31 October 2011

Let me rewrite that headline for you...

Arthritic dog lays down for an hour, falls asleep, seems more calm

...or as the New Jersey Herald puts it, "Reiki expert channels energy to heal pets, humans."

No, really. I was shocked. This is journalism? I was also a little embarrassed; this is my hometown newspaper. I always thought it outperformed the newspaper of my adopted hometown, Mount Vernon, Ohio. In my opinion, this was an abominable piece of journalism.

When Cindy Nolte arrived at the home of her client for their afternoon Reiki session, Kodi was waiting for her. Walking with a slight limp because of his severe spinal arthritis, Kodi braved the discomfort to rush to greet her.
The pair walked inside and Kodi lay down on the living room floor as Nolte began to meditate and focus a positive energy flow to Kodi's aching bones and muscles.
Within moments, Kodi's labored breathing had slowed down, and he slowly began to relax into a sleep-like state. Nolte used no words, she didn't even touch Kodi during their hour-long session that seemed to leave Kodi re-energized and invigorated.

I can't believe my hometown newspaper reports this pseudoscience as if it were real, with no disclaimers or editorializing by the journalist that these practices are unproven and frequently mocked by the scientific community. And shame on that woman, Cindy Nolte of Fresh Look on Life, for taking advantage of gullible and desperate people by telling them she can make them (and their pets?) feel better just by thinking at them. Dear lord, just think of the harm she could do if she turned her healing thoughts to murderous ones! (Snake oil, anyone?)

Seriously, though, that this passes muster for journalism (or at best a fluff piece) does not bode well for the journalism profession or the New Jersey Herald. I am sad to say that I've lost respect for the paper.

Acting as a conduit for the flow of positive healing energy, Nolte uses her experience to help her clients quiet their minds and connect to the energy, which can be challenging for busy humans.
"Some people have never tried anything like this before, and trying to quiet their minds after 30 or 40 years is a challenge. Just think of contacting a friend after 30 years; there is a lot to talk about. It's the same for us. We really don't talk to ourselves, so there is a lot of chatter to get through," Nolte said. "We need to learn to go inward and accept ourselves at our own individual level."

Oh. So Cindy Nolte is some sort of life coach that teaches people how to relax. Why not just say that? Why couch the albeit mockable need for a life coach in reiki healing energy woo and weirdness? If you ignore the reiki, this sounds somewhat reasonable. Relaxation is good, and some people are bad at doing it. But she doesn't stop there:

Animals, on the other hand, seem to have a natural understanding of Reiki and the energy it uses to heal, Nolte said. This allows them to benefit from the treatment that the Reiki sessions provide.

Oh. They do? Dear journalist, where's the balance? Actually, screw balance, where is the outright mocking of this pseudoscience? Where's the scientist in the article exposing this practice for the ridiculous assertion that it is with not a shred of evidence to support it? Even a single throwaway line from a local scientist would have been an improvement, though overall the article would still be a loss for those who value logic and reason.

Yes, I realize this article was a slice-of-life in-the-community approach, but it wrongly lends the validity of the newspaper to the laughably irrational tenets of reiki practitioners, who are no more rational in their beliefs than proponents of homeopathy. Unfortunately, people with little knowledge of science could be easily convinced by this charlatan, Cindy Nolte, and her thought energy. I encourage all readers to visit Quackwatch's examination of reiki and this entertaining piece at scienceblogs for a pretty thorough debunking.

I look forward to the next article in the series from the New Jersey Herald on how someone is selling vials of homeopathic "treatments" consisting entirely of water and how it's helping relieve her client's pet opposum's tinnitus. I'm sure Betty the opposum writes excellent testimonials.

02 October 2011

Protogeocarpy in the bizarre Australian plant genus Alexgeorgea

Alexgeorgea - male vegetative plant with inflorescences (left), a female vegetative
plant (center), and the above ground portion of the female flower (right), positioned
for the comparison but would normally be shorter. Source: Sherwin Carlquist.
Botanists often love language, so much so that they attach a name to even rare phenomena - odd, tongue-twisting descriptive names that are so infrequently used that one sometimes wonders why they bother at all. Wading into the obscure language of botanists today I encountered this doozie: protogeocarpy. Breaking the term down into its constituent parts gives us proto (before), geo (ground), carpy (relating to the carpel - the ovule and seed producing reproductive organ). Perhaps two-thirds of this word looks familiar to you. The news of the newly described genuflecting geocarpic plant from Brazil, Spigelia genuflexa, has made headlines around the world as a photogenic botanical oddity. I even wrote about it briefly.

ResearchBlogging.orgMost dictionaries and encyclopedias will tell you that geocarpy is a process by which a plant stem or inflorescence elongates and deposits the developing fruits into the ground. And they will probably mention the famous example of the peanut being buried up to 10 cm below ground. But that's not entirely accurate. Geocarpy is a broad term that encompasses any subterranean ripening of the fruit. Technically, Spigelia genuflexa and peanuts are perfect examples of a type of geocarpy known as hysterocarpy, "in which the fertilized ovary penetrates into the soil by means of a long peduncle," according to the book Dispersal Biology of Desert Plants by Karen van Rheede van Oudtshoorn and Dr. Margaretha W. van Rooyen. In other words, these flowers were fertilized above ground, then the developing fruits were deposited into the soil later. In another twist, only some of the fruits of Spigelia genuflexa were deposited, which the authors of Dispersal Biology would further demarcate as an amphicarpic habit.

The subterranean fruit of Alexgeorgea,
about the size and shape of an acorn.
Source: Sherwin Carlquist.
So in keeping with our geocarpic plant theme, let me introduce the small Australian genus Alexgeorgea. In sharp contrast to the above examples, the three species in this Western Australian genus of restiads (members of the Restionaceae family, related to grasses and sedges) produce their female flowers below ground with all but the stigmas, the pollen-receptive part of the carpel, being subterranean. These are truly protogeocarpic plants because fertilization of the ovary and maturation of the fruit occur below ground.

The male plants (yes, the plants in this genus are dioecious, meaning there are separate male and female plants) of Alexgeorgea nitens appear like many other Australian restiads, so much so that it was first described by the German botanist Christian Gottfried Daniel Nees von Esenbeck in 1846 as Restio nitens. von Esenbeck had mistaken deformed portions of plants above ground, possibly the result of a smut fungus, as the fruit and included this information in his description when placing it in the large genus Restio. Overlooked for the next 130 years were the subterranean fruits of this species until Sherwin Carlquist, an American botanist and one of my botanical heroes, noticed the ephemeral thread-like stigmas of the female flowers emerging from the sand. He admitted that had he not been present during the short period in which the plants produce the female flowers, the peculiar subterranean flowers and fruits would have likely remained unknown to science. Carlquist first came upon these plants in 1974 and later described two species in a new genus named in honor of the Australian botanist Alex George in 1976. Consider how fortuitous this discovery was in not only being in the right place at the right time, but also being able to recognize that the minute above ground portion of the female flower no more 3 cm tall was worthy of further investigation.

Male flowers in the background;
emergent female flower parts seen
in front as red or purple threads.
Source: Sherwin Carlquist.
What you see above and to the right in the photo is a portion of the underground rhizome, which can be several meters long. The female flowers are borne directly on the rhizome 10 to 15 cm below ground in white sandy soils. Overall, Alexgeorgea species are not the most attractive species out there, but they have a certain charm in their unusual habits.

But why? What conditions lead to the evolution of geocarpy? What are the advantages? Carlquist hypothesized that in Alexgeorgea the evolution of a single-seeded subterranean fruit was an adaptation in response to a predominant fire ecology in Western Australia. Fruits at or below ground are protected from the extreme heat of fire. Indeed, many other plants in Western Australia have adapted to frequent fires by producing their fruits at ground level (basicarpy). More widely, geocarpy is assumed to have evolved in several plant lineages in response to the harsh environments in which the species grows. In Dispersal Biology of Desert Plants, it is noted that plants may develop a geocarpic habit to ensure close proximity of the offspring in favorable micro-habitats. For example, Alexgeorgea persists in seasonally wet peaty sand and if it instead relied on wind dispersal of its fruit, it is assumed that a larger percentage of offspring would fail to germinate in favorable soils by being blown far from the small region in which it can thrive. The disadvantages are obvious: restriction of seed dispersal, limitation of population genetic structure, and the possibility of small stochastic events wiping out entire colonies.

Regardless, this is a fascinating plant habit and an equally fascinating genus. Leave it to Australia to bring us yet another botanical oddity!


Carlquist, S. (1976). Alexgeorgea, a bizarre new genus of Restionaceae from Western Australia.
Australian Journal of Botany, 24 (2), 281-295 DOI: 10.1071/BT9760281

Briggs, B., Johnson, L., & Krauss, S. (1990). The species of Alexgeorgea, a Western Australian genus of the Restionaceae. Australian Systematic Botany, 3 (4), 751-758 DOI: 10.1071/SB9900751