Field of Science

RIP Aretha

Aretha Franklin has died and the world is a bit less interesting.  Fortunately recordings remind us what we have lost.  She totally stole this scene from the Blues Brothers.  It's simply wonderful.  

Friday Fabulous Flower - Big and Blue


Here's one of the easiest and best looking of our late summer native plants, the big blue lobelia, Lobelia siphilitica.  No idea about why it bears this specific epithet, perhaps something based on the old doctrine of signatures?  Anyone else have an idea? 

Friday Fabulous Flower - a late summer SYC


LBJs - little brown jobs, the classic tough to ID bird.  The Botanical version is an SYC - stinking, yellow composite.  Actually they aren't as tough to ID as some people make out, but there are a lot of them.  This particular SYC is part of Ms. Phactor's perennial bed, a mixture of native species and cultivars.  This is probably a selection from a native species.  This is Rudbeckia subtomentosa, one of several species that share the common name Black-eyed Susan.  Generally these all bloom in the late summer and they are pretty colorful.  The disk flowers making up the button are purple-brown and the ray flowers are bright yellow. This particular species will grow to 2 m making a rather large clump.  The stems are leafy and the leaves below are three-parted.  

Friday Fabulous Flower - little waterlily

This is such a cute little plant, but Nymphaea thermarum, the pygmy waterlily, is extinct in the wild because of habitat destruction.  It is the world's smallest waterlily and native to Africa.  You can judge the size of the lily pads and the diameter of the open flower by the penny placed to the right.  It likes hot, mucky places.  It's growing here with the water fern Azolla, which can fix nitrogen with the help of a symbiotic cyanobacterium.  The waterlily is now cultivated at quite a few botanical gardens so that it is not likely to disappear from existence although the plant was stolen from a conservatory at Kew Gardens.  

Friday Fabulous Flower - Scarlet Catchfly


While June is a quiet month for our gardens, July has quite a few nice flowers.  And just in time for the butterflies. And this year a lot of spicebush butterflies are around mainly because we planted 4 spicebushes along the deep border of our estate.  More on this later.  OK so here's a clump of scarlet catchfly, Silene regia. a native plant from the pink family that should be in every wildflower garden.  Mostly it's a trouble free plant and quite a eyeful.  And of course the plant is covered with little glandular hairs and as a result is rather a sticky thing to touch.  Many small insect visit and never leave, thus the common name.  Just missed getting a humming bird in this photo.

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.