Field of Science

April Flowers

April has been quite mild, even warmish, so the gardens (and field work) are charging along at an alarming pace. This must be pretty close of peak flowering, whatever that may mean. So far over 75 different plants have flowered in our gardens, and a long-time friend upon hearing this at a brunch said, "That's inconceivable." And yes, for that person, that many different flowering plants is inconceivable. You see, it's like this: Trillium - nivale, recurvatum, flexipes, erectum, sessile, and 2 more to go. Magnolia - loebneri, stellata, salicifolia, liliflora, soulangiana, x acuminata "butterflies" and 2-3 more to go. Things like that begin to add up. Right now the crabapples, lilacs, and flowering dogwoods are just beginning. This is the first year that the yellow-flowered magnolia produced a big floral display, and it was not a disappointment. Of course there are many other things that aren't so noticeable like the blue cohosh hidden among a profusion of bluebells. But just knowing they are there makes you feel good. While most things survived the winter, including a Sinocalycanthus seedling, some of the survivors are showing signs of some die-back so they will need some evaluation.   

Where agricultural technology doesn't work - rice terraces

This is a very handsome image of human transformed land. TPP's initial impression was that this was a marvelously fluid work of stained glass art. This image shows rice terraces in Yunnan China that literally show the topography of a valley most people would think is too steep for agriculture. This tells you how valuable land is in some places that people would go to so much trouble for agricultural use. Clearly any modern agricultural equipment bigger than a rototiller is simply useless. It's also interesting to see how the paddies are at different stages of production mostly in the planting stage. Imagine how much maintenance is needed to keep these paddies intact. Could the human impact on the land get any more intense? Well, yes. Here in the maize and soybean desert of the upper midwest.  HT to Stoat whose blog called this to my attention. The original has a higher resolution and is posted on the Wikimedia Creative Commons and is attributed to Jialiang Gao, www.peace-on-earth.org.

Any help with apple experiment?

TPP is ready to begin a new apple experiment; the last one was a failure. With limited space, TPP has been looking at the columnar dwarf apple trees, basically a central shoot with lots of flowering spur branches. These are probably not ideal, but worth a try. The applke varieties that originally came in such columnar forms have not sounded particularly good; the descriptions make them sound like soft-fleshed apples of the McIntosh sort. A decent apple until you grow up. A local nursery had some very stout looking trees of the Colonnade trademark and a apple variety called Flamenco, which is described as a tart-sweet, crisp late-season apple.  Now this sounds pretty good, but that's the only variety they had. "What about a pollinator? asks TPP. The blank silence that followed indicated that TPP was the only person there who knows that most apples require a pollinator. The so-called Urban Apple trademark says to plant at least 2 varieties, and they had three. Perhaps one of these (Blushing red looked the best, but they gave no description of the apple! This tells you something and it isn't good.) could pollinate the Flamenco. So before this experiment goes too far does anyone out there have any experience with growing any of these apples? Remember TPP thinks Northern Spy is a great apple. Give me your wisdom. Give me your advice.

What's in a name? They're blue and bell-shaped.

A pox on common names is certainly deserved in that they are never precise and often terribly confusing. Still people prefer a fuzzy, whuzzy, common name no matter the consequences.  While walking through our gardens, a friend asked TPP a question as a case in point, "Are those bluebells?"  Yes (In reference to image below.).  "Well, they looked a lot different in England."  How very true; how very observant. There you have it in a nutshell. There are no conventions on common names and so every flower that is blue, and nods, and is even vaguely "bell-shaped" could be called bluebells, and there are a lot of those. Here in eastern North America the so-called bluebell is a member of the borage family, Mertensia virginica. The flowers are bell-shaped in a trumpet sort of way. The English (and the closely related Spanish & Italian) bluebell is a member of the former lily family, Hyacinthoides (Scilla) non-scripta (hispanica, italica), and yes, they look rather like a hyancinth (Hyacinthus), and both genera are now in the asparagus family.  There are also Scottish bluebells, Texas bluebells, desert bluebells, and Australian bluebells (TPP thinks. Maybe a reader can confirm.)  All in different genera, all in different families, and it still doesn't stop because TPP once saw grape hyacinth (Muscari), which is neither grape nor hyacinth, labelled a bluebell, a very apt description, but not a very apt common name. 



Coloring book for up-tight flower people

Today is the last day of tax season, a date closely watched at the Phactor household; now it's time to help Mrs. Phactor unwind from the stress and work load of tax season. Perhaps there are more of you out there, not necessarily just tax preparers, but other people with stressful lives, people who need some help to relax, to cope. Well, here's just the thing a great mandala coloring book. A lot of the images are floral because such designs are based upon floral forms which themselves are based upon similar fractal maths and they are traditionally representations of the universe. The idea is to lose yourself in the satisfaction of coloring in these designs, to lose your stress within their dimensions. Mandalas (Link for your listening pleasure) are common place decorations to be contemplated in Indian temples. What calmness will pervade your being. Be one with these little universes.

Electric cargo tricycle

A regular reader just called TPP's attention to this news article on the BBC about a really nifty electric cargo tricycle.  Totally cool, but TPP is out in front on this one having blogged about that same machine over a month ago!  Do try to keep up with me readers. ;-)  But nonetheless TPP appreciates it when readers send along interesting items or call interesting topics to his attention.  Usually it's TPP who is way behind and out of the loop.

How to "improve" university professors and destroy higher education in the process


The GnOPe in particular wants to destroy the one remarkably good thing the USA ever constructed: a public education system. The cynical view is that a party that governs by ideology rather than knowledge doesn’t really want a public capable of “critical thinking”.  And in the case of higher education, the GnOPe so dislikes higher education especially that they are willing to toss the economic baby out with the academic bathwater. Of course a lot of people might get upset if a political party actually came right out and said, “we’re out to destroy public education and those expensive universities in particular”, so the plan is to kill them with a thousand small cuts. North Carolina, one of the academic powerhouses of the “south”, is showing just how this is to be done. Under the guise of “improvement” you demand that professors, all professors, have a high teaching load or 4 courses per semester. You may think that doesn’t sound like too much, but then you haven’t calculated how much time is needed for class preparation and evaluations (grading).  In the case of biology, a single 4 hour class generates six hours of class time, 3 lectures and a 3 hour laboratory. Even with a graduate student assistant to help, it took at least 2 hours to assemble and set up a laboratory class and another hour to put it all away. Fresh materials and other supplies took another 2 hours of shopping every week.  And the lab guide, the instructions, had to come from somewhere especially if you are not teaching labs like a cookbook. At a university lectures are not supposed to be a simple guided tour of a textbook. In TPP’s classes he generally knew more and expected more than was delivered in a textbook, and if you know textbooks, especially science textbooks, the conceptual forest is often totally hidden by the factual trees. Now to fulfill a 4-4 load in the sciences a professor would have to teach 3 such courses (and then each three hour lab counts the same as a 1 hour lecture, a for real accounting!).  It boggles the mind. Now please remember that science is not just a subject, a body of knowledge, science is also a very successful process for learning. You learn to do science by the ancient method of apprenticing, but doing science with a master. Science just eats time for lunch, and there are a limit to how many students you can have working under your supervision. So what can be concluded? One, too many of the current crop of politicians either have no idea what science (or other scholarly endeavors) is, or if they do know, they don’t think it’s very important. Two, these politicians don’t understand education at all, but that isn’t stopping them from meddling in a negative way. Three, this has the potential to be the most ruinous political activity ever, one that actually does put our nation, and its international standing, at risk. Too many of these fools think a nation’s status is determined solely by how many boom-booms it has.  Four, many of these anti-education politicians think many fewer professors are needed doing research if you just cut out all those stupid, useless research programs and focused on real human needs. Oh, TPP could say much more about the type of personalities that think research is all and only about us, but this only shows you how little they understand the basis of doing basic research just to satisfy curiosity, the need to learn new things, because if they did know how research worked, they’d know that with a remarkable frequency, “useless” knowledge becomes important for unforeseen reasons.  In places (corporations) or in countries where research has to be focused on “important” or “needed” outcomes, you often see the most humdrum, unimaginative sorts of research, projects pursued without any intellectual passion or creativity.  So wise up people; this has nothing to do with “improving” education. It has everything to do with destroying higher education. 

It's a miracle! It's chocolate!

This recent revelation explains a lot about the Easter bunny. As a kid, there were a couple of German chocolate makers in our little town who came out of hiding once a year to fill their soda fountain shop with chocolate rabbits like you only dream about because no matter how big none of them were hollow! This was definitely a spiritual thing to receive one of these bunnies. Theologically some more time spent with the Chronicles of Cadbury are definitely in order.  After all Easter was a miracle!

Spring cleaning

One problem with herbaceous perennials is the spring cleanup. Most herbaceous perennials need to have last years aerial shoots pruned off before this season's new shoots really get going. This process is complicated in our gardens by all the leaves collected by all of last year's shoots. The amount of plant litter that needs to be removed and gotten out of the way is quite voluminous both because of the number of herbaceous perennials, the size of the gardens, and the amount of leaves particularly those dropped only recently by our uncooperative oaks. Other artifacts are uncovered: very much used tennis balls from the golden retrievers next door, a short soaker hose for watering what was a newly planted tree about 12 years ago, some perviously useful pruning shears. And the work has only just begun. Part of the problem here is that until April 15th Mrs. Phactor hasn't got any time for gardening. This clearly demonstrates that the IRS is not very supportive of gardeners. There actually should be some major deductions for gardeners to encourage gardening and make the world a better place, but instead the deductions primarily benefit bad-hair plutocrats.  It's all about priorities. This was a pretty mild winter so the gardens don't seem to have suffered any serious losses. It was also time to take the straw mulch off the strawberry bed, and good thing they were so mulched because the particular freezing and thawing this winter resulted in considerable amounts of heaving to which strawberries are particularly prone. Most of the woodland perennials handle a leafy mulch without much help. The wild ramp in particular, as well as the bluebells (of the borage sort), have the ability to push up though a massive mulch of leaves. So no rest for the wicked. Wicked?

Friday Fabulous Flower - Liverleaf

Liverleaf is one of TPP's favorite early spring woodland wildflowers.  Interestingly enough the common name liverleaf, and it's genus, Hepatica, derive from the similarity between the plant's three-lobed leaf (H. acutifolia), which is a dark reddish-purple color in the early spring having persisted from the previous season, and a liver. One of such leaf appears just below the flowering stalks at the lower left.  Such associations were actively sought based on a traditional medicine belief system of "likes cure likes".  They don't, but the names have persisted as a relict of that era. This is a fairly easy, trouble-free wild flower to cultivate if you have the right location. In nature the plant is usually found just at the top shoulder and down a slope, often near the base of trees. In TPP's experience the plant doesn't like being buried in leaf litter. In a garden lacking a slope, they grow best at the base of large trees especially between roots. In a garden lacking large trees and slopes, a rock garden would work in a shady area.  The flower color is generally white to lavender, but sometimes you can find a very pink flowered plant. The flowers pop up quickly in the very early spring and are then followed by new trilobed leaves.