Deeper Into Jeopardy! XVIII: Gardening – $200

Alex hit the nail on the head this Monday when he said that this tournament’s seen some of the toughest material ever on the show – appropriate for this tournament, of course, and I’m sure viewers have learned a lot from watching these past couple months. This week we’ll take a category from the showdown between legends Chuck Forrest, Russ Schumacher, and Ken Jennings, on a fine activity for the (Canadian) long weekend during which I’m writing this: Gardening.

Jeopardy! category: GARDENING (05-12-2014)

$200 clue: Members of the agave, lily & cactus families are this type of plant whose fleshy leaves are able to store water

Correct response

The gist: In everyday usage, the word usually means “sweet” or “tasty.” But the etymology of “succulent” makes both meanings clear – it comes from the Latin “succus” meaning juice or sap giving us the “tasty” meaning, which itself comes from “sugere,” to suck, like the plants do to the water that they store up inside them afterwards, making them nice and juicy.

But “succulent” can be a bit of a confusing term, since it’s used both as a scientific term in botany and as a hobby term in horticulture. And even the botanical term is not 100% clear. Generally, though, the botanical definition is any plant that has special tissue that is able to swell up with water, making it “temporarily independent from external water supply.” They’re often xerophytes, which are plants that live in very dry regions, like the clue’s cacti and agave. Horticulturally, definitions of succulent are much wider, and often exclude cacti, since horticulturalists are generally more interested in just what they want to grow than in the scientific definition of the term.

Because “succulent” is a descriptor rather than a taxonomic term, succulents can take on a wide variety of appearances and survival strategies. Many have extensive root systems that let them soak up as much water as they possibly can from the little available in their environments – these might go very deep to find underground water, or stay very shallow so as not to miss any surface water, even dew. Succulents have also evolved to not open their stomata (the tiny holes in leaves through which plants take in carbon dioxide) in sunlight, as most plants do, since doing so would leave them vulnerable to evaporation. Instead, they open up at night, and store the CO2 to use in photosynthesis until the sun comes out again – a process known as Crassulacean acid metabolism, or more often simply CAM.

An aloe plant with a juicy leaf split open

The clue: Just a straight-up plant question. No external info here – do you know what a succulent is, or don’t you? It does give a few examples of them, but you’ve still got to know what puts them all together to get this one right. A pretty tough $200 clue, in that respect.

In Jeopardy!: “Succulent” with reference to plants appears in 14 clues in the J!Archive. Nine of them are about cacti, and three are about aloe (two of which mentions burns, for which they’re a common home treatment with limited evidence for efficacy according to the Mayo Clinic). Almost all mention either storing water (of course) or the word’s culinary meaning as well.

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