Category: Fun Facts

Fun Fact: About Apples

May 5, 2023

Fun Fact: Farmers in England used to threaten poorly producing apple trees with violence to encourage them to bear fruit.

If the threat didn’t work, the tree would be shot the following year. Completely coincidently, this total overreaction often worked by relieving a tight, inhibiting bark.

If violence isn’t a-peel-ing to you (against your core values?), you could try dressing your tree in ladies’ clothes instead. In Germany, orchardists saw a tree that wasn’t producing as male and dressed it in petticoats to encourage a change to “fruitful femininity”. Alternatively, a poorly producing “male” tree could be tied to a fruitful “female” tree with straw and Christmas sausages, they would be proclaimed to be married and urged to bear fruit.

I hope they lived apple-y ever after.

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Fun Fact: About Lichens

February 23, 2023

Fun Fact: Lichens may have been the first farmers on the planet.

The simple lichen Winfrenatia from the Devonian Period (407 million years ago) was made mostly of undifferentiated fungal hyphae arranged as a mat, anchoring it to its growing surface. Scattered throughout this mat, cyanobacterial cells (photobionts) were held in place in tiny pits, like “pigs in a pen”. The fungi fed on the energy the photobionts generated when they were exposed to sunlight. A cross section of Winfrenatia is below (drawing by Falconaumanni from Wikimedia Commons). Just look at those little piggies!

On the spectrum of mutually beneficial interactions, it is difficult to separate the fungi/photobiont relationship from any other form of domestication. Some fungi even resort to rustling – only forming lichens by killing other lichen-forming fungi and stealing their photobionts before settling down as a lichen themselves.

If you’re interested in more reading, see Otherlands, by Thomas Halliday. A great read about natural history… 550,000,000 years of it… I bet he’s a fungi at parties…If I ever meet him, I’ll give him a hyph-ive.

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Fun Fact: About Mobile Stamens

December 2, 2022

Fun Fact: If a pollinator is spending too much time drinking nectar, a flower will smack it with a stamen to encourage it to move along.

In some flowers, pollen-containing mobile stamens snap forward when a visiting insect’s tongue touches the nectar-producing parts. Linnaeus first observed these “mobile stamens” in 1775 but no one has been able to explain their purpose…until now.

A team of researchers from China recently found that plants use rapidly moving stamens to enhance the turnover of bees and flies on their flowers, thereby reducing their nectar costs per successfully transported pollen grain. In their study on barberry flowers, insects visiting flowers with immobilised stamens stayed 3.6 times longer and removed more nectar than those visiting flowers with mobile stamens. They also found that insect visitors deposited pollen from flowers with mobile stamens on about three times more flowers, and on flowers further away, increasing the likelihood of reproductive success for the plant.

Sounds like a pushy waiter at a restaurant… truly a-pollen’ behaviour. They should bee ashamed.

If you’re interested in reading more, see their paper here:

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Fun Fact: About Orchids

October 20, 2022

Fun Fact: There is a genus of orchid in Western Australia that spends its entire lifecycle underground…including flowering.

 Unsurprisingly, it’s really hard to find. The first species, Rhizanthella gardneri, wasn’t discovered until 1928 when a farmer ploughed his field and found the strange, fleshy, leafless plants (see below). As of 2020, there have been five species described, but they are considered to be critically endangered and their locations are kept secret.

Photo credit: Jean and Fred Hort (

Since they spend their whole lives underground and away from the sun, species of the genus rhizanthella (from the Greek: rhiza [root], and Anthos [flower]…root flower) have given up their ability to photosynthesise and instead rely on a complicated, multi-species relationships to survive. Rhizanthella species are mycotrophic (plants that get all or part of their carbon, water, or nutrients from fungi), but the fungus that it relies on also has a mycorrhizal relationship (fungi that have symbiotic relationships with plants) with the broom bush shrub, which it relies on for photosynthesized carbohydrates. The relationship is so critical that the seeds of the orchid will only germinate when infected by a fungus that is actively “mycorrhizing” with the broom bush.

When it flowers, the blooms typically stay several centimetres below the soil surface, with the very tips of the flowers poking through the surface only occasionally. We don’t know who pollinates it, how many there are, why they have bothered to keep their chloroplasts…

We’re completely in the dark on this one…researchers are practically buried in work… ok, no m-orchid-ding around…

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Fun Fact: Mushroom Houses

October 6, 2022

Fun Fact: Mushroom houses are coming and they know if you’re feeling cold.

 An international team of researchers and industry partners from the UK, Denmark, Italy, and the Netherlands are working on a new type of smart building grown from mycelium (the root-like structures of fungi) that is capable of adaptively reacting to changes in light, temperature, and air pollutants. The Fungal Architectures (FUNGAR) Project brings together architecture, computer science, mycology, and industry experts to integrate living fungi into a structurally and environmentally performing building fabric.

 FUNGAR started when Professor Adamatzky, Director of the Centre of Unconventional Computing at UWE Bristol, discovered that fungi respond to external stimuli such as changes in lighting and temperature with spikes of electrical activity. The objective is to build a building that will be able to recognise lighting levels, chemicals in the environment, the presence of people, and touch. Acting as a massively-parallel computer, the building will control connected devices like lights and heaters depending on the environmental conditions. By using mycelia as both an integrated structural and computational substrate, the building will have low production and running costs and embedded artificial intelligence. It will also be made from natural materials, lightweight, waterproof and recyclable when it reaches the end of its life.

 Mycelium-based building products have been on the market for a while already, but existing approaches involve growing the fungi to the required shape (e.g., bricks, blocks, or sheets), and then drying them to produce a stable, inert, but no-longer-living composite. The living building material for the FUNGAR Project will act as its own parallel computer for environmental regulation and adaptation.

 I hope they build their building… There’s so mushroom for development in this emerging field. I’m sure there are lots of people willing to champignon their work…and they shouldn’t have any truffle publishing…

 If you’re interested in reading more about FUNGAR, you can find their website here:

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Fun Fact: About Giant Waterlily

August 4, 2022

Fun Fact: Kew Gardens lost track of a giant waterlily with three-metre-wide leaves for 177 years.

Until now, Victoria boliviana was mis-identified as one of the two known varieties V. amazonica and V. cruziana, but researchers at Kew Gardens noticed differences in the patterns of the spines that are used to clear space for their unfurling leaves. V. boliviana is now recognized as the largest species of giant waterlily. Its leaves expand by 25 cm a day and can hold the weight of an adult (more than 170 lbs). Turns out a mis-labelled specimen has been sitting at Kew since 1845!

In addition to their famously large leaves, giant waterlilies also have a very cool two-night reproductive cycle. On night one, the temperature of the white female flower rises 10 degrees C, triggering it to open and attracting pollinator beetles to its sweet, pineapple scent. At dawn, the flower cools and closes, trapping the beetles inside. They get to spend the day cool and shaded and sipping away at nectar while the flower changes from white to pink and male to female. On the second night, the newly male flower opens, brushing the beetles with pollen as they leave and head to another white female flower.

If you’re interested in reviewing the paper about the new species, follow this link:

If you’re into unnecessarily dramatic plant videos, follow this link to see a V. amazonica leaf unfurl:

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Fun Fact: Plants as weapons

July 28, 2022

Fun Fact: The seeds of the velvet bean plant cause such intense itching that they were weaponized by the British during WW2.

Hairs lining the seed pods of Mucuna pruriens, or velvet bean, contain serotonin and mucunain, which cases sever itching when touched. Scratching the affected area spreads the hairs and the itching, causing victims to scratch uncontrollably.

In an effort to demoralize the Third Reich during WW2, the British SOE (Special Operations Executive) smuggled itching powder made from M. pruriens to resistance groups working as laundresses and clothiers. The powder was applied to clothing, bedding, and toilet paper, but was particularly effective when applied to clothing touching “the more tender parts of the human anatomy”. The powder was so irritating that a U-Boat had to return to port for medical treatment because crew uniforms had been contaminated with it, causing an outbreak severe dermatitis.

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Fun Fact: About ripe fruits

July 21, 2022

Fun Fact: You owe the dexterity of your hands to the fact that some figs don’t change colour when they ripen.

Maybe…at least a bit. Twenty percent of figs show no color change during ripening, which poses a sensory challenge if you’re a hominid trying to find nutritious food to eat. Imagine how much longer it would take to choose an avocado at the grocery store if you couldn’t squeeze it. You would have to bite each one to know if it was edible. Store managers wouldn’t like that.

Hominids, like chimpanzees, gorillas, and humans, have uniquely dextrous hands compared to the rest of the animal kingdom. In a study lead by Dartmouth College evolutionary biologist Nathaniel Dominy, researchers found that chimpanzees’ ability to feel the ripeness of a fig conferred an advantage over rival species when selecting fruit. Monkeys (black-and-white colobus monkeys, red colobus monkeys, and red-tailed monkeys) that compete for the same food relied on colour and bite-testing. Squeezing figs supplied nearly 75 % more information about fig ripeness than colour did and it was also four times faster than plucking it, biting it, and spitting it out if it wasn’t ripe. This lead to more efficient foraging and ultimately more calories consumed by the chimps.

While the researchers couldn’t definitively say that the ability to feel if a fruit is ripe was a selective force in the evolution of more sophisticated hands, the idea is very a-peeling.

If you’re interested in further reading, you can find their paper here:

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Fun Fact: Leaves with Drip Tips

June 29, 2022

Fun Fact: The proportion of leaves with drip tips in the fossil record can tell you how rainy the climate was.

Drip tips are specialised pointed tips on the ends of leaves of some plants. As their name implies, drip tips help channel water off the leaves quickly. In particularly rainy places, accumulated water can break leaves and provides a perfect place for the growth of algae, mildew, or other nasty microorganisms that thrive in the hot and humid conditions. They are common in rainforests and are more pronounced in shaded understory plants than overstory canopy plants that are exposed to sun and wind. If you measure the proportion of leaves that have drip tips, you can make a pretty reasonable guess of the local rainfall.

Apparently, my living room is very rainy…

If you want to see some drip tips in action (and an excited biologist), follow this link:

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Fun Fact: About Artificial Banana Flavouring

June 23, 2022

Fun Fact: Artificial banana flavouring tastes more like an (almost) extinct variety of banana than the one in your fridge.

There is a theory floating around that the reason artificial banana flavour tastes so wrong is because it was developed from an old variety of banana that is no longer commercially available: the Gros Michel. The Gros Michel, or “Big Mike”, was once the top banana at grocery stores but it was mostly wiped out in the 1950s by a fungus called Fusarium oxysporum.

People who still grow the Gros Michel say that it tastes similar to cultivated bananas now (the Cavendish), but amplified – sweeter, and somehow artificial. While it might be a neat story, it is unlikely that artificial banana flavouring comes from the Gros Michel. Synthetic organic chemist, Derek Lowe explains that the banana flavour comes from a simple compound called isoamyl acetate, or the “banana ester”, which is found naturally in bananas including the Gros Michel and the Cavendish. It’s far more likely that the Gros Michel tastes artificial because, aside from isoamyl acetate, it has far fewer compounds than other banana varieties. Strong, one-note tastes tend to be perceived as more “artificial’; capturing the flavour of something like a fresh, ripe fruit in one compound is impossible. The Cavendish may be mild in comparison, but it is more complex.

Long story short, at one time, banana flavouring actually tasted like the real thing. That’s bananas!

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