January 21, 2010 | Matt Cole, Director of Education

Botany gives gardeners a closer look.

I think botany is neat—fun, surprising, and engaging.  While parts of plant biology are counter-intuitive, it's a marvelous world of interactions.  But some people aren't into botany that way...  Rumor has it that some people just want their plants to grow!Actually, when I garden, that is what I want.  I want my yard to give me enjoyment.  And while ripping back the vines is enjoyable for a while, I usually get way more ripping and weeding than I really want.

However on tasks like pruning, watering and fertilizing, I find myself drawing on my accumulated knowledge of  botany.  Sure its easy to make a pruning cut on a tree.  But making that pruning cut in the ideal place?  That takes some understanding of how the tree is growing now, and will grow in the seasons ahead.  You may not remember the word meristem, but you garden better if you know what it will do.  You may not be able to define osmosis, but if you understand the way roots absorb nutrients, you understand your lawn much better.

Botany for Gardeners is a great class, taught by Sheridan Samano, who also organized the Gardens' trip to see the monarch butterflies in Mexico.  It helps you understand the real needs of the plants you care for.  But here are a few reasons I appreciate botanic knowledge.

Why do broad-leaved trees lose their leaves for winter?   They don’t stay any warmer by shedding their leaves, after all.  Deciduous trees aren’t afraid of the cold—they’re afraid of the drought.  All that water locked up as ice make winter watering crucial.

You can save a root ball when you transplant, but you can't even see the root hairs.  Root hairs increase the surface area of a root by several hundred times, making them essential.  Plants that are newly transplanted need the right care as they recover. 

Everyone knows plants need water, but what do they need it for?  Plants lose water through their "pores" (stomata to us plant nerds), a process called "transpiration." It's not analogous to either  sweating nor breathing  in animals, but just as essential.  Plus it's a huge part of ecosystems water use.  A single maple tree can transpire over 50 gallons of water an hour during the growing season.  Imagine sweating that much!

When I think about all the parts of pollination, ethnobotany and biochemistry I haven't discussed yet, I'm tempted to keep going.  But there are already a wealth of books on the subject, and I'll endorse them rather than run on.


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