Plants Make Great Thermometers
Those who know me for any length of time come to know that I love plants and gardens. In many ways they can be smarter than people. Tomatoes are one of my favorites. Each tomato type or variety has characteristic temperatures. Freezing will cause die off in substantially all of them (they are not ‘frost hardy’ though I’ve had some survive a light frost with only peripheral die back); but that is common to all frost sensitive crops. At the other extreme, when it’s too hot you can have problems with things like cracking (if you water a lot after a hot dry spell). In between, there are varieties that “set fruit” at different temperatures. For most sorts, 50 F is a key temperature. Above that, you get fruit. If it falls much below that at night, you get no fruit.
The reason is rather simple. The pollen grain will last for 3 days once it sprouts. It has 3 days to fertilize and make fruit. But it grows more slowly in the cold. So at some key temperature it will form and sprout, but can’t “set fruit” before the pollen grain dies off. There are some more cold tolerant varieties, like Siberian, that will set fruit at lower temeratures (some claim down to the 40’s F range). This matters for folks like me who live in a marginal tomato area. We either grow a cold tolerant type, or resort to cloches, greenhouses, cold frames, etc. (Just covering at night can retain enough heat to set fruit in marginal conditions).
And that is why I’ve adopted the Tomato as the logo of choice for my analysis of GIStemp and why I’ve adopted the tag line “GIStemp, dumber than a tomato” under the GIStemp tab up top.
FWIW, the gene to code for this has been identified. From:
“Plants are extremely sensitive to temperature changes in their environment. They can even detect changes of as little as one degree Celsius. Just how they do so has puzzled scientists until now. New research has uncovered a “thermometer gene” that not only helps plants feel the temperature rise, but also coordinates an appropriate response.
Vinod Kumar and Phil Wigge at the John Innes Centre, reporting in the journal Cell, pinpointed the master regulator of the entire temperature transcriptome. Using the model plant Arabidopsis, the researchers showed that the key ingredient for plants’ temperature sensing ability is a specialized histone protein, dubbed H2A.Z, that wraps DNA into a more tightly packed structure known as a nucleosome. H2A.Z binds the plant’s DNA tightly at lower temperatures, thus preventing genes to be expressed. It loses its grip and drop off the DNA as temperature rises.”
So know we know how the thermometer maker made the thermometer…
There are even clocks based on flowers and that has caused me to ponder making a flower or other plant thermometer, though it would be a slow one ;-)
So what about now?
What are the tomatoes saying now about the temperatures? Well, they seem to be saying that it’s cold. Darned cold. Not just “won’t set fruit” cold, but “frost killing the vines” cold. You will see that when you go to the store to buy tomatoes or when you go to the the burger joint and find that it’s now “tomato upon request”…
From the Herald Tribune in Florida we have a story about tomatoes dying in the fields and being replanted:
By Tom Bayles
The long-running spell of cold weather has continued to ravage Florida’s tomato crop, leaving consumers paying top dollar at the grocery store and coming up sliceless at fast-food venues.
The prices that consumers will end up paying could double as supplies start drying up in Mexico, said Jesus Noriega, a produce buyer with the Associated Grocers of Florida.
“We’ve had to move to Mexico, and now Mexico is running short itself due to heavy rains,” Noriega said.
So it’s cold in Florida and it’s wet in Mexico. Not exactly a ‘warm spell’…
Further down in the article we have:
“Nothing is growing,” Brown said. “We’ve been planting tomatoes every week and we are still looking at them waiting for them to grow.”
“It’s been brutal,” Brown said. “It is the worst we’ve had it in 20 years.”
So it’s a return to what was in prior decades.
From The Seattle Times we have:
By TAMARA LUSH
Associated Press Writer
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. —
A frigid Florida winter is taking its toll on your sandwich. The Sunshine State is the main U.S. source for fresh winter tomatoes, and its growers lost some 70 percent of their crop during January’s prolonged cold snap.
Wholesale prices are up nearly five times over last year. That means you can say goodbye to the beefsteaks on that burger and prepare to pay more than usual for the succulent wedges in your salad.
An unusually cold January in Florida destroyed entire fields of tomatoes – along with some green beans, sweet corn and squash. The cold scarred the tomatoes, damaged their vines, and forced many farmers to delay their harvest.
So it isn’t just tomatoes…
The average wholesale price for a 25-pound box of tomatoes is now $30, up from $6.50 a year ago. Florida’s growers would normally ship about 25 million pounds of tomatoes a week; right now, they’re shipping less than a quarter of that, according to Reggie Brown of the Florida Tomato Grower’s Exchange, a tomato farmer cooperative in Maitland.
And prices are going up. A lot.
Some parts of Florida saw average temperatures so low that this January and February were among the 10 coldest on record, according to the National Weather Service.
But not THE coldest. This is NOT extraordinary nor extreme weather. This is inside the ranges we’ve seen before. Oddly, I have a vague memory from about 30 years ago, or maybe 40, when folks were discussing planting tomatoes in Florida. There was talk about the ‘risk” from the sporadic frost kills. The early guys took the risk, and made more money than expected, then more guys piled on. Eventually talk of risk from the frost died out (along with the older farmers who had lived through it…)
And now we are back where were were long ago. And that “worry about the frost” has become a reality. Yet I would hazard a guess that many of the tomato producers in Florida got into the business in the last 20 – 30 years and did not have the experience base of a cold PDO/AMO/etc. phase to draw on… Well, they will start learning now.
“Anecdotally, from talking to some real long timers, as well as people who watch the weather, this has been the most extended cold in maybe 60 years,” said Terry McElroy, spokesman for the Florida Department of Agriculture.
I’d trust those ‘anecdotes’. They, at least, have not been homgenized, in-filled, interpolated, and boxed, gridded, nor anomalized. It’s darned cold, and it’s been a while since we’ve been in this state, and it’s about like the last time we dropped from a warm PDO into a cold PDO. Quelle Surprise…
and even this note:
Some Wendy’s restaurants posted signs saying tomatoes would only be provided upon request because of limited availability
There are many more such stories:
Results 1 – 10 of about 42,900 for Florida cold tomato shortage 2010.
Global Warming: So who you gonna believe, “ClimateGate Scientists” or your own lying eyes and your tomato prices?
Me? I “Trust the Tomato”…
Right now, I’ve got cabbage doing fine along with an odd “Kale / Collards” hybrid I’m working on. (It does well in both cold and hot… and the flavor is better than kale and less bitter than collards. One parent was a “Green Glaze collard” which is itself a hybrid with a cabbage, to get the glossy lighter green leaves.) It is in flower now (3rd time! in 2 years) and It looks like I can make a perennial Collard out of it. I’ve got enough seed now that I can plant out a larger patch and see if I can make a “square” of perennial Collard Greens. Time for the R&D phase to see how it does “in production”.
I’ve also got a “Golden Mangle Beet” that is in it’s second year and doing fine. I’m using it for greens and to create a seed bank. It looks like it just might go multi-year here in California. Technically it’s called a bi-annual, but I’m on the edge of year three here. It has already set seed last year and I collected a pot load. ( I’m working on a perennial beet for beet greens year round here in California). The Mangle Beet is an older type and less ‘refined’ into the “grow and die” pattern of the more recent beet types.
Basically, it’s a bit cold and wet right now. Nothing really out of the ordinary for California. So my cold plants are doing fine. But it will be a while before I can get a tomato going. We often put tomatoes in about April, or May if you are a worry wart. It’s not looking good for that right now. But we’ll see.
I do have some potatoes that have their tops up and are doing OK. These are a selected type that have been growing here for a decade or so and are well adapted. They started as a “Russian Banana” so are cold tolerant. Some are grown from seeds (yes, potato seeds – I’ve had a couple set fruit over the years!) so it’s slowly evolving to suit this exact micro-climate. I’ve grown a couple of other types near it over the years, so the exact type from the seeds will be a mutt.
I found the “heavy rain” in Mexico an interesting comment. The Maya Dresden Codex predicts that 2012 will be met with heavy rain and a deluge from the sky. It does not really predict the end of the world, just the end of a grand calendar cycle. The last time we were in this phase of the Maya calendar, the Ice Man was walking a path through the Alps (with an arrow in him) and fell while it was snowing. It kept on snowing until he was under a glacier. So it was this warm then, but it got cold for a few thousand years. In Peru, the ice caps of the Andes have melted back to expose preserved green plants – last seen at the time of the last Maya calendar transition. So the glaciers there, then, were about where they are now. It was warmer then (there are some greens still under the glacier) and has been colder since.
So these are interesting times. It’s been warm for a decade or two. The sun has gone quiet, the ocean currents have shifted phase, the rains in Mexico have picked up and Canada (and most of the USA) have been buried in snow with even Florida frozen. And it all has happened before. The circle turns , men make plans, and the Gods laugh…
And the tomatoes tell us the truth of it al…