf surface. Both diseases are treated together with the same methods, although favourable growing conditions may allow the Box to recover from the Volutella without such an intervention.

Treating Box Blight is difficult, but can be done, although there is no guarantee of success, and it may be preferable to simply burn the affected box to safeguard the rest. Key is to prevent further contamination through disinfecting your tools, along with your clothes and boots that sticky spores can attach. We recommend that you use liquid copper to clean your tools. (It will kill the spores.) Now with the affected plant, it will need to be hard pruned in the affected areas, the branches burnt. The cut areas will then need to be treated with fungicides that contain tebuconazole or tebuconazole and trifloxystrobin. Any leaf debris should be picked up and destroyed and the top layer of soil removed and replaced. (Spores can stay in the soil for a whopping six years!) We recommend that you do not use fertiliser, as high nitrogen produces vulnerable growth. Instead, mushroom compost can be used as mulch to provide aeration and better microorganism balance. Finally, important to note is how the diseases are suited to humid conditions where air movement is restricted. Therefore it may be necessary to open up the compact framework of your box – a process known as halting clipping.

If you are unaffected by blight yet, or wish to prevent blight from entering new areas of the garden, prevention is better than adaption. When bringing in new box keep it quarantined and watch for symptoms. To do this, you can either leave it for six weeks untouched, or create humid conditions and leave it for 3 weeks. As the fungus thrives in such conditions, the blight will appear by then. (Sadly, some nurseries use fungicides to hide such symptoms, so it is necessary to be cautious.) Again, preventing humidity is key, and can be achieved through watering at the base of the plant rather than at the foliage, and by positioning the Box away from overhanging plants. Also important is not to clip when rain is forecast, or the plants wet. Finally, it is recommended that you provide adequate ventilation for better airflow, spacing the Box around 30 cm apart from each other.

A Look to the Future

buxus

For now it appears that box blight will run rampant over gardeners’ painstaking creations, but there are a number of blight resistant cultivars being developed in Europe that should appear on the market in a few years.

Treating Box Rust

Box rust (Puccinia buxi) is another common problem that affects Box and is symptomatic for orange pustules on both sides of the leaves. It is usually harmless and is treated through cutting off the affected areas or using fungicides for rust diseases such as tebuconazole, tebuconazole with trifloxystrobin and triticonazole.

Stopping the Box Tree Caterpillar

stop box caterpillar

The Box Tree Caterpillar can leave patches of dieback much like box blight, and is distinctive for patches of webbing and frass droppings. Young Caterpillars are greenish-yellow with black heads, while the older ones have thick black and thin white stripes along the body and are up to 4cm long. Like most insects, they are most active during the warmer months, but can overwinter in webbing spun between leaves. To deal with them, they can either be picked off by hand, or dealt with insecticides that include ingredients such as pyrethrum, deltamethrin, lambda-cyhalothrin, and acetamiprid. (It is recommended that you do not spray plants in flower as this could deter potential pollinators.) Like box blight, prevention is preferable to adaptation so it is recommended that you check new plants in nurseries.

Other Box Problems Caused by Insects

  • The Box Sucker (Psylla buxi) can distort your box by turning the leaves into mini-cabbages. (Oh, No!) The insects suck the Box’s sap and leave chemicals that retard new growth. It is not usually serious, but can be controlled with the above insecticides and clipping.
  • The box leaf-mining gall midge (Monarthropalpus flavus) effects Box through causing a yellowish discoloration of the leaves. This discolouration is caused by the fly’s larvae that hatch and feed inside the foliage. It is, again, unserious and not usually worth treatment.
  • Mussel scale (Lepidosaphes ulmi) are tiny mussel shaped sap-sucking insects that usually attach to bark, but on occasion will appear on leaves. Small infestations are not worth treating, but larger infestations can be treated with the above insecticides or organic sprays such plant oils. Such treatments are best applied in May and June when the next generation is emerging and vulnerable.  
  • The box red spider mite (Eurytetranychus buxi) is another sap-sucker that feeds on the undersides of leaves, causing a fine white mottling. While the mites are difficult to exterminate, they do not seriously damage the plant; the bugs can be treated with fatty acids and plant oil sprays applied continuously in five day intervals until the all the life-cycles of mites are wiped out.

Have you had trouble with box blight? We’d love to hear how you coped. Post in the comments below!

Jorge at PrimroseJorge works in the Primrose marketing team. He is an avid reader, although struggles to stick to one topic!

His ideal afternoon would involve a long walk, before settling down for scones.

Jorge is a journeyman gardener with experience in growing crops.

See all of Jorge’s posts.

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