Kwolz's Adventures in Saving the World

"Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better." -Albert Einstein

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Posted by kevinwolz on April 21, 2010

All biology fascinates me, but if I had to rank the six kingdoms of life in order of how interesting I find them, here’s how it would go:

Plantae, Fungi, Protista, Animalia, Archaebacteria, Eubacteria

I don’t mean to sound cynical of my own kind, but plants are just way cooler! And don’t get me wrong…bacteria are cool too, but the microscope intermediary takes away some of the excitement for me. This personal hierarchy is becoming extremely obvious: my dorm room is slowly turning into a jungle. It’s time for a plant update.

True Leaf!

The Brassicas are doing pretty well. Almost all of them have developed their first true leaf, and many even have their second one appearing as well. Progress! On the other hand, the marigolds and oregano that I planted about 10 days ago have been no shows so far…I’m not sure if I’m doing something wrong or what. The giant peace lily is still in full bloom although I can tell that the flowers are on their way out. My pineapple plant (Ananas comosus), which is basically the top of a pineapple stuck in some dirt), looked pretty sickly as it became desiccated in the first few weeks. Then I think the roots finally formed and it has now leveled off. New leaves seem to be coming up in the middle to replace the old ones. I probably need to get it in some more fertile soil than what it’s in now. My corn plant (Dracaena fragrans – not the same as the food) also seems to be on the rise. I salvaged it from a bit of neglect at home to try to actually get it growing. I thought simply watering it would help, but I soon realized that the soil it in was sooo dead that growth would be all but impossible. So, I added some of the extra dirt I had from the seedlings to give it some actual nutrients, and it seems to be doing better (or I’m just overly optimistic).

Meet the Gang

And now for the two latest additions! Today I bought an orchid and potted up my own bonsai tree!  I have no idea what species/variety of orchid it is, but it has three awesome pink/yellow flowers on it right now. Two neat things about orchids: 1) They are epiphytes, which means they don’t naturally grow in soil, but on other plants. Their roots can absorb water and nutrients right from the air! Consequently, my orchid is potted up in a loose mixture of wood chips and bark to simulate this habitat. 2) Orchid flowers are so unique! There are SO many varieties of orchid in every shape, color, and size! I think the best part, though, is the way orchids attract pollinators. Many orchids deceive pollinators by making them think there’s something sweet to eat or by looking sexually appealing. Then, as the pollinators (often a wasp of some sort, and often specific to one species) dive in to eat/mate with the orchid they brush by the anthers and get a back full of pollen! Ingenious! Also, ever notice the single unique petal on the bottom of an orchid? Well this has evolved to serve as a convenient landing pad for the pollinator, making it even easier for them! The bonsai tree is definitely something new to me. First of all, I didn’t realize that “bonsai” is the simply the art of making not the name of the tree species that you usually associate with the art (a cypress tree). Anyway, I was able to start a dwarf jade plant or elephant plant (Portulacaria afra) in a legit tray with the stereotypical gravel covering. The pruning will be an experiment…

On another note, spring is in full swing, and I have been encountering and lot of bees lately. Bees have been having a hard time lately, and I get really excited every time I see one. Do you like food? Do you like flowers? Well, then you better like bees! Bees are one of the foremost pollinators on our planet: much of our food, flowers, and fun would be lost without them. Albert Einstein is credited with saying: “If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live.” That’s particularly scary considering the recent state of affairs with habitat loss and colony collapse disorder. So, next time you see a bee, don’t be scared and swat at it. Instead, be grateful and say THANK YOU!

Just in has you don’t know how hard they work, here’s a movie I took out west of two bees pollinating a cactus flower. Intense!


12 Responses to “Plantae”

  1. Alex said

    I would have to argue the fact that sentient life is always a ton more interesting than non-sentient life. How are mushrooms and single-cell organisms more interesting than brains and intellect?

    • kwolz said

      Ah, but you underestimate how sentient our cross-kingdom friends truly are! And I think you’re giving a bit too much credit to the “intellect” of a species that is currently fostering its own extinction….

  2. Pae said

    Orchid is my favorite plant:)We have a lot of wild orchids in Thailand. (I try to avoid talking about plants because I’m not a specialist on plantae, but vertebrate!)

    • kwolz said

      They really are great…I think the flowers are just mezmerizing..
      I didn’t know vertebrates were your thing! Is that connected to your philosophical interests or is it a a completely separate passion?

      • Pae said

        It has nothing to do with philosophy. When I was in AP bio (or molecular biology or any levels of biology that I used to take), these topics about animals always interest me. I don’t know. I just suck plant anatomy&physiology. I actually wanted to take animal physiology, but they won’t let me take that class. Fine, I can study on my own anyway…

        NB: Great lecture today! I feel *honored* to be there.

  3. kwolz said

    Haha thanks man! I’m really glad you could come. We have a lot in common…and we need to talk about it more. Where are you gonna be this summer? Why won’t they let you take it? Is it a pre-req issue or just approval?

  4. Pae said

    It’s because animal physiology has nothing to do with my major. Right now I’m focusing on microbes and metabolism and luck for me that they’re revising the whole abe curriculum that would permit me to do that. Fun fact: I just talked to them last week that I don’t want to study about food, corn and stuff because farming systems in Thailand is quite different from the US as far as I know.

    I’m going back home this summer, and will be doing a research on microbes/metabolism/fermentation. So so excited!

  5. Dave Hanley said


    I’ve been trying to keep up with your blog. It all seems to be going great so far. I just wanted to let you know that your Passionate Pursuit presentation was excellent the other day (though I showed up late). It got me thinking though. I really enjoyed learning about the science behind a sustainable agriculture system but have you given any thought to real world implementation (i.e. the economics of such a system?). From what you describe implementing sustainable agriculture is really like a collective action problem. But seeing as you’re more into it than I am, maybe you thought up some business model to get it to work? Just curious. Hope the oregano and marigolds do better.

    • kwolz said

      Thanks Dave! I’m glad you were able to come!

      The economics questions is always a good one. Let me start by just reiterating that fact I mentioned in the lecture about the current system being completely unprofitable and reliant on subsidies. With only two counties in the entire country actually making an agricultural profit without subsidies, I would think that ANY system aside from this one would be an economic plus. In fact, I think that economics are not the big hurdle that needs to be overcome in implementing a sustainable agricultural revolution…instead, I think the communication/education barrier is the problem. Today’s farmers just don’t know how to grow anything but corn and beans, and they are stuck in a rut they don’t feel comfortable leaving.

      Furthermore, the economics of some of the systems that I propose are thoroughly tried and tested. There are many farmers across the country using these innovative methods and I would easily say they are doing far better than the average conventional farmer. One of the guys I will be working with this summer farms something like 50 acres using a perennial-polyculture-permaculture based system. To put it simply, he makes good money…without the life-saving subsidy crutch. But more importantly, his markets are large, growing, and diverse. The local, sustainable, and organic food industries are growing quickly, and because he grows such a variety of crops in this system, he has plenty to fall back on if one market fails. And he is not the only one.

      As far as getting to this system in the first place, the best analogy I can think of if is activation energy in a chemical reaction: Any major transition between two systems (chemical reactants to products or conventional agriculture to sustainable agriculture) requires an initial jolt of energy to get it over that initial barrier. In the case of agriculture, this initial energy cost would entail farmer education, public awareness, initial planting and reorganization at the farm, and a bit of retooling. After that, however, the idea of these permaculture systems is that they do most of the work themselves. Therefore, vastly less inputs, work, and outside energy would be needed in the long run. I will send you a document that may help explain this a bit better.

      I know its hard for either of us to really visual this system really well because it’s so unfamiliar to us. I’m no exception…that’s why I’m spending all summer up there learning about how it works. This is the best answer I can do for now, but I will keep thinking, and I know that I will have a great answer for you in the fall. If you ever have time, I wasn’t joking when I invited everyone up to WI. When we saw each other more often last semester, I really came to value and appreciate your knowledge, and I would love to show you the system in person and explore this question with you further.

      • Dave Hanley said


        I read your article and you are definitely right. It’s hard to visualize the system. I’ve done a bit of searching myself and was surprised to see that there are actually a growing number of sustainable agriculture startups that are attracting the interests of venture capitalists. So, it seems you’re right about the potential profitability of the system. I don’t know if you’re a big reader of the New York Times, but they actually printed an article about this on the day you did your presentation.

        Anyway, you’re comment about education is interesting. It of course prompts the question “How?” Which is what prompted my recent reading. Anyway, you captured my interest. haha. Thanks for the article you gave me.

  6. kwolz said

    Unfortunately, I don’ take as much time as I would like with the Times, or any other paper for that matter. I am glad you did some research of your own. Like I said, I will have a better idea and explanation that that article once I actually see some of these things with my own two eyes.

    I gotta say though…that Times article really made something click in my head. You may have just started my next big revelation…

    I have been struggling to cope with all the tech entrepreneurship hype surrounding iFoundry: I know I will probably end up starting my own business in the future, but almost everything I hear related to entrepreneurship has to do with high tech stuff. This has been hard to integrate, but this article may just provide the answer! I never even thought that the same approaches all these tech startups take to get funding could ALSO be applied to an agricultural startup! I’m gonna keep contemplating this and get back to you. This could be huge.

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