Field of Science

The tree trimming challenge

Big trees are one of the primary reasons our estate is so park-like.  But getting them trimmed is a major undertaking.  First just getting an arborist to come is something of a major achievement;  they are much in demand in our city.  Second just getting the dead limbs out of a tree the size of our burr oak took three guys most of a day during which at least one guy was aloft in the crown of the tree.  They did a great job & got paid a reasonable amount for the effort; it was not cheap although it was a fair amount for the effort, danger, and skill involved.  And the trees look so much better.  Major exercise was involved because their chipper and truck were parked in the street and the burr oak is 300 feet away.  So you drag out a bundle of limbs and go back is 200 yards. Do it again and you've covered a quarter of a mile.  TPP calculated his mileage one day at a bit over 2 miles and half of that was dragging branches.  So they climbed a basswood, our biggest burr oak, and a smallish ash tree (already infested with emerald ash borers).  No question tree work is a young person's game.  They don't use boot spikes (that damage bark) and limbs are lowered down with climbing ropes to avoid smashing what is below, so no damage to other plants, which in our yard is a bit of a challenge since things are planted everywhere.  This takes experience to do correctly.  So thanks fellows; you did a good job.  Hopefully they won't have to come back for a couple of years.   

Friday Fabulous Flower - What the heck?


TPP has been in South Florida for one more look around before the area submerges.  Both McKee (Vero Beach) and Fairchild (Coral Gables) are botanical gardens worth visiting. But be warned traffic sucks in the entire Miami area.  As the climate there is subtropical, they can grow things we can't.  It had been quite awhile since TPP has seen this tree in flower.  It's pretty  spectacular (= fabulous) with dozens of inflorescences emerging from its massive trunk to produce these rather amazing-looking flowers. This is the nearly legendary cannonball tree, a reference to the fruits that quite resemble cannonballs.  Couroupita guianensis flowers almost look as though a sea anemone has taken up residence in the flower.  A ring of numerous, small anthers located around the pistil (note upper right where perianth and androecium have fallen off) produce fertile pollen, while this hood-like structure bears big anthers that make sterile pollen (a reward for bee pollinators). The  flowers are strongly scented at night and early in the day.

Friday Fabulous Flower - lychees

Mrs. Phactor and her sister ran off to the Bahamas leaving TPP and his brother in law to struggle along with lawn landscaping, and since tropical is possible down here in southern Florida, at least before the area floods from ice cap melting, some new fruit plants are definitely a must.  Here's a lovely example of flowers at the stage of seed dispersal.  Fresh, lovely, and very tasty, Litchi chinensis, in the soap berry family, a rather unappetizing name for a lovely fruit.  Now how about carambola?

Flowers and fruit - a short lesson


A flower/fruit garden question, one of TPP's favorite things.  The question was simple this person's cucumber plants had plenty of flowers, but was producing no fruit, no cucumbers.  This is definitely a problem that will probably get fixed shortly.  The reason this happens is that cucumbers have two kinds of flowers, the botanically naïve call the "male" and "female" but this is quite incorrect, although this understanding of things quite often prevails.  Superficially both flowers look a lot alike so that bees get fooled into visiting the rewardless female flowers.  Funny how many people don't notice this.  The botanical term for this is monoecious, technically one house (but two bedrooms is you want another understanding.)  So look closely at the flowers on your cucumbers.  The "female" flowers have little cucumbers just below the yellow perianth.  "Male" flowers don't.  Virtually all cucumbers start out male as these flowers are cheaper to make, but as the plant gets bigger, some female flowers appear, and if pollinated, begin developing into cucumbers, fruits that we eat at a juvenile stage.  The image borrowed from somewhere shows a male flower to the left and the female flower to the right.  The anthers and the stigma look a lot alike, so bees looking for pollen make mistakes, foraging errors that effect pollination.  Or you can do it yourself with a small brush.  Some varieties of cucumber only produce female flowers, so you must plant a pollinator plant  The seed packet will have some seeds dyed green so you can see the males, and if you don't do this (TPP made this mistake once.) you'll get lots of females but no fruit, unless you borrow some male flowers from a neighbors' garden.  If you don't understand why male & and female are wrong, here's link to a blog that explains what pollen really is 

Friday Fabulous Flower - St. John's Wort


Mid-summer is sort of a slow time for our gardens, so we do prize those plants that flower in July and August.  Two species of bushy St. John's Wort grow in our gardens, both sort of evergreen, flowering at exactly the same time.  The very bright yellow flowers are a great favorite of all the local bees, both in terms of number of visitors and diversity of bee species. And it's easy to see why.  How many anthers are there?  Botanists will count to 10, but after that it's just "many".  Just one pistil (sort of right center) but lots of stamens, a powder puff of pollen.  This is from the larger flowered species, Hypericum prolificum, it is not quite hardy at this latitude and portions tend to die over winter, but then new plants pop up now and again, so never had to replace it.  H. kamianum seems to be hardier; it is a smaller shrub with smaller flowers and can fit in almost anywhere.  

Friday Fabulous Flower: hyssop with hawk moth

This is just a hyssop, a cultivated member of the mint family, but boy do pollinators love it.  Just by a bit of luck TPP happened to catch one of them in action, a hawk moth, a miniature  humming bird of the insect world.  This one is quite typical of what we usually see.  The body is a bit over 2 cm long and nearly as big around as my little finger with a nice greenish fuzzy coat with couple of dark bands on the abdomen.  The wings move too fast for the average phone camera,but caught one of the clear and black wings at the end of a stroke. This one was quite engrossed in visiting every flower available.   At any rate it makes the average flowers just a bit more fabulous.  Enjoy.  

Some botanical culture

TPP is going to pass along this information.  In particular some of these illustrations are just fantastic and in general they are more appealing, more informational, and more beautiful than almost any photographs.  Yet people seem quite entranced by photographs.  The exhibit is called: Out of the Woods: Celebrating Trees in Public Gardens.  Examples of some of the illustrations can be found at this link, so if you find yourself near the Huntington, you might consider a visit.  

Another endangered orchid - How Showy

This Friday Fabulous Flower is one of the grandest (fabulous?) orchids in North America, the Showy Lady slipper, Cypripedium reginae, and yes, you shall get no location information to accompany the image.  Besides this is a wetland species (knee got wet getting this image), and TPP has found this species growing in ditches in Wisconsin.  This species is also a big plant for an orchid; clumps can be large and waist high.  It surprises people to learn that orchids are generally small flowered.  It amuses us to watch people walk right by most orchids because small and green just does not attract much attention. Loss of habitat (if this image had a sound track you could hear cars and trucks whizzing by on a nearby interstate) and human predation are its biggest problems leading to an endangered or threatened status.

Little gems - native plant refuges

Over the weekend the Phactors attended the annual gathering of our state's native plant society along with about 50 other like-minded souls.  The field trip trek we selected took us just across the border into Gary Indiana where we sought native plants in the shadows of post-apocalyptic industrial ruins. Places bounded by railroad yards, interstate highways, and crumbling remains of heavy industry.  You would not think this a likely place for finding uncommon native plants, but you would be wrong.  Here and there tucked away are a few leftovers of the Pleistocene, bits of sandy ridges and watery swales left behind by the receding of Lake Michigan.  The primary problem with small places is controlling invasive  plants and protecting what is left from undue human intrusions.  As a result these places are not labelled, not improved for visitation, and generally hard to find.  Fortunately we had excellent guides familiar with these sites. TPP was professionally interested to see lots of Castilleja growing among Pedicularis canadensis, both are hemiparasites, but they do not grow similarly and do not seem to have the same impact on the surrounding plant community.  Unfortunately these places are well outside our  travel range to be used as research sites.  At some times it was difficult to walk without stepping on yellow ladyslipper orchids that were almost done flowering only to have showy ladyslippers flower in their stead.  Beautiful to see with the background noise of trains and interstate traffic.  The very unexpected diversity of these sites and their general boggy, mosquito-haven nature, only crazy botanists would go there vibe helps keep things safe.  The image is a late flowering yellow lady slipper, Cypripedium pubescens.

Friday Fabulous Flower - New native in the garden


Sorry, sorry, for being so late. TPP was too busy hanging out with a group of native plant enthusiasts to do a FFF.  More on the field trips later.  TPP cannot remember where he saw this plant for sale, but it is rather unusual, and never having seen it in the field, it still seemed like a good idea to plant a couple last year and see what happens.  As you may remember, our yard has lots of shade, and supposedly this species hands some shade, and happily it survived our nasty winter and began flowering in late May.  This is Spigelia marilandica, Indian Pink, and it is a member of the Logania family, not one you are probably familiar with.  But in flower it sure is cute.  It seems to do better in light shade, next will be to see how much is spreads. It is a native species, just not around here.