Saturday, November 17, 2012

Under Fire in Israel - Adventures with an Exploding Cucumber

In a seemingly uninteresting and weed infested wasteland in Jerusalem I discovered a patch of miniature pendulous cucumbers attached to upright stalks. Almost overlooking it, I did a double take as this conformation is uncommon in nature. I then recalled having seen this in a David Attenborough movie. This movie starlet turned out to be Ecballium elaterium, better known as... the 'Exploding Cucumber'.

I cautiously reached over to touch a fruit. Blam! The fruit was gone in a hail of seeds and flying globs of gelignaceous fluid. Setting up the video camera, I managed to capture this choleric plant in action ( Drawing the attention of a two local Israelites, we proceeded to investigate the properties of the fruit. Standing five metres away I was literally pipped on the head. We extended the range to 10m and our heroic target became the subject of a shotgun attack, with cucurbitaceous bullets scattering all around him. So much for 6-10ft as stated in Wikipedia! Slightly yellow fruits are the best, and the merest touch elicits this dehiscent response. Walking through an extended mat of them is truly one of the most exciting experiences it is possible to have with plants, with popping, snapping, squirting seeds flying everywhere! While investigating them I noted them to be home to a plethora of insects including flower-visiting wasps and bees.

Wikipedia (1) reveals that the fruit is highly toxic due to being laced with bitter cucurbitans (titerpenoids). That would explain the typical twisted-expression-inducing taste and smell that one encounters with so many wild cucurbs. In the ancient world this plant was also deemed to be an abortifacient. In Turkey, fresh juice applied to the nostrils has been found to be beneficial in treating sinusitus.

The mechanism of dispersing seeds mechanically is known as autochory. Some well-known examples are Impatiens (I remember the joy and wonder when touching these seeds as a kid), and the yellow-flowered weed Oxalis corniculata. The mechanism is described in an article in (2). Apparently the tissue around the seed is converted into a mucilagenous tissue that greatly increases the turgor pressure within the fruit. When the pressure is released at the aperture of connection - baddabing baddaboom!

Some questions remain: Does the fruit of the plant still obtain water with such a high turgor pressure, and if so, how? The fruit is green - so how significant is the photosynthesis of the fruit in increasing the turgor pressure? This latter question can be tested to some extent by covering it from light during development and seeing if the fruit still explode.


(2) K. Pushkar. Dispersal of Seeds. Competition Science Vision, Oct. 1985. p. 1083.

The Pilgrimage of a Naked Botanist

This is a blog about returning to our common childhood roots. Re-seeing the world with naked eyes. Stripping off the societal and parental straight-jackets that constrain our daily behaviour to that of working zombies - just waiting to reach retirement before being free. But most of all, this is a blog about being a botanist, ecologist, an environmentalist, and being naked. 

To many, Jerusalem is the ancestral home of spirituality. After a day of communing with stunning tropical fish at Coral Beach reserve near Eilat, I began a pilgrimage  up a nearby mountain, hoping to find a God that I no longer believed in. Well, I found something alright, but it wasn't exactly God...

Image of a toxic lionfish (photo: Jiyhe Lee) and wrasses off Coral Beach (Photo: Colourbox).

As I ascended, my way lit by the orange glow of Eilat up the barren and rocky slopes, I realized that man has been walking these parts for millenia. I questioned freedom, and decided that I was totally free to do whatever I liked right there and then. I bent down, picked up a rock and lobbed it off the edge of the mountain - knowing that in this inhospitable landscape there was nothing irresponsible in the action. For how long have children been casting stones on mountains and delighting in the graceful elegance of Newtonian physics? Since man developed opposable thumbs? I was not only beginning a journey in the footsteps of man, but in the footsteps of mankind.

It dawned upon me that I was not yet free - that there was something holding me back. Something that had been imposed me since moments after I entered this world. I tugged off my t-shirt and stepped out of my pants. My heart leaped and a whoop of joy involuntarily escaped my lips! I could once again feel the zephyrous breeze that tousled my hair and sent shivers down my spine. I could sense the subtle nuances of  changing temperatures,  the latent heat that barely perceptibly warmed my skin, even the FEELING of sound crunching beneath my boots.

The wind was becoming noticeable at this altitude and I reflected that with the rugged terrain it may prove difficult to find a hospitable place to sleep. Undeterred I continued my pilgrimage till the ridge flattened out. I left my backpack in a relatively flat crook of the rock and surmounted the peak. Surrounding me were three countries. Light pollution spilled out from Eliat allowing only the brightest of stars to shine through. Street lights reflected off a shimmering Red Sea at Jordan, and to my south lay the inky darkness of Egypt, with a single Bedouin fire in the distance. Egypt: its mysteries buried in the darkness of the past, hidden to the eye, save for the dim glow of science, archaeology, and tradition providing an inkling that it exists. Soft but insistent beats and snatches of familiar music reached my ears - reminding me that once we all would have been united by the rhythm of our mothers own heartbeat. I was in the epicentre of spirituality, alone and exposed to whatever animals and gods may find me. Having foregone supper, I drank copiously, spread out my foam mattress and sleeping bag, opened Captain Corelli's Mandolin, and promptly fell asleep.

During the night my hands took on a life of their own, and they gently unfolded and opened up skywards. I had had this twice before, both times as a result of kriya - a breathing meditation. I again awoke, this time with my body spontaneously curling and rolling to face the east. I bent over and kissed the ground three times. The third time I awoke I had a curious feeling of gently breathing out, whereas I was gently breathing in in ujayi. My chest grew larger and larger, and finally I exhaled in the same deep slow ujayi. This was deeper in my throat than I had breathed using ujayi before, and felt like I had been inspired to acquire a new technique.

I awoke finally with a profound sense of peace. I looked out across the great big bay, and the Jordanian mountains above which the sky was gradually brightening. 

I felt one with the rhythms of nature. I felt I had found God in nature, and in myself. 

I crawled from my sleeping bag, drank deeply, and proceeded with a series of pranayamas I had learnt from my Reiki Guru in India. As I looked around, I was drawn to a foreign rock. It was a fossil of an purple clam shell. Examining it I was acutely aware that it was lying on granite, in a place where no ancient fossil has any business being. 

As if struck by divine inspiration, the words Naked Bloganist came to me. I leapt up, set up my camera on a rock, and took an inspired photo of me naked in the womb of the civilized world.

How can being naked be offensive? We came into the world naked, we spent millions of years with nothing but the hair on our collective bodies, and when the clothes desintegrate from our corpse, we are naked once again. No other beast wears clothes, and no other beast but man has progressively and determinedly destroyed the results of millions of years of evolution. 

Back in civilization at Coral Beach, surrounded by umbrellas, concrete and bars, the words of Bryan Adams drifted across to me: "I’m finding it hard to believe we’re in heaven". I believe heaven is right here on earth. Yet wherever heaven is found: in our quest to tame it and possess it - we systematically destroy it. Millions live save and long lives under roofs and street lights, never seeing the fainter stars that guided our ancestors and inspired legend.  Its time to rethink freedom. Its time to rethink civilization. And I believe this means going back to our roots.