Field of Science

Friendly to wildlife but no reciprocation

Our estate has been designated a wildlife friendly "yard" and certainly it provides cover and shelter, water, and food.  Here in the last category is the problem; wildlife and the Phactors disagree about what is for wildlife consumption. Generally some fencing and and other restrictive placements help with the definitions, but what with all that is provided a bit of reciprocation would not be a bad thing. OK for the most part house plants outside for their seasonal R&R are off limits, but TPP forgot how little bun-buns are at the outset, so a quite small bunny able to fit through 2" fence ate an orchid, not just a nibble, ate it down to the base.  Then there's the strawberry problem. Someone doesn't wait until they even ripen, so you don't stand a chance, and the bed is pretty well fortified, but someone found a way in, one of the tree rats probably.  A good country-living friend has a strawberry bed that looks like a well-fortified prison camp, and a raccoon still helped himself to every berry available. Unlike deer at least raccoons leave the plants. What TPP desires is for some top predators to know how friendly our yard is if they wish to eat some herbivores, and although mostly the birds understand what is for them and not, Mrs. Phactor says the herons can stay away from her lily pond fish. 

Friday Fabulous Flower - spiderwort


Various species and cultivars of the genus Tradescantia (spiderworts) make very nice additions to your perennial garden and naturalized gardens, although they can be a bit weedy, so dead heading is a good idea. The flowers are fairly large, 1" diam, and blue to purple (like in the image); some cultivars are lighter, almost white, or more purple.  They all have the sort of hairy looking center of the flower (the spider?).  These are long filamentous hairs (trichomes) on the stamen filaments.  Under a microscope the cells composing the hairs look rather like beads.  They are mostly filled with a central vacuole, a water-filled sac that contains a purple pigment.  The other cytoplasmic contents of the cells a pushed out against the cell wall occupying the ends of the cell with strands running along the cell wall.  The large blobby sac is the cell's nucleus. According to biological history it was in exactly such spiderwort filament hair cells  that Robert Brown, he of Brownian motion, first observed the nucleus of a cell (1833). It's a great specimen to observe the streaming of cytoplasm too.

Blogging milestone

TPP has been blogging now for a bit more than 8 years!  Blog traffic has been tracked for the past 6 years, and went past the one millionth page view a month or so back.  It works out to an average of 500 page views a day, 15,000 page views a month for 6 years.  The two prior years were more or less shouting into the internet abyss where a stand-alone blog was hardly ever noticed. It's all still there in the archives, and for most of you new material.  The blogs used to be longer and less frequent, but that seemed to take too much time.  And for all of this TPP remains unsullied by money or advertising.  This is not actually very impressive traffic by the standards of some blogs, and this blog's readers are largely silent, not the chatter boxes of some blogs, but a lot of real content has been delivered over the years, a lot of pretty nice images (some of which get used without permission). And so there you have it.  Insane or kept sane; you decide. The Phytophactor goes on.

The electrical conveniences of modern life

First off the snooze alarm simply did not work; it has black fur and green eyes and was sure it was time for breakfast makers to get up. She was only an hour early, but would not reset. Then just as us lazy humans get stirring, the electricity goes out. Now this presents some interesting problems to solve perhaps without coffee, which itself is one of the problems. Fortunately the Phactors own an Italian range top coffee brewer and a gas range.  So there you go, coffee and hot milch easy as that but maybe that manual coffee grinder should have been kept?  Just enough ground coffee saved us.  Some Italian bread fried in a bit of butter solved the third problem. Fortunately the garage door can be opened fairly easily once you get inside to disengage the opener.  No lights was a great excuse to sit out on the patio to read the morning paper listening to a lonely house wren and looking at the iris and peonies in bloom. It was a bit like camping out and the lack of electricity was not a problem for most because they simply get coffee and breakfast out at a fast foodie place just like they get din-dins.  It was only a 2 hour outage in our extended neighborhood. But you had best make sure you are prepared for such things.  Next step would have been a camp stove and percolator.  

Busy, busy, busy. Gardeners and botanists work is never done.

Field work is underway doing vegetational analyses of an old field as part of our research into the biology of a hemiparasitic plant that appears to have a considerable impact on this plant community. It's hard, rather slow work, but you do find some little treasures. The area is dominated by tall goldenrod and warm season pasture grasses. So it doesn't look like much. But when you examine things close enough you find some nice things: a green, fringed orchids and purple twayblade orchids that are so cute buried down in knee high vegetation already.  A grape fern (Botrychium dissectum) was also found, a new record for this site, and not just once, but twice.  But then the rest was way too much Solidago.  
TPP was also using a nice to wildlife approach to discourage any woodchucks looking to relocate to our botanical buffet.  A chicken wire skirt was installed around the base of our pavilion, a not subtle message to stay out. Do not attempt to wrestle with chicken wire, juniper shrubs, and staple guns all at the same time. TPP came off the worst, but didn't loose too much blood. So far, so good. 
The kitchen garden is coming along. The lettuce and spinach is coming to an end, some broccoli is ready, all the spring onions have been eaten. The snap peas are just being so slow.  The herb garden is shaping up too.  Soon there will be enough parsley even for us. But will there be enough basil? Dill, never enough dill, and it's a bloody weed! Come on dill!  Look at the cilantro and get with the program! 

Chelsea Flower show pictures

Here's a pictorial preview of the Chelsea Flower show from the Guardian. It doesn't do the show justice, but it does give you a taste of the floral extravagance that will be on display. Logistically it seems quite impossible to have so many perfectly flowering specimens of so many different plants all at once and for the entire week of the show. The displays are always quite beautiful, and even the potatoes are beautiful. Was it worth attending?  Yes, although they limit the number for each day of the show, the crowd was a bit dismaying. Rather hard to stand and just admire a garden at times even if they do forbid that bane of street fairs, farmers' markets, and garden shows, the stroller (or is it a pram?). And also no dogs. What ever makes you think your dog enjoys going to such events with you? Sorry.  You also get an idea here just how creative some of the garden designs are.  Enjoy.

Friday Fabulous Flower - Red Horse chestnut

It's been a busy week gardening and field work, and neither is very conducive to blogging. Still the FFF must be honored even a day late.  Here's an image of a new addition to our university's quad, a red horse chestnut, rather one with red flowers. The horse chestnut is a pretty spectacular tree in flower, massive flowering, huge display of big conical inflorescences, all at once, a so-called "big bang" flowering, but the flowers are white although with bits of color up close. This ornamental is not a mutant; it's a hybrid called Aesculus x carnea. So not a true horse chestnut at all although that is one of the parents, the other being the quite handsome small red buckeye that TPP has featured on FFF before. This tree has good cold hardiness for having a southern parent and is more of a tree, less of a shrub.  As a taxonomic note buckeyes used to be in their own family, but now molecular data has placed them in the soapberry family, one not very familiar sailing in the N. temperate zone, but that's still better than the old stand alone family that told us nothing except they weren't real chestnuts at all.  Sigh, one more genus to refile in the herbarium.  

Can I eat garlic mustard?

Yes, please eat it all.  Garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) is a horribly invasive weed. TPP must make the rounds of our estate two or three times a spring to keep the garlic mustard at bay; it invades from an un-kept preserve next door. It's a biennial taking two seasons to go from seed to seed. And, yes, especially when young the leaves are edible; they have a nice peppery garlicy flavor that would probably go quite well in wilted salad or in a pesto.  A young person asked about this.  They are fascinated with the idea of foraging for edibles. So, why not collect it and eat it?  Basically, it isn't that good that it's worth it.  Think about this. The plant is native to Europe where agriculture has been practiced for a few millenia.  The plant has long been collected as a culinary herb. The really good food plants have been domesticated and are grown at least in some places for food. But not garlic mustard. Our ancestors are telling us something, but by all means collect all the garlic mustard you want. TPP would recommend collecting along a section of a walking/biking trail built on an abandoned railway line. The banks of this trail abound (too weak), are a dense, weedy, morass of garlic mustard, and all these jogger/biker types zoom/zoom-zoom by thinking (?), isn't nature wonderful?  All the botanist sees is a mess of invasive weeds, and enough peppery, garlicy greens to choke the population of Chi-town.  
Understand TPP is not opposed to foraging.  Back in the poor graduate student days TPP foraged the country side for asparagus. Clumps grew along fences in the grassy margins of maize fields, so you could ride your bike along and harvest some spears returning home with a nice veggie for din-dins. The spears were hard to see in the tall grass, so TPP would bend a discarded can (all too common) over the fence to mark the spot when the asparagus shoots were tall and easily seen so you could find the young shoots next spring. This worked well until someone figured out the marking system and foraged earlier. So TPP does not intend to discourage foraging per se, but does have a thing about invasive plants and people's insensitivity to them. One friend says she can no longer walk in woods because she can't stop pulling garlic mustard or honeysuckle seedlings.  

Can we outsource for political policies?

Where do I join?  After reading about the Australian Sex Party (It's not what you think, so shame on you.), and some of their political policies (links provided at the above link), and their position on vaccinations, TPP was pretty impressed. Do you think the USA (Unlimited Sex in America?) might do better if our political policies were out-sourced, and written by people who think science actually is more important than their political ideologies?  

Friday Fabulous Flower - Chinese Neillia



Our constant search for shade-loving plants has produced a number of survivors, a few not bads, a very few nices, and one clear winnerNeillia sinensis.  This shrub grows really well and does not appear to be soil fussy. It grows with a nice loose rounded form of arching branches (if not pruned poorly) rather like a Spirea to which it is related.  The bush is about 6' by 6'. And it has a great flowering display of pink flowers (that's quite a hypanthium), not as gaudy as an azalea, but nice enough for heavy shade.  It does tend to spread a little, but not in a frightening way. Unfortunately the bun-buns like it, so it requires winter caging in our gardens. TPP saw this growing at the Missouri Botanical Garden in heavy shade.  The plant is not common in commercial nurseries as yet.  Also found a smaller, sprawling shrub called Stephanandra incisa; it also grows well in shade, but the flowering display is rather quiet (small flowers), and the bun-buns really love it (one got eaten to the ground), so in general more of a "not bad".