Field of Science

Friday Fabulous Flower - Geranium?

This time of year often requires a visit to the glasshouse to find something nice in flower, and this lovely "geranium" reminded TPP of another common name/scientific name source of common confusion.  In your local garden shop this plant was without doubt sold as a Geranium, and TPP has a number of Geranium species in his garden, but all of them have radially symmetrical flowers where five lines can be drawn that will divide the flower into identical halves.  Clearly this flower has a single line of symmetry, so it is bilaterally symmetrical, or zygomorphic.  This works well for lining up with potential pollinators which are also bilateral, and the floral markings serve as a guide probably absorbing in the infrared wavelengths.  The five lobed stigma is radially symmetrical. Well, this "geranium" is actually the genus Pelargonium (probably a hybrid, P. x hortorum). These make nice potted plants because they are fairly drought tolerant, many having a Mediterranean origin. Most gardeners though do call these plants a geranium, which is also a genus, and both genera are in the same family so naturally they have quite a few similarities. Pelargonium cultivars are not winter hardy and there are no native species in N. America.

Help for the digitally impaired?

Is there any help out there for the digitally impaired and out of date?  A commercial on TV had a young relative describe her grandparents' house as hell, no internet, etc.  TPP is sort of feeling a bit like that was modeled after his situation. 

The Phactors have been together for a long time; we’ve already been through a primary, secondary, and in some cases tertiary and quaternary episodes of appliance meltdowns and replacements. They’ve tended to come in waves where several old, reliable appliances all give up the ghost at the same budget-busting time. On the whole things have lasted well for us.  Our luck with dishwashers and microwave ovens being the worst.  One old hot water heater became a collector’s display piece at a local business because of its age and uniqueness after they stopped laughing about "can it be fixed?" At our stage of life it becomes hard to remember how old some items are. 
In the last few days the CD players on two stereos both ceased to function, and "Martha Stewart" demands Christmas music while decorating and making cookies and the like.  Young ones, should any read this blog (doubtful), may not really remember CDs or their advantages over 8-track tapes, 33 1/3 LPs (mostly stereo, but the oldest are mono), 45s (TPP never actually collected them), and 78s.  One stereo was easily fixed by bringing an ancient, but seldom used CD player home from TPP’s office, which is fine for the compact system in the kitchen.  But the main stereo had a 5 disk changer, and a still powerful 150w per channel tuner/amp to push some pretty fine speakers to their limits.  TPP used Tusk (1979)(there's also a version using the USC Trojan marching band) by Fleetwood Mac to signal the F1 that it was time to rise and shine (usually in the vicinity of noon). So as the Phactors contemplate a new TV, it just doesn’t seem right to embrace too much change all at once.  But whether to update or not will be debated, but TPP just doesn’t want to give up his stereo equipment just yet; it'd  be like giving up a Corvette for a Prius. While that's OK for cars; this is sounds! Might have to go find that King Crimson album (front and back cover illustration above) and test the turntable.

Sudden Ginkgo leaf fall

A number of people noticed this year that the leaves of ginkgo trees turned bright yellow, as usual, and then suddenly dropped all their leaves literally overnight leaving a golden carpet of leaves around the trees. This is actually pretty normal too, but usually it happens along with a lot of other trees dropping leaves, so fewer people notice.  2016 has been a long warmish fall with no good hard frosts before there was a very cold overnight freeze.  What happens is this. The shorter, cooler days stops the production of chlorophyll that ordinarily masks the yellow pigments (carotenoids, xanthophylls) and the leaves turn yellow. This is pretty common for lots of trees. At the base of the leaf stalk deciduous trees form a week place called an abscission zone, and in most trees a bit of back and forth bending in the wind causes the leaf to fall.  Gingko makes such a zone, but some of the vascular tissue remains connected and it takes a freeze, forming some ice crystals, to break the residual vascular connection, so after such a freeze, the leaves all fall at once. One day ginkgo trees have yellow leaves, the next day the trees are bare and the ground carpeted with ginkgo leaves. 

Friday Fabulous Flower - An Air Plant

Often called and sold as an air plant, generally meaning an epiphyte that does not need soil, this is a popular and fairly common bromeliad (pineapple family), Tillandsia bulbosa. The leaf bases overlap each other forming a bulbous base. The leaves are quite waxy and the blades are rolled into a cylindrical shape that sort takes on a sinuous arrangement. Such adaptations reduce water loss and perhaps capture and store water in the modified bulbous tank.  At least one author has suggested it might also be an ant plant, but TPP has not verified this elsewhere.  The red inflorescence is the primary attraction and it lasts a long time providing a attractive platform for the handsome but not so gaudy purple flowers. The white stigmas and yellow stamens with purple filaments protrude from the tubular flowers. In the humidity of our glasshouse this plant thrives; in a dry household it would be more of a challenge to grow. Suggestion: hang it in the stall when you shower. 

Vegan Turkey?

Here's a turkey TPP had never seen the likes of before.  The image that came to mind was the Far Side cartoon showing lions that had brought down a tofudabeast and discovering it wasn't quite the same as other prey.  This turkey may well be vegan, but it wasn't actually intended to substitute for the real thing, probably, although some of the younger dinner guests would have preferred it.  This turkey did have a certain eye appear for some.  Mostly TPP's teeth started to hurt just thinking about eating it.  For many readers this is probably a familiar confection although not usually so fowlly molded.  For those of you from other cultures the primary material is a breakfast cereal called Rice Crispies (Rice Bubbles down under) glued together largely with sugar, and of course the stuffing consisted of M&Ms (chocolate in a sugar shell that melts in your mouth not in your hand), and peanut butter cups in the foil wrappers because they will melt in your hand (chocolate covered peanut butter is a strangely appealing combination).  At any rate it was quite a creative visual spectacle if not a culinary treat. Oh, those vegans, so healthy.

Holidays with Martha

TPP is staying out of the way.  Cooking is his thing, but our dinner is delayed until Saturday.  So with little to do today, Mrs. Phactor is decorating for the holidays and our impending guests.  Understand, the house will look quite handsome and festive, and she has plenty of black cat help; for them many decorations have the look of toys, and so some shall become. As a small contribution, TPP has made a batch of smoked salmon dip. It's pretty easy and highly addictive.  
SWMBO (she who must be obeyed) has explained that today is the official start of the holiday and that someone must get with the program.  In due time, in due time. 
Otto is still churning slowly toward NE Costa Rica, so my colleagues must be getting quite wet.  Another old friend and colleague from the upstate NY snowbelt reports they got 22 inches of snow that isn't good for x-country skiing, truly annoying.  
Mrs. Phactor and a helper have come upstairs to gather more decorative items, or maybe take a nap, no, just getting in the way right now. However this particular helper usually likes to get in TPP's lap while typing, a huge help.  This is one very cute, very friendly annoyance of a cat.  Not the one featured in the black cat day a few blogs back. As part of the decor, two biggish Schlumbergera cacti, but quite red, are in full bloom and looking quite festive.  They were kept outside well into October this year, and that seems to really prime them to flower for Thanksgiving.  They are really quite easy  houseplants that enjoy being outside hanging in a partially shady area for the summer/early fall. 
TPP is quite thankful for all you readers who allow this mental health program to continue at least until the next administration does something terrible to the internet.  Sorry, for that small vent.  TPP will now go for a walk, bring in some firewood for the weekend, and thus appear to be doing something useful that isn't blogging.  If you are reading this from outside the USA, you may celebrate thanks for whatever by feeding yourself and others a nice dinner. Generally a turkey, our native and very misnamed bird, is served with all the trimmings. 

A very wet Thanksgiving

Right now two of my colleagues and a bunch of our advanced undergraduates and graduate students are on a rainforest ecology field trip in NE Costa Rica at the La Selva biological station.  Usually the station provides a quite magnificent dinner for all the gringo visitors, but unfortunately they are all about to get very wet, and when you say that for this place, that's saying a lot. Hurricane Otto is bearing down on them, and while it is not a major storm in the sense of wind, the amount of rain they could get in the next 48 hours could be amazing, and this really can put the field research on hold.  TPP wishes them well.  Our previous course record was 444 mm of rainfall in 8 days, and with 18-24" predicted for their area, they may set a new record.  Yea! Go team go! It's happened before as the image shows; the flooded area is usually high and dry several meters above the river.  Fortunately the labs and cabinas are much higher still.  

Nocturnal pollination

Most people don't realize that many plants flower and interact with pollinators at night, particularly in the tropics.  An article in the latest American Journal of Botany provided a nice image of a hawkmoth, an insect version of a hummingbird, visiting a night-blooming plant (Oenothera harringtonii). Notice that the flowers are white and don't actually open very much except at the top of the corolla, but the stigma is exposed. The long proboscis of the hawkmoth is inserted to get a reward delivering and withdrawing pollen in the process. This is a terrific image for teaching, and a very interesting study (open access): Land-use change has no detectable effect on reproduction of a disturbance-adapted, hawkmoth-pollinated plant species, a study by my very talented Chi-town colleague Krissa Skogen and her collaborators (November 2016 vol. 103 no. 11 1950-1963). 

Friday Fabulous Flower - late fall color

Yesterday Nov. 17th probably set a high temperature record for the date - the mid 70s (F). After doing leaves in garden beds, some lawn cleanup, anti-rabbit cages around trees & shrubs, and other odds ends, the Phactors treated ourselves to a margarita on the patio. A walk around the estate let us check on undone jobs and see what late fall color was left. The smoke trees, a Kousa dogwood, a couple of Japanese maples, a European Euonymus, fothergilla, and witch hazels were looking rather nice. One of the witch hazels was also in flower, a not uncommon happening, so it's sort of like early spring and late fall all together.

Black is purrfect

Today is National Black Cat Day.  Who knew?  Our kitty-girls didn't seem to know or notice anything different. Typical enough morning; wake up the lazy people so we can getz our breakfasts. Then find a nice place for a couple of hour nap.  It's tough being a house cat.  So much responsibility. Unfortunately some people are still scared or worried about black cats and as a result they are the least likely to be adopted, and the most likely to be abandoned.  Ours have been displaying their mouser abilities of late, but since killing prey is a learned behavior, our cats mostly serve as a warning system because after they exhaust their toys (or mice have learned to play dead), their toys catch their breath,  zip away and escape (and we set a conventional mouse trap in a paw free zone). At any rate nothing sinister about these cats especially the dynamo shown above (who hides a bit of white on her how-dare-you-touch-my-belly); previously it was a succession of gray tigers.  So maybe you'll get lucky today and a black cat will cross your path.