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.