Field of Science

Plant of the week - October 21, 2008

Azure beauty berry
Callicarpa dichotoma (Verbena family).

Generally when it comes of fall color you think of plants whose leaves turn a nice bright color. But the beauty berry has the neatest electric blue display of fruits in September and October. This particular one holds a cluster of fruits above each leaf axil on a gracefully arched branch. What could be nicer. This particular fruit color, bright blue, is pretty rare among temperate zone plants, but more common in tropical
forests. This Chinese species has more cold hardiness than American beauty berry.

Small light purple flowers preceed the fruit, and while nice enough, are no match for the fruit display. Flowering and fruiting are on new wood, so the bush is cut back to 12-18" every spring, or you let the bunny rabbits do it for you over the winter. This low shrub grows fine in light to medium heavy shade. You might consider placing it where it could be viewed from above, so next to walkways or below windows.

Now that frugivorous birds are migrating through, the berries are beginning to disappear, so the display definitely attracts some species. This is one of the nearly 150 species growing in my personal arboretum.

Does botanical research offend the dignity of plants?

The Swiss ethics committee has declared that plant scientists are not allowed to do research that offends the dignity of plants. This initially struck me as hard to believe because I think of the Swiss as a pretty level-headed and practical people, but this is just goofy.

Maybe this was just a Swiss attempt at humor. But this is for real and my botanical colleagues must deal with this. Now I do think certain plants have a majesty, and they certainly can be violated, for example, by cutting down redwood trees to make somebody a porch deck. But is the dignity of a cabbage offended when it is converted into coleslaw? Does it regain any of its dignity when converted into sauerkraut? Are my prairie plants dignified? Does a fertilizer treatment offend them?

You really have to wonder about what kind of cuckoos are on the Swiss ethics committee because they are guilty of pure anthropomorphic thinking. Unfortunately until some level heads prevail, my botanical colleagues in Switzerland are stuck dealing with this.

What this is all about is a resistance to genetically modified crops. And we must presume that altering a plant’s genetics is an affront to its dignity. I guess a certain case can be made for that. Let’s face it, a toy poodle doesn’t have too much dignity. But humans have been altering the genetics of plants ever since their domestication began. Wonder if ethicists like seedless grapes? Have they ever had a fertile banana? Eating around all those big, hard seeds is something special. What could be a bigger offense to the biological dignity of an organism than to propagate sterile plants when their whole purpose was to reproduce?

So who will decide what offends the dignity of plants? To help out the Phytophactor will channel your research plants to determine if their dignity is offended, for a modest fee, payable in Swiss cheeses, of course.

An academic tragedy

A young former colleague of mine was found dead in his apartment a couple of weeks ago. I just found out because his apartment is a couple of thousand miles from Lincolnland in California. It's been at least a decade since he left our institution, and I know what resulted in his dismissal. I rarely saw him in recent years, and I cannot say how he was getting along in life lately. But my guess is that the villain in this tragedy is addiction to that most common and socially acceptable substance, ethanol.

It kept a bright young fellow from having a successful academic career. I cost him his drivers license and for awhile his freedom. It cost him his only tenure track academic position. It cost my profession a promising young botanist, and you have to love someone who was just cuckoo for floral polymorphisms. And now it has cost him his life.

Jeff was not yet highly accomplished as his career was just starting, but everyone who had ever worked with him was impressed by his intellect. And biologists are a pretty capable bunch of people, so it takes a really bright and creative person to impress so many. And he was a likable enough fellow. Our faculty were extremely pleased when we hired him; he seemed like a good addition. The tragedy is that Jeff could have accomplished so much but for this fatal flaw.

This serves as yet another reminder that us average fellows, whose academic success is the result of just keeping at it, have a lot to be thankful for, but still Jeff's death saddens me greatly. Bright candles burn way too quickly.

Nifty plant of the week - October 3, 2008

Too much blogging about academic life and politics was getting me down. Plants are much more fun and interesting. So to improve my outlook the Phytophactor will introduce a new plant at least once a week.

Kalanchoe - (Stone crop family) "mother of thousands"

Some disagreement exists about the pronunciation and several opinions have been offered: kal-an-COH-ee, ka-LANK-oh, ka-LAN-coh, kal-an-COH-ee, kal-an-CHOH. I was taught the 4th one, but cannot say which is most correct.

The plant bears pairs of thick, fleshy leaves that have either a waxy or fuzzy covering of hairs. Both limit water loss and this genus is native to semi-arid regions of Africa. Ornamental species are widely grown, and their tolerance of dry conditions makes them good house plants.

Several species bear plantlets along the toothed margins of their leaves. Once the plantlets develop a couple of pairs of little leaves and some roots, they easily detach and quite readily begin independent growth.

Mature plants are soon surrounded by hundreds of clonal offspring giving rise to the common name "mother of thousands".

Although usually raised for the appearance of their leaves, many species have rather attractive 4-parted bell-like flowers with pink to red petals.