Sunday, November 27, 2011
This is a thin section of the lower stem of water milfoil Myriophyllum sp. , stained with the fluorochrome calcofluor which binds to the cellulose of the cell walls and is fluorescing brightly in ultraviolet light. Marsh plants tend to be rooted in anaerobic mud and so have air channels (aerenchyma) that conduct oxygen down to the roots.
Working from the outside inwards in this section, there is a well defined single outer layer of very small cells forming the epidermis, then inside that lies the stem cortex with 17 air channels arranged around the central stele, which contains the phloem (brightest flourescence) and the xylem.
The stem and leaves of water milfoil. The small white structures in the leaf axils are the stigmas of the female flowers.
Thursday, November 10, 2011
The surface of plants (with a few exceptions, such as those that live submerged under water) is covered with a tough, transparent, waxy layer called the cuticle, composed of cutin secreted by the layer of epidermal cells that it covers. The best way to see the cuticle is to snap the leaf of a drought-adapted succulent plant like Crassula ovata and pull one part of the leaf against the other, peeling away the cuticle, which covers the above ground parts like a wrapping of cling-film.
These cuticular peels, often with a single layer of epidermal cells attached, can be mounted on a microscope slide .....
..... and viewed to reveal the pattern of cells and the .....
...... stomata, which allow carbon dioxide to enter for photosynthesis. The two images above are of cuticular peels of spiderwort Tradescantia virginiana.
In this vertical section of a leaf, stained with fluorescent dyes, the cuticle appears as the bright yellow layer on top of the epidermal cells. In the centre you can see a single stoma in vertical section, with closed guard cells and its adjacent subsidiary cells, with a sub-stomatal cavity below leading to the loosely packed mesophyll cells, where photosynthesis takes place. The cuticle has a dual function - keeping water in and keeping the leaf surface dry.
In plants adapted to arid conditions (xerophytes), like this Aloe variegata , the cuticle is visible as an extremely thick transparent layer that allows very little water to escape from the leaf.
In plants that are subjected to frequent rainfall, like this nasturtium Tropaeolum majus leaf, fine grooves in the cuticle surface trap air below the water droplets, which then round-up under their own surface tension and simply roll off the leaf when it shakes in the wind. This is vital, as a wet leaf surface blocks stomata and prevents carbon dioxide from entering, slowing down photosynthesis. As the water rolls off the leaf it carries away dirt and dust, so the leaf cuticle is effectively a self-cleaning surface - a phenomenon known as the 'lotus effect', referring to the extremely hydrophobic self-cleaning leaves of sacred lotus. The silvery area under the central water droplet in the image above is caused by minute air bubbles, trapped between the water and the leaf surface.
The cuticle can also have a secondary defensive role, as seen in this painfully prickly leaf of the hedgehog holly Ilex aquifolium 'ferox', which is covered in cuticular spines. In general, leaves of evergreens, that survive for several years before they are shed, tend to have thick cuticles that protect the leaf against herbivore attack throughout their extended life.
Thursday, November 3, 2011
Every time I lift the lid of our garden compost bin scores of these tiny insects, each smaller than the diameter of the head of a pin, leap around in all directions. They are members of the ancient insect order known as the Collembola - commonly called springtails - and feed on decaying vegetation. The darkness, warmth and humidity of the compost bin suits them perfectly. I think this species might be Folsomia candida, which is very common in gardens.
Most of the time they move slowly on those stumpy legs but when they are alarmed they hurl themselves into the air using an organ called a furcula under their tail .....
.... which you can see in this specimen. You could liken its action to a kind of exceptionally energetic pole-vaulting. The tip of the furcula is held in place by a clip-like structure called a retinaculum, but when the muscles in the furcula contract the clip suddenly releases its grip and the furcula flicks downwards and backwards, hurling the animal upwards and forwards.
You can find pictures of another springtail species here and a fine set of photographs for ID purposes here.