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Results tagged “botany and spirits series”

Jan 3, 2012: Crataegus x lavallei

The series on Botany and Spirits was intended to conclude on December 23, but a flaky web connection at work that day frustrated attempts to do much online. Back from holidays today, we'll end the series and then move on to the entries that Katherine has been producing. For today's photographs, we can thank reader Richard Jaffe of San Jose, California, who sent them along when I requested images for the series. The photograph of the fruit is from his garden designed by Thomas Church.

Crataegus × lavallei is commonly known as Lavallée's hawthorn. This hybrid has been known since about 1870, when it was discovered at Arboretum de Segrez, an institution established by the French botanist and horticulturist Pierre Lavallée. Most older references will state the hybrid is a cross between the female parent Crataegus stipulacea or Crataegus pubescens crossed with the male parent Crataegus crus-gallii. However, the name of the female parent has been corrected to Crataegus mexicana while the name of the purported male parent has shifted to Crataegus calpodendron. Hawthorn taxonomy is a relatively complicated matter, thanks in part to the fact that apomicts are present (plants reproduce asexually), leading to the possibility of hundreds of microspecies being recognized. Depending on one's approach, one could recognize anywhere from two hundred to one thousand species in the genus.

On the topic of confusion and preferred nomenclature, Richard noted that the beverage in the second photograph was produced from a recipe for "hawthorn schnapps"--but Richard also recognized it was actually a vodka infusion. In Europe, schnapps is a distilled spirit made from fermented fruit, such as apples, pears, or cherries (of note, all of these are in the rose family, like hawthorn). However, schnapps is a term sometimes used for infused vodka products, such as the hawthorn-flavoured vodka in the second photograph. Vodka itself is a distilled spirit, made from different plant sources ranging from grains to potatoes to soybeans. The word schnapps is used yet again to describe a spirit mixed with flavouring and sugar (technically, a liqueur) that can have a lower alcoholic content; this is the popular use of the term in America.

Dec 22, 2011: Baudoinia compniacensis

Learning about Baudoinia compniacensis was the prompting for a "Botany and Spirits" series, as the story intrigued me so much. A big thank you to Dr. James Scott, Associate Professor from the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto for sharing the first three images, and a nod of appreciation to Shadle@Wikimedia Commons for a photograph of the phenomenon caused by the organism at Heaven Hill Distillery in Bardstown, Kentucky, USA.

Baudoinia compniacensis is known commonly as the angels' share fungus or warehouse staining mold. When distilled beverages are aged in wooden barrels, a portion of the liquid is lost to evaporation through the pores of the wood. For a spirit like rum which is distilled in tropical and warm temperate regions, the loss can reach (exceed?) 10% annually, whereas spirits aged in colder climates might lose 1-2%. The alcohol "lost" due to evaporation is called "the angels' share".

A decade or so ago, Dr. Scott was contracted by Hiram Walker Distillery in the community of Lakeshore, Ontario to determine whether a mysterious black mold blanketing local buildings and objects (including stainless steel fermenter tanks!) had anything to do with the distillery. Previous attempts by other researchers were either explained away as typical environmental fungi or recognized as a biological stumper. Dr. Scott immediately suspected something different than the typical, and started to track down fungi associated with ethanol. After discovering how to isolate and culture the fungus (the photographs above from Dr. Scott), he began to compare it with other fungi. His initial investigations led him to examine Zasmidium cellare, the cellar fungus, which grows in caves and cellars used for aging wines--but this had to be rejected because it was both different in morphology and grew in a very different environment. Researching in the mycology collections of the National Herbarium of Canada, he and Stan Hughes came across a sample of Torula compniacensis collected from Cognac, France (compniacensis = of Cognac) in the late 19th century. It closely resembled the sooty black mold from Ontario.

Via a colleague, a living sample from Cognac was obtained by Dr. Scott; it was cultured and proved to be a match. But, it didn't yet have a valid name, as Torula was used for many years as a sort of placeholder genus for different species and genera of black molds, most of which have now been split into separate genera. Torula is now restricted to a very well-defined set of characteristics, and this species did not conform. A new genus was necessary, and so Baudoinia was put forth in 2007 (see: Scott, JA et al. 2007. Baudoinia, a new genus to accommodate Torula compniacensis. Mycologia. 99(4): 592-60. doi: 10.3852/mycologia.99.4.592 ).

The genomic sequence for Baudoinia compniacensis has been completed and the species is described on the Joint Genome Institute's site: Baudoinia compniacensis. Quoting from the site: "The extremophilic sooty mold Baudoinia compniacensis is the prominent pioneering species in the primary successional community known as "warehouse staining", where darkly pigmented microbes form dry biofilms on outdoor surfaces periodically subjected to low level exposure to ethyl alcohol vapour, such as those around distilleries, spirit maturation facilities ("bond warehouses") and commercial bakeries. Pronounced blackening often extends considerable distances from alcohol emission source, indiscriminately colonizing exposed surfaces ranging from vegetation to built structures, sign posts and fences (including those made from glass and stainless steel). Mature colonies are crust-like and scorched in appearance, sometimes reaching 1--2 cm in thickness".

For a longer version of this story about Baudoinia compniacensis (and where I learned about it), please read the Wired magazine article by Adam Rogers: "The Mystery of the Canadian Whiskey Fungus". It goes into far more detail than I can in this space, and Adam Rogers knows how to tell the tale.

I find it fascinating that this broadly-distributed organism (it is found around the world wherever distilleries are located) lacked a valid name until the 21st century, and that it was a mystery to many for such a length of time (despite its prominence in areas where it grows). Also intriguing is that it is yet to be seen in nature, where presumably it grows in small colonies associated with naturally-occurring fermentation processes (e.g., rotting fruit). It also is a strong reminder of the importance of well-supported herbaria; had there not been samples of the original collection from France in the National Herbarium of Canada, who can say how the story would have evolved. Fortunately, with the resampling and renaming, new specimens have now been deposited into collections worldwide such as the Microfungus Collection and Herbarium at the University of Alberta.

Additional photographs of this species and examples of "warehouse staining" are available via Wikimedia Commons: Baudoinia compniacensis.

Dec 21, 2011: Agave tequilana

Agave tequilana

Today's photographs, from a couple different sites in Mexico, are courtesy of retired UBC Botanical Garden staff member, David Tarrant. I sent a request to David for images of Agave tequilana for the "Botany and Spirits" series, and he was glad to share. Thanks again, mi amigo--I wish I could have made a longer entry today from your photographs, but have run out of time today.

Unsurprisingly (given the scientific name), these blue agave (or agave azul) plants are being grown for the production of tequila. This gives us a presumptive clue as to the location of the photographs, as only plants harvested from the Mexican states of Jalisco, Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas can be used to generate the spirit marketed under that moniker. Tequila is a specific type of mezcal, and if I have misidentified these plants or identified them correctly but the plants are being grown elsewhere, then they are being used for the production of a different mezcal instead.

Dec 20, 2011: Saccharum officinarum hybrids

Today's photographs are courtesy of two contributors. Eric Hunt, aka Eric in SF@Flickr shared the first image, and he has a number of additional images here: Saccharum officinarum). 3Point141@Flickr contributed the second image. Thanks to both of you for helping with the Botany and Spirits series!

Saccharum officinarum is a cultigen, a taxon of cultivated origin. Other examples of cultigens previously featured on BPotD include rice and cassava. One of the commercial sugar canes, Saccharum officinarum was hybridized over millenia, with origins in (likely) New Guinea. Many cultivars exist and continue to be bred, in order to improve properties such as disease resistance and sugar production.

Additional reading on the history and use of sugar cane (or noble cane) is available via the Ethnobotanical Leaflets of Southern Illinois University: "Sugar Cane: Past and Present" or James A. Duke's Handbook of Energy Crops: Saccharum officinarum.

In addition to being the largest source for sugar production, sugar cane is used in the production of the distilled alcoholic beverages rum and cachaça. Unlike yesterday's Juniperus communis, where the contribution to gin was flavouring, rum and cachaça are derived from fermented and distilled sugar cane liquids. Cachaça, the most popular spirit in Brazil (1.5 billion litres annual consumption), is made from fresh sugarcane juice that is fermented and distilled. Rum is a bit more complex, in that it can either be derived in a similar manner to cachaça or, more typically, produced from molasses (a byproduct of sugar production from the canes).

Given that sugar cane has been cultivated for millenia, it is likely no surprise that fermented drinks from sugar cane also date back to antiquity. However, distillation of the fermented liquids to produce the true rums only occurred in the 17th century, on sugarcane plantations in the Caribbean. Wikipedia again has an excellent entry (it seems like Wikipedia writers like alcohol) on rum, including suggestions on the origin of the name as well as a history of rum (did you know that Rhode Island rum was considered an accepted currency in Europe for a short period of time?).

Dec 19, 2011: Juniperus communis

I'll make a stab at doing the "Botany and Spirits" series this week, as it looks like most days this week will afford me enough time for lengthier posts.

Photographed only a few metres away from the squirrel midden featured on BPotD last month, this common juniper plant is only one individual of the most broadly-distributed conifer species in the world (according to conifers.org: Juniperus communis). Native to most of North America north of Mexico as well as much of Eurasia, it also reaches into Algeria, Morocco, Nepal and Pakistan. I would guess there are exceedingly few vascular plant species one could find both within 100km of the Arctic Ocean and on the south side of the Mediterranean Sea.

The blue fruits of juniper are in fact seed cones, so therefore developmentally similar to cones such as the ones found on Cupressus, for example. However, the scales that form the cone are merged and fleshy in juniper, producing what are called juniper berries (technically speaking, not true berries).

The name for juniper in French is genièvre and in Dutch jenever, and through a bit of abbreviation, this leads to gin--the distilled beverage for today's entry in the series. The predominant flavouring for gin is juniper, though one local distillery uses at least 13 other botanical flavourings. Several different distillation and flavouring methods are used for the production of gin, with variation occurring in number of distillations, when flavourings are added, and types of stills used.

Wikipedia explores the colourful history of gin, including the Gin Craze of the early 18th century in Great Britain. Purportedly, of the 15,000 drinking establishments in London at the time, over half were gin shops. It also makes mention of some poetry regarding the social ills of excess imbibing: "The principal sin, Of Gin, Is, among others, Ruining mothers" (one of the British names for gin is "mother's ruin").


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