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April 26 2013

Glowing Plants

I just invested in BioCurious’ Glowing Plants project on Kickstarter. I don’t watch Kickstarter closely, but this is about as fast as I’ve ever seen a project get funded. It went live on Wednesday; in the afternoon, I was backer #170 (more or less), but could see the number of backers ticking upwards constantly as I watched. It was fully funded for $65,000 Thursday; and now sits at 1340 backers (more by the time you read this), with about $84,000 in funding. And there’s a new “stretch” goal: if they make $400,000, they will work on bigger plants, and attempt to create a glowing rose.

Glowing plants are a curiosity; I don’t take seriously the idea that trees will be an alternative to streetlights any time in the near future. But that’s not the point. What’s exciting is that an important and serious biology project can take place in a biohacking lab, rather than in a university or an industrial facility. It’s exciting that this project could potentially become a business; I’m sure there’s a boutique market for glowing roses and living nightlights, if not for biological street lighting. And it’s exciting that we can make new things out of biological parts.

In a conversation last year, Drew Endy said that he wanted synthetic biology to “stay weird,” and that if in ten years, all we had accomplished was create bacteria that made oil from cellulose, we will have failed. Glowing plants are weird. And beautiful. Take a look at their project, fund it, and be the first on your block to have a self-illuminating garden.

August 01 2011

Quaking giants

Taking pictures of ancient trees allows us to share and document their connection to our past – and preserve their place in our future

Send your photos of ancient trees to our Flickr group

In the small Dorset village of Tolpuddle there is a sycamore tree on a patch of green, just a short stroll from a pub. This gnarled old tree is a key player in a compelling story. It is here that a group of agricultural labourers met to discuss demands for better pay, in effect creating the first ever trade union. The rest is history. Already more than 150 years old when the labourers met under this tree in the 1830s, it's still going strong with loving help.

Ancient trees with rich tales can be found across the UK. They are the silent witnesses to the story of these isles that we live on.

But how do we know what an ancient tree is? An ancient tree is one which is very old in comparison with other trees of the same species. There is no strict definition as to what age a tree must be to be considered ancient, but a 600-year-old oak tree or 300-year-old beech tree would qualify. Yew trees can live for several thousand years and oak and sweet chestnut for 1,000 years or more.

From the symbolic and much-loved oak to the majestic beech, trees connect us to our past and will be here for future generations to enjoy. They have provided us with shelter and played a key part in powering the expanding military and fuelling the industrial revolution.

They have played a key part in our history. It was under a yew tree at Runnymede in Berkshire that the Magna Carta was signed. A flower of Kent apple tree in the grounds of Woolsthorpe Manor in Lincolnshire proved decisive in Sir Isaac Newton's theory of gravity.

In many ways they are taken for granted. Unlike our built heritage with its listings status and preservation orders, ancient trees have no such protection. They remain potentially vulnerable to damage and neglect.

The National Trust is currently carrying out an audit of all its ancient trees, thought to number around 40,000 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. This data will then be fed into the Ancient Tree Hunt which will provide us with, for the first time ever, a clear picture of where these titans of nature can be found.

This island really is a superpower when it comes to its ancient trees. We escaped the ravages of conflict that blighted mainland Europe in the 20th century and many of our older trees have survived the race to modernise. It's hard to imagine our countryside without these wise old trees.

Stand next to any ancient tree and you get that sense of wonder at the sights and sounds it will have witnessed down the generations. They provide a sense of reassurance, majesty and power. These trees have been the centre of communities down the ages as places to gather and their loss is something that affects everyone.

Capturing these wonders of the natural world on camera has endless possibilities. Their location and prominence in the landscape can create moody and atmospheric pictures. Whether they are in a church yard, one of many in parkland or isolated in a farmer's field. Close–up shots will find a deeper meaning in their bark and the creatures, such as beetles and woodpeckers that call them home or the fungi and lichen that cling to their trunks and branches.

It's also worth thinking of taking pictures of ancient trees in the same way as portraiture photography. They all have their own unique characteristics and can create wonderful and iconic images.

There is something really special about ancient trees which captivates and intrigues us. Taking photographs of these figures in the landscape allows us to share and document what they mean to society.

Send your photos of ancient trees to our Flickr group

Brian Muelaner is the National Trust's ancient tree adviser. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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May 05 2011

2011 International Garden Photographer of the year - in pictures

Winning images from the world's premier competition and exhibition specialising in garden, plant, flower and botanical photography

May 01 2010

The oldest living organisms: ancient survivors with a fragile future

Photographer Rachel Sussman has embarked on an epic journey to track down the world's oldest living things

It all began with a trip to Japan. Rachel Sussman, a photographer from New York, had flown over to take pictures of different landscapes, but during her visit she heard the same thing time and again. Go and see Jomon Sugi, people said. The name belonged to a mysterious cedar tree that grew on the island of Yakushima off the southern tip of Kyushu. It was said to be thousands of years old.

And so one trip turned into another. Sussman found the ferry port and made her way to the island, only to hear the tree was a two-day hike into the mountainous interior. A local family took her in, lent her walking gear and even agreed to hike with her. Days later they arrived. The tree, singular and gnarled, was captivating.

When the 35-year-old Sussman returned to the US, the trip to Yakushima took on new meaning. It became the kernel of an arts project that melded photography and science. Since the idea crystallised five years ago, Sussman has been travelling the globe with one aim in mind: to photograph the oldest living things in the world.

Sussman has only two criteria that organisms must meet before they become one of her prized subjects. They must be more than 2,000 years old (an arbitrary figure, she says) and the organism must have lived continuously for the period. So far she has photographed more than 20 life forms, from shrubs and predatory fungi to Siberian bacteria and domed corals that look like giant brains.

The collection offers a rare perspective of life on Earth. Some of the organisms Sussman has captured look alien. Many were alive in the bronze age. Others were eking out an existence long before modern humans rose up and migrated out of Africa.

Sussman, who grew up in Baltimore, has travelled to the high Andes to photograph the 3,000-year-old llareta plant, an extraordinary relative of parsley that looks like moss growing on smooth, round boulders. The shrub is a dense mass of thousands of tiny branches, each ending in a bud with tiny green leaves. It is so hard you can stand on top of it.

On a road trip from Cape Town to Namibia, she tracked down a 2,000-year-old welwitschia plant, a variety of conifer that grows only two leaves, which get shredded into a mass of ribbons in sand storms. At the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen, she photographed 500,000-year-old actinobacteria gathered from the Siberian permafrost.

Sussman says the project has a twofold message. First, there is a humble, existential aspect in which the entirety of human history feels dwarfed by the longevity of life around us. Second is an environmental caution. "We have these organisms that have quietly persevered for an unfathomable amount of time but which are now in jeopardy," she tells me. "The Siberian actinobacteria are half a million years old and live in the permafrost. If the permafrost isn't permanent, the oldest living things on the planet will die."

Sussman has worked closely with biologists throughout the project. Behind each trip is an exhaustive search of academic journals to identify groups who are studying aged organisms. In most cases, she makes contact and arranges to visit the scientists in the field.

Things don't always go to plan. Sussman ended up stranded in southern Greenland without any means of calling for help when her arrangements to meet researchers in a shack near a fjord went awry. "For the first time in my life I knew what it meant to be completely disconnected. I'm glad I had the experience, but I'm also glad it wasn't any more dramatic," she says.

For her latest shots, Sussman had to overcome her fear of open water. She began diving lessons in a swimming pool in New York and flew to Tobago to get her scuba licence and learn how to wield her camera underwater. She came home with some rare shots of an 18ft-wide, 2,000-year-old brain coral taken off the shore on the east coast of the island. "Every time I saw it, I caught my breath. There's something about the size of it," says Sussman.

The project is expected to take two more years to complete. In that time, Sussman plans to photograph 5,000-year-old moss in Antarctica; a 10,000-year-old shrub in Tasmania and a 2,300-year-old fig tree in Sri Lanka. To finance her work, she has signed up with a microfinancing website, Kickstarter, which collects donations from anyone interested in funding such projects. Pledge $10 for a "thank you" on her website, $50 to receive an Oldest Living Things in the World keychain and sticker or $1,000 to get a signed, limited edition print and an invitation to a cocktail reception at her Brooklyn studio.

Her hope is to bring her pictures together in a book that covers the project in its entirety. "By the time I'm finished, I should have been to every continent on the planet. But this will probably be an ongoing thing for me. I'll do it for the rest of my life," she says.

Rachel Sussman's website


NAMIBIA: Welwitschia mirabilis The 2,000-year-old welwitschia plant found in the Namib-Naukluft desert is an unlikely-looking conifer that produces only two leaves in its lifetime – the longest in the plant kingdom. Over its long life, these leaves are shredded by sandstorms into a tangled mass of ribbons.

SIBERIA: Actinobacteria At 500,000 years old, and long predating modern humans, these bacteria embody the existential philosophy behind Sussman's project, and the environmental caution that her work sounds. This specimen had been gathered from the permafrost and was being kept in Copenhagen, where she photographed it. "The Siberian actinobacteria are half a million years old and live in the permafrost. If the permafrost isn't permanent, the oldest living things on the planet will die," she says.

TOBAGO: Brain coral This 18ft-wide brain coral off the shore of Speyside on the east coast of Tobago in the Caribbean is 2,000 years old. To take the shot, Sussman had to overcome her fear of open water, take diving lessons and learn how to use her camera underwater. The result is a rare shot of unique marine life in Tobago's fragile reef, which is among the world's most diverse ecosystems. "Every time I saw it, I caught my breath. There's something about the size of it," says Sussman.

SOUTH AFRICA: Underground forest Botanists believe the 13,000-year-old underground forest in Pretoria evolved to survive forest fires. All that is visible are the tips of the branches poking out of the soil. But beneath the ground is a mass of branches and roots. "If a fire roars through, only the tips are burnt. It's the equivalent of getting your eyebrows singed." says Sussman.

SWEDEN: Gran Picea This spruce, photographed by Sussman near Fulufjället mountain in Sweden, is 9,500 years old. It survives in a landscape dominated by lichen, bare mountains and valleys with dense, ancient forests. It was in such a northern environment that the photographer had one of her hairiest experiences. Sussman ended up stranded in southern Greenland without any means of calling for help when arrangements to meet researchers near a fjord went wrong.

CHILE: Llareta plant The extraordinary 3,000-year-old relative of parsley that looks like moss but is a shrub grows in the Atacama desert in the high Andes at an altitude of 15,000ft. Measuring 8-10ft across, it inhabits the surface of smooth, round boulders. It is a dense mass of thousands of tiny branches, each ending in a bud with tiny green leaves, and is so tough you can stand on top of it. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

April 01 2010


November 15 2009

Anthony du Gard Pasley obituary

Garden designer, writer, teacher and lecturer

The landscape architect Anthony du Gard Pasley, who has died aged 80, was a skilled and highly respected, yet largely unnoted, designer responsible for the creation of many large private gardens in Britain, Switzerland, southern France and other parts of Europe. His control of space, combined with an extensive plant knowledge, allowed him to create significant gardens for his clients. Recognisable by his monocle and perfectly groomed moustache, which he insisted "should always turn upwards, thereby giving a pleasant countenance", he was a stickler for detail, for instance matching the colour of his potted hyacinths to the linings of the curtains at his French windows.

Anthony's grandfather was a successful inventor and engineer, his father a metallurgist. His parents lived near Sherborne, in Dorset, where Anthony grew up, although he had been born in Ealing, west London. After first sharing a governess, Anthony was educated in London, at King's College school, Wimbledon. He joined the army to complete his national service but always wanted to be a garden designer.

Through his father, and at the suggestion of the garden designer Milner White, he became a paying pupil of the landscape architect Brenda Colvin in Baker Street, central London, then for two years moved to the shared office of Colvin and Sylvia Crowe at 182 Gloucester Place. After this he moved on to the design department of the landscapers Wallace and Barr, learning for three or four years what did, and did not, work.

Although they had very little work, Colvin and Crowe then asked him back as an assistant to work mostly on gardens. The Colvin practice had such clients as the Astor family, Stowe, crematoriums in Salisbury, and schools in Hertfordshire. On retiring to her country home, Filkins, Colvin, author of the groundbreaking Land and Landscape (1947), wanted Pasley to join her, but he declined and instead became the first associate of Sylvia Crowe Associates, whose practice work was mainly on new towns, roads, power stations, and, with Michael Laurie, work for the American air force. Pasley saw Crowe's 1958 book on design principles, Garden Design, through to the publication stage, before she widened out into the realm of roads and power, and he became a member of the Institute of Landscape Architects.

By the time the Gloucester Place practice closed down in the 1960s, Pasley had built up his own clientele, working out of his home in Tunbridge Wells, Kent. He lectured at the polytechnic in Regent Street, at the Northern Polytechnic (now subsumed into London Metropolitan University), at the School of Architecture, Canterbury, and as a freelance lecturer. The garden designer and writer Susan Jellicoe encouraged him to write for Country Life, the Observer and Architectural Review.

In about 1972 he had begun teaching at the Inchbald School of Design in London with John Brookes, whom he had worked with in Gloucester Place. He continued with his own practice, bolstering up his income with writing and giving lectures, these accompanied by slides and delivered with never a superfluous word, while building up capital by decorating and selling his own houses in Tunbridge Wells. Among the gardens he designed that on occasion are open to the public are Old Place Farm, in Kent; Parsonage Farm, in West Sussex, and Pashley Manor Gardens, in East Sussex.

Pasley was on the panel of judges for the Royal Horticultural Society Chelsea Flower Show gardens, was an active member of the Garden History Society, and after moving to Scotland, joined the Royal Caledonian Society. In 1983, he was instrumental in helping me set up the English Gardening School based at the Chelsea Physic Garden in London.

Anthony was a very private person, always impeccably dressed, whatever the weather, in thorn-proof tweed plus-fours, cape or kilt, and with a mischievous sense of humour. The last 17 years of his life were divided between homes in Groombridge, near Tunbridge Wells, and Moffat in Scotland. His other interests were interior decoration, book collecting, architecture, opera and travel, and latterly, cruises. His books were Summer Flowers (1977) and, with me, The English Gardening School (1987).

• Anthony du Gard Pasley, garden designer, born 10 August 1929; died 2 October 2009 © Guardian News & Media Limited 2009 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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