Fun With a Failing Memory

For at least a week, this molecular model was on our liquor cabinet:

103_9333I remembered assembling and photographing it afterwards, in fact from two different angles, as shown here. But what was it? The memory completely escaped me. Surely if it had captivated me enough I would have mentioned something to my wife. “Something about a plant,” is all she could recall. I proceeded to take the model back out on the deck where the picture was taken, hoping the location would help revive the memory. But it was to no avail.103_9334

I let it go because my wife saw in me the early signs of obsession. I’ve been known to hound a lost object or memory consistently for hours, sometimes weeks, rarely failing to find it but at the expense of more important things that need attention around the house, around life.

A few days later, at the sight of the model, I decided to punch in its molecular formula, C9H14N2O2, into ChemSpider. As expected the formula led to too many isomers— totally different molecules that share the same ratios of elements. An advanced search, however, allowed me to draw the exact structure, an intriguing heterocyclic arrangement of 7 atoms but fused to two smaller rings, which share either the nitrogen or oxygen atom with the larger ring.C9H14N2O2

When the search button was hit, “N-formylloline” came up. It still did not ring a bell, so I turned to Google.

It led me to a paper mentioning that a fungus, Neotyphodium uncinatum, accumulates N-formylloline. The real molecule, whose model I had built but forgotten why, is toxic to Hemipteran insects—the family of true bugs including cicadas, aphids, hoppers. I then remembered thinking, “what a neat natural pesticide”. But how I had stumbled upon the compound was still a mystery.

It was the next fact that did it. The fungus is an endophyte of the Italian ryegrass, meaning that it’s symbiotically attached to the plant without harming it. And that jogged my memory! Something I had been reading in Italian referred to the “parobola della zizzania“, what we refer to in English as the “parable of the weeds” in the New Testament.

The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’

 ‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them.

But I knew “weeds” was not a perfect translation because the zizzania isn’t just any weed; it specifically refers to Italian ryegrass, Lolium multiflorum. Unfamiliar with the plant, I had looked it up and that’s when I had come across the uncharacteristic structure of N-formylloline and built the model!

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Why Lawn Grass Is Not Green

From an aesthetic or ecological point of view, a lawn is preferable over concrete, stone and asphalt. The latter trio absorb light energy but then slowly re-radiate as infrared, adding to the heat-island effect of urban areas. Grass instead keeps things cooler. While growing rapidly and absorbing carbon dioxide and water, it invests a fair amount of light energy into the bonds of cellulose. If mulched when mowed, its carbon conditions the soil.

But what’s wrong with grass in the city? Most lawns in temperate areas of Europe and North America consist of Kentucky bluegrass. To be kept in a juvenile state and to be given a competitive edge over plants of the C4 variety, lawns leave behind a deep ecological footprint: they have to be watered, fertilized, mowed and weeded.

Few take measures to conserve water and electricity by relying only on rain and using a manual reel mower. Only a minority use compost instead of synthesized fertilizer, which is energy-intensive and which can lead to runoff and eutrophication. And in most neighborhoods, people don’t get on their hands and knees to remove plantain, dandelion and other “weeds”.  Instead they reach for herbicides, some of which contain glyphosate, a probable carcinogen.

We can learn from history, as researched by the authors of this Calgary website. The popularity of lawns is historically rooted in status—they first became fashionable among 17th century English and French aristocracy who were the only ones financially capable of hiring others to maintain the luxury. Kentucky bluegrass and Bermuda grass became adopted only in the 19th century when people did not realize the shortcomings of  “monoculture”.

Some low-growing oregano and black medic adding a variety to my lawn.

Some low-growing oregano and black medic adding a variety to my lawn.

Why can’t lawns be an example of biodiversity and showcase a variety of low-growing, low-maintenance plants? Many plants that normally grow taller will succumb to the selective pressure of an electric or manual mower and will even flower when only a few centimeters tall. Legumes such as black medic, white and red clover fix nitrogen from the air and require need little or no fertilizer. Thyme and oregano, which generally prefer well-drained soils and are ideal for sloped terrain, need less water than grass. Young leaves of maligned dandelion actually make a good addition to salads. Species of stitchwort and wild violets produce small but subtle flowers.

Ralph Waldo Emerson lived at a time when lawns became popular. Yet he realized that “a weed is a plant whose virtue is not yet known”, a statement quite consistent with his transcendentalism. Our surroundings could bring out our better nature. Ecological lawns could help urbanites become more environmentally responsible.

Birdsfoot trefoil, vetch & red clover abound near  St.Laurent's  duBoisé library, one designed with  ecology in mind.

Birdsfoot trefoil, vetch & red clover abound near St.Laurent’s duBoisé library, one designed with ecology in mind.