Field of Science

Friday Fabulous Flower - Redbuds



Redbuds are a fantastic spring flowering tree, dark-barked shrubs and small trees festooned with lacy pink flowers (and the less said about all the seedlings the better).  Redbuds are the species Cercis canadensis, a member of the legume (bean) family. Their flowering is unusual in northern temperate climes because they flower on old wood (cauliflory), which is a much more common trait in the tropics. Our gardens have about a dozen redbud trees, and presently the redbuds are competing with the crabapples and dogwoods to grab our attention. Our university campus, an official arboretum, has lots of redbuds, but for reasons to be explained, a smallish one next to our teaching glasshouse caught TPP's eye.  It was different, somehow, redder for certain (image above).  A quick comparson determined that the flowers were over twice as large as our native redbud. Ah, yes, a check in with our woody plant horticulturalist confirmed that this specimen was Cercis chinensis, Chinese redbud, a very handsome plant, but not one in the local horticultural trade, but when has that ever stopped TPP?

Voting your professor out of the university

Zounds!  Here's another terrific idea for improving a university education: Let students vote "poor" professors out of the university. In other words, fire professors who get low teaching evaluations from students. What political party does this legislator represent? Anyone?  Anyone? Not having done the homework, the class simply waits for the answer to be given. TPP moves on. A hand is raised, a question posed, "Well, which party?" Ah, yes, well, you were able to get that from the article (see link above) you were assigned to read. Bing, dropped a tenth of a point right there. So many fallacies and misunderstandings are presented in this article TPP checked to see if it came from the Onion, but no, the Chronicle of Higher Education. Close. So where does one begin? Let's just take the most obvious. This hawk-eyed  legislator thinks 18-22 year olds are qualified to make such decisions because they are spending thousands of dollars for this instruction. Who is spending the money?  Mostly parents.  OK, TPP has 40 years of teaching evaluations that argue students really aren't qualified to determine what is and isn't good teaching. They know what they like and what they don't like. High on that list of dislikes is working to learn, studying. Many students end up in your classroom with the attitude that it's your job to educate them no matter what. And even if they make little or no effort their failure to learn is your fault. "I was so turned off by his attitude that students needed to work harder that I didn't learn nothing." And even in a low-stakes contest of determining faculty raises, in which teaching evaluations play some factor, some faculty shamelessly pander, and lots of students just eat it up. The highest teaching evaluations TPP has ever seen were "earned" by a colleague who was very entertaining and very, very easy. When team-teaching with this colleague my own evaluations suffered in comparison, and when teaching the same material without this colleague, my evaluations jumped up more than a whole point on average on a 5 point system. As an undergrad, TPP had one professor who was an arrogant SOB, a difficult and demanding teacher with an insufferable manner, but after a few years, TPP recognized that the man was simply a brilliant teacher who was way ahead of the curve in science education. He'd give you instructions for a lab, which of course we didn't read. There was a problem to solve. He'd walk into the lab, smile, and say, "Any questions?"  Nobody asked anything, so he'd say, "Good, good." And he'd leave, checking on the class at intervals. Some students simply got up and left too. Some of us decided to finally read the assignment. When we finally had decided what to do, discussed how to proceed, and finally had some questions, he was quite helpful. If students had used today's system of evaluations, no telling how low his evaluations might be, but his teaching influenced my own teaching for a whole career.  Now don't get TPP wrong, there are poor teachers and there are discerning students who recognize it and pandering when they see it. But they aren't the majority particularly in those larger lecture courses. You know maybe if 18-22 year olds voted in greater numbers this legislator wouldn't be so eager to put his fate in their hands. And there's much more that could be said about this legislator's misunderstanding of higher education, e.g., his failure to understand the role of research and scholarship in teaching, but TPP just recently touched upon this issue. Oh, yes, another suggestion from the party fixated upon improving higher education, the GnOPe.

Maple syrup, the waffle antibiotic

Here's a research news report from McGill University touting the antibiotic properties of maple syrup. This is not surprise to TPP because honey has long been used as a wound dressing, but here probably it's the osmotic properties of honey that probably fight infections. Perhaps that's why the study found that maple syrup worked best with other antibiotics, enhancing their affect.  Most people have no idea what real maple syrup is, or how good it tastes. "Pancake syrups" these days don't contain any at all, and while some use an artificial maple flavoring, it's awful. The Phactors are pure maple syrup people; yes, it's expensive but you don't need to use all that much and we just don't eat waffle, pancakes, etc. all that much either. Of course in the process the F1 was spoiled. And we've converted a number of German students who often return home with maple syrup as gifts for family & friends, at least that's what they claim. On the bad news side, this is another nature friendly product that might become way more expensive because of global warming affecting the distribution and growth of sugar maples.

Earth Day Bouquet

Mixed lettuces: Bibb, black-seeded Simpson, oakleaf, harvested today and in the sink for washing.

Happy Earth Day!

It's Earth Day and TPP doesn't know whether to celebrate or cry. You see TPP remembers the first Earth Day because he was a senior, and it was spring, and he was going to graduate school, and he had a great girl friend who he had figured out he was going to marry one day. But all that hope and good fortune was tainted by the protests over the Vietnam War that led to Kent State and all the rest. All these things remained inextricably linked in memory. Environmentalism seems to be losing ground as corporate power over government increases, and while corporations might have a religious conscience that they are allowed to impose upon their employees as if their religious freedom meant nothing, few have any environmental ethic at all. It's a cool, but actually quite pretty spring day here in the upper midwest; a good day to enjoy all the flowering trees. Yet, here in Lincolnland GnOPe legislative bubbas from the far southern reaches of the state are proposing, successfully so far, hunting bobcats, a non-game species just now recovering its population due to long-standing protections. The bobcat boys legislators know nothing about how big the populations are ("I've seen lots of them every time I'm out in the woods.") or how much hunting the population can stand, or even what is know of bobcat biology ("They're blood thirsty killers of dogs and cats."). This is just plain stupid legislation based on ignorance and willful disregard for what bobcat biology is known. But then they don't care. Such is their regard for nature that their only thought upon seeing wildlife is shooting it. Locally another gun-owning lover of nature shot an eagle nesting above a nearby river. The news keeps reporting about the drought in California as if changing weather patterns (a prediction of global warming models) were not wide spread and having a global impact. Your water rights don't automatically provide you with precipitation, so farmers fight over the scraps and no one seeks real solutions.  Helpfully (not) religious conservatives bray that it is God's punishment for the wickedness of giving people equality and since the end times are so near (a former GnOPe congressperson said it) no need to protect nature at all.  How can we elect such pathetic non-leaders?  TPP finds it all too depressing at times especially on Earth Day. Now to spend the rest of the day doing something hopeful.

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.