A Who Dunnit? Correction: Plants, Not Pesticides

A morning glory showing interesting effects NOT from heavy pesticide spraying

A morning glory showing interesting effects NOT from heavy pesticide spraying

A previous post including the photo above suggested in its caption that the abnormal spiraling effect of the morning glory glower was due to pesticide application.

Thanks to a generation of farmers far more schooled and knowledgeable on both pest and plant, a startling correction can be made, albeit stemming from information that’s been around for over two years now: the plant itself did it.

An aphid’s main mission is to locate the phloem, sugar conveyor belt of a plant as it were. It does this by puncturing the plant tissue with its sharp stylet. In response, the plant’s genome undergoes an amazingly speedy change, recent studies have largely attributed to Jasmonate (JA). Many plants release JA in response to such things as nasty aphids chewing on its leaves.

Up until now, such phenomena as the one quoted below, taken from Aphids As Crop Pests, have been studied in detail, including the amazing mechanism used by pitcher plants, which produce a waxy, “slippy” surface causing bugs to slip and slide right down into their acidic “guts.”

“[Aphids] prefer settling on the lower surface of the leaf… Plant morphology sets the conditions for these movements, and mechanical obstacles such as hairiness and the structure of the epicuticular wax may constitute mechanical problems for walking aphids.”

And, of course, plants’ mechanisms of toxic defense have been studied for years.

Never, though, have I seen the phenomenon I witnessed with my own morning glories, which exhibited the odd physiological characteristics they did some months ago. To reaffirm the aforementioned studies’ conclusions, said morning glories are faring better than ever, in full, normal bloom with deep-green leaves.

Unfortunately, as Aphids As Crop Pests goes on to say and as has been documented, aphids, too, can adapt quite quickly. Something that’ll be mentioned in a future post regarding sticky, black mold produced by aphids on vegetables here in Japan.

What’s very exciting about all of this, disgusting aphids aside, is two-fold. The first, hinted at by a study done by DNRF Center DynaMo, is the (already-under-current-discussion) possibilities of using plants’ amazing abilities to fight cancer.

The second is Paphiopedilum. Far from being a plant that preys upon our children, this is actually a species that, according to Physiology and Behaviour of Plants, has spotted translucent bottoms. “This speckling mimics a flower with an infestation of aphids. Certain species of flies which lay their eggs amongst aphids are attracted to the flowers and enter the pouches.” The technique ensures the orchid’s pollen is transferred to other orchids.

However, to recapitulate: although pesticides had no hand in the trippy, yet unusually beautiful appearance of my bay-window morning glory vine, I’m hoping the spiders I’ve employed as biocontrollers will do me the favor of ridding the apartment of these gnat bastards.

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Snow Falling on Japanese Cedars — and Asthma

It is not until Japanese cedars are 30 years of age, that they release their greatest amount of pollen.

The quote above was taken from a study done in the 90s, which attempted to explain the rapid spread of seasonal allergies in relation especially to Cryptomeria japonica as well as pollution*. But for some, the real issues begin as the Japanese cedars and cypresses are dusted themselves with the first snows of winter.

Persimmon trees in a shrine courtyard

Persimmon trees in a shrine courtyard

The causes of winter asthma are myriad and complex. Past studies have pointed to chemicals known as endocrine disruptors (EDs), one of which – DEHP – has gotten some bad press for its possible association with asthma and wheezing, particularly in children.

Also on the ED hit list of health organizations such as the Breast Cancer Fund and Silent Spring Institute are alkylphenols, industrial chemicals found in plastics, detergents, and pesticides, to name a few.

Japanese cypress trees (sugi) standing before a shrine in Tamura

Japanese cypress trees (sugi) standing before a shrine in Tamura

According to a roundup of several studies done on incidences of asthma in Japan associated with these contaminants, alkylphenols and other EDs are fat soluble; when they reach the ocean, they are easily absorbed by fish, particularly salmon. The land bioaccumulators tend to be poultry. Whether in fish, chicken, or beef, the chemicals can begin doing their damage, whatever and however bad that might be.

A good place to start would be in pregnant women, who can be exposed daily to phthalates (used in plastics and including DEHP) in the air. It all sounds gloom and doom, and there are plenty of other harmful things being accumulated in Japan – be it by seaweed or abandoned cattle – but an interesting study caught my eye, assessing lifestyle behaviors associated with exposures to endocrine disrupting chemicals in a Mennonite population.

The study, far too small to provide concrete evidence, suggested that such contaminants could be avoided through “consuming mostly homegrown produce…[using] no cosmetics and limited use of personal care products, and…[using] transportation primarily by sources other than automobiles.”

The first piece of advice has been bolstered by other studies investigating the link between antioxidant-rich diets and reduced rates and degrees of asthma.

A morning glory showing interesting effects from heavy pesticide spraying

A morning glory showing interesting effects from heavy pesticide spraying

Not just fruits and vegetables were suggested for daily consumption, but whole fruits and vegetables.

That being said, some I’ve spoken to in Fukushima prefecture since my arrival have avoided local fruits and vegetables. In any case, wild vegetable foraging, a popular pastime as I’ve come to understand, has completely stopped.

With the worries over plants that have accumulated radiation in my prefecture and the widespread use of inorganic pesticides – paired with other rising issues such as that of poor cardiac health due to the popularity of Western fast food chains – a nice white blanket that appears fresh and clean might be a welcome change for a while.

Go here to see WebMD’s advice for those who suffer from winter asthma

*Much like the television forecasts for cherry blossom viewing season, pollen prediction maps and charts are broadcasted by some Japanese tv networks.

Plants, Death, Japan

IMG_2625I’ve been feeling overdramatically depressed recently, so, on my unseasonably warm day off, I ran 20 kilometers southeast to the Tamura District to either totally change my life by getting the ultimatest runner’s high or just fold my hand and die from exhaustion. I did end up in a cemetery, but not dead-like.

A cemetery in the Buda hills of Hungary

A cemetery in the Buda hills of Hungary

I think everyone has a bit of an obsession with cemeteries, rightly so, I think. Cemeteries are pristine and peaceful, well cared for and respected. I visited the most gorgeous cemeteries in Europe, including the staggeringly crowded dead cities of Paris and the seemingly never-ending cemeteries rising up in tiers on the numberless hills of Buda in Hungary.

But hells bells, the best of them are here in Japan, surpassing all others in both tranquility and beauty. As mentioned in one of my earlier posts going on about plant-this and plant-that, the plantlife chosen for Japanese gardens is very specific, and cemeteries are no different.

A mat of fallen Japanese maple leaves at Koriyama's Kaiseizan Park

A mat of fallen Japanese maple leaves at Koriyama’s Kaiseizan Park

A common denizen found throughout many of the cemeteries surrounding the small hamletshire of Koriyama is Lycoris radiate, otherwise known as the Red Spider Lily and, as it is in who-named-it-first taxonomy, a bazillion other names. It’s stark-red umbel, supported by a long stalk projecting abruptly from the earth, reaches up to the sky like a bloody hand of a demon determined to escape Hell.

According to the fantastic new book I’ve taken out from the Koriyama Library and am currently considering doing a cut-and-run from Japan just so I can keep it, spider lilies are actually planted to lead the dead to their appointed destination.

Cemetery offerings of Asahi beer and the favorite beverages of the deceased

Cemetery offerings of Asahi beer and the favorite beverages of the deceased

Most interesting, however, is that the book, Nature in Tokyo by Kevin Short, mentions the unusual nature of the spider lily in itself here in Japan, which is that the color red is not so common here. I quote:

“Red is thought to fall outside the color spectrum seen by most insects. Many red flowers are thus pollinated by birds, especially hummingbirds, which can see the red colors. Yet hummingbirds are not found in Japan, and red flowers might therefore have a hard time getting pollinated here.”

Other flowers such as the camellia, another common plant found in Japanese cemeteries, bloom quite late so as to stand out clearly against a white background of snow.

IMG_2618Among the other flora in cemeteries, I found Fatsia japonica, a name I weirdly fantasize being connected to a Buddha-like Fats Domino having a massive, eight-fingered hand and slapping the bejesus out of anyone who sneezes near a Shinto shrine. In fact, it’s really connected to a legendary creature known as the tengu, birdlike yokai (supernatural beings) who used Fatsia’s huge leaves to fly about the forest.

Towering above the ubiquitous fringing hydrangeas and pond-side ferns are three titans of Japanese scenery and legend: Cryptomeria, Acer palmatum, and Bamboo.

IMG_2627Bamboo I’ll cover later, but Cryptomeria, weirdly called Japanese Cedar despite being in the cypress family, really captivated my attention during my first few months here. It’s very present around shrines and in cemeteries, often the tree chosen to represent a dwelling for spirits and seen with a rope tied around its trunk.

Acer palmatum, the Japanese maple, is a tree I’ve known since I became familiar with the Tale of Genji when I was a teenager. I saw it referenced in so many works of Japanese art, and now that I’m here in Japan, I understand that – much as it is with fall foliage viewing in Pennsylvania – going for a drive out of town to see the changing of the maples is on par with waiting for the cherry blossoms to fall in Spring.

Hydrangea

Hydrangea

The Cryptomeria trees will persist throughout the winter as will the dark green leaves and red berries of the American Wintergreen that spread over the ground below them. Now that I’ve found a tentative reason to stay in Japan, I wonder how I’ll hold up through the cold season.

A Common Problem: Slappin’ Butts From Your Face

Having been in New York and Hungary the past few years, I got quite used to the prevalence of non-smoking restaurants and cafés. In fact, during my first week, I nearly knocked the cigarette from my coworker’s mouth when he began to light up at the counter of an izakaya in downtown Koriyama.

Yet, although many places in my city and Tokyo allow smoking indoors – or at least have “designated” sections for smoking – the sidewalk is a different matter entirely. Painted on many of the more high-traffic pedestrian ways throughout the capital, you can see “No Smoking While Walking”.

According to its prefectural website, the government of Kyoto has banned smoking while walking on many streets and has made it clear that its citizens should be able to avoid the negative effects of second-hand smoke.

When I first noticed the signs in Tokyo, I assumed this was because smokers were more likely to toss their cigarette butts on the ground rather than seeking out a proper receptacle or ash tray, despite the number available outside business buildings.

After all, Sierra Magazine recently addressed a question regarding the environmental impact of discarded cigarette butts. The article expressed concerns over the toxic chemicals in the discarded filter and their negative effects on aquatic life. Two studies from 2009 and 2011 in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health cited cellulose acetate as one of these harmful chemicals, which is diluted into the water or soil and can kill marine life.

As for the original reason banning smoking while walking, second-hand smoke, I’m about as huge a fan as fashion model Nanao Arai, who cheekily suggested free slaps for smoke blowers on the sidewalks. Otherwise, it’ll be a long time (or maybe never) until Tokyo adopts Bloomberg New York’s strict measures on smoking in public. So free slaps all around it is!