Saturday, 1 August 2015

Botanical Gardens

I have lectured on Astronomy, History, Sculpture, Sanskrit, Tamil etc in the last few years, sharing with the public what I have learned. But two great fields I have discovered and delighted in are Economics and Biology. I have not lectured on these topics, but reviewed Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations and Iain McDiarmid’s  Darwin’s Armada. These interests were kindled by books recommended by two different cousins.

Economics and Biology

In 2000, my cousin Deepa Varadarajan, now a Professor of Law in Atlanta, recommended The Worldy Philosophers, by Robert Heilbroner, a wonderful overview of the field of Economics, from the European perspective beginning with Adam Smith and continuing with Malthus, Ricardo, Marx, Veblen, Keynes. I read Thomas Friedman’s The Lexus and the Olive Tree, which also parallely gave me a practical, current overview of econmics as it was unfolding – and which I never gleaned from daily news.

My other cousin, Mukthevi Ramanujam, a biologist, now living in Bangalore, gave me a book, in 2004,  Independent Birth of Organisms, by Periannan Senapathy, when briefly working for the latter’s genomics company. This book proposed an alternative to one aspect of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. While I am skeptical of its premise and arguments, it was a wonderful primer on genetics, DNA, evolution etc. Ramanujam (whose nickname is Govind, within the family), also loaned me Nick Lane’s Power Sex Suicide, which explained mitochondria, cell physics and chemistry and a number of things that have held my fascination. This enhanced the curiosity and fascination about biology, provoked by Jared Diamond’s book Guns Germs and Steel.

One of the special pleasures I had been aching for during in the last few years, was to visit the Burgess Shale in Canada, the Amazon rainforest, and islands of Ternate where Wallace wandered, his wonders to evoke. During this current US visit, my science yatra, I was at least hoping to visit Yellowstone and Seuqoia National Parks. The Burgess Shale must wait another trip, as must the latter two, but, the Natural History Museum in Washington awaits.
Windmill at Golden Gate park

Golden Gate Park

Visiting another cousin, Vivek Sriram, in San Francisco, I realized that he lived two streets away from the Golden Gate park (he jogs there frequently) and walking through it last Friday, I discovered a Botanical Gardens, with a guided tour on Saturday. My random observations provoked my brother Jayaraman’s curiosity, so with Frank Caggiano, we took the Saturday tour.

Our docent was Coley, an extraordinarily informed and informative lady, with an avid passion for the botany of the park. There was only one other person on the tour, a San Francisco native, who said his father worked in India. He seemed to be a regular at the park.

Coley told us the design and history of the park, its founding, and then about the Botanical Garden, which is a small section of the large Park. Some of the gardens were designed with rocks from dismantled Spanish castles, which were shipped to San Francisco!

Coley - the Lady in Blue
Stones from a Spanish Castle 
I had earlier visited the JC Bose Botanical Gardens in Calcutta, and wandered around the gardens of the Theosophical society, and even went to a couple of tours in Madras, guided by Nizhal; of the Kotturpuram Tree Park and some trees of the Kalakshetra campus. All this besides the wonderful and frequent insights from Prof Swaminathan, the most avid plant aficionado, I know personally.

San Franciso has a mediterranean climate, which means it can sustain Mediterranean vegetation from both the northern and southern hemispheres. It gets cold and foggy often, but rarely frosty, which means that even tropical plants like palms and bananas grow here. The San Francisco Botanical Garden has several themed parks, segmented by geographic region, such as Australia, South America, Asian cloud forests, California redwood, and the most bizarre, South African.

Regional Gardens at SFBG
Board explaining Australian species

Australian bottle brush tree
In addition, there were three other interesting garden segments:
1.      a Fragrant garden, full of herbs, spices, and other culinary aromatic plants;
2.      a Rhododendron garden;
               and most fascinatingly
3.      a garden of Ancient Plants

This last is a wonder – I was hoping to see such a display at the Atlanta Botanical Gardens, and perhaps the Kew Gardens in London. 

When Oxygen Polluted the Earth

The Earth’s atmospheric and climatic conditions have dramatically altered over the last 4.5 billion years, during various geological epochs. That is part of evolution. Life played a major part in influencing this atmospheric evolution. Cyanogens changed the atmosphere of the world from methane to oxygen, driving archaea into rare habitats.

Two Evolutionary Explosions

Besides, for the first 4 billion years there was nothing much by way of plant or animal life on earth; mostly bacteria, fungi and protists. It is only after the Cambrian explosion about 500 million years ago that life on Earth became such a rich and delightful diversity. But, wait! Scientists estimate that the Permian extinction killed of 96% of all species on earth! Now, how would a gardener or a biologist bring to life what has been extinct for over 300 million years? What survived the Permian event, the severest of five major extinction events?

Also, the plants most familiar to us – flowering plants - are also the most recent branch of the Plant Kingdom. They evolved 150 million years ago. The sudden evolution of Flowering Plants rivaled the Cambrian Explosion. “Flowers are an abominable mystery,” rued Darwin, and they continue to be an abominable mystery.

The biologist JBS Haldane wondered why God, if he existed, had such an inordinate fondness of beetles, that he created forty thousand species of them, more than any other genus in the animal kingdom. God seems to have an equally inordinate fondness for flowering plants, as they dominate the Plant Kingdom.

They also drive our idea of plants, in the first place. Mosses and Liverworts are plants, but most of the general public would be loath to see them in a botanical garden. There are also a variety of sea plants, but we rarely see an aquarium of sea plants, whereas every city seems to have an aquarium for sea animals. But I was not too disappointed on this count; Land plants dominate the Plant Kingdom, even more than Flowering Plants. Incidentally, the single most amazing statistic of biology, is the extent of this domination.

I have wandered more randomly over this essay, than I physically wandered in the Garden. Let us see what wonders Atlanta holds for us. Just seeing the amborella would be a major highlight.

I recommend Craig Savage’s Biology lectures for those who want a more ordered and fascinating overview of the Kingdom of Life. 

Typical redwood - massive

Weird redwood, branches growing downwards
Bizarre plants from South African cape region

Antarctic plants?

Palm tree that used bad shampoo

Botanical boom microphone 

Black Lotus!!

Pineapple Palm 
Red Angel Trumpet

Organized Diversity

Omelet flower :-)
Evolutionary time line of plants

Plaque explaining Geological eras

The Ferns thatwere common before Flowers evolved
Aesthetically sculpted sign

Entrance to Japanese Tea garden at Golden Gate Park

Related Websites

4. Nick Lane video - Origins of Complex Life
5. Independent Birth of Organisms, by Periannan Senapathy
6. Amborella - Origin of Flowers?
7. Smt Radhika Parthasarathy's Summary of my book review of Darwin's Armada

Related Essays on my Blog

1. Astounding Statistic - Domination of Land Plants
2. Plant Diversity
3. Plant fossils near Madras
4. SymbioGenesis - Lynn Margulis' Supplement to Theory of Evolution
5. கப்பலோடிய ஆங்கிலேயர்


  1. Excellent, Gopu, you are an wonderful Biology teacher.. ! Next time when I visit US, I should also make it to this place and Sequoia National Park.

    1. What a compliment, that too coming from a biology teacher! Thanks.

  2. It is an excellent narration which provokes the alternative thinking process. We have been clinging to the belief systems of Darwinian and Neo-Darwinisim those books you have mentioned kindles curiosity in me to grab a copy and read them. Looking forward to read the other of you blogs related to biology.

    1. Thanks Dr Arun. I think our belief systems are constantly being updated by new research and theories, but only the major ones get into the media or into textbooks.

  3. It is an excellent narration which provokes the alternative thinking process. We have been clinging to the belief systems of Darwinian and Neo-Darwinisim those books you have mentioned kindles curiosity in me to grab a copy and read them. Looking forward to read the other of you blogs related to biology.