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Plant Q & A With Hannah

Gardening by the Yard host Paul James is joined by his daughter, Hannah, for a little gardening question-and-answer session.

Hannah: Are plants poisonous?
Paul: Some are. In fact, there are by some estimates at least 700 poisonous plants, and many of them are common landscape plants.

Yews, for example, are extremely poisonous, and yet they are widely planted in gardens throughout the world. And the toxins found in some yews show promise as anti-cancer compounds.

Oleander is another very popular and very poisonous plant. Ditto horsechestnuts and datura.

Pokeweed is an interesting example. Although the plant — especially the root — is very poisonous, the berries and tender shoots can be eaten if they're cooked properly. Another interesting fact: The leaves of tomatoes and many of their relatives are poisonous, too.

The lesson is this: Don't eat plants unless you know they're safe to eat. And whatever you do, don't eat white berries from any plant. Virtually all white berries are poisonous.

Many vegetables are actually fruits — in other words, seed-bearing parts of the plant.

Hannah: What's the difference between a fruit and vegetable?
Paul: There is really no scientific definition for a vegetable, but there is for fruit. Most of the vegetables we eat are actually fruits, which are seed-bearing. The exceptions include leafy crops such as lettuce and spinach, cauliflower and broccoli (which are actually flowers), stems such as asparagus, roots such as carrots, and seeds such as dried beans.

Hannah: Why do some plants bend toward the sun?
Paul: That's an interesting phenomenon known as phototropism. When sunlight hits one side of a plant, the most rapid cell growth occurs on the shaded side of the plant. As a result, it appears as though the plant is actually bending toward the light.

The living stone's nifty camouflage protects it from being eaten by animals.

Hannah: What in the world is this?
Paul: That's a plant called a living stone. Native to South Africa, it grows in the desert and can easily be confused with a small rock. The camouflage protects it from feeding animals. The two lobes are leaves, and a daisy-like flower will ultimately shoot up from the center. These plants can go months without water. In fact, most people kill them by over-watering them.

A handful of soil contains millions of living organisms.

Hannah: I've heard you say that soil is alive. What do you mean?
Paul: Soil is indeed a living organism, and until you come to terms with that fact, you'll never understand how plants grow. Too often people think of soil as nothing more than something that supports plants, but it's full of life.

In just a small handful of soil there are millions of living things, from bacteria and fungi to microscopic critters of all kinds. That's one of the reason I never use synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Many of them can actually destroy life within the soil.

Removing spent flowers from a plant encourages it to produce more flowers.

Hannah: What's deadheading?
Paul: Deadheading involves nothing more than routinely removing the spent flowers form a plant so they don't go to seed. You see, it takes a tremendous amount of energy to produce seed, and often the plant itself will have less vigor as a result. So by removing the old flowers, that energy can go back into the plant to produce even more flowers.

Hannah: Why do plants have Latin names?
Paul: In the 1700s, a guy named Carl Linnaeus came up with something called "binomial nomenclature," in which all plants were assigned a name to represent their genus and their species. His system is still used today, and it's the only way to distinguish one plant from another.

One of my favorite Latin names belongs to the yaupon holly. If you eat the leaves of this plant, it can cause you to throw up, so its Latin name is Ilex vomitoria.

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