Field of Science

Seed dispersal display


Fruits are flowers at the stage of seed dispersal.  As such many have attractive displays for the purpose of attracting seed dispersers with the promise of a reward, either the edible fruit itself or a fleshy seed coat, or a fleshy tissue surrounding the seed, an aril.  Here's the seed dispersal display of a sweet bay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana).  Magnolias have many pistils in each flower and each makes a fruitlet, usually a tough little dry follicle that opens along one seam to release or reveal one or two aril-covered seed.  The bright orange-red fleshy aril is both the visual attraction and the reward, the seed has a dark-brown tough seed coat. The seeds actually dangle on a thread to attract even more attention from birds who after digesting off the aril regurgitate the seed.  Displays like this can last days, and disappear quickly when a flock of cedar waxwings stop by.

Friday Fabulous Flower - It's big and blue


Bit of a celebration because internet is back after changing service providers so this is the 1st blog posting using the new tubes.  So far so good, things are working again. Last week's FFF post promised you another late summer flower to pair with the big white fragrant hosta. So here it is the big, blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica).  This plant is pretty easy to grow and the population we have is from seedings. It also flowers over a period of a couple of weeks so it provides some long lasting color, and it's a big plant so it makes its presence known. It used to have Lobelia cardinalis growing along with it, but the big red lobelia does not grow well for us. The specific epithet siphilitica is another one of those old medicinal plant names, but it is also a rather toxic plant, so this is not a smart way to treat your VD. Our glasshouse has Euphorbia antisiphilitica, so maybe this lobelia gives you the disease?  Hard to interpret.

Shaggy parasol mushroom - but which one?




Lots of mushrooms produce fruiting structures in the fall, more than in the spring, but around here everyone thinks spring is for mushrooms because of the morels.  Well, these magnificent specimens are certainly not morels.  These are big mushrooms with caps that spread 6-8" in diameter and stand at least that tall as well.  Since they grow in lawns they are more than a little conspicuous. Generally they are called a shaggy parasol mushroom because of the extensive scales on the top, but there's more than one species that look like this. These look like the green-spored parasol mushroom (the spore color has been checked before) so this is probably Chlorophyllum molybdites. It's the most commonly eaten toxic mushroom. No one has died from eating one, but you get a real nasty upset GI tract  Macrolepiota (Lepiota) procera  it the white-spored parasol mushroom and it is considered edible, but TPP has never liked to take chances with fungi remembering the old saying, "You know you ate good mushrooms if you wake up in the morning." You can check spore color by placing a spread cap upon a piece of newspaper and then covering it with another piece of paper and giving it some time to drop spores, an hour or so.  The black lettering will help you see the white spores. Usually the spore color is pretty obvious with this one because when mature the gills look sort of a green-gray color, but the gills of younger specimens may look white. Leave collecting these to the serious (or foolish) fungi-philes.

Fall gardening

Now's the time to plant for some fall crops. Many of the same cool weather, early spring crops will grow quite well in the late summer and fall.  Lettuces, spinach, and baby bok choi are our favorite so long as TPP remembers to buy the bok choi seeds in the spring for later; they usually have to be mail ordered as they are seldom for sale in garden shops.  Some varieties can grow very fast and all of the Asian cabbage family vegetables can stay in the garden well into the fall.  Chinese cabbages covered with leaves or straw can handle several degrees below freezing, and have stayed in out garden until the end of November regularly. The biggest problem is to keep the tree rats from digging up new planted seeds or young plants. Since our parsley has sort of pooped out, more of that can be planted too. Rather late for other fall crops, but green beans planted in mid-July are now beginning to produce.  Row covers are a necessity to keep them from getting savaged by beetles.
  

Friday Fabulous Flower - Scratch and sniff


The virtual aroma technology is still going to take some work, but imagine how popular cooking/food programs would be if it existed.  Mammal programs not so much.  Fragrant hostas are wonderful plants.  First they tend to flower when relatively few things are in flower, the flowers are huge (at 5-6" long the biggest for hosta), they are bright white and so show up well in late summer shade, and they smell wonderful.  No idea what the variety is; they all look pretty much alike and all are one way or another derived from Hosta plantaginea.  Hmm, with a long floral tube like that you suspect hawkmoth pollination.  Since it's been a wet summer with only brief periods of dry, they hostas look quite good with a large crop of flowers. One other plant flowers along with them, and maybe it's time to combine the two in a single bed, but you'll have to wait until next Friday to see what it is.

How many botanists does it take to change a light bulb?

Clearly a theoretical question whose answer clearly depends upon where said light bulb is installed. In the case of our kitchen hood, the location of said light bulb, two of them actually, is a bit awkward. But TPP had no trouble with the light bulbs per se, Yes, each socket was at an opposite end of the fixture so even though you turned both bulbs the same way relative to the socket, the sockets were opposite each other.  Many of the less handy might have had trouble with this. But reinstalling the little glass cover on the fixture, was another matter. It must be held in place with one hand while the other holds the dinky little screw in place. While the third uses a screw driver to tighten the screw. And it's one of those where the hole in the fixture doesn't always match up directly with the threaded hole beneath because the cover can shift around.  All of this is done while bending down slightly and reaching up and back over the stove to greatly increase you manual dexterity. So naturally when the little screw fell, bounced, and fell to the floor behind the stove, TPP uttered a small curse, "you SYC"! That stands for "stinkin' yellow composite" for those of you unfamiliar with botanical curses.
This problem required removing all the cast iron cook wear from the below the oven drawer, so it could be removed.  And then hefting the stove out to its position wedged between two counters and over coming the revulsion of witnessing what had accumulated back there over the past decade or so. Curiously only one milk ring was there which means the other couple of hundred of them lost by the kitty girls playing with one of their favorite toys must be under the fridge. It'll get moved when the new fridge is delivered, a purchase not yet needed, but some year soon certainly.  
Unfortunately Mrs. Phactor was present to solemnize this episode of handiness. TPP would have solved the problem by retrieving the screw using duct tape on a stick (an approved handyman technique) and pushing the stove back into place using the old out-of-sight out-of-mind pragmatic solution. But nooOoh! Nothing would do but to clean up the accumulated grime because otherwise people might think the Phactors never clean behind their stove, a mostly correct conclusion. At least TPP was smart enough to replace the screw before returning the stove to its tight little niche least this whole thing repeat itself. 
In the sage words of Red Green, "If the women don't find you handsome, they should at least find you handy." Also source of advice on the many uses of duct tape for those of you unfamiliar with said philosopher.  

Mini-drought over?

It's a wet one here in the upper mid-west today.  It was slow to get going, just light over cast and a light drizzle.  But then after Mrs. Phactor bad mouthed the weather, it's been raining quite hard ever since.  This is the same system coming up from the south that drowned Baton Rouge, poor Baton Rouge. TPP has seen rain falls like that, measured in feet rather than inches, and he's been flooded out of a study site, but that was in the wet tropics. Here in the upper midwest, there are times when living in the Highland neighborhood is a good thing. Soil that was parched and cracked a week ago is now forming puddles around our yard. This usually translates into at least 2 inches of rain, so this mini-drought, about a 2.5 week dry spell, typical enough for August, is over for now.  Now prior to the drought this area had gotten some 4+ inches of rain, and now another heavy rain. It never seems to come just an inch at a time, and unfortunately this is something we may have to learn to live with as climate change models predict bigger weather systems of longer duration.  The leaves in the maize fields had curled, a sign the plants need some watering; the leaves will be uncurling now.  
The summer has  been quite wet so far because the rhododendrons have not needed their irrigation system, the pond hasn't needed any topping up and in fact has needed some draining, so our water bills have remained within reasonable limits.


Friday Fabulous Flower - almost


The middle of August is not the best time to visit our glasshouse because it's always hot and humid in there. But some plants like it that way. Our collection of cycads is decent and some are quite old, and since they grow so slowly some do not appear to have changed much over the past 4 decades. Here's a nasty one, Encephalartos ferox, the spines on the leaves are quite vicious; E. horridus is worse as if you could not guess.  Every now and again it produces a few cones, and they are almost like flowers, a helix of fertile leaves, which in this case produce pollen.  A colleague, to whom this image belongs, braved the tropical swelter to get a nice image for teaching. A few years back TPP braved bodily injury to remove and pickle one of these cones in ethanol. Isn't that a marvelous helical packing of fertile leaves?

How does your garden grow?

One of the problems with having a big garden is that it is a hand full for some one to babysit any time the Phactors are away, especially if things are a bit dry.  Our trip to Savannah was just 10 and a half days long and yet it seemed we were absent for weeks. Several things are clear at this point, this year has been just about perfect for crab grass. It's luxuriant and it's everywhere. While commuting to work yesterday by bicycle, it was also clear that the giant ragweed crop will be monsterous. Beware if you suffer from its pollen.  Several new additions to the garden were in serious need of water, but it looks as if all will recover. As the F1 pointed out, "you guys plant so many things in so many places no one but you know where they all are".  She is quite right. And  even if you had a map then either carrying water around or dragging hoses becomes quite a chore.  She did get steamed crabs and Savannah beer.  May have to see about getting a garden sitter in the future, especially if we are going to be away for a longer period of time.  Even  after just 10 days the kitty-girls act as though they were over-fed and starved for attention. 
The kitchen garden delivered some cucumbers, some tomatoes, a not too big zucchini, and sweet peppers.  Eggplant may yet recover enough to provide more fruit. Soon the beans will be producing and time to plant fall lettuce and bok choi is approaching.
To be completely fair, the same weather that is producing the crab grass and ragweed has also produced a huge display of naked ladies (and here too), and we has us hundreds.

Atlanta's Auto Apocalyptic future

During recent travels to Savannah, TPP had no choice but to drive via Atlanta, going south on a Saturday morning, and going north at midday on Sunday. The traffic was horrible, no-good, very bad, and awful, all 12 lanes of it, and these were not working days or a rush hour, so without question the traffic was not anywhere as bad as it gets. These four, five, and six lane rivers of cars have spawned the worst traffic-weaving drivers TPP has ever seen, although granted commuting has never been part of my life.  Kept looking for the jerk driver atomizer that was surely standard equipment.  Having taken two different routes so as to sample more than one flavor, everywhere there was road construction, lanes, exchanges, extensions, bridges, Atlanta, you are being devoured by by cars, bound and beaten by highways, and you double down on making access for more?  No evidence of any mass transit existing or being constructed.  What a bleak future awaits this poor city. In a wonderful bit of counter intuitive irony (is that possible?), more roads never, ever solves traffic problems, they only make it worse by increasing the volume. What a great example of sadly misdirected planning. As for advice to drivers; avoid Atlanta.