Field of Science

Experimental design

Field work is generally very time consuming, but for many of us that is our laboratory. This week the effort is to add a new wrinkle to a long term experiment. Central to all of this is a hemiparasitic plant, green and photosynthetic, but an obligate parasite on surrounding plants. So if parasitic, why be green; and if green, why be photosynthetic? Part of the answer is nutrients, particularly nitrogen, in a limited environment, which is what this hemiparasite obtains from its hosts. In the process it further limits their growth, but the additional light may improve its photosynthesis. So shade was added, nutrients were added, and the hemiparasite removed (several prior posts have bemoaned this treatment), and of course, all the possible combinations of these three treatments. After three years there have been changes, and now the invertebrate population is being sampled to see under what conditions their numbers, species diversity, and ecological roles have changed. Sounds like fun doesn't it? But sticky traps are a devil to deal with because they are really, really sticky. So soon an answer may be forthcoming. Predictions: the hemiparasite's presence with increase diversity; additional nutrients will reduce diversity. If only data weren't so hard to get, this would all be fun.

Wanted - A Patron of Botany

Two things grieve me severely. 1. My back isn’t getting any younger and more and more of my research takes place at ground level, or so it seems. 2. Students who miss out on first-hand scientific experiences because of too few resources. And that is the point of today’s missive; the Phactor needs some patrons of botany. Artists have patrons; why not botanists? Surely somebody out there with deep pockets, and actually they don’t have to be that deep, wants to support students interested in botanical research. The Laboratory for Plant Identification and Conservation stands ready to accept your charitable donations. A mere $10,000 a year would keep several students in groceries while happily engaged in research. A mere $100,000 would endow the laboratory and the herbarium collection within providing perpetual support. Just so potential patrons understand, not a cent goes to support the Phytophactor; that’s Mrs. Phactor’s role. And those young minds (and backs!) are needed for the future of botany. While our government daily fritters away billions as if pennies on dubious international escapades, the educational needs of tomorrow’s botanists, apprenticed by engaging in today’s research under the tutorage of experienced and worldly scholars, are not being met. The funding rate from the National Science Foundation has fallen to the lowest level (less than 5% of grants are funded) in my entire career, so needless to say governmental support is far from filling even the minimal research needs, especially those of us who are not at large research universities, those of us who deal with undergraduates rather than post-docs. Failing to support basic research is just one more way that our governmental system is mortgaging our country’s future. But rather than castigate any individuals for having accumulated a large share of this nation’s wealth, how about allowing some of it to trickle down to the grass roots of botanical research? Every Hummer that drives by represents one person with misplaced values; for the difference in price between an impractical and a practical vehicle, you could support a student’s research for a year. You’d never regret your decision. You’d see your name in the scientific literature. You’d be invited to our fabulous end of harvest gala balls (we serve pizza, or sometimes fry a turkey). And we'd love you, really. Your support would allow a clever and committed waitress to rush to a few less tables each evening carrying a few less plates of pasta, a job she needs to make ends meet even after working in the field all day. We’ve got some great youth in this country, and we have lots of interesting things for them to do, but they can’t eat grass. Contact the Phytophactor at his google-mail account with any serious inquiries.

Friday Fabulous Flower - Swamp Milkweed

Too many things in the news have upset the Phactor's wa, like finding out our former governor was more intent on improving his own lot than serving the people who elected him, an unfortunate and common trend here in Lincolnland, so to regain my balance with the universe here is a post about a really nice flower. This Friday's fabulous flower is one of those native species that has a just splendid floral display that attracts butterflies to your garden. Funny that the swamp milkweed (Ascelpias incarnata) should pop up on my botanical radar just after the weather gods have dumped a bit more than 4" of rain on us since last Friday. This plant will do well in a low place that may prove to be a bit too wet for other species. There are a number of cultivars and color selections out there, but the wild type looks just fine.

Native American fruit tree quiz

Here's a nice native North American tree in fruit growing pretty near its northern most cold hardiness limit in Madison Wisconsin, which is a bit beyond its natural range and surprisingly far north for a member of this family. Anyone recognize this plant in fruit?

Botanical Geek Tour 2010

Every now and then the Phactor, Mrs. Phactor, the Dean of Green and his lovely wife take a few days to tour botanical gardens, a passtime inspired by a book called 1001 gardens you must see before you die. This is one of those gifts that will cost me hundreds of times more than the original purchase price. Thus far we are only 4% through the list. The grand plan was to cross about 5 gardens off the list with a visit to Barcelona, unfortunately none of those lottery tickets was a winner, so our scaled back plans took us north to Wisconsin to visit Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin in Spring Green, the Olbrich Botanical Garden in Madison, and then back into Lincolnland to visit the Anderson Japanese Garden in Rockford. Taliesin is in the book, but not for any good botanical reason (patio garden shown), although the tour was quite interesting and well worth taking, it's for the architecture and learning more about the infamous Mr. Lloyd. Go see it before it falls apart. Seriously. Wandering rural roads can lead to other finds like the world's best coleslaw in Cross Plains, and you know, it just might be. Both botanical gardens are relatively small, but both are very well done, very handsome, with some very interesting plantings, landscapes, and plants. The rose garden at Olbrich is one of the most handsome of any garden's; the Phactor usually avoids the geometric rows of roses common at most gardens, reminders that quite ugly, ungainly plants can still have pretty flowers.

Have you thanked a bumblebee today?

Land plants had a problem; they inherited swimming sperm from their algal ancestors, but they no longer lived in an aquatic environment. Flowering plants, the most recent group of land plants to appear, have solved the “swimming sperm” problem by having evolved miniaturized haploid males that do the dispersing over distances far too great for any sperm to swim. These tiny male organisms are called pollen, and unlike most other land plants who used wind or water to disperse their spores, over 80% of flowering plants use biotic dispersers – animals who are rewarded or seduced or deceived into acting as pollen vectors. Over 200,000 insect species act as pollinators – mostly bees, butterflies, moths, beetles, and flies. About 1000 species of birds and mammals (mostly bats) also function as pollinators. This biotic interaction is quite important to our species because quite a large number of the plants that we depend upon require pollinators to reproduce, and in the case of fruit and seed crops, to produce what we want. So this week is set aside to celebrate pollination. Woo, hoo! Here beetles and butterflies participate in the pollination of wild carrot. Such wild pollinators provide billions of dollars of serve to us, yet too often they are taken for granted and our activities may be reducing many of their populations.

Real pubs versus college town bars

Lliving in college towns has many perks, the art, the music, the plays, the lectures, the various events, but really good pubs are not usually not one of them. The reason for this is simple; the drinking establishments cater to the least common denominator, which while not the most sophisticated drinking crowd, is certainly spending more money, and the economic bottom line dictates the outcome. The usual college bar is way too large, way too crowded, way too noisy, way to ordinary in terms of beverages, and worst, way too young. It’s hard to enjoy a pub where the beers on tap all have “lite” in their names, where you cannot hear or be heard without shouting, and worst of all, you are way more than twice the average age. The days when my shoes sticking to the floor did not matter are long past. As an alternative there are sports bars, where you are surrounded by gigantic TV screens at every angle blaring inane commentary, surrounded by fanatics enjoying the vicarious pleasures of reacting to the joys of winning and the agonies of defeat all the while knowing that the actual sporting participants could not give a damn about who is paying their inflated checks or cheering/booing for them, and worst of all, you are way more than twice the average IQ. So it was a special joy to find myself in a real pub over the weekend, one filled with people of all ages and sorts, with families, and real live entertainers who knew who Patsy Cline and Janice Joplin were and whose music did not ruin your hearing, and lastly, one sophisticated enough to serve pints of dead Irish guy (half Guinness, half Rogue Dead Guy Ale).

Friday Fabulous Flower - Tigerlily

This week’s Friday Fabulous Flower is being posted on Thursday because the Phactor is off on a short, local botanical geek tour and quite possibly some component will be blogged next week. Stay tuned. Although it seems rather early in June everything else is early so why should this tiger lily be any different. Standing nearly 6 feet tall with vividly orange flowers this is without question one of my favorite lilies (Lilium lancifolium – formerly Lilium tigrinum). Now why a lily with heavily spotted flowers would be called “tiger” rather than say “leopard” raises an interesting question. It isn’t striped. My companion in gardening gets credit for rescuing this beastly lily from an overgrown hedgerow where it had not flowered in years so what it was precisely was unknown to her. With a couple of years in a better location, it’s vigor restored, the tiger now stands guard next to our garden gate. Enjoy.

Botanical images - winners!

Every year the Botanical Society of America has a student image contest with winners receiving travel awards to attend the annual society meeting. Sometimes the images reflect the research interests of the students, and other times they just happened upon something cool and got a good picture. Take a look at the winners and see if you can identify the plant in the winning image. This plant's stunning seeds, whose seed coats probably mimic fleshy red arils to entice birds to ingest and disperse them. The plant is a vine and many years ago yours truly took a similar picture of this viny plant clambering over a small tree, which happened to be Strychnos nux-vomitoria making this the deadliest picture ever.

A new app: Use your cell phone to plant trees

The luddite part of the Phactor really dislikes cell phones (something mentioned in passing before); they're even harder to get away from than fast food joints. In the olden days you had to step into a phone booth to make a call when away from home or office; now with no privacy what so ever, everyone gets to find out just how pathetically uninteresting your life really is. So using your cell phone to plant a tree strikes me as most excellent idea. In a win-win situation, old cell phones (only old ones?) are mailed in and recycled rather than planted in a land fill where nothing will ever grow again, and the materials finance tree plantings. But they used an image of a damaged seedling on their web site! Come on people, show a cell phone shoved into the dirt, along with the obnoxious twit holding it. Let's see what grows.

So you want to identify a plant?

Recent comments about the Friday fabulous flower demonstrate once again how different are the perceptions of "professional botanists" and most everyone else. When faced with an unknown plant your choices are to ask a professional (and please remember that a tip sufficient to purchase a halfway decent bottle of wine, or about 10% of a botanist's monthly salary, which ever is larger, is only polite) or use some sort of plant identification manual. Picture books are OK for amateurs, and this includes the physician that was thumbing through a Peterson wild flower field guide as yours truly entered the local poison control center after having been urgently summoned to identify an ingested plant. The Peterson wild flower guide for the NE North America is a quite nice enough book for hikes, but bloody hell, if your life depends on it, you be heading for trouble. Imagine the reaction if said physician caught the Phytophactor thumbing through a picture guide called "Appendectomy made easy" with a patient just waiting for my assistance. Oh, the asymmetry would be amazing! So when advanced students take plant identification they use a field guide like the 900 page (no pictures) Manual of Vascular Plants of the NE USA. This manual employs what we in the plant ID biz call keys; tables of choices, usually two, and if you consistently make the right choice based upon what you observe, it leads to a family, a genus, and a species. Ta da! But as my students soon discover, you must be both careful and discerning to be successful. Identification begins by categorizing the basic characteristics which places you into a key that will lead to a family identification. Here's the list of characteristics for selecting general keys (sections). Note that the authors rather expect that you can recognize pteridophytes, monocots, and woody plants right out of the gate. And while the floral characteristics look pretty picky, this is just the beginning. One of my students this spring only made two errors all semester! You can admire his proficiency, but in this business experience really really counts, so the big guy (PP) is still the big guy where is counts the most.
Section 1 – General Key to other sections
Section 2 – Pteridosperms & Clubmosses (non-seed vascular plants)
Section 3 – Gymnosperms
Section 4 – Epiphytes and branch parasites
Section 5 – Inflorescences modified into bulblets or tufts of leaves
Section 6 – Monocots
Section 7 – Dicot trees, shrubs, & woody vines
Section 8 – Herbaceous dicots; unisexual flowers
Section 9 – Herbaceous dicots; perfect flowers, no perianth
Section 10 - Herbaceous dicots; perfect flowers, one whorl of perianth, inferior ovary
Section 11 - Herbaceous dicots; perfect flowers, one whorl of perianth, superior ovary
Section 12 - Herbaceous dicots; perfect flowers, calyx & corolla present, two or more ovaries
Section 13 - Herbaceous dicots; perfect flowers, calyx & corolla present, inferior ovary (1)
Section 14 - Herbaceous dicots; perfect flowers, calyx & corolla present, flowers bilaterally symmetical, one superior ovary, & stamens more numerous than divisions of the corolla.
Section 15 - Herbaceous dicots; perfect flowers, calyx & corolla present, flowers radially symmetrical, one superior ovary, & stamens more numerous than divisions of the corolla.
Section 16 - Herbaceous dicots; perfect flowers, calyx & corolla present, flowers with separate petals, one superior ovary, stamens as many as petals or fewer.
Section 17 - Herbaceous dicots; perfect flowers, calyx & corolla present, flowers radially symmetrical, corolla tube present, one superior ovary, stamens as many as lobes of the corolla.
Section 18 - Herbaceous dicots; perfect flowers, calyx & corolla present, corolla tube present, either very bilaterally symmetrical OR stamens fewer than lobes of corolla.

For the record, both shoot stars and nightshades would be found using Section 17; the snowbell would be in Section 13, except it is a woody plant, so you would use Section 7 (and so is Solanum jasminiodes except it isn't in this manual at all).

Friday Fabulous Flower

Very few people in the midwest are familiar with this slender shrub even though Styrax americanus, American snowbell, occurs here in Lincolnland. Probably few people spend time hiking through wet woods or swamps of the southern tier where this shrub generally grows. It appears to grow quite well in less wet situations where it makes a nice, delicate addition to a shady border. My seedling has taken 5 years to reach a flowering size, but until this year it was growing in a very shady spot with very heavy soil, neither conducive to a good start. Flowering occurs in the late spring at about the same time as its better known relative the silverbell tree. Although the flowers are on the small side, even a small bush produces large numbers hanging below the branches.

Botanical Street Art

Often it's strange how non-botanists depict plants especially flowers and leaves. So often they seem so ordinary, so plain, so here's a bit of kinetic street art, plants sprouting from an art gallery's marquee and their flowers pin-wheeling and leaves flapping in the breeze. Wouldn't that be a cool pollen dispersal mechanism? And if you decide you want to see this, you might be able if attending next year's international botanical congress.

“Cause the fog’s getting thicker”

A colleague who discovered that her collaborator had an alter ego as the Phytophactor asked a fundamental question, which is, why blog? A bit of contemplation brought into focus an answer that may seem narcissistic even though a nice enough botanical appellation, but the simple fact remains that the Phactor blogs because after so many years of lecturing students, of dispensing botanical nougats, it seems only natural to spread upon the WWW, albeit rather thinly, this accumulated wealth of knowledge, not to mention very well founded opinions that any reasonable person would agree with.
This brings up the apply named Fog index, a measure of readability. Any writing that seeks a close-to-universal understanding generally requires a Fog index of less than 8. According to some sources the Bible, Shakespeare, and Mark Twain all have Fog Indexes of about 6, and this surprises me greatly as the Bible has never seemed very readable, probably a translational problem, or thinking too much, and the index undoubtedly was based on the Hebrew original that any learned person would prefer. Time, Newsweek, and the Wall St. Journal average about 11, 12 being a high school reading level. You can understand the WSJ being written rather simplistically given the target audience, and weekly new magazines sold out when they started writing them for high school students to use in current events classes. But what about something smart people read like The Economist or Scientific American or The Phytophactor?
Is my purpose to be easily read by a large segment of the population? Clearly with a mighty 18 followers (up date, 19 followers as of today, a 5.6% increase!) of which somewhat over 10% are blood relatives checking for utter foolishness on the author’s part, my blog readership falls just short of being a large segment of the population, and this is well because the Fog index of the 1st paragraph above is a 24.4. Did it seem clear enough to you? The very misguided folks at Nature blogs say The Phytophactor is the 13th most popular among science blogs they list, meaning that they probably rank exactly 13 science related blogs, but certainly suggesting something more akin to a “larger segment” of readers, but what is relevant here was they claim the Fog index of my blog is 61.5! Take that Samuel Clemens! This certainly speaks well of 19 followers, and not well of a large segment of the population, but one wonders if nature blog people confused readability with the author’s age? However least you worry about inflating my ego, the more popular and up to date Nature Blogs Network ranks the Phytophactor at a very modest 448th out of 1118, but since that includes all those birdy picture blogs, a much more respectable 21st ranking among plant related blogs.
So how the sam hill can you write with a Fog index of less than 8? Darn, a two syllable (double darn, double double darn) word snuck in there and maybe sam hill was a cheat. No way me can do; Shakespeare he safe. Keep up the good work people. Eschew those blogs with Fog indexes of less than 20; they’re for everyone else.

Garden Flowering Log – May

May is a month of transition here in the upper Midwest, a change from spring flowering to summer flowering, and summer has certainly come early this year. Still some plants have been a big surprise. The Calycanthus-Sinocalycanthus featured a few weeks ago began flowering on the 1st of May, and it’s still in flower, and even though still a quite small shrub (~4’) the large, white flowers have provided an interesting and significant display. Although rather unusual around here, our gardens have 4 large American fringe trees that display a great purple haze high above; only wish we knew from whence they came so many years ago.

Through April 130 plants had flowered in our gardens. May contributed another 66 bringing the total to 196, just shy of 200. Here’s the flowering log for May:
May 1 – Calycanthus x Sinocalycanthus, tall pinks
May 2 – beautybush, coral bells, yellow daylily, meadow rues, yellow Trillium
May 3 – Rugosa Rose, American smoke tree
May 4 – American fringe tree
May 5 - Tuliptree
May 6 – Prairie stars (Amsonia), Robin Hill Azaleas, Canadian anemone, Siberian Iris, Virginia waterleaf, early bearded Iris, rock garden pinks, sedums, candy tuft, red raspberry, golden chain tree, blue fescue
May 8 – bastard balm
May 11 – Calla lily
May 12 – spiderwort, goat’s beard (Aruncus), blue flax, Chinese fringe tree, viburnums, creeping thyme, knock-out rose
May 13 – herbaceous peony
May 15 – yellow flag Iris, bush clematis, yellow false indigo
May 17 – sage
May 18 – white Deutzia, large flowered beard tongue, chives
May 19 – sweet bay Magnolia
May 20 – purple Deutzia
May 21 – Kousa dogwood
May 22 – Catawba Rhododendrons, gray dogwood, gout wort, pale spiderwort
May 23 – red spirea, peach-leafed bellflower
May 24 – Persian cornflower, Medallion rose, privet, gold-flame honeysuckle, clematis
May 25 – Asiatic lily, catalpa tree, small-flowered beard tongue, thin-leafed heal-all, Takesimana bellflower, snowflake Hydrangea
May 26 - Missouri evening primrose, yellow loosestrife
May 27 – sweet spire
May 30 – sundrops evening primrose, standard thymes

A real resurrection (fern)

Is there a plant grower anywhere who has never accidentally let a plant dry out and die? Doh! Dehydration is such an annoyance. Yet there are a number of organisms that can dry out and survive quite well. Slime molds and yeasts can be dehydrated and survive for months. Some mosses and leafy liverworts can dehydrate, and rehydrate, on a daily basis, and sometimes for even longer periods of time. But when you get to vascular plants the ability to survive dehydration becomes rare perhaps because the whole idea of vascular tissue, cuticle, and stomata is to maintain a hydrated state, as long as the roots can replace the water being continually lost through transpiration. Of course comparing vascular plants to mosses and liverworts is not fair because the former are diploids and the latter haploids (explanatory link). But the point is that among vascular plants the ability to dehydrate and survive is rare, and no matter what, no one really seems to understand how even a slime mold can dehydrate into a brittle piece of yellow cytoplasm and then blob itself back to life when water is added.
One exception among vascular plants is the resurrection fern, Polypodium polypodioides. Sometimes they are sold as novelty items; just add water and the brittle fern rehydrates and greens up (see image). Cool. A recent report suggests that this ability is linked to appropriately named proteins called dehydrins, which appear to prevent cell wall damage from the “wrinkling up” that occurs when cells dry out. Could such a gene be used to engineer drought resistant crops? Maybe. And this is another example of why the powers that be, and that includes all of the people holding the purse strings, should encourage, rather than discourage, biologists to study a diversity of organisms. You can just imagine the derision a grant proposal would get from the USDA if you said you were going to study a cute little fern. Sure kid, how nice, now if you want money from us study corn, which never, ever suffers from droughts.

Beer Travel Quiz

Some time has passed since having a beer -- travel quiz, so here's a new one for those of you who, like the Phytophactor, record and document their travels in food and drink. So where was this beer consumed? A correct response will include the continent, country, and city.

Helping Students with Research

Hi! I'm a student. I need your help. I'm searching a botanist and I found you. Can you help me with my research project related to Sansevieria plant. Can you please send me the chemical components of it and can you help me what research proposal i will do in Sansevieria plant. Please. thank you.

This type of request is not at all uncommon, and while helping students has always been my focus, there are times when you can't do much. Firstly, the request was left as a comment to an old blog and there is no way to send a reply directly. Secondly, they don't even know what they are asking when they want to know the chemical components of a living organism. This is rather like asking for a list of all the people who live in your city. More likely this student is interested in knowing if Sansevieria (mother-in-law's tongue) has any medicinal uses (nothing of note). Thirdly, the way the student asks the last question suggests they are generally clueless with regard to science, and in particular because they give no indication of what type of question they wish to ask or in what area of biology.
This is not so unusual and we have to coach undergraduates through the process of generating a viable research question all the time. So you begin to wonder where the teacher is or what indeed they have done or are doing to get the process under way, or to generate an alternate hypothesis, a student wakes up on the 1st of June are realizes some sort of project is due and somehow manages to search on botany, a suitably narrow topic (not), and lands on my blogosphere doorstep wrapped in a blanket in a basket with a note pinned to them asking me to take them under my wing and do their project for them. Not a chance!
But since you get points for wanting to study a plant, here's some help. Why this plant? Are you growing it? Do you know what it looks like? Could you recognize one if you saw one? In what ways is this plant different from "typical" plants? What do these differences suggest about the type of habitat this plant is adapted to? Plants are composed of just three things, stems, leaves, and roots. How do these things each contribute to this plant's form? Can you identify these parts? How are the leaves arranged on the stem, and how do you know whether you have a leaf or a stem? When you hold up the leaves of many plants to the light you can see the veins. What do you see with this plant? What is the explanation of what you see or not see? What is the primary function of leaves and given the leaf form in this genus, what can you predict about how these leaves differ in function from typical leaves? Now how would you go about verifying it? And so on. You see, science starts with observation. And then you pose a possible explanation or prediction, and then you try to figure out a way to falsify your explanation. Yes, you must try to shoot down your own idea, and the reason is that logically speaking you cannot prove it true. However you may well get data that supports your idea giving it credibility, which is what we all hope for. Then you take your observations, your idea, and your plan for testing your idea and use them to compose a research proposal.
Let's just hope this assignment is not due tomorrow.

Berry-go-Round #28 - May

The 28th BGR round up of plant/botanical blogs for May 2010 is up over at Greg Laden's blog. Unfortunately the Phactor rather ran out of time in May and failed to submit anything, and for that he is quite sorry and apologizes to the people who made this happen. Particularly since so many people worked so hard to create a new badge and an easy blog submission site. But they did not make the days any longer.

And the end of May also means it's time for the next installment of our garden's flowering log, so stay tuned.