Field of Science

Know your genera - Lesson 3: Magnolia

Magnolias are one of the Phactor’s favorite plants, and as a result, they sort of accumulate around his estate (7 species and counting). What is not to love about their flowers? My sweet bay magnolia is a summer flowering species (late June), and while its creamy white cup-like flowers are on the small end of the range of magnolia flower sizes, they have an exotic, almost intoxicating, floral fragrance. To have a sweet bay magnolia next to your patio, in flower, on a soft warm evening, to accompany your mint julep, served by an attractive woman in a white dress, with some Dixieland jazz in the background, is almost too much to ask for. The Phactor is not greedy and will settle for any 4 out of the five.

The flowers open around 5 pm, rather quickly, and attract beetles with their fragrance all evening. Somewhat surprisingly, this southeastern, mostly coastal species, Magnolia virginiana, will grow here in Lincolnland as far north as zone five. My present specimen survived -19F this past winter and still flowered! A previous specimen was not so hardy, so always check the nursery source of the stock to make certain you get a hardy genotype, if that may be a problem. Up here in Lincolnland sweet bay magnolia mostly grows as a large shrub; in its native range it’s a tree.

Magnolia is an honorific for Pierre Magnol, a professor of botany at Montpellier in the late 1600s and early 1700s, and he must have been well liked by Linnaeus (aka Carl von Linné) to have had such handsome plants named after him.

Long-time readers may detect a certain pattern in the know-your- genera lessons. You already know lots of scientific names, even if you were not aware you did.

Yard smart, gardener dumb?

The Phactor’s estate is without doubt an urban oasis for wildlife. Over 70 species of birds have visited in the past 10 years as well as the usual, and not so usual, assortment of small, and not so small, animals. So it was a no-brainer for when this property received Yard Smart certification. But the bucolic serenity of a balanced ecosystem remains elusive.

For several years ecology worked quite well. Red fox were common, and as a consequence, rabbits were not, a most satisfying, and extremely biological, relationship. But something has happened to these handsome canids; they have not been making their daily rounds. As a result the gardener-in-chief has had the Phactor busy conducting an interesting, and increasingly expensive, experiment in the gastronomic preferences of Sylvilagus floridanus, the eastern cottontail. The experiment is conducted thusly. The most precious, unusual, rare, or gorgeous plant in your yard gets eaten to the ground, or lower. This species gets designated the plant of 1st preference. To protect any remaining morsels that may be left, you erect protective fencing around that plant, and then record the next plant that gets eaten into oblivion. This species gets designated the plant of 2nd preference. And so on, and on, and on.

Now perhaps many people would be quite satisfied to have labored so long and so hard producing a botanical smorgasbord for little bun-buns, but the fun is seeping away. This is partly the fault of the plant purveyors who neglected to tell you that the newest, neatest addition to horticulture happens to be a rodent delicacy. Aren't they supposed to run field trials? And here are some results.

Mukdenia rossii 'Crimson Fans' does indeed grow well in the shade and it looks quite striking, but it is even preferred over Campanula takesimana ‘Korean bellflower’ previously ranked number 2. Number one, Callirhoe involucrata ‘prairie poppy mallow’, is no longer participating in the experiment (RIP).

Here foxy, foxy, foxy. Nice rabbits. If the Phactor were not so committed to ecology he might be fixing them one of Aunt Pearl's bitter pills.

Now, what preys on fox squirrels?

More ethical lapses in Lincolnland.

This comes as no surprise to long time residents of our great state, but it appears that political influence has been playing a large role in the admission process at Lincolnland U. Go, LULU, Go! Yes, it seems that students who lack the academic credentials still get admitted to LU if they have political pull, and of course, it isn’t the faculty allow this to happen. It’s the high mucky-mucks who insinuate that those dastardly faculty grade too easy. This is even worse than legacies who at least had the decency to have had well educated, and almost always well heeled parents. I mean how else do you explain W at Yale?

This all brings to mind that famous scene in Tom Cruise’s best movie ever, Risky Business. After being told his record isn’t quite up to Ivy League standards, Joel says, “Looks like it’s LULU!” Or something to that effect. But you know, this isn’t the ivy league out here in Lincolnland, so I’m not sure what the big deal is, other than it takes the edge off the idea that when you're a LULU you are part of some sort of elite student body, one which by definition is more prestigious than Some Other State U. no matter how you perform. Sorry folks, it's just a big corn college.

So what does the Phactor do about all this? Well, my approach is to even the playing field. Yes, they all end up in the same classroom, and part of my job is to set the bar high enough to figure out which ones should be entrusted with taking out our gall bladders and teaching biology to our kids, and which ones should switch majors to communications. So no matter how they were admitted, they have to go through the Phactor Philter.

Only once did a student ever try to pull rank by telling me, "My Mother is a very important person." "No kidding", says I, "then I bet she did better than this when she took biology." "What say we talk to her about your work ethic?" That student had a major league back pedal.

Global warming denial made easy

An anonymous benefactor has presented the Phytophactor with a gift, the Skeptic’s Handbook on global warming by Joanne Nova. Uh, thanks. Make no doubts about it, the Phactor is a card-carrying skeptic from way back, but Joanne No-go isn’t a skeptic, she’s a denier. And her charming little booklet is just full of misinformation (you can get your own copy online, but I’ll not promote it by providing the link). The Smog Blog as debunked the main claims in this booklet as easy as 1, 2, 3.

The Phactor is no expert on climate, but he knows enough to say that we have reason for concern because the carbon dioxide data, the temperature data, and the tree growth/mortality data coincide very closely in one of the few well done long term studies. Yes, correlation is not causation, but it strongly suggests a connection. The worrisome part is that trees are massive storehouses of carbon. If rising temperatures lead to more tree mortality, that carbon is returned to the atmosphere as the trees decay. Why would increasing temperature cause tree mortality? Well, the rate of photosynthesis increases with temperature only to a point and then the rate declines quickly. However, the rate of respiration continues to increase with temperature. So beyond a critical temperature, trees respire faster than they capture carbon dioxide in photosynthesis, literally metabolizing themselves to death. If increased carbon dioxide leads to an increase in temperature, then the whole system is off to the races. The resulting climatic impact on agricultural regions would be disastrous especially for those of our species who have been living close to the edge of starvation. So the choice is to act now, while we can, to make what changes we can, or to wait until there is more certainty, and maybe as a result of waiting, have no chance for or choice of actions. For whatever their reasons deniers are willing to gamble with everyone’s future because they advocate doing nothing. This is neither wise nor pragmatic. It's OK to be skeptical, but don't be foolish.

What is the biggest cell?

The Phactor gets asked some mighty interesting questions. At first I had no idea how big the luxury suites were up there at Pontiac Prison, and some of the newer, posher slammers, like the ones Lincolnland governors hang out in, might be more spacious. And then came the realization that the questioner might have meant biology not prisons. But that's actually where the name comes from, dead cork cells looked like cells, so thought Robert Hooke.

What is the biggest cell? This turns out to be a difficult question to answer, which does not mean the Phactor cannot provide an answer. My initial thought was a slime mold, the real life blob! A bright yellow one crawled out of its petri dish and into my desk drawer once. A slime mold is an amoeboid organism that crawls forward by shifting its cytoplasm within a flexible cell membrane. This particular cell was about 10 cm across.

But while thinking about this question for a couple of days another answer came to mind after I happened to glance into the salt water aquarium down the hall. Growing there is a spectacular organism, a green algal seaweed called Caulerpa. As it's "stem" grows along it makes 4-5 cm tall "fronds" and rootlike branches grow down into the sand. They can grow to a meter or more in length. And believe it or not this organism is all ONE CELL! Now of course this violates classic cell theory, but organisms are notorious for ignoring biology. Larger size and a complex form is supposed to follow from multicellular organization. This green algae has many nuclei, lots of chloroplasts, but there are no cross walls dividing the organism into individual cells. So there you have it campers, the biggest cell is a unicellular green algal seaweed.

One sad note, this particular seaweed has become an invasive pest in some areas and it got to these places after being dumped from peoples' aquariums. That's a no-no folks. No releasing exotic organisms into the wild, ever.

Appreciation of flowers

The Phactor was thinking how it’s rather a nice thing to like flowers, and how apparently this is not so new. This came to mind when I found some nice concrete examples of floral imagery, as illustrated by this bas relief from Central Park NYC. The second image is from the archeological ruins of Troy. Other than the wear and tear of millennia, they are quite similar, and I quite doubt that any bits of NYC will look so good so many years after getting sacked by the Greeks. (New Yorkers: Be careful what gifts you accept.)

We humans so love the way flowers look that we decorate our properties, celebrate special events, declare our affections with flowers, and decorate with them at births, marriages, and deaths. Our connection to flowers is so ingrained in our psyche that the failure to appreciate their aesthetics is a sign of clinical depression. (Oh, dear what if you don't like this?) Apparently the human appreciation of flowers is nothing new. Pollen from bundles of flowers found in Neanderthal graves shows that honoring people in death has not changed very much over the past 150,000 years.

So what kinds of flowers are they? Any ideas?

Rainforest reality might be dangerous

The Phactor is as familiar with and as comfortable in the rainforests of Costa Rica as anyone in Lincolnland. So learning that the former 1st lady of Lincolnland was “in reality camping out” in those same rainforests fills me with concern. She’s a city person, and a great many dangerous organisms live in those rainforests, more snakes, especially very well camouflaged pit vipers, live there than any place I’ve ever visited, and I’ve visited many. The 1 inch long black bullet ant (seen here) is reputed to have the most painful sting of any stinging insect, and those unfortunate enough to have experienced it leave me convinced. There are lots of thorny, spiny plants too. Stilt palms seem specifically designed to trip you and mangle your falling flesh. Both puma and jaguar prowl the depths of the rainforest (their tracks tell of their presence), and that may be why the peccaries, when startled, let loose a cloud of skunk-like odor that brings tears to your eyes. And before you jump in a stream to wash off that smell, do look out for crocs.

However the source of my great trepidation is that all these innocent creatures have no adaptations for dealing with the lying, cheating, back-stabbing, name-calling, back-room-deal-making, pay-to-play, corrupt politicians of Lincolnland, or their equally conniving spouses.

The naked truth about gardening

How did I miss this? World Nude Gardening Day, Saturday, May 2nd, just slipped right by. And what a delight it would be! As Barbara Pollard puts it, "When you're out there with a gentle breeze on you, every last hair on your body feels it. You feel completely connected with the natural world in a way you just can't in clothes."
I couldn’t agree more, whether pruning those climbing roses, removing blackberry brambles, spraying that hornet's nest, or pulling those nettles, you’re going to feel more connected to nature than with clothes on.

The Phactor’s own observance was limited to walking from the shower to the bedroom, where upon seeing his own reflection, decided WNGD was not an equal opportunity idea. Of course back in the old hippy days of communal showers, being extremely near-sighted was both a blessing and a curse depending upon circumstances. And somehow you fooled yourself into thinking everyone else saw nothing but blurry pink vaguely humanoid blobs too. But how much gardening could be done without wearing ones corrective lens? Perhaps we will hear from someone blessed with physicial attractiveness who did celebrate WNGD.