While the Curiousity rover explores its landscape, research is underway on the first garden on Mars. After all, if we intend to spend more time away from Earth, we'll need our plants. Roses and tulips, perhaps, and especially edible vegetables, grains, and leaves.
In the late 1800s, when the American chestnut (Castanea dentata) reigned in Eastern forests, the tree was a symbol of national identity. Log cabins were built from its lumber, Christmas carols celebrated its nuts "roasting on an open fire," and the tree dominated the landscape. At the turn of the century, an estimated 4 billion American chestnut trees filled a quarter of forests in the Eastern United States.
Orchids are known for their curious behaviors and adaptations and with more than 25,000 species, the Orchidacae family exhibits a dizzying range of colors, shapes, and life cycles. Their enigmatic blossoms often seem to be synced with an inscrutable clock; some flower for months, while others open for only a few hours. Recently, a new species with an unusual blooming time was discovered: the Bulbophyllum nocturnum, the only known night-blooming orchid.
In South Africa's coastal grasslands, to explore a forest is to walk along its canopy—indeed, it's the only way to observe an extraordinary group of so-called underground trees, where only the uppermost leaves and branches are visible. The rest of the tree is submerged below the deep sandy soil, creating a clonal network of underground "forests." By all appearances, the forests are merely low shrubs, which presents the philosophical riddle: if a tree falls and no one can see the forest, what of the forest?
Quietly trailing the soil with slender stems, Mimosa pudica is an unassuming herb. While it does not invite attention, it responds dramatically to the touch. At a light caress, its fern-like leaves will fold inward; a gentle thrust will collapse the petiole. Mimosa pudica (Bashful Plant) is the introvert of the garden, yet, with a coy choreography that is curiously beautiful, it is impossible not to touch, and has fascinated botanists for centuries.
More often than not, plant anatomy is the specialized purview of a trained botanist. Consider the poppy. What does the poppy's internal structure look like during seed maturation? Or the fern—how are the sporangia assembled, when examined from the perspective of the leaf?
Steven N. Meyers is not a botanist, but his photographs might suggest otherwise. Trained as a medical X-ray technologist, Meyers has applied radiography techniques to botanic specimens, capturing the details, and structural relationships of a plant that are otherwise unseen.
The discovery of the world's smallest orchid is, fittingly, the story of an intrepid explorer, an enigmatic flower, and the curious luck that brought them together. Joining other small orchids in the Platystele genus, a blossom from this superlatively small species is just 2.1 mm wide from tip to tip, and its petals are one-cell thick—all but transparent. For years, the tiny flower eluded even the world's leading orchid hunter.
Among the valleys and foothills in Israel's Negev desert is a plant that can water itself, in a manner of speaking. A study of desert plants is a study of adaptive behaviors—the dry, hot climate demands it—but the desert rhubarb (Rheum palaestinum) is the only known desert-dwelling species to have evolved a self-irrigating mechanism.
See also: Supporting Your Roots
All gardeners set out to grow healthy plants, but they also face a stubborn barrier, a curtain beyond which eyesight ends and mystery begins: the surface of the soil. Below, plants root in darkness, and our ministrations above ground only sometimes seem to determine whether our charges will go belly up or thrive.