Field of Science


Jade vine - Another ludicrous flower to enjoy

The jade vine (Strongylodon macrobotrys) is a tropical liana (woody vine) from the Philippines. If you know your plant families, you’ll recognize these flowers as beans/legumes right away (1 standard petal, two lateral petals, and two petals forming a keel housing the stamens and pistil) except what a color! This pale blue-green color is very unusual flower color, but it shows up well in dim light against a dark and green background, which abounds in the rain forest understory where the Phactor works.

Each individual flower is about 2 inches long. And like wisteria, which the Phactor is told flowers, his own vine providing no evidence of this at all, the inflorescence hangs upside down, so each flower twists 180 degrees on its stalk to present itself right side up. Some tropical fruits have a similar pale blue color, again to show up well against a dark background, and the Phactor promises to show you one soon.

The inflorescence of flowers is a foot or two long and hangs down from the vine on long cord-like stems. And this combined with the color tells me that the pollinator is a nectar foraging bat! A similar bean (Mucuna holtonii) grows in the neotropics, but the flower color is just a pale greenish, however the upper petal of this bean’s flower acts as a sound reflector to bounce the bat’s sonic signals back at them (research conducted by Dagmar and Otto
von Helversen; you meet the best people while doing field research.). Jade vine is now fairly common in conservatory collections at botanical gardens, like the New York Botanical Garden which is where this picture was taken (eat your heart out GrrlScientist).

The flowers work by lever action. The weight of the bat pushes the keel down forcing either the pollen laden anthers or the stigma out the tip of the keel to make contact with the bat’s body. Unfortunately never having seen bats and the jade vine in action, I don’t know how exactly the two interact, and very unfortunately, the native habitat of both are threatened by deforestation. It’s depressing to know that someday such organisms may only live in cultivation. At least this Asian import won’t escape into the wilds of the Bronx.

Oldest species on Earth is a fern

The antiquity of very few species has been documented, but most paleontologists estimate that species on average only persist for a few million years. Every now and then the fossil record provides direct evidence of a species with great antiquity, and the current record holder for the greatest antiquity of any living species is a fern. Here is the good part, you can grow this historic plant in your garden.

Fossils of Osmunda cinnamomea, cinnamon fern, were found in 70 million year old rocks! This discovery was published about 10 years ago, and no differences could be found between the fossil and the fern as it is today. So cinnamon fern was alive and well in the Late Cretaceous where it undoubtedly got stepped on and eaten by dinosaurs. Think about how many changes this fern has endured, the rise and diversification of both mammals and flowering plants. The cinnamon fern family is even older with a fossil record going back into the Carboniferous documenting a 300 million year history for this group of ferns.
The "cinnamon" in both the scientific and common name refers to the color of the fertile fronds (seen upright in the center of the image) and the spores they shed.

What a great plant to grow in your garden! It doesn't mind some shade, or wet areas, but is quite tolerant in general. And it is a big handsome fern too. How hard can cinnamon fern be to grow if it has managed to survive on its own for so long? First, prepare the soil with some well-composted dinosaur dung,....

The Princess tree - a royal pain?

A recent trip to the NYC area coincided with the flowering of the Princess tree, Paulownia tomentosa, also known as the royal paulownia or the empress tree. While those names suggest quite a blue blooded European pedigree, in actual fact this very attractive tree is from Asia. The genus is named after Anna Pavlovna, daughter of Czar Paul I, the eventual wife of Prince Willen of the Netherlands, so the name is what we call an honorific.

Paulownia is a very fast growing tree and you sometimes see ads in newspaper inserts touting it as a super-fast growing shade tree. And among trees, the princess tree is a real speed demon, growing to several inches diameter in just a few years, but this also means its wood is light weight and the trees tend to break easily and die young. So why was it imported way back in 1834? Well, in flower the princess tree is quite striking with its big panicles of large snapdragon like flowers.

And it makes lots of seeds, and they grow quite well in disturbed areas. The fact that princess tree is a woody invasive "weed" in some areas is not actually much of a problem there in the NYC area because where it grows, on railroad embankments, vacant lots, alleys, and the like ,means it covers up even worse looking stuff. However in areas of eastern TN and western NC this invasive tree is taking over road sides and rocky areas, and it has become so common many people think it a native. While the tree looks quite a bit like a Catalpa, it isn't a member of the bignon family, but sort of loosely related to some of the bits and pieces left over from the recent dismemberment of the snapdragon family.

So royalty or just a royal pain? Mostly the latter except when its flowering.

Commuting & quality of life

The Phactor is on the move, a trip to the NY City area for a graduation, and this is not about that momentous occasion, but a much more mundane observation about life in a major metro area.

Even with reasonably a good public transportation system, these people spend way too much time getting to and from places.  This is not a high quality life, folks, even though you can learn to live with it.  

This gave the Phactor cause to reflect on how fortunate he has been.  Since I started making my living on college campuses in 1970, I have lived within walking distance of my work all but two years.  And quite frankly I wouldn't trade this quality of life for anything.   A great deal of my best thinking happens on my commute.  Seriously could any good ideas, other than kill, Kill, KILL, occur to drivers on these express ways?  

Blog Centennial for the Phytophactor

With no fanfare what so ever the Phytophactor has passed his 100th blog. A bit over a year ago the Phytophactor was constructed as preventative medicine for mental health, and so far it’s working fine. According to my blog log, my blogging centennial,was passed a couple of blogs and a couple of weeks ago. Of course I didn’t get there in 100 days as other things, like having a life, have kept the frequency of new blogs modest. Blogging has not become an obsession, and I don’t waste time doing it when I should be doing something else. Blogging has been fun, and a chance to blow off steam in a relatively harmless manner, although I did manage to frost off a couple of colleagues who thought I was specifically referring to them. So did whoever called their attention to Phytophactor. I thought many of the zanier botanical and gardening tidbits would generate more comments from curious visitors. But this is now certain, an awful lot of people wanted to know if an artichoke is a fruit or a vegetable. The more esoteric topics, like why spoiled things are yucky, have generated no reaction at all which makes me think something is rotten out there. Even posting pictures of pretty flowers failed to excite readers, with one exception, the lovely Holly. Sigh.

So the Phactor is glad he’s doing this largely for himself because while the feedback has been positive, it’s been minimal. Let's see now how those congratulations pour in.

High tech field research

You hear so much about the high cost of technology to do research, and I wonder what all the fuss is about? Field season for the Phactor’s high tech research is just beginning (it never waits until the semester is over). So let’s see how the check list is going.

1. Find 100 one meter square quadrats after prairie has been burned. Check. Three “permanent” metal marker tags missing (par), all the locator spikes in place (wow!). Great! No careful work with high tech tape measures to find missing quadrats.

2. Eradication treatment. The prime subject of this research is a parasitic plant, so one of the treatments is to remove it from the nearly half the quadrats (less controls). Of course the plant also has to be eradicated from a 50 cm demilitarized zone around each quadrat, so the total area per quadrat is 4 meters square. So you get the idea, it’s sort of like removing a lot of dandelions from 200 square meters of a very weedy lawn. The cost of the high tech tool is not prohibitive, about $4 at any Ace Hardware.

3. Straighten back. Now that the Phactor thinks about it, his field research could be funded by the profits from converting his field work into an exercise video, “Weed your way to wellness”. Lose 10 lbs in 6 weeks and have publishable data to boot. Order yours now!

Plant blog carnival - Berry Go Round #16

For more interesting plant blogs, pop over to Quiche Moraine for the latest carnival.

Out with a whimper

Today ends another semester, and as many of them as the Phactor has seen you would think he would get used to the fact that semesters, especially in the spring, always end with an anticlimatic whimper rather than going out with a bang.

I’m not big on fate, but every now and then coincidence provides you with quite a gotcha. Today’s Doonesbury that ran in our local paper, a rerun from years ago, hits so close to home that one is tempted to wonder about higher forces at work. But if such higher forces existed, they’d have way more important things to do than tweak a botanist.