Field of Science

Gardening Resolutions for a New Year

Resolved: Pruning will not result in the poodling of any shrubs.
Any shrubbery that must be poodle pruned over and over again is simply the wrong plant in the wrong place. With the exception of clever topiary, such shrub butchery should be outlawed.

Resolved: The known hardiness of any new plants will be researched before buying them so as not to be taken advantage of by unscrupulous nurserypersons who think you can increase plant hardiness by labeling.
The frequency with which plants are over-optimistically labeled as cold hardy is increasing. Let the buyer beware of such scams. Further watch out for herbaceous perennials that come from alpine areas. Here in the great American Midwest they’ll survive our winters only to die in the heat of our summers.

Resolved: No singletons will be planted unless the plant is intended to be a large specimen. Basically all plants look better when planted in clusters. Mrs. Phactor has trouble with this resolution, annually.

Resolved: The scientific names of my favorite garden plants will be learned.
Scientific names are not so hard (as the Phactor regularly points out in his Know your genera series), just unfamiliar, and there is no reason for gardeners to remain botanically illiterate.

Resolved: More native plants will be incorporated into my garden.
The Phactor likes exotics as much as the next person (especially if its name starts with Magnolia), but no matter where you live, there are attractive and interesting native plants. Try walking into your local nursery and saying, “What do you have that is native?” If just one person does it, they’ll think you’re crazy, and send you away just to get you out of there. If two people do it, then they’ll figure you’re both weird, and they won’t want to do business with either one of you. If three people walk in and ask for native plants, well, that’ll confuse them and they’ll wonder what is going on. But what if a hundred people walk in and ask for native plants, why they’ll think it’s a movement they'll have to get behind. And that’s what it is, the natives are restless movement.

Resolved: A weedless lawn lawn is not to be admired or strived for.
The Phactor has explained the ecology of lawns; go here for a refresher.

Resolved: Travel will be planned to visit XXX (fill in your number) of botanical gardens or arboreta this year.
The Phactor has no idea how many botanical gardens he’s visited. It’s a lot. Perhaps you need a copy of 1001 gardens you must see before you die. Even the Phactor has only ticked off 3 to 4 dozen of these. To improve progress toward an impossible, but laud worthy goal, The Phactor and his colleague the Dean of Green, along with our lovely wives, began organizing botanical geek tours with the expressed purpose of traveling to see as many gardens as possible. Sorry we do not take reservations.

Resolved: People who dig up a garden and plant grass or pave it in cement will not automatically be dismissed as morons.
Unless of course it’s a garden you yourself planted, then they are garden morons who should have stayed in their property-less, brick-bounded, plant-barren apartment. If the Phactor ever sells his current garden, an unlikely scenario, an extensive questionnaire and application process will be required for aspiring purchasers. The correct attitudes can be found by whole heartedly adopting the resolutions above.

Best for 2010.

Winter flowers - Indoor Tropical Plants

You can take the biologist out of the tropics, but you can't take the tropics out of the biologist. A number of tropical plants actually thrive living out of doors during our generally hot, humid midwestern summers until early fall, hung from shepard's hooks in semi-shade or convenient oak limbs. Once the temperatures begin falling below 50F, they get moved inside for the duration of fall and winter.
The interesting thing is that this move stimulates regular flowering from December to February, a great indoor display of botanical color. Here's one of the Phactor's long time favorites: Billbergia nutans, the Queen's tears, a bromeliad or a member of the pineapple family. The combination of pink bracts and calyx, green ovary and petals, outlined in blue, and the yellow stamens is very striking and a quite unique color combination.
This plant grows well in a 50:50 combination of orchid mix and cactus potting "soil". Every two weeks the entire hanging basket is showered throughly and allowed to drain before rehanging.
Another reliable and easy to grow tropical plants that reliably flowers under this indoor-outdoor regiem is one of the orchid cacti that another blogger has illustrated so nicely. Enjoy.

'Tis the Solstice

The winter solstice is today so celebrate Saturnalia and dies natalis invicti Solis,
the birthday of the unconquered sun, with merriment, food and drink, festoons of greenery, decorations, and presents, just as they did in olden times!
Me thinks many are decked out in full Saturnalian style.

The days will once again grow longer and Sol warmer. Gardener’s rejoice; the plant catalogs soon will begin arriving in the mail, replete with their promisory pictures, and in only three months you can lubricate those clippers and celebrate the start of another gardening season by removing last year’s raspberry canes, the Phactor's regular gardening prelude.

Wishing you all peace with nature and goodwill toward all.

Massive simultaneous algal orgy

Sex is always a good topic although mostly people have the wrong idea. From the biological perspective sex is production of genetically diverse offspring via mating. Most organisms, which are mostly unicellular, reproduce asexually, so all their offspring are genetically identical, a clone. And this works so well and so efficiently that sex among some organisms is a rare event in nature, so when biologists witness one, they get excited, intellectually.
In this instance the organisms are two species of diatoms, unicellular algae that are phytoplankton, the grass of the oceans. Diatoms are pretty nifty because their cell wall is made of glass, in two halves that overlap each other rather like a petri dish. This poses a bit a biological problem because a cell cannot bend or stretch a glass cell wall so when the cell reaches a certain maximum size for its cell wall the cell divides, which is how it reproduces asexually. The two daughter cells each inherit one-half of their progenator's cell wall, and synthesizes a new inner half. This means one of the two can grow as large as the original cell, but the other having inherited the slightly smaller inner half, so it's maximum size is constrained and it becomes a bit smaller.
Now think forward. When each of these two cells divide, the larger of the two produces two daughter cells just like the two described. But when the other daughter cell divides the biggest one daughter can get is the slightly reduced size of the maternal cell, but the other receiving the inner half of the cell wall is smaller yet. Now let's do this thousands of times. Some diatoms will still be as big as the original cell, but lots of lineages were getting smaller and smaller. At some point the smaller cell size triggers sexual reproduction where the smaller cells divide into gametes, sex cells, which escape their glass prison, fuse with a suitable mate, forming a new cell that enlarges to an optimal maximum size for a diatom, synthesizes a new cell wall and starts the whole process all over again.
The environment plays a role in such events because you don't want to be the only organism at an orgy to release your gametes into the big broad ocean. So what happened here was some environmental event triggered sexual reproduction in two species of diatom simultaneously, and someone was there to watch (record some data).
Whew! Sort of gets you all sweaty just thinking about it.

Stocking stuffer for gardeners

Here's a shopping suggestion if you need a present for the serious gardener who has almost everything: the Weed Wrench. This is the greatest gadget ever! Weed Wrenches do one thing; they latch onto woody weeds and allow you to pull them out of the ground, roots and all! The Phactor's wife feels like Wonder Woman using this tool; a 20 to 1 leverage can do that for you. And this is the third smallest Weed Wrench which is completely capable of yanking out saplings up to 1" in diameter, and in big shady estate like ours, woody weeds are the arch nemesis. This tool can only be obtained via an order form on the internet. Now the Phytophactor has high standards, he doesn't sell out (cheaply), and this is an unsolicited indorsement. But just maybe if everyone mentions where they heard of the Weed Wrench, those fellows will send the Phactor a case of wine (something red and dry please) for New Year's, and everyone will be happy.

Yams are not sweet potatoes and vice versa!

There in the 1st chapter of this book on plants is the phrase, “consider sweet potatoes in the genus Dioscorea” (Food of the Gods by T. McKenna), but considering the pseudoscientific approach this author takes such errors are not unexpected (must be his non-rational reality – seriously). So the Phytophactor shall endeavor to straighten this out.
Sweet potatoes are not yams; Dioscorea is the genus of yams, one of which is pictured here. Sweet potatoes are Ipomea batatas in the morning glory family (dicots). Yams are monocots. Sweet potatoes are storage roots (although at the root-stem junction) and yams are modified stems (tubers). See the nodes (“eyes”)? What you get in North American markets are sweet potatoes, and yes, the larger, fleshier varieties are called “yams” but they aren’t yams. And those “candied” yams in cans are sweet potatoes too.

The discerning among you will have noticed that the native name for sweet potatoes "batatas" was preserved in the scientific name, and you guessed it, this common name was misapplied by Europeans to another plant native to the same region (Peruvian South America) Solanum tuberosa, the "potato", which is not Irish in the least.

Orchid children? What the ....?

Oh no, another plant analogy gone bad! Orchid children versus dandelion people? Dandelions hardy, orchids delicate and hard to handle! Yikes, how wrong can you be? Dandelions are only easy to grow because you keep disturbing the community by mowing your lawn. Stop it, let some succession take its course, and you’ll find dandelions difficult to grow because as weeds they require the constant disturbance your activities provide. While it’s true most to the habitats people are familiar with are the result of human disturbance, dandelions just won’t grow in most parts of most natural communities. Orchids however often grow in some very challenging environments, and they are hardly delicate. Most are tough as nails, and easy enough to grow if you can duplicate their habitat (and mostly you can’t, and that’s the problem). So the Phactor just hates it when these people who don’t know squat about plants use such labels. Hope this fellow knows more about people than plants. Such plant stereotypes just propagate botanical ignorance.

Plant symbolism for the holidays

The Phactor was going to write a blog on plant symbolisms that are quite prevalent during the holidays (holly & ivy, wreaths, mistletoe, and or course, Christmas trees), but some nice heathen has already done it for me. Always amusing to see all the pagan origins of "Christian" traditions. Co-opting the holidays and traditions of older religions has long been a common religious practice. So "Deck us all with Boston Charlie, Walla Walla Wash., and Kalamazoo!"

Another fine semester shot to heck

You would think the Phactor would get used to semesters ending in a fading whimper, but it's still depressing even when your successes have greatly outnumbered your failures. You realize that once again heads are not empty vessels to be filled, but garbage cans filled with junk that must be emptied if any new knowledge is to be added and how stubbornly some heads hang onto that garbage, or is it just an inability to deal with all those nasty little details that make a difference, like confusing coca with cocoa, because among present day students a vowel here or there makes no never mind and things like grammar and spelling betray an old fashioned fussiness over trivialities, and you want to ask, "What then is the measure of being educated if you still write and speak improperly?" And yet a few seem to have caught the biology bug, that nagging curiosity that drives us to try and figure out little bits of life, and that love of accomplishment, that feeling of having been the first one to actually know something new. So to close in a more upbeat mode, this semester will end with an evening of Costa Rican food and a sharing of pictures from the rain forest field trip, and a most excellent award ceremony for distinctions and outstanding achievements. Who wouldn't want to be this year's Monsoon mud monkey (dirtiest in the field)?

Berry-go-round #22 is posted for your browsing pleasure

The newest edition of Berry-go-round #22 has been posted over at Seeds Aside. Click on over and see a round up of what's new on plant related blogs. Many thanks to Laurent for including the Phytophactor while he was deep in the rain forest posting blogs while drenched in humidity.

If you can't spell it, do you deserve the degree?

This is not the first time the Phytophactor has attempted to elucidate the nature of the BA and BS degrees for you. The B stands for baccalaureate after baccus laureus the fruit of the laurel (Laurus nobilis) and source of bay leaves. The Greeks awarded champions wreaths of laurel leaves, their crowning acheivement, and so having labored away in the vinyards of academe students obtain a baccalaureate degree to certify their achievement. In the early days of the academe it was only single males who earned such degrees so they became nicknamed bachelor's degrees, a sexist error that sadly even our great institute of higher learning perpetuates.
Now the Phactor is a tolerant person, but if you don't know the name of your degree, or you can't spell it, do you deserve that degree? Duh! The Phactor is the fellow who always took a potted bay laurel to graduation.
A similar question was put to me once, almost 35 years ago, and yes, the Phactor knew what PhD stood for. Now please understand that as part of a discussion of herbs and spices in my economic botany class, not only was this all explained, but the students were told that Phactor did not think anyone was deserving a degree who did not know its name and could not spell it. So how did my aspiring academics, mostly seniors, do?
5 did not answer the question at all; it was an option, but since they chose other questions it indicates they really did not know because some of the other answers they gave were pretty awful.
2 said Bachelor's although the error of this was part of the lecture.
The remaining 16 knew the answer, but only 3 could spell it correctly. Looks like only 13% pass my acid test.
Here are the 11 permutations (one turned up 3 times): baccalorate, bachalaureat, bacheloriate (an amusing fusion), bacclaureate, bachloretti (sort of sounds Italian), bacchalaurate (the favorite), bacculerote, bacalureate, baccaleurate, baccaloriate (nicely phonetic), bacchelaureatte.
Won't my dean and provost be amused?

Field trip winding up (down)?

Well, it's happened again, what with all the natural history, all the biological diversity, all the talk of experiments and data, all the cool observations and encounters, early morning or late nights in the rain forest, and kilometers of hiking, another fine field trip is shot to heck.
This year's class have been about as good as a group of biology majors gets, and the Phactor has not acquired any new gray hairs from their behavior. He is worn out simply because when you're on educational call more or less around the clock, there is not enough (2 instructors, 18 students) to go around.
So here's one more bit of rainforest natural history. Late November is near the end of the rainy season, and it's been wet, oh not anywhere near a record year (over 470 mm rain in 10 days), but sufficiently wet to keep the amphibians active and happy. One of the neatest little fellows is the levi frog (Dendrobates) so called because of their blue legs. Most of the frogs with which you are familiar are cryptically colored, but these stand out vividly. And their call is very loud, especially for their size (less than 2 cm long), sort of inviting you to find them. But this is a poison arrow frog, and the coloring is there to train any potential predators that this froggy will make you as sick as a dog. This is an example of aposomatic coloring where organisms use bright and vivid patterns to advertise their distastefulness. This one has actually just deposited a tadpole that they were carrying on their back into a little pond of water in a tank bromeliad.
Now to pack and return to early winter, the end of the semeser, and finals in Lincolnland. Blah!

From carbon dioxide to carbon dioxide - lesson from the tropics

Here in the rain forest life is a pretty dramatic process. While the great towering giants of wood have a aura of permanence about them, the tree turn over in a wet tropical forest is 2 to 3 times as fast as in temperate forests. Trees are great store houses of carbon dioxide, relatively short term reservoirs, and it is hard for people to rap their brains around the fact that all that stuff is primarily built out of a colorless, tasteless gas that only makes up a fraction of one percent of the atmosphere.

In the temperate zone we are used to seeing mushrooms pop up out of the ground, reproductive structures that are dwarfed by the huge filamentous organisms hidden from sight. And of course such fungi are the primary recyclers of cellulose and the other stuff trees and plants are built from. So you might expect to see lots of fungi on the ground in rainforests, but such is not the case. Decomposition is so fast here, no organic material builds up in or on the soil. Most of the fungi you see are growing right out of decomposing plant material. The fungi shown here are called "dead man's fingers", cute, eh? And they are growing out of a log that is pretty far along in terms of decomposition. The Phactor is not an expert on fungi, but he seems to remember that this fungus is called appropriately enough Xylaria, after xylem, wood. And so after being stored in this log for decades or in some cases even centuries, all that carbon dioxide is going back into the air. And if, as some of
the best data indicates (see for link), even a slight increase in temperature causes a higher rate of tree mortality, then you have a very scary scenario where an increasing concentration of carbon dioxide is driving an increase in tree mortality and more carbon dioxide is being released.

A sad goodbye

With profound sadness the Phactor must report that our magnificent little lion had to be put to sleep. Although only part of our family for eight years, this Maine coon cat enriched our lives immeasurably with his wonderful temperament and sweet disposition. He was maybe the best pet ever, a huge lummox of feline love, a gentle giant, a helpful and sensitive soul, a truly good boy cat without a mean bone in his body, but life dealt him a poor genetic hand, the cruel outcome of selective breeding, so his life ended in middle age, and abruptly. We grieve and feel great loss because we could not say goodbye properly or in time or in a manner he would be able to understand. Each night he would want his belly rubbed before going to sleep and starting his heavy breathing snores; and each morning he would snuggle with his owner and soul mate before she got up to face the day while he galloped down stairs for that most wonderful time of day, breakfast. Who will unroll the TP now? Who will fish the ice cubes out of your drink? Who will dab his furry paw in his water and lick it off to get a drink making a wet mess in the process? Who wouldn't love such a beast? Our bed will certainly feel larger and emptier.

Little ants bring big rainforest down to size

Rain forest is one great place for viewing interesting biological interactions. And one little thing about the tropics is pretty easy to remember, ants are everywhere. This field station is home to over 500 species according to the experts. But without question one of the most prominent and common of these are the leaf cutter ants (Atta). Leaf cutter ants do not eat leaves, although in their millions they are one of the biggest "herbivores" in the rain forest. Piece by piece they carry the canopy back into their subterranean nest to cultivate a very specific fungus, which reciprocates being so well cared for and fed by providing the ants with food. And so you do not have to walk very far to view the highly amusing parades of workers carrying pieces of tree leaves to their nest. Out bound workers rush by to get more leaf pieces. Larger ants are soldiers protecting the workers, and if you watch closely you'll see "riders", somewhat smaller ants riding along on many of the leaf pieces. This peculiar behavior functions to protect the riders from parasitic flies who seek to lay eggs on workers returning to the nest.

Drink of the gods

This is a pretty interesting rain forest flower for several reasons. One it's sort of hard to figure out what parts is what; two, the flowers appear right out of the trunk of the tree; three its generic name, Theobroma, means "drink of the gods"; and four, the common name of the most famous product from this genus is Mayan for bitter water. This is a wild species, but the cultivated species is also called cacao, the source of chocolate, or "chocolatl" (bitter water). And a spicy, fatty version of hot chocolate was the royal beverage of Aztecs. In the evergreen tropics many trees produce flowers on "old wood", their limbs and trunks where the leaves don't obscure the flowers, a phenomenon called cauliflory. Back up in Lincolnland red bud is one of the few temperate trees that do this. Red pods will follow. The mature seeds are the source of chocolate.
On other fronts the students are proving to be a great lot this year, very interested and very industrious. It has been wet, raining every night, and showers almost every day. However nothing like last year's forest-field station flooding deluge. Woke up this AM to the gargling call of oropendolas.

Travel is always an adventure

To study tropical rain forest temperate zone folks must travel & to get from Lincolnland to the La Selva field station takes about 15 hrs door to door. This year the trip was successful and we arrived starved just in time for dinner in spite of a coach driver with the wrong time and day, severely delayed flight, bad weather, terrible traffic, mountain road accidents, & tardy students (also wrong time and day)! What an adventure, but once here everything awful about the travel is soon forgotten. Sharing the excitement of students discovering rain forest makes all the grief worth while. Isn't that just a great looking tropical scene? Enjoy!

Rain forest field trip

Taking 18 students on an international field trip to study rain forest ecology provides them with a top-notch educational opportunity, but what a hassle! So many details and so little time; it's not if anything will go wrong, but what. And please understand these are really good, and reasonably cooperative, polite, attentive students, although no more twins. Twins are trouble. And we keep adding rules to the list that begins with "no whining or whinging". But the Phactor still remembers his first experience, his first view of rain forest, and he was hooked. So you try to provide the same experiences for your students; that's what we do. And it doesn't hurt escaping to the tropics at a rather dingy, dull time of year. So be nice to the Phactor, and maybe you can go along.

If time and internet connections allow, perhaps a couple of blogs will come straight from the rain forest; otherwise things will be quiet here for the next two weeks.

Talk about a stimulating tattoo!

The Phactor gets asked to identify lots of botanical specimens, often from just an image. This arrived via email thanks to some anonymous correspondent, and they simply asked if this was botanically accurate? Well, to know that you have to determine what was being illustrated. And that isn’t too difficult, this is clearly Coffea arabica, coffee, and it not only is botanically accurate but copy of a classic botanical illustration. But this is almost a new one on the Phactor. Only once before has the identification been based on an image tattooed into someone’s dermis. One of my recent students had a hibiscus on her shoulder blade. Are gardeners going to start sporting tattoos of their favorite plant? Are botanists going to start bearing some indelible record of their research organisms? Who knows where this may lead, perhaps more students in my plant taxonomy class! Perhaps more tattoo pictures!

Ethical training in Lincolnland

Each year the state government of Lincolnland mandates ethics training for its employees. This is hard to argue with in a state with so many ethically challenged politicians, but it remains uncertain if they mandate such training for themselves or not. One way or another there seems little evidence of the training's effectiveness. Actually this training has little to do with real ethics and ethical dilemmas; it does learn you about state rules of how to conduct state business.
University employees get our own training, and you have no idea how helpful this is for faculty. Yes, should the Phactor ever have to deal with civil service time cards, work orders, job estimates, medical records, outside contractors, jobs in the private sector, vendors, the line will be toed. Other than learning that it's OK to accept a small present from the parents of a former student or an honorarium for speaking at another university, virtually nothing in this year's training had anything to do with the ethical situations encountered as faculty. Of course it was mildly amusing and quite ironic to have this year's ethics training endorsed by all of our university presidents, of which one had recently resigned for allowing political and financial clout to alter admissions decisions. Guess they missed that part of the training. Last year many faculty got dunned for taking the online training too fast, never mind it was written at no more than a grade 12 level and the choices were so obvious you could guess correctly most of the time. So the verdict from this quarter is that our tax dollars could be better used, you know, for things like bribing aldermen, deans, or constables.

Berry-go-Round #21 Blog Carnival

Berry-go-Round #21 has been posted and is hosted over at Beetles in the Bush. Many thanks to Ted for doing such a good job. Pop on over to find links to some interesting plant blogs. It's eclectic!

From the photo archives - an exotic plant to ID

The Phytophactor has a new toy: a photographic slide/film scanner! To celebrate here's an image captured on film over 25 years ago, so it hasn't seen the light of day for quite some time. The economic value of this plant stimulated a lot of exploration and trade, and this one was photographed very close to its original center of trade. You all own it, but it isn't often seen growing.

Deciduous trees

Here in the temperate zone most of our woody plants are deciduous; they drop their leaves seasonally. This poses a gardening challenge for those of us with large, shady yards because if the leaves are not removed from lawn areas and some garden areas the entire area begins converting back into a woodland. Without my intervention this would only take a few years, and in fact it was well on its way when team Phactor acquired this property. And so seasonally, with the aid of a very large leaf mulching vacuum, a rental bargain, leaf removal and relocation only takes a few weeks, or so it seems. Fortunately several gardens of woodland plants are ready to receive their annual mulching of leaves. This image shows a small section, about one-fourth, of the problem, with only a fraction of the leaf fall complete, and this is all behind a quite adequately large set of lawns and gardens surrounding our abode. This way the Phactor's scientific field work smoothly transitions into gardening field work, and not a moment is lost watching football or baseball. The sugar maple, a 110 foot tall giant, always looks a bit depressed this time of year.

New Work Out Program Promises Data

Tone up! Firm up! Get healthy and contribute to the scientific enterprise!
Yes, here’s your exclusive opportunity to join the Phactor’s field work out crew and get the work out of your life while pushing back the frontiers of knowledge. Tired of treadmills and stair-masters that quite frankly don’t get you anywhere? 30 mins of sweating and you’re still exactly where you started, well exercised, but no accomplishments whatsoever! And jogging! Talk about mind numbing!
My total field work out will fix all that! You can lug materials and supplies over hill and dale. You can trek back and forth from vehicle to study site until you drop. And on top of all of that my patented field work out will provide more deep knee bends than any comparable field research program.
BE READY FOR THE WORKOUT OF YOUR LIFE! 20 year old biology majors wilt, graduate students whine, and field work out has just gotten started! Wait until you get peppered mercilessly with ecological and botanical questions! Just wait until the data analysis begins! Just wait until the Phactor discovers you lost a critical specimen somewhere out on the endless prairie! Be the first to sign up for health and science! DO IT NOW!
The road to health and science travels through my study site, and the Phactor has a new research director’s chair he wants to try out.

Gray thoughts on a gray day

Today is a gray day following two days of rain that have done their best to wash away the fall colors, and it is on such days, especially after spending those days grading exams, that the Phactor is most aware that he is in the fall of his career and life. At such times, thoughts of retirement arise, inevitably and sadly so because my love and enjoyment of teaching botany have not diminished, and my personal interactions with students are still rewarding, as are my scholarly endeavors in spite of their slow pace to completions, but when you realize how little impact your love of learning, your accumulated knowledge and experiences, and your deep insights into certain botanical concepts and problems has had on so many of your charges, you become a bit discouraged. At such times you cling to those who are successes like a drowning person clings to a life ring because you wonder how many seats would be empty if you guarantied the uninterested-in-learning a “C” if they simply left you and the rest of the class alone for the rest of the semester. Of course the really uninterested seldom bother us with their presence anyways, so perhaps it would not be as bad as imagined on a cold, gray day when fading leaves carpet the ground.

ID this plant!

On my homeward trek, somewhat earlier than usual, this rather healthy specimen of a vine caught my attention, adorned as it was in fruit. So before it pulls down this utility pole, can anyone identify this utilitarian plant?
While you're having a go at this, the Phactor will sit back and enjoy a cold one. Oh yes, it's not a native, but was named formerly like it was one.

Have a ball planting new trees and shrubs

Every now and then, just for a change of pace, the Phactor tries to dispense with some practical gardening advice. Since this is an excellent season to plant new trees and shrubs, here is some important advice for novice gardeners out there. Whenever you buy nursery stock that has been potted, placed into one of those big plastic pots, you must take the time and effort to tease out the root ball, even if it means breaking some of the roots in the process. The longer the plant has been in the pot the worse the problem. My tool of choice is an old, dull three pronged soil scratcher; it works fairly well pulling the roots out of that compressed cylinder so that you may spread the roots out as you plant it. If you don't do this, there is a good chance that in 2 to 3 years, you will wonder why your plant is not growing very well, or why it died, or why it looks so weak and puny, and when you pull on the base of the tree or shrub, up comes the cylindrical root ball the same shape and size as when you put it in the ground. You might as well have planted it pot and all. The Phactor learned this the hard way many years ago after exhuming several failures. So get out there, take advantage of the end of the season sales at nurseries, and tease out those roots before you plant. Balled and burlaped trees generally do not suffer from this problem. Oh, one more bit of advice, find someone to dig the holes while you tease the roots and lecture them on this advice.

Know your genera - Lesson 4: Chrysanthemum

More good news! You know yet another scientific name of a plant: Chrysanthemum. But, it isn't the plant you think it is. Those darned taxonomists figured out that chrysanthemums (chryos- Greek for gold; anthemon - Greek for flower) did not form a natural group and various species have been segregated into about 10 different genera.
The familiar "florists' chrysanthemums" pictured here and so popular this time of year are now in the genus Dendranthema (dendro = woody, a reference to their woody annual stems). Like many other people, the Phactor learned to call the Shasta or ox-eye daisy Chrysanthemum lecanthemum, which is kind of fun to say, except it meant "goldflower-whiteflower". Leucanthemum (leuco = white) is their new genus. Other former chrysanthemums are the pyrethrum daisies (feverfew - long known as a remedy for fevers, and as a source of the insecticide of the same name) are now placed in Tanacetum. And what of the real chrysanthemums? Of the 300-400 species that used to be in this genus, now there are two, both annuals of the Mediterranean region.

Rainbow of squashes

The Great Pumpkin Patch cont. Who could resist this picture? Yes, that's the Phactor admiring a rainbow of squashes, another demonstration of the genetic variety of Curcurbita. This picture is compliments of lovely friend Carol, so it wasn't available for yesterday's blog post. Enjoy!

Outa his gourd!

Mac Condill is out of his gourd, just plain nuts-crazy, in a good way, about pumpkins and squashes! A visit to this Lincolnland icon just outside the mighty metropolis of Arthur (mind the horses & buggies) would convince anyone about his condition. The Great Pumpkin Patch is a paradise of cucurbits, an ode to squashes, pumpkins, and gourds, a symphony of pepos. This fellow is an alumnus of my public institution of higher learning, and this probably figures into his deranged state of mind, but the Phactor assures you the only physical danger is having a squash dropped on your foot (the largest on display topped 900 lbs!). However once you behold the over 400 varieties of squashes and pumpkins being raised and sold as fruit or seed here it might result in your catching gourd fever. Pumpkins and squashes are all classified in just a few (3 or 4) species of Cucurbita and they are all trace their ancestry to Central America, but as they have moved around the world and interacted with people, their genetic diversity has become manifest in all these varieties. So which variety is the best for flavoring pumpkin ice cream? Believe me, Mac knows.

Put back MAP grants cause students needs them

The budgetary crisis here in Lincolnland has led to many cuts in state programs including MAP grants for higher education. Now budgetary crisises are nothing new here in Lincolnland, one emerges annually, as our representative jocks play political football with money. And higher education certainly doesn't expect any favors, especially since out representatives figured out that they could gradually withdraw support from the state supported colleges and then dun them for letting tuition rise faster than costs. So naturally those colleges & universities must be wasting money on stuff like faculty salaries. During the Phactor's 30+ year career, state support has dropped from 66% to less than 25% of our budget. But this year the need-based MAP grants got cut, and as a result over 130,000 students wondered about how they were going to pay for the rising tuition brought about by diminished state support. And while our political jocks complain about job losses to China, China is putting more and more government support into higher education. They must know something our "leaders" don't. So while not worried about my own livelihood per se, the Phactor was pleased to see that MAP was restored, albeit in that great Lincolnland tradition without any funding, because as this student's sign demonstrates, they needs of their education.

Fall weather in Lincolnland

Ah, fall comes to colorful Lincolnland! The beautiful browns of soybeans and maize ready to harvest, the gray overcast skies, the rain drops on your windows and head, drab yellows of senescing leaves, and maybe the worst October weather ever! The first two weeks of October have some of the most reliably good weather here in Lincolnland. This information came from Peter Raven, Director of the Missouri Botanical Garden, who had his staff conduct a survey of over 150 years of weather records. Peter used this data to schedule the Garden's annual systematic symposium because it also coincided with a time period when the gardens look very good. Oh, but this year the weather gods are getting even by teaching us about the law of averages. And of course, while all of the Phactor's students know that "it never rains on a field trip", it can often rain on your field research. So we are struggling to collect the specimens used for the data of an experimental prairie research project, and the only thing it hasn't done so far is snow. Hmm, yes, we got snowed on last year, but that was way into November, and the student, whose research project required this late season foray into the field, dutifully noted, "well, it didn't rain". So well put.

Diversity award nomination invalid!

Wow! The Phactor got nominated for a diversity award at our great public university! What an honor! Except the award committee informed me that my nomination was considered invalid!
Having spent the greater part of my adult life teaching biological and botanical diversity, you may wonder in what respect was my involvement with diversity invalid? Well, people, it's because the Phactor is not about people. Yes, rather than considering diversity in some meaningful sense, diversity at a university only refers to human diversity: different sexes (covered), different cultures (covered), different varieties (covered), different countries of origin (Different geographic origins covered, but what do organisms care about political boundaries?). And this then is symptomatic of the whole problem of our egocentric approach to knowledge. About 5% of our faculty and about 5% of a college degree are about life and the universe; all the rest is about humans and human artifacts. Does that seem a fair balance? US, US, US, US, US, US, US, US, US, US, US, US, US, US, US, US, US, US, US, and everything else. A historian complains that not enough is required to teach "ancient" history. Ancient! Plant diversity covers 3.8 billion years of history! In comparison, human history is like reading yesterday's newspaper! Even biology suffers from a human biomedical bias that does its darnedest to reduce diversity. Why some of my colleagues do not even want to include those organisms, plants all, that prevent us from being naked, miserable, and hungry. The Phactor needs no stinking diversity award of that type!

Nikon Small World - Winning Photos

Each year Nikon sponsors a photo contest of small subjects, many of which, but not all, are biological. Usually a number of the subjects are botanical too, although perhaps fewer this year than in the past, and of those, too many, including the winning image, are of one plant species, Arabidopsis thaliana, the botanical equivalent of a lab rat, whose common name is, appropriately enough, the mouse-ear cress. Here's another botanical image taken by Dr. Shirley Owens of Michigan State University. Can you guess what these are? Here's your hint, but it won't help: they are magnified 450X and are found on the black-eyed susan vine.

October Baseball - CCL!

Growing up in the 50s and 60s meant that there was really only one professional sport, baseball. Oh, every now and again you would go see a hockey game, but as a kid we were hardly ever separated from our glove and bat. And now my thoughts on baseball are simple: couldn't care less! Major league baseball is dragging itself into another October and does it seem to anyone else that they're all just bloody tired of playing the game? Watching Fall baseball is like watching a tired sit-com whose writers ran out of ideas about 2 seasons ago! In thinking back the Phactor remembers the precise moment when my interest in baseball began to wane: when the Phillies acquired Pete Rose as a free agent from the Cincinnati Reds. All Reds fans hated the Phillies, and we loved Pete Rose. The conflict in loyalty was too much to deal with. The result is quite simple, this former fan no longer knows or cares what happens in baseball. October is now for gardening.

Berry-go-round #20

OK plant lovers, the latest Berry-go-round (#20) is posted over at Further Thoughts. Click on over and see what phyto-goodies have been rounded up!

Dialing for drinks

Ring! Ring! Hello. Who’s this? Phil. Phil who? Philodendron.
Do I really want
my house plants calling me to say they need watering? The Phactor is not overly fond of cell phones (doesn’t have one) and other invasive, pervasive, persuasive, wa-disturbing technologies. The general vegetative state of house plants is one of the reasons plants are never as annoying as cats, who can get your attention at 4 AM (must be breakfast time somewhere) without a cell phone. Cats with cell phones! That's too horrible to contemplate!

HT to

TP really bums me out!

This really bums me out! Old growth forests are being pulped to make cushy soft toilet paper! Talk about squandering of a natural resource! Why this is even stupider than buying water in plastic bottles! So why not use recycled paper for TP, especially since it gets flushed down the crapper any ways? Well, the fiber length gets shorter, so the paper gets a bit coarser and a bit stiffer. For decades makers of TP have waged advertising wars to convince consumers that each has the most squeeze-ably soft TP. And of course strength is an issue. You can’t save trees by reducing the layers or the thickness if it then requires you to “double up”. And there’s lots more research to do too. No one has done a definitive study to determine if crumpling is more efficient use of TP than folding, or if perforations at different intervals, or even absent, reduces or increases use, even if they never tear really well anyways, or if the roll is supposed to feed over the top or from underneath. OK that last one has actually been decided by our feline TP attendant who requires an over the top feed for him to do his job efficiently.

In the Phactor’s many travels around the tropics, he’s encountered lots of “inferior” TPs, and they all get the job done. So does a bucket of water and a towel (You were carrying one?), once you get the technique of it, and then you begin to understand the prohibition of eating or touching someone with your left hand. Bottom line, cotton cloudy softy cushy bummy wipes are not a product anyone needs. Of course none of us can remember when last year’s Sears & Roebuck’s mail order catalog got recycled in the house out back. So the idea of cutting down old growth trees for TP because the longer fibers feel softer on your bum gives you a good idea of what’s wrong with American consumerism. Their job is to sell TP not save the environment or use resources wisely. So it is up to the consumer to watch the real bottom line. The next time you see a clear cut section of coniferous forest, you’ll know what to think. How charmin’.

Ludicrous fruit display

The Phactor noticed this ludicrously colorful fruit display this morning on the tree outside his building. What a wonderful presentation this fruit display makes! Looks like something from a Georgia O'Keefe painting. Do you recognize this common genus in fruit?

This fruit is from the bigleafed magnolia (Magnolia macrophylla). The pendent, cone-like fruit is a lurid pink and consists of fruitlets, one from each pistil, in the form of a one or two-seeded follicle (like a milkweed pod). When the fruitlet splits open the seeds dangle forth on a thread and are covered by a fleshy pink-orange aril, a reward for the bird dispersers. The actual seed is black and has a hard shiny seed coat. This time of year a flock of grosbeaks or cedar waxwings will find this tree and an hour later every single seed will be gone.

Aphids driving us buggy

Here in Lincolnland we live in the midst of the maize and soybean desert, so some side affects can be expected. Presently gazillions of aphids have descended upon us and their swarms shimmer annoyingly in the evening rays of sun as autumn advances. Swarms of aphids are so thick you can hardly breath, and please, do not ask a bicyclist to smile. Spider webs are filled with little tidbits, and the swordtails in my fountain pond are feasting upon thousands of aphids. These are not just any aphids, but soybean aphids, and this winged stage is seeking a tree upon which to mate and lay eggs for over wintering. But they are not just seeking any tree, but a buckthorn (Rhamnus), not exactly a common tree. One of my colleagues tracked down a buckthorn yesterday and its leaves were a mass of aphids, so there is precious little room at the inn for all those gazillions still looking. This massive population built up during favorable summer weather (cool, wet) will crash. But here's the amazing thing about such insects. The offspring of those few aphids (in comparison to the whole population) will disperse next spring seeking soybeans, and if favorable conditions prevail, their ability to reproduce could again produce such massive populations. If soybean aphids pose an agricultural problem, then perhaps buckthorn eradication will be proposed to break their life cycle, just as currants and gooseberries were eradicated to break the life cycle of white pine blister rust. In the meantime, these aphids are attracted to yellow and light green, so dress accordingly.

Elvis is dead and I’m not feeling so hot myself

There was a distinct flavor of fall in the air this morning, and that’s how life in general is beginning to taste as I begin counting down my 7th decade. The Phactor wasn’t so sure how he felt about this, although it helps improve the attitude to have a new, authentic Hawaiian shirt, but while lots of things remind me about getting old, the spirit of a 20-something is still in me at times, but it just can’t ignore the aging package or the accumulated common sense and do stupid things anymore, and that is probably just as well because you can still enjoy living without doing stupid things even though the very young do not believe this. You come to understand that when you grow up, and up, and up. This somewhat morose feeling that old age is creeping up on me gave way to the pleasantry of the morning as the sun began to slice through the mist and tree leaves on my stroll to the coffee shop and then to my office, and the knowledge that this most certainly will be a beautiful September day as so many of them are. So it is good to be alive in September when good apples begin to ripen, and it just isn’t worth making a pie before they are; now if I could only remember where my apples were?

Peter, Paul, and no Mary

How sad this morning to read of Mary Travers death. This news started the sound of Mary singing Leaving on a jet plane in my head and it has been running all morning. The music of this trio was part of the peace loving side of the sixties, a gentle counterpart to the cold war, struggles with racial justice, and a pointless war in Vietnam. Their first LP album (monophonic!) was purchased with my hard-earned lawn-mowing money. It still sounds pretty good though a bit worse for wear, and so in that sense does the Phactor.

Unexpected garden find - an orchid

The greatest joy of wildish gardens and grounds comes from those unexpected visits from unexpected guests. As it turns out Mrs. Phactor is quite observant and has discovered several such visitors, and now what may well turn out to be a new resident, even though its presence is quite a puzzlement.

The funny little plant growing in the leafy litter under the Douglas fir turned out to be an orchid, Spiranthes cernua, nodding lady’s tresses. These are fairly tough little (6-8" tall) late summer and fall flowering orchids, and considered fairly easy to grow. A similar species, slender lady’s tresses, grows on the Phactor’s prairie study site. The genus name comes from the spiral organization of the flowers on the inflorescence (spiro- spiral, anthes – flowers).

So how did it get to our garden in a city’s center? Orchids have absolutely minute seeds, dust seeds, and plants with such tiny seeds usually make large numbers of them. Other species of lady’s tresses are known to produce 2000-3000 seeds per tiny fruit and you can judge from the number of flowers how many fruits there may be. Wind dispersal can deposit such seeds a long ways from their origin, and most will lose the land-in-a-good-place lottery. Fortunately for us, a seed found its way to our bit of nature. Now if the stinking rodents stay away, our new resident will enjoy a long and hopefully productive life.

Anatomically (botanically) correct bathroom fixtures

For a delightful leak, and it's yours for just over $7000! Well, the Phactor cannot top that for a line. So for the (male) flower fancier who has everything, here's the finest example of anatomically correct bathroom fixtures. Now, let's consider how this is pollinated.
More at the Human Flower Project.
We all must wait in great anticipation for their line of toilets, sinks, and bathtubs.

Let's get fresh.

With respect to food, does fresh mean anything any more? Even air is fresh, and if it isn't we have air freshener! Are the 2 week old eggs in my fridge fresh? Are those mangos "fresh from Mexico?" Clearly refrigeration and more rapid transportation have changed the meaning of fresh. It used to be simple, if you took the egg out of the nest that morning and picked a mango from its tree on the way to the house, they were fresh. Beans out of the garden are fresh; beans at the store are not. Mangos from Mexico are not fresh, but if being a localvore (spelling? or is it locovore?) means not having mangos every now and again here in Lincolnland, then count me out. And then there are somethings that absolutely must be fresh like sweet corn. My Father wouldn't even pick it unless the water were already boiling. The new stay-sweet varieties allow even local farm producers prolong "fresh" and it still troubles me deeply to pick up a "fresh" ear at the local farm stand and feel how cold it is.

Why fresh is as bad now as "home-made". There was a time when home-made meant cooking or making something from scratch. But for all too many people it means taking it out of the box, stirring in water, baking it, and calling it "fresh, home-made cake". The mix had only been in the cupboard for a couple of months, and before then in the store, and then in some warehouse.

So let's just ban fresh unless followed by the word "picked" meaning about 20 minutes ago.

Ecologically we're all living a Ponzi scheme

In terms of sustainability, David Barash, a psychologist at U. Washington, argues that we're all Bernard Madoffs. Ecologically "you simply cannot keep moving and growing and developing and mining your capital, assuming infinitely available resources and a natural environment of such unfailing elasticity that it will swallow our effluent forever and continue to provide a steady supply of resources into the bargain." And it's true. Yes, old Malthus was right, and yet an economist at our university expressed surprise that biologists still believed in Malthus because he'd been so thoroughly disproven. And that may be part of the problem, economists don't want to deal with ecoogical reality. A story circulated a few years ago about an interdisciplinary conference on energy, and after one of the economists got done speaking, a physicist said, "that won't work because it violates the laws of physics." And the economist said, "Well, who knows what the laws of physics will be in 50 years." But it will be a challenge to live sustainably because our economic system has been built on exploitation of resources and people.

Let the Phactor know what you think.

Garden Score Board

As summer here in Lincolnland slides into September and as the Cubs sink out of sight, it's time to do some garden evaluation.
1. The decision to save and transplant storm damaged Japanese maple is a clear winner. The now one-sided tree looks great in its new location and the cool, wet summer took the risk out of the transplanting.
2. Tomatoes. Wow! Blight and weather resulted in worst year in my decades of gardening history including the year in tropical Australia when the Phactor planted tomatoes on the sunny side of his apartment in the spring (August) only to realize the sunny side would become the shady side when the sun shifted back north and sunny shifted to the opposite side, a lesson on life in the tropical zone.
3. Squash. In spite of missing the critical period for controlling squash stem borers, the season was good for zucchini and fair for winter squash. Dwarf orange hubbards look worth planting again. Discovered a quick zucchini pickle recipe that can transform a pound of zucchini into the best sweet-sour pickles ever (to be shared in an upcoming post).
4. Wedding veil and netting. Clear winners! Japanese beetle destruction of apple tree foliage was essentially eliminated. First time in years for green beans without beetle nibblings, although inside their rodent exclusion fence (another winner) and under the veil, the beans looked like inmates.
5. Asparagus. Grew like crazy and produced the largest aerial shoots ever which portends good things for next year's crop. Some things liked the cool, wet summer.
6. Peppers. Not great, not awful, but Melrose, a reliable producer here in Lincolnland had one of its worst years.
7. Eggplant (Asian varieties). Doubled the number of plants and still didn't get enough. Combination of weather and flea beetles (too small to control with netting) made for a meager crop.
8. Raspberries. Canes rebounded and produced a much larger crop than predicted. Blueberries produced so few none actually made it out of the garden, but the snacks were appreciated.
9. Spring greens. Excellent year for salads aided by early cold frame start and transplanting of lettuce seedlings. Late season crop is planted, but a little late to be certain of good production.

Typical enough scoreboard. In small gardens you never bat one thousand. What were winners & losers for my readers?

Cannonball tree - another ludicrous flower to enjoy!

While clearing out lab space the Phactor happened upon a box of old 3.5” disks (Hey, there are still boxes of 5.25” disks around here too.) that were used as the file storage medium for the 1st digital camera our department ever purchased. And they were filled with images from the tropics, and although now looking a bit low in resolution, such images are not easily replaced. It’s been awhile since the Phactor had a good ludicrous flower for you to enjoy, so here’s the flower of Couroupita guianensis, the cannonball tree.

As you may judge from the fingers (upper left), the flower is pretty large, some 5-6 inches across, and rather luridly colored orange-red, and not of the usual floral organization. The petals are not equal and in a nice regular whorl. The thing that looks a bit like a sea anemone is an androphore, a structure that bears anthers, and the rather thickish anther filaments are lavender. The furry-fuzzy disk behind is composed of sterile anthers with a single pistil in the middle that develops into a hard, cannonball-sized (6-8" diam) fruit. Like many tropical trees, this one produces flowers on its trunk rather than among its leafy branches, but this tree grows a mantle of leafless, twisty-turny dangling branches upon which flowers and fruits are borne. While a native of the neotropics, cannonball tree has been planted around the tropics as a curiosity.

Resource use and human nature

Having discovered him during my college years (yes, the Phactor was a student of the 60s), Garrett Hardin remains one of my favorite essayists. He always clearly saw the problem: human nature. One of his more influential and insightful essays, “The tragedy of the commons” (1968) pretty well explained why an ever increasing human population is destroying the commons: over fishing the seas, over harvesting the forests, over tilling the soil, over pumping/diverting the water, over polluting everything, etc.

So how to subvert basic human nature? Well, ask a psychologist, of course! Barry Schwartz writes a very thoughtful article, “Tyranny for the commons man”, on this subject that is well worth reading.

Gardening and joggers do not mix

A long time ago a previous owner of my estate planted quite a few shrubby dogwoods, and they grew quite well, and as is their nature, the twigs rooted wherever they touched the ground, and they grew quite well, and so on. At present they cover considerable areas beyond the original shrub, and previous encounters proved that removing said dogwoods is a considerable task, one not to be undertaken in just any mood. But this weekend the Phactor got annoyed at the dogwood takeover of a pathway (it disappeared) and their encroachment on firs and newer flowering shrubs. So with only the zeal that a truly annoyed gardener can muster, my fury was unleashed upon the dogwood thicket with loppers and chain saw, and a couple of hours later maybe one-third of the dogwoods were gone, which is a bit depressing, but at least one-third of the thicket was transformed into piles of brush that needed to be dragged to the curb for recycling.

So what do joggers have to do with this? Well, all those piles of brush, load after load, were over 300 feet from the curb. And so trip after trip, pile after pile, the mass of dogwood brush was relocated, and near exhaustion, filthy dirty with sweat, sawdust, and debris, some joggers jogged by all in their neat little outfits, unstained joggers, and barely damp head bands, and as they moved by, one said, "What a mess." Now they were either referring to the Phactor himself, or the tall piles of brush, or both, but either way, my mood was not improved.

Clearly joggers do not garden on any scale larger than a window box and would probably faint at the sight of soil (not dirt) beneath a finger nail. Gardeners don't job because we don't need for any more exercise. Jogging is effort expended where nothing is accomplished except for bounding development of a narcissistic glow of personal accomplishment. Joggers, how about mowing the lawn of some senior citizen in your neighborhood? How about spading their garden? How about raking their leaves? How about finding a senior citizen and dragging his dogwood brush a total of about one-half mile (piles x distance) ? Then we'll see whose sweaties look so nice and clean, if you should last that long.

Oldies but goodies

Margaret and Helen are a couple of bloggers that make the Phactor feel downright young, which he most decidedly isn't. You have to feel good about two 80+ year old women commenting on current events, and offering a bit of perspective.

With respect to the "angry" mobs demanding to have their country back, "I fear that the America they want back is the one where black men don’t become President." Oh, the Phactor thinks the girls have hit the nail right on the head.

HT to the F1.

Gardener's plant exchange

Anyone who is any kind of gardener at all exchanges plants with other gardeners. Most the Phactor is on the supply side of the exchange, but even with all my connections, opportunities are limited, and just perhaps with a wider of contacts, somebody might have something to exchange that does not already grow in my expansive domain.

Here's a new web site promoting plant exchange for gardeners. It looks to be pretty sparse at present, but be some good folks, sign up and see how it works, and report back.

Anyone want some creeping Charlie?

HT to the Botanical Society of America.

RIP - The Cat's Cat

For nearly 19 years this cat allowed the Phactor to live in his house and serve him his food. A true cat's cat, this image shows him in a "good cat" phase, asleep, and of course, no one was ever present during the "bad cat" phases because true to the CAT CODE, rules scrupulously followed in your presence were totally ignored in your absence. Baskets were there to be dumped in search of interesting contents. House plants were for those between meal snacks. Oriental carpets were for barfing up afore mentioned house plants so as not to soil the floors. And out of consideration for our guests, all snacks and edible items placed out on tables must be sampled in full view. Hmmm, crackers; hmmm, pie crust; hmmm, cheese cake; hmmm, vanilla ice cream! He got yelled at so many times his full name got shortened to a single syllable with an exclaimation point permanently attached: Alex!

Alex! found it saved time and energy to go full tilt in as straight a path as possible between where he was and his intended destination, so why would anyone be so inconsiderate as to place vases, lamp, or plants along one of these paths? All of this energy was packaged into a football-shaped plush tiger covering, and although it did not look possible, it all could be wedged into the space between you and the arm of a chair or couch. And his bulk helped anchor your feet at night. Alex! retained his vigor well into his golden years looking many years junior to his true age. The years finally caught up to him, and he'll be missed, not only as a part of the family, but as a role model for cats everywhere.

Growing footbridges

This is amazing! The Phactor has a thing for trees and has seen some great ones over the years, but he's never seen anything like these foot bridges literally grown from the roots of figs. The roots of figs can produce some amazing growths like one that I featured in a blog commemorating a friend, but this "green technology" would be something to see. It's on my bucket list for sure.

August, the academic new year

Those of us whose lives revolve around academia, especially those of us who actually do the work of educating, which almost universally means faculty on nine month appointments, march to the beat of a different drummer, the academic calendar. My point here is not to criticize the calendar, or the 2nd associate assistant vice president whose pitiful job, even though certainly making more money than yours truly, it is to construct this dictatorial beast. So, no cheap shots will be taken. Besides if you start criticizing the calendar twerp, then the monkey who does the campus directory, the one that requires that you know the university's complete organizational chart to find anything, would take a drubbing so severe that it would actually generate sympathy for them, and that would detract from my postitive energy.

Although August is a funny time for a new year, it deserves some celebration, just like New Year's Eve revelries on the Georgian calendar, and most certainly we celebrators of the academic new years often have a drink or three on this hallowed eve. Actually the Phactor likes these beginnings because everyone starts out in anticipation of so many good things happening, and it takes several weeks, about the time of the first exam for the rosy glow to fade a bit, when both parties begin to face the realities that success takes some effort and that not everyone expended as much as required. But that is part of the job.

Ah, but that's then and this is now, and the energy and excitement are something to be enjoyed, although the week immediately before classes is something to be avoided altogether, if possible, because our small city becomes a mad house, as would any municipality whose population increases by 50%, and only in the 18-22 year old category, virtually overnight.

So come next Monday my students will be told that they start my courses fully able to grasp an A, and that my expectations are that they all will. And that is the wonderfulness of new years, a time to set aside the certain knowledge of what will happen, and to hold out hope that this semester will be THE semester when all my students achieve what they are fully capable of achieving if other things did not get in their way. The sad reality is that even reality shows can be a higher priority for some than the best botany course ever. Still some of them will achieve this, even to their own surprise, so the Phactor can still be optimistic and still look forward to new beginnings with new people after so many years in the business. Happy 41st new fall semester from the Phactor. Let's hope it's a good one.

What did sauropods have for breakfast?

One of the more creative presentations at this year's recent botanical meetings was a study on sauropod herbivory by Dr. Carole Gee. Since sauropods were the most massive animals to ever live on land, they had to eat a lot (hundreds of kilos a day) and they were strict vegetatians (herbivores). Presently the largest land animals either eat grass, e.g., bison, or browse tree leaves, e.g., giraffes, and these are all flowering plants now. But back in the Late Jurassic (152 million years ago) the choices were very different and no body had ever thought about the different energy contents of the plants sauropods had to choose among.

Many of the prominent groups of plants from the Late Jurassic survive today, horsetails, ferns, ginkgoes, diverse conifers, and cycads, so assuming modern members of these groups still retain the basic characteristics of their ancestors, the energy content per unit of plant mass can be compared.

Rather surprisingly horsetails had the highest energy content, even higher than modern grasses. Next came Araucarias (monkey puzzle trees and Norfolk Island pines) and ginkgoes, both actually better food than the leaves of modern forest trees. Another talk provided us with a view of the rather open savanna-like forest structure of araucarias based on large numbers of fossil tree stumps preserved in volcanic ash. A perfect place for large sauropods to graze among the tree tops.

Cycads with their tough, hard foliage had the least energy content, and since they are also slow growing, they simply don't produce much leaf material. Today cycads are minor elements of tropical and subtropical communities, but back in the Jurassic they made up about 20%. A couple of ferns with ancient lineages, like cinnamon fern, were pretty good sauropod food, but other more modern ferns have pretty low nutritional levels.

So what good is this? Well, curious minds want to know how ecology worked in the past.

What is a botanist

This query (?) is asked many times a day (30+), and the web site ChaCha provides an answer. After the obvious omission of a question mark, which calls the ChaCha mission into question because after all how can you provide decent, reliable answers if you cannot properly pose the questions, this site provides dreary, lifeless, dictionary type of definitions, which while technically correct, are bereft of the soul and passion that drives botanists. You might as well define beer as a carbonated, fermented hops and malted barley beverage, which while perfectly correct hardly makes you want a cold one. Anyone interested enough in botany to ask this question deserves far better answers.

Clearly the one thing they didn’t do is ask a botanist. Our diversity is quite impressive, and while it is technically correct that we botanists study plants and other green organisms, and we are scientists, we are so much more, and some of the nicest people on Earth to boot. So click yourself on over to the Botanical Society of America and see what a bunch of real botanists say about themselves and what they do.

Everyone wants to be a botanist, it just takes some people longer to figure this out than others.

No nutritional benefit to organic food?

A meta-analysis (a study of relevant studies) of the nutritional and health benefits of organic foods concluded that there were no differences between organic and conventionally produced foods. This makes perfectly good sense biologically, and as a trained skeptic, the Phactor has always doubted the nutritional claims made by organic foods advocates. Of course this is like putting a stick into a hornet’s nest and stirring because these advocates defend their beliefs with religious fervor. And having once launched a marble through a hornet’s nest with a slingshot (a youthful dalliance), and been chased a considerable distance by the rightfully infuriated horde, the imagery for me remains quite vivid.

First, let me go on record as saying conventional production of many foods is often done poorly, and over-use of fertilizers, pesticides, antibiotics, and hormones is just plain dumb and wasteful. Second, the overall quality is mediocre as with any mass produced commodity. Third, no one should have to worry about stuff in their food that shouldn’t be there. Let’s farm smart. To their surprise, students of mine who expressed such worries were unable to find any traces of pesticides in samples of produce in local markets. But we live in an era when unsubstantiated claims are used as scare tactics to influence everything from marketing to politics. This works because the cynics who use such tactics understand that a lot of people just do not think for themselves anymore.

Now before the stones start flying, allow the Phactor to say he is a great fan and patron of local organic farmers, but it’s not because of the health and nutritional claims, it’s because their produce is produced with care, picked and sold fresh. In other words they deliver quality goods and deserve a premium price. Back when more conventional production was done locally, on smaller scales, and marketed by the actual producer, the qualitative differences between organic and conventionally produced foods would be negligible.

Understand this, spinach does not know or care where its nitrogen comes from, and it makes the same spinach molecules regardless. A soluble nitrate ion is the same to a plant whether from compost, manure, or 10-10-10. And since plant growth and reproduction is limited by available nutrients, making sure plants have sufficient inorganic nutrients is important to production. Without enhanced nutrients, organically produced plant foods may be slightly lower in inorganic nutrients like phosphorus and potassium, but the differences are not enough to alter their nutritional value. The overuse of pesticides, hormones, and antibiotics simply cannot be defended.

Bottom line, at present organic produce, when locally produced is quality food, but the health/nutritional claims simply are not supported by any evidence. Big stores now have “organic” food sections, particularly in produce, to compete with local producers, and this strikes the Phactor as an organic food scam.

Berry-go-round #19

Zip on over to Quiche Moraine for the latest round up of plant related blogs. As always you'll find some interesting items, including a couple from yours truly. Since the theme was food, my asparagus blog was dug out special. You really do have to try the avocado butter.

What's new in botany?

My colleagues have been very busy, and the things you can learn from them.

Horsetails may have been a favored food of sauropods, and cycads the least favorite.
Water clover ferns have been around unchanged for over 100 million years.
Somebody else got did a similar experiment to one of mine and got the same results!
One colleague began his talk with a summary and conclusions because of his penchant for going too far too fast and covering too much. There was applause.
Our scientific discipline has some really bright young people.
The newest molecular techniques are completely unknown to me, even the name was new.
At least two chapters in a book I'm writing have to be revised. Blast.
Evolutionary relationships among seed plants remain uncertain.
Hornworts are now considered the sister group to the rest of land plants, which are mostly vascular plants. Liverworts are now even more certainly the oldest lineage of land plants.
Termites were eating wood more than 100 million years ago.

OK, you get the flavor. Some of these and others deserve elaboration, so explanations will be forthcoming. What sounds most interesting?

Botany and mycology

The Phactor is presently in Snowbird Utah for annual scientific meeting for botanists and those people who study fungi. Copper Canyon is a beautiful place and its hard to believe how close it is to Salt Lake City, but the amount of disturbance and development is considerable. Yesterday was mostly the business of science, meetings and counsels, mixers and our annual reconnections among friends and colleagues. While we may interact electronically during the year, we usually only get to see each other once a year.

Today the science begins although the evening is full of social events. The biggest problem is deciding what talks to listen to among the many sessions scheduled in parallel. For narrow specialists this is not such a problem, but us generalists want to be in many places at once.

Now to try and get my flat-land ankles and calves to loosen up and stop complaining about the ups and downs of a place built on a mountain side. And then of course you have to go see what that flower is. Why there are three species of Castilleja along that ridge, but I could only find two.

Happy Birthday Gregor Mendel

Oops! Missed it. So a belated Happy Birthday, Gregor Mendel. He’d be 187 years old as of July 20th.

Here’s Gregor’s actual garden patch in Brno, Czech Republic. But instead of peas, it’s planted in flax. This is a practical matter because peas grow and develop pretty fast, so visitors to Mendel’s monastery (& genetics museum) wouldn’t be able to see the inherited characters. However flax flowers over a good long period of time so the display of flower color (blue vs. white) can be observed for weeks. The only 1st floor window in view in the wing to the rear is Gregor's room.

A very nice young lady helpfully explained the Mendelian inheritance of flower color to the Phactor, and got it wrong. The offspring of pure white and pure blue flowered plants have all blue flowers (F1s), and not blue and white in a 3:1 ratio. The bed with the 3 blue flowered plants to every 1 white flowered plant would be the F2s, the offspring of the F1s, the grandplants of the initial blue vs. white cross. Had to produce a business card to verify my scientific credentials and convince her I indeed did have it right. Easily dropped into the old intro bio mode to explain where she made the mistake.

A visit to Mendel’s old stomping grounds will expel any doubts about his being a simple old monk. The entire order to which Mendel belonged was a quantitatively inclined group busily investigating nature. His notebooks show the meticulous detail of his data including a list of all the varieties of peas he purchased and observed as a prelude to his genetic studies.

Brno also produces a darned fine beer: Starobrno. Of course all the beer in the Czech Republic is darned fine.

HT to GL for reminding me.

Gardening Mistakes

Everyone makes gardening mistakes. A couple of years ago the Phactor planted a plume poppy (Macleaya cordata) in what is by no means a small perennial bed (~30’ x 80’) and it only took two years to realize that this was the biggest, most impressive, most attractive, most aggressively invasive weed I ever purposefully planted. And every tiny piece of root could (and DID) give rise to a new shoot. You almost could not dig fast enough to keep in front of it. Be warned people! Sentence: death.

This past weekend was spent correcting another couple of gardening mistakes, just none as scary as a plume poppy. Ural false spiraea Sorbaria sorbifolia is actually a nice looking, very hardy, non-fussy, summer-flowering shrub, but again you had better have a large place for it. Once it gets going it spreads quite vigorously by means of shallow rhizomes. It filled a 10’ diameter area in a border garden in 3 years. Fortunately it’s shallow rooted and fairly easy to move or remove. Plant parole has been granted and it gets a 2nd chance in a slightly shadier, slightly wilder and bigger place.

The Phactor has not been a great success over the years with flowering vines. A non-flowering wisteria was adding injury to insult by pulling down the arbor especially built for it, concrete anchors and all. Of course, the removal might have been a tad premature because the vine had latched onto the burr oak beyond, and in the long run may have acted as a counter force pulling the other direction to stabilize the arbor. Unless of course the oak was pulled down too. Ah, the power of plants is something to behold. Sentence: death. The search will continue for a kinder, gentler flowering vine.

The jury is still out on a fancy staghorn sumac as it encroaches on bottle brush buckeyes and the rest of the world. Wonder when the neighbors will notice they have a new hedgerow plant?

Let the Phactor know about plants to look out for. Better forewarned than sorry.