Highwood Primary School discovers roots, stems and leaves

Hioghwood School meet the tropical flora to study Roots, stems and leaves

Highwood School pupils meet the tropical flora to study roots, stems and leaves

Standing amongst the dense foliage of  large exotic plants with the smells of damp earth and fragrant leaves around me, the sun cooking the air, I tried to explain to a group of pupils from Highwood Primary School why plants are exciting, why we cannot live without them and how the basic parts of ‘roots, stems and leaves’ function and fit together to form living organisms.

The visit started with an email: “We are learning about the functions of the different parts of plants (stem/roots /leaves) and the conditions plants needed to survive.” – can you help?

The large leaf of a banana tears in the wind but does not break.

The large leaf of a banana tears in the wind but does not break.

The request came in from Highwood Primary School, just down the road in Woodley.  The class was dealing with that part of the National Curriculum for Science in England that deals explicitly with plants (although many other areas of science can use plant-based experiments) at  Key stage 1 & 2. The basic requirements are that “pupils should be taught to: identify and name a variety of common wild and garden plants, including deciduous and evergreen trees,  and identify and describe the basic structure of a variety of common flowering plants, including trees.”

The sinister carnivorous leaves of the butterwort (Pinguicula) and pitcher plant (Nepenthes)

The sinister carnivorous leaves of the butterwort (Pinguicula) and pitcher plant (Nepenthes)

While it you might think that a tropical glasshouse is not the ideal place to see ‘a variety of common flowering plants’ you would be very wrong.  Tropical plants include rice, sugar (cane), sweet potato, pineapple, bananas, black pepper and a range of other things we meet every week in the supermarket.  Access to such a wide variety of plants that form part of our everyday diet opens many opportunities to engage children with new information through exploration of familiar things (food) in an unfamiliar (exotic) surrounding (the tropical growing environment).

Highwood School look at the pond and it's floating plants while adapting to the warmth of the glasshouse.

Highwood School look at the pond and it’s floating plants while adapting to the warmth of the glasshouse.

Walking in from a warm early summer day on our green campus to the close heat in which these plants grow so well, the Highwood pupils realised that conditions comfortable to tropical plant growth are not necessarily comfortable for most people.  Some had visited Asia or Africa and were excited to see plants from local markets, others were looking around to find a point of reference and picked up on the pineapple growing in its prickly rosette and the young green bananas towering above us all.

The dense tropical displays give a very immersive feel to our glasshouse visits.  Standing around the pond in the middle of the glasshouse one is surrounded by large exotic leaves, some from familiar plants and others from plants grown nowhere else in the UK.

Roots, stems and leaves…

The underground stem of Turmeric gives curries their yellow colour - but take care, fresh Turmeric also stains your skin yellow!

The underground stem of Turmeric gives curries their yellow colour – but take care, fresh Turmeric also stains your skin yellow!

The most obvious stem-like stem was that of our sugar cane plant which forms a dense clump reaching from the ground to hit the roof 5 metres above our heads.  Sugar cane is a solid grass stem, the central pith cells are very sugar rich, and very tasty in sunny weather.  However not all stems are so obvious, sprouting from the ground at the base of the sugar cane is our Ginger plant.  The stems of that are all underground with only leaves showing above.  A quick grub around soon turned up some fresh ‘root’ ginger which is the underground storage stems of the plant.  Turmeric shows the same growth form and has spectacular orange rhizomes.  A more conventional stem is that of the banana which has tough fibres giving it great flexibility.

The fibres in the banana stem give it great resilience and flexibility.

The fibres in the banana stem give it great resilience and flexibility.

We then moved on to study leaves and shared the excitement of chopping down a bana plant that had finished fruiting so that we could all see that the stem like structure was actually made of leaves wrapped around each other.  The largest leaves in the greenhouse (banana) measure over 4m long while some of the smallest include tiny orchids with leaves only 4mm long. Other leaves show great variety including the water resistant waxy leaves of cocoyam and the insect eating leaves of sundews, butterworts and pitcher plants.  As well as different textures leaves show a range of different smells from the rather wet smelling taro leaf to the highly fragrant Grains of Paradise.

The long roots of water lettuce are admired by curious Highwood pupils

The long roots of water lettuce are admired by curious Highwood pupils

Roots were illustrated with the sweet potato plants, some epiphytic orchids (that have fleshy green roots) and the very long underwater roots of the water lettuce and water hyacinth.

Many pupils took home small samples of sugar cane, banana stem, and  Grains of Paradise leaves.  There was a huge and intelligent range of questions asked and it was clear that the pupils had prepared well for their visit.

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Persea americana: Anachronistic Avocado

Avocado growing in the Reading University tropical glass house. Notice how variable the size of the leaves are and the much lighter colour of the newer growth.

Avocado growing in the Reading University tropical glass house.

If you’ve ever bought an avocado, you’ll know it’s one of those fruits which seems to take forever to ripen. Botanically, the fruit of the avocado is actually a berry with a single (very large) seed. Both of these facts are connected to an interesting evolutionary relationship….



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The bitter sweet story of sugar cane Saccharum officinarum

Cane-inflThe dramatic story of sugar cane is a somber reminder of human greed, exploitation and slave labour. The events continue to unfold today, as sugar cane is implicated in contentious issues such as human health, addiction and fair trade. However, behind the drama is a rather intriguing member of the Poaceae (grass) family, Saccharum officinarum L. that is intimately intertwined with our everyday lives.

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Indicator species – early warning for pest attack

Any IPM plan should incorporate a monitoring scheme that allows the size of a pest population to be guaged, over time. By understanding the state of a population it’s then possible to make more informed decisions about whether to act and how to act.

Not all plant species in the display acted as hosts to pest insects, in fact 26 species never had any pests on them at all. The significance of this is that the species which had the most pests on them can then act as indicators for the state of pest populations in the glasshouse as a whole.

The figure below provides data on how many different plant species were host to pests and at which dates.

number of plants with pest type present

The range of plants on which pests insects were found

Pseudococcus viburni – Glasshouse Mealybug

Mealybugs were on a total of 33 plant species and thrived in the glasshouse during the sample period. Species on which mealybug were found at the highest densities were: Okra  Abelmoschus esculentes, Perennial peanut Arachis glabrata, Coffee Coffea arabica, Tea Camellia sinensis, White lead tree Leuceana leucocephala and Avocado Persea americana.

The flowering heads of Papyrus Cyperus papyrus acted as ideal nesting material for the egg sacs that the glasshouse mealybug produce. Papyrus grow from the pond in the display and the water acts as a physical barrier, preventing pregnant females from reaching the plant. However; one papyrus head in particular dangled in to the white lead tree, providing access for the mealybug.

Trialeurodes vaporariorum – Glasshouse whitefly

I found whitefly on 20 different plant species during sampling. Lantana camara, Chaenostoma cordata and Cuphea ‘Tiny mice’ had the highest densities of all whitefly stages on them and acted as breeding grounds for T. vaporariorum. Interestingly parasitized larval stages were found on these species. I have calculated the percentage of parasitized whitefly to healthy ones and shall post them on the profiles of these plants.

Aphis fabae Black bean aphid

The two aphid species Aphis fabae and Aulacorthum solani occupied similar plant hosts, however the black bean aphid Aphis fabae was much more abundant and densely populated.

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Visitors from Talfourd Avenue go Tropical

On Saturday the 15th of March the Tropical Biodiversity Glasshouse project had the pleasure of hosting families from the Talfourd Avenue group. They kindly agreed to come test our new (and hopefully improved) glasshouse tour, which was designed and created as part of my third year project in ‘teaching, learning and outreach’ and is specifically aimed at children in Key Stage 1 and 2. Continue reading

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A natural Frankestein: the orchid hybrid, Epidendrum x obrienianum

Figure 1:Flower of E. obrienianum with yellow crest on the lip

Figure 1:Flower of E. obrienianum with yellow crest on the lip

Humankind has always dreamed of chimeras, the Frankenstein´s monster or flying pigs. All this can actually happen in the plant world!! (although they cannot still fly). Many orchid growers have produced astonishing plants that can fascinate the human eye and make you feel as if you were in paradise. Epidendrum x obrienianum is one of these creatures with feature from multiple origins that can captivate you with its beauty and intriguing nature.

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Ludisia discolor, the foliage plant orchid

The brown, wide leaves of L.discolor

The brown, wide leaves of L.discolor

Ludisia discolor really is an orchid, although if you see it with no flowers, or without a label, you could be forgiven for thinking it wasn’t. Assuming it isn’t an orchid is very understandable, as it grows in soil, unlike most orchids, it appears to have a main stem, unlike the majority of orchids, and its often sold when it’s not in flower, unlike nearly all orchids (from a garden center, at least). What it does have are large brown leaves, with beige veins, which are unlike any other orchids, and unusual compared to any other houseplant.

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Pinguicula laueana – a clever little brute in a pretty scarlet-red suit

Although this plant looks quite innocent and harmless with gorgeous red flowers and small, compact leaved rosettes, it ‘eats’ with great appetite little insects using unique, highly sophisticated and efficient traps. Together with the genera Genlisea and Utricularia, Pinguicula belongs to the Lentibulariaceae, commonly known as the Bladderwort family. All family members are carnivorous plants.

scarlet-red corolla, unusually with two flower on one peduncle

Scarlet-red corolla, an unusually appearance with two flowers on one peduncle

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Posted in Carnivorous Plants, Learning and Teaching, Low Nutrient Environments, Mexico, Neotropics, People, Species, Students | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Zebra Danio (Danio rerio) GCSE Learning Resource

Welcome to the first on-line learning resource based in the tropical biodiversity glasshouse at the University of Reading. This learning resource is based on the GCSE level curriculum for biology and is designed to be used as an entire one hour lesson but may also be used for revision purposes. A lesson plan for teaching staff and supporting worksheets can be found through the links under the videos, these are in the form of PDF files and should be printed and distributed to each pupil. Continue reading

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Adiantum capillus-veneris

Adiantum Capillus-veneris (Maidenhair fern)

Capillus- veneris  means hair of Venus, the goddess of love named by ancient Greeks because it has stunning fronds, ʻcapillus’ means “hair” and ʻvenerisʼ comes from Venus. [1]

Maidenhair Fern  Erbil/ Kurdistan Taken by Sherzad Ali

wild Maidenhair Fern                    Taken in Kurdistan/ Iraq -by Sherzad Ali

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