Field of Science


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.

Fish and visitors smell in three days.

As usual Ben Franklin (Poor Richard's Almanac, 1736) knew what he was talking about.

Whew! The Phactor is so happy to be back to the dull, monotonous routine of his colorless life. Entertaining family, visitors, and friends is very fatiguing, and just so you don’t think me an antisocial curmudgeon, let me qualify this by saying, when in large numbers, like over 100!
It sounds so reasonable, so sane. Your roommate wants a garden party for her birthday. Who could object? But just as you must sweep the floor and make the beds before visitors arrive, for a garden party you also must cut the lawn, tidy up the gardens, nuke many weeds, plant some plants, and hope for good weather. Unfortunately this is no small matter especially when one has no parlor maids or gardeners to do your bidding.

Family and friends came from all over, and since the birthday girl did not know so many of her siblings and other relatives would be coming, it was a big, happy surprise. And it was a glorious evening what with the garden looking so charming, the exceedingly fine blue grass band, the quite excellent food and catering, and the endless supply of wine and the quite finite supply of beer (who can predict?). Was it worth all the effort? Well, yes! Just as you are never the same age again, you only have so many chances to get together with all the people you like.

And in case a putative family member happens upon this, and thinks this all sounds too familiar, the Phactor must remind people one of the reasons for writing an anonymous blog is to keep people guessing. Oh, but don’t think I don’t care. Let me count the ways I love my relatives: far away, from a distance, at arm’s length, out of state, out of control, out on parole, out of the country, out in space, in another dimension, over there, overseas, over the hill and dale, asleep, and in my dreams.

The Phactor should be ready for another one of these parties in just about a decade. Mark your calendars.

Japanese beetle invastion - 2009

Japanese beetles have extended their range into my local portion of Lincolnland in just the past 3 or so years much to the dismay of gardeners. And the Phactor is not immune; his gardens are being consumed as much as everyone else's. So what can you do?

Japanese beetle traps are not the answer. Studies have shown that such traps can attract way more beetles than they kill, so while you may feel good about all the beetle bodies piling up, the local population may be higher than it would be without the trap.

Spraying plants with insecticide is not really the answer either both because no one likes spreading such nasty stuff around, especially on plants that you are planning to consume, but in small gardens, the beetles still cause intolerable damage. Last year they denuded two young apple trees while I was away for a long weekend. If the trees were sprayed, the beetles would eat until the toxin kills them and then they would be replaced by more beetles who eat until the toxin kills them, and so on until my trees are again denuded. Since the object is to prevent the trees from being eaten, not to kill beetles, this year the Phactor took another approach. Evaluation is continuing.

Light weight netting can be purchased at many fine fabric stores; the ladies are usually quite helpful. So far the netting tents over the young apple trees, held in place by extremely high tech clothes pins, seem to be doing an excellent job of thwarting the voracious beetles. Finer wedding veil voile could also be used to protect green beans or cucumbers from the small beetles that they attract. In the case of the cucumbers it isn't that the beetles eat so much but they transfer a wilt causing bacterium that invariably kills the cucumber plants (and their close relatives, cantelope).

Such netting is quite cheap, a nice alternative to more expensive row coverings.

Do the readers of the Phytophactor have other anti-Japanese beetle methods they would like to share?

Do weeds grow faster?

Having just spent the 4th of July weekend trying to get caught up on my garden, a common gardening question that the Phactor has been asked many times comes to mind. Do weeds just seem to grow faster than other garden plants?

No, in general weeds really do grow faster than other garden plants. Here’s why.
Weeds are plants that are adapted to disturbed habitats. In nature disturbed habitats occur wherever something messes things up, and they can be small places like the disturbance of an uprooted fallen tree or big like after fire or storm damage. Such disturbed habitats are generally short-lived patches in unpredictable locations, so weeds are speed demons of growth and reproduction because they must reach reproductive maturity in a hurry and make lots of seeds so that some of their offspring have chance of dispersing to a newly disturbed place.

OK, here’s the bad news. Gardening and agriculture are disturbances. Human activities have provided weeds with opportunities for success on a massive scale. Doesn’t that just rub your rhubarb? The more you do the more disturbances you create. And since as a biological safety precaution against unforeseen weeding, weed seeds do not all germinate at once, and this weed seed bank in your soil is ready to replace all those weeds you worked so hard to remove.

Rather than be discouraged, the Phactor recommends you come to terms with weeds on a philosophical level. Such an attitude adjustment is greatly aided by sitting back and enjoying your garden with the help of a tall, cold mojito.

Berry-go-Round #18 plant blog roundup

Thanks to Sally, here's another great roundup of plant/gardening/nature related blogs over at Foothills Fancies. (The Phactor wonders, "What are hills?" Lincolnland has overpasses; are they similar?) In particular the Phactor is greatful for having this blog called to his attention: Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog. The loss of genetic biodiversity is a very serious issue. It took nature a long time to generate all that diversity, and then it gets squandered by short-sighted humans. OK, better stop before getting carried away with the sermon/lecture.

Ask a botanist, dummy

Nobody ever has a botanist around when they need one, and nobody ever thinks they need one. Nobody ever asks a botanist for answers to botanical things. (I told the local poison control center MDs that if I ever see them thumbing through a Peterson field guide again attempting to ID a plant some kid had eaten I'd scream. Imagine what an MD would do if they found me drawing a line an someone's belly while consulting a step-by-step pictoral guide to an appendectomy! And I know more about vertebrate anatomy than they know about botany.) And very few people ever take enough botany, heck, any botany, to know even the simplest things. So here’s some botanical stupidity of the most basic sort.

A British military campaign in Afghanistan is reported to have seized “1.3 tonnes of poppy seeds destined to become part of the opium crop that generates $400m a year for the Taliban”. Now that is one heck of a lot of poppy seeds. “Major Rupert Whitelegge, the commander of the company in charge of the area, tugged at one of the enormously heavy white sacks. "They are definitely poppy seeds," he said emphatically.” But of course they weren’t poppy seeds but mung beans. This was determined after an “analysis of a sample carried out by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation in Kabul…”

Right. I don’t know how many nanoseconds it would have taken me to recognize mung beans, but it’s faster than I can say “bean”. What kind of damned analysis is necessary to identify a mung bean? “Dr Samuel Kugbei, the chief FAO technical adviser in the Afghan capital, said: "We have been waiting all day to see these dangerous materials …and now we see that they are just mung beans!" Good old Dr. Kugbei is sounding like one of those MD type doctors who avoided botany like the plague in college. And it raises the question of what kind of technical advisor working for the UN’s FAO who wouldn’t recognize mung beans? He's technical advisor on food and agriculture who doesn't recognize major crop plants?

And of course, poppy seeds themselves aren’t dangerous in any way, shape, or form, which is why we put them on rolls and bagels (yes, those poppy seeds!). You have to grow them into poppy plants, and then wound the developing fruits, and then harvest the gummy sap that oozes out (opium) before you have anything dangerous. Mung beans (an Asian native) are a fairly new crop introduction to Afghanistan, so maybe that could explain the ignorance of some government official.

This is just one more example of "military intelligence". “Well, it looked like a grenade at first, but it turned out to just be an ear of corn.” Ha, even the military can’t get away from botanical influences. Grenade is named after pomegranates and the old practice of a bride throwing the fruit on the ground to see how many seeds pop out, which divines how many children she will have.