Field of Science


Green side up

Language is a funny thing, especially English as it is a linguistic conglomerate which makes for lots of potential fun. And for botanists and horticulturalists, nothing is more fun that when someone tries to make sense out of soil versus dirt.

Here I will pass along neither dictionary nor professorial opinion, but the New England yankee wisdom dispensed by my Father, the gardener. If anyone referred to the material in his garden as dirt, he'd reply, "It's soil." "Dirt is something you find under your finger nails and in certain kinds of books and movies." No one ever has been accused of using soily language, so this distinction always made a certain sense to me.

Of course as a biologist I know that soil is a complex substance, part inorganic and part organic. A cubic centimeter of soil, a volume about the size of a sugar cube for those of you somewhat metrically challenged, could harbor some 8-20 million organisms. Even the smell of soil, that earthy odor, comes from the metabolic activities of certain bacteria.

So something might start out as dirt, but if composted correctly, it can become soil. And in this I note that for years I have used two layers of newspaper covered with straw to mulch my kitchen garden. Although the data is not publishable, I'm quite certain that the opinion pages of our local newspaper compost the most quickly and thoroughly.

Dealing with ecological rejection

I firmly believe in sabbatical leaves, and it is my great good fortune to have been allowed to take four of them. The academic world of science is difficult and it takes a concerted effort to try or explore new things, to learn new areas of science, and while taking a break from the week to week routine. As this is being written my fourth and last sabbatical leave is winding to a close. I'm taking a week to visit friends, a week to attend national scientific meetings, and that leaves two weeks to prepare for classes. Already I have people clamoring for a laboratory guide.

As part of this leave's exploration into new topics, I collaborated with an old friend and colleague. I dragged him to the rain forest to study insects that consume flowers, but aren't involved in pollination (my usual tropical topic). These insects had never been studied before, and in fact no one even knew these flowers were their brood substrate, or that they had two broods, a smaller one that produced bigger adults, and a larger one that produced smaller adults, or that they had a female biased population, and a number of other things. And we had fun doing it.

Oh, but science isn't science until its published, and our manuscript was just rejected. And the reason was it was too much natural history and not enough ecology. This means we didn't conduct an experiment aimed at determining some ecological principle, but just figured out a previously unknown biology. In the eyes of ecological snobs, ecological studies trump natural history. But ecological study is impossible until you know enough about the system to manipulate it.

Ecology is coming of age. It's getting snobby. Long treated as an inferior, less than demanding, descriptive field of science, barely divorced from Victorian natural history, ecology is now asserting itself by dumping on the very field that gave rise to ecology. This is because biology is done by people, and many people have need of a pecking order and having someone lower down to peck at to feel good about themselves. And this is nothing but someone inforcing their personal belief that ecology, as they define it, is better, more important, higher quality science than natural history.

Fortunately I know how to deal with such rejection. My lapsed membership in the organization will now be on permanent hold. Another publishing venue will be found, and our natural history will become part of biological knowledge, and then some stinking ecologist will use our study to do some "real science" that can get published in a top ranked journal, well, top ranked for ecology.

A rose, is a rose, so how does I knows?

Our woody plant horticulturalist stopped by yesterday with a piece of leafy twig. "What do you think this is?" he asked. Hmm, after assessing the specimen, I said, "Well, it's in the rose family." He already had guessed that, but beyond that it wasn't obvious. Now this particular specimen turned out to be a bit unusual, a species I had never seen before, and if that were not the case, he wouldn't have needed my input at all. This particular specimen proved to be a tree quite uncommon in this area (Sorbus aria, whitebeam). After visiting several references, several possibilities were eliminated, and it wasn't until I tried an old woody plant identification key, one that includes ornamental species, that things began to make sense. This species has a simple leaf and most species of Sorbus have pinnately compound leaves, a single axis with two rows of leaflets. Well and good, between the two of us, we nailed the ID and felt pretty good about ourselves.

But here's the thing. Neither one of us ever considered any other possibility after initially deciding this plant was a member of the rose family, instead of one of the other 700 or so families. Now the rose family is a pretty big group of plants, 100-120 genera and 3000 to 3500 species. What made us decide rose family?

It's strange but I don't actually know. Of course I can recite a list of characters, but most of them were not present because there were no flowers or fruit. Yet this twig, with its dozen and a half leaves and buds somehow just looked "rosy". My first thought was a pear, but this specimen's leaves had a double saw toothed margin (pear's are mostly smooth edged), wooly white hairs on the back side of the leaves (never seen a pear like that), and rounded buds (pears are usually more pointy). OK so not pear, more cherry like, but the bark was very un-Prunus, no horizontal lenticels and shiny buds. And finally by a process of elimination I ended up at Sorbus, even though the leaf seemed all wrong (simple leaf rather than pinnately compound). Once this hurdle was cleared, the details fell into place. Score one for the botanist.

This is the hard thing about plant identification. At a certain point, you have enough experience, that you can simply use a gestalt. Some sort of search image is triggered that shoves you in the right direction. And even though I have been teaching such courses for years, I just don't know how to teach this. You simply must work at identifying plants long enough and if you are good, this sense comes to you.

I play a dirty trick on students learning plant ID by giving them two very closely related plants sequentially, sometimes the same species, but just with different colored flowers or leaves. Some few look upon the 2nd specimen with a puzzled look, and then ask, didn't we just do this? Some are even more certain, and toss it aside as knowing I tried a lame trick. Others without an iota of recognition labor through another step by step slog through an identification key, and act surprised when the same species comes up again. Interestingly this exercise has proven to be a great predictor of their over all performance in the course. And I wonder if this skill, this perception, is tied to the ability to conceptualize, to go past the details and grasp the essential underlying idea. Because that's how this works with plant ID. The species ID is in the details, but the broader classification, in particular the family level taxonomic grouping is in the conceptualizing of the commonalities.

That's one good thing about experience. You do get better in doing some things with age. And you can't hold a specimen up to your computer monitor and get any closer to an ID. Technology isn't making any serious inroads into such skills at all. You can scan it, or digitally photograph it, and put it on the internet, but sooner or later, it's someone like me who tells you what it is.

A long time colleague of mine once expressed his concern and apparent inability to teach such skill. "Maybe we can just rip their heads off and pour it in," he said. Sounds like fun.

2008's Botanical Geek Tour

The question was how best to stimulate the economy with those tax rebates provided by the USA? Well, our idea was to organize a 2nd botanical geek tour whose purpose is to visit botanical gardens and other places of botanical interest, and along the way to eat and drink well. So we stimulated the economy by travelling to London for a long weekend in late May to visit the Royal Botanical Garden at Kew, the Chelsea Flower Show, and the Chelsea Physic Garden. You might argue that this did little to stimulate the USA's economy, but this is an international form of the trickle down effect, so I'm sure the USA understands if the impact is a bit indirect.

Kew Gardens were not disappointing, although I have visited other more attractive gardens, but few with such grand vistas. Here is the largest, oldest Victorian glasshouse still in use, and the collection it houses is quite impressive. One of the cycads inside is probably the oldest potted plant in the world. The plant in the foreground is Gunnera, which is a basal lineage of the true dicots, and it's sort of strange seeing it so far from its Central and South American rainforest home.

The Chelsea flower show was quite amazing, the displays quite often provoking the question, "how did they do that?" However, although the daily attendance is capped, the crowds were equally amazing. Still all other garden/flower shows pale by comparison. My favorite was a small garden where everything, roof, walls, table, etc. were covered in moss.

The Chelsea physic garden is rather small and tucked away in a corner, but they have over 4000 labelled species arranged both medically and taxonomically in its 4 acres. The garden has been around for over 350 years, but has only been open to the public in recent decades.

Now you can get a bit foot-sore and tired with so much tramping about in the name of botanical edification, and the remedy for that is to sit yourself down at a local pub for a bit of refreshment. The Coach & Horses is right outside the main gate to Kew Gardens and it came recommended by a British colleague. A fine pub but this is as close to botany as he ever got. I wish I knew why pubs in Britain have so much more atmosphere than most bars in the USA, which seem fixated on the number of TVs screens they can cram in.
The next botanical geek tour may take us to Sweden, the home of Linnaeus. But it will have to wait until the next stimulus check appears, or when Lincolnland comes across with a decent pay raise, or hell freezes over.