Field of Science

Tomatoes or grass?

As a youth, one of the characters that lived nearby was always getting us to help with various projects, and invariably we'd ask, "What will we be paid?" And his answer was always something like, "Two bucks and all the grass you can eat." So given the choice, tomatoes or grass, most people don't have to think very long. Thus it is nothing, if not sensible, to use your little bit of Lincolnland to grow tomatoes and other garden produce rather than having a monoculture of grass. Oh, but if you live in the village of Northbrook they may ask you rip out your garden and plant lawn for no other reason than your tomatoes are in front of your house rather than behind it, and some stupid ass has such a stunted aesthetic sense that they think a boring monoculture of grass looks better than a tomato garden. Clearly, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is involved, and what brings more happiness than gardening and picking a vine ripe tomato? Song writer Guy Clark once observed that there are "only two things that money can't buy...and that's true love and home grown tomatoes." At what point does some bureaucratic git decide what is and is not prohibited? A garden need be neither weedy nor ill kept, which is what most lawn appearance ordinances prohibit. Attempts to define weeds as "aliens" will not work to eliminate tomatoes in favor of lawn grasses, since neither are natives, and there are probably more weeds in most lawns than in most kitchen gardens. Surely you can eliminate grass completely and plant annual and perennial ornamentals, and what is more ornamental than big, red fruits? But if the sight of a nice garden really offends, then my suggestion is that the garden be surrounded by a picket fence, lined with sunflowers, and the tomatoes and a machine gun nest camouflaged within, then when neighbors come calling for some tomatoes, or some petition passer comes prowling, both can get what they so richly deserve. Why next they'll be wanting gardeners to sit in the back of buses, step off sidewalks to make way for lawn mowers, and to eat plastic, store-bought tomatoes! Hmm, a couple of those tomatoes have a spot or two on them and are beginning to rot. We'll have to throw them away, tonight.

Hot and dry dooms a few plants

Really hot and dry weather means curtains for some plants, and for a couple of the Phactor's babies that were struggling a bit anyways this stress has proven too much. Sadly, after getting off to a good start, Stewartia pseudocamellia, has been in decline ever since last winter. It is now thoroughly dead, most quite and completely dead, which is a shame because the flowers (seen in the right column for the past couple of months) are great. Will probably try this species again but in a different location. A couple of small azaleas have bought the farm, more drought victims; my main rhodoe bed has a nice irrigation system, but these were in different and sunnier locations. One of two Siberian cypresses (Microbiota decussata) is struggling, and even after a relocation it's chances are slim. They can handle zone 2 cold, but our hot dry summers are pretty challenging. Most of the other new plants are doing fair to good and should make it through, but with any chance of rain still 4-5 days away, the sprinkler will have to stand vigilant.

Late summer food fest

Some time back Mrs. Phactor and yours truly auctioned off a dinner for 8 at a fund raising event. Today is the day the goods are to be delivered. To take best advantage of late summer fare the dinner theme is sort of a Mediterranean mixed bag, except for dessert, where a particular recipe caught the eye of Mrs. Phactor, but who is going to argue with coconut key lime pie in a coconut macadamia nut crust? The dining experience starts with an Aperol martini. Aperol is an aperitif flavored with rhubarb, and it makes a quite nice drink, ever so slightly bitter, and nicely reddish pink. Starters will consist of cacik, a cucumber and Greek yogurt mixture, and an aubergine carviar on pita bread. Then we will switch to a very cold, very dry Spanish rose wine to serve with gazpacho complete with homemade croutons. The main course is grilled marinated pork kebabs with vegetable kebabs on the side. This will be followed by an orange, kalamata olive, and cilantro salad served with a dry Spanish white wine, an Alberino or white rioja. Lastly of course, the pie, and then a small finisher of dry fino or amantillado sherry. The festivities will take place in our garden pavilion. We do so hope they think they got their monies worth. But if it doesn't rain pretty soon, there won't be much garden to look at.

Friday Fabulous Flower - Yellow False Foxglove

True foxgloves generally refer to the genus Digitalis. False foxgloves refer to a number of plants in what was formerly the snapdragon family, now fragmented and variously assigned based upon new phylogenetic findings, but all have large diameter tubular corollas, the sort of thing a fox might use as gloves. Today's fabulous flower is Aureolaria grandiflora, native to dry upland forest glades and river bluffs here in Lincolnland. The big yellow flowers are pretty showy, and the plant is pretty handsome, but it's not been introduced into horticulture because of one interesting fact: it's a root parasite that specializes on oak trees. It's also green, so we call it a hemiparasite, and that's one of the attractions for botanists. Why be green if you're a parasite, and conversely, why be a parasite if you're green? All such former members of the snapdragon family are presently placed in the Broom-rape family (Orobanchaceae). These are generally pollinated by bumblebees that crawl inside to tube to reach the nectar below. The top of this flower is to the upper right and the anthers and stigma are positioned in the "top" of the tube.

Thursday Fabulous Fungus

No regular fungus feature is planned, but this was just too fine to not share. Found this very attractive fungus while exploring a prairie glade high on a river bluff. The common name is jack-0-lantern because it is a big pumpkin orange mushroom (Omphalotus illudens) and because at night the gills glow with a green luminescence; really spooky the first time you see it. Be careful mushroomers because people mistake this quite poisonous mushroom for Cantharellus cibarius, the golden chantarelle, which is choice eating. This is a good test for your recognition abilities.

What is a plant?

Such a simple question, "What is a plant?" But the answer isn't so simple, and the Phactor very much does not many of the answers found when he googled this question. The ecological perspective appears to prevail, to wit, a plant is a photosynthetic producer. This means that cyanobacter, green sulfur bacteria, green non-sulfur bacteria, heliobacteria, and purple bacteria are by this definition plants. OK rather unsatisfying for a number of reasons, but primarily because these are bacteria. At least one definition tried to skirt this problem by inserting the modifier "eukaryotic" (nucleated cells) into the ecological definition. However, among eukaryotic photosynthetic producers are euglenoids, the brown algae, diatoms, and all manner of related phytoplanktonic organisms, and even the quite cool looking chlorarachniophytes, phytoplankton that looks like little green spiders. Except way down at the base of the eukaryotes none of these organisms are related to the green photosynthetic organisms you were first thinking of when you thought of plants, in fact they occupy at least three distinct lineages of organisms. Even if plants are restricted to a single lineage there is disagreement if this constitutes a plant kingdom, members of which are correctly called plants. No one disputes that land plants are plants, and some attempts have been made to narrowly them as the plant kingdom. But these plants have a common ancestry with a group of algal organisms called the Charophytes, and the land plants and charophytes have a common ancestry with the rest of the green algae. Although somewhat more in question, the green algae and land plant lineage is hypothesized to have a common ancestry with red algae, and maybe even some phytoplankton called glaucophytes. The entire lineage, one of five major eukaryote lineages, could be called a plant kingdom, or if you dislike using the old taxonomic categories, the plant clade. The take home message is that plants are one of many photosynthetic producers, and there are even a few non-photosynthetic producers among prokaryotes, so plant does not equal producer even in an ecological context. A plant is a member of the plant kingdom if only we could all agree on what that constitutes.

Tree clones: immortality and sex

The oldest organisms on Earth are clonal organisms. Plants seem to have the capacity for immortality because they have perpetually juvenile tissues (meristems) capable of continued growth, and further, certain plant cells can dedifferentiate, return to a juvenile state, for wound repair and growth. This capacity is widely used in the vegetative reproduction of economically important plants. But can a clone live forever? Probably not, but they can be very old. The Pando clone of quaking aspen in Utah is estimated to be at least 80,000 years old, and some estimates place its age as 10 times older, which would make this clone as old as our whole species! Not only is Pando impressively old, it’s big covering over 40 hectares and at over 6000 tons is the largest organism alive. Now of course one problem with being an immobile species is that the longer you live the more likely you’ll encounter some environmental disaster, a fire, a flood, a volcanic eruption, a storm, a chain saw. But clones have a sex problem. Since they are all one genetic individual although looking like a whole forest, they cannot produce seed except by exchanging pollen with another individual, and when one individual occupies the whole area that becomes less likely. Even worse recent research suggests that as the clone gets older, it loses sexual vitality because of an accumulation of mutations. These show up in pollen because pollen only has one copy of each gene so if a harmful mutation occurs it may affect the viability of the pollen, a harm that does not affect the tree because in its tissues chromosomes and genes occur in pairs. By the relatively young age of 20,000 fertility can be diminished by more than 3/4s. So the clone may live a long time, but as it ages, its ability to sire offspring and start a new individual drops, but who knows Pando may already have lots of offspring.

D-Day tomorrow - Fall semester begins

During the summer our campus rests in repose, a slumbering giant, although some of us are quite active year around, our presence is nothing in comparison to the thousands of students that swell the population (and coffers) of our small city. The arrival of students for the fall semester is always met with a mixture of anticipation, relief, and dread, depending upon your perspective. Personally it's fun time, and while not eager necessarily, the arrival of the fall semester always engenders a certain energy and high hopes. It also brings the recognition of the failure to have accomplished all of my summer's goals, and how long it will take me to finish my book weighs heavily upon me, and even good friends, and family, are beginning to wonder if it will ever be done. So tomorrow it begins, and my particular task is not guiding freshmen, although that was my main job for many years, but to motive and challenge jaded seniors who either think they have it all figured out, or who just want to be done. And who stands in their way but the Phytophactor demanding their intellectual and energetic best. Those students who meet your challenges are always a joy, and those who do not try are more to be pitied because life will be tough for them. And so it begins. Now to pick out my best Hawaiian shirt because your first impression is important, and the occasion calls for a bit of academic formality.

Gunga Din where are you?

Quite the opposite of Mary's situation, late summer in the upper midwestern USA means hot and dry, and at the best of times August and September are near droughts. Since all the rain is falling elsewhere, with which we agree is unfair, it's time to watch after your plants. Those of us who can't help ourselves, plant exotics that are not well adapted to the rigors of our climate, and you either baby the baby, or watch it whither and die. It takes 1.5 cm (1/2 inch) of rain a week to keep things like a well-mulched kitchen garden going in the summer heat, but that is not enough for a deep soaking, so deeper rooted plants begin to suffer. Last week some storms provided a scant 1/2 inch, and last night's storms not only interrupted a patio dinner, but dumped a whopping 1/4 inch of rain if we were lucky, and that's it for two weeks, and probably unless some more materializes today, all for the rest of this week, so no wonder lots of plants are suffering. If you have newly planted trees or shrubs, meaning plants in the ground for 3 years or less, keep them well watered and that takes more time and water than most people think. The Phactor is hounding our neighbors, not the ones who ripped out everything and planted grass, but the others who planted dozens of new things, a major non-grass landscaping effort that includes several very nice trees of some size, to keep watering, but they just don't water enough. Everyone thinks they can water, but after watching the superficial watering, you sometimes have to dig just below the surface and show them it remains bone dry down there; they always appear surprized. This is why drip irrigation works so well if you can just turn it on, go get a cold drink and forget about your water bills for the next four to five hours or so. Afterall if you spent some pretty good cash on a 2 meter tall golden dawn redwood, what's a few bucks more to keep it alive? Now there is one exception: grassy lawns. Let them bloody well dry out! Yes, they turn brown with the added benefit of needing no mowing, but that's what grass is meant to do in the heat of summer. It goes dormant. And yet the grass mono-culture morons keep dumping on the water. But that's life in the 'burbs.

To my charming nieces and college freshmen everywhere.

Two of my nieces are going to start college in the next week or so; both are above average in looks and intelligence, and both will probably make some of the usual freshman mistakes in adjusting to college before becoming a successful student. Can Uncle Phactor offer some advice? Oh, he can, but shall he? Will it make any difference? Probably not, but please grant me this, on the subject of how to really succeed in education, freshmen are clueless because high schools do little to promote the right types of behavior, and having been a successful student, a professional student if you will so allow, for over 40 years, and having observed nearly countless students flounder (A word that can be used as both a verb and a noun.), some things are known to me to be true. Like many things, success in college is not rocket science, unless you are actually studying rocket science, and these days many other things are more intellectually challenging, but since neither of you have shown any proclivity for engineering, or sadly botany, the queen of sciences, we can move on. Understand this: most students don’t fail at college because they aren’t smart enough; you’re plenty smart enough, but learning to be disciplined, learning to use your smarts effectively, learning to use your time efficiently, that’s what it’s all about, and of course, these are life skills, so these are skills that will be useful to have. Naturally you ignore parents and high school teachers, stupid fools that they are, but you do understand the necessity of coaches don’t you? As athletes move from high school, to college, to professional levels two things are certain: only a tiny fraction who are successful at each level will be a success at the next level, and they still have coaches. Uncle Phactor coaches professional students, and those who may aspire to be so.
1. Get a good night’s sleep – You need your rest, probably at least 8 hrs of sleep, and if you don’t get it, you trudge into my class like a hung over zombie. Not only does this make quite an impression, but people like the Phactor are pretty fast company for you intellectually, not because of more smarts, but because of having professional level skills, even when you’re rested and alert. Why make it easy on me and handicap yourself? It was an unfair contest from the beginning. All-nighters just don’t work; you lose the next day, so timewise it’s break even at best. Now on this matter and the next, Uncle Phactor thinks perhaps the redhead will do better because she is more disciplined, more amenable to coaching, and the brunette still thinks she can burn the candle at both ends and get away with it, granted it’s your family’s way to attempt to do way too much in too little time so this will take some serious coaching to unlearn these bad habits.
2. Eat breakfast – In addition to rest, you need some energy to function well, and some time to wake up and get functioning in the morning. Don’t eat sugary cereal or creamy crisp donuts; the sugar will metabolize too quickly and you’ll be even hungrier later. Telling yourself you don’t need or want breakfast is just another bad habit that needs to be broken. Use the time to think about what you need to do today, and review you plan for the day.
3. Get a little exercise – OK this one is really just a fantasy because it really isn’t going to happen since basically number 1 and 2 were a stretch, but again, you need to have your metabolism going. Even if you just walk briskly from place to place it helps (and please do not do the student shuffle!).
4. Start things immediately – Projects get done not because of some super human effort all at once; they get done bit by bit, piece by piece, day by day. Start with an idea or just a paragraph, and then add to it every day. Oh and that’s how you study to learn something too.
5. Study day by day – Do you need the long-term versus short-term learning lecture? If you sleep on it, most of your short term memory is erased so to speak for a new day, and maybe only 20% was saved in long-term memory. A single repetition on the same day will double the long-term memory learning. This is using your time efficiently because that one review will save you so much time down the road.
6. Be ready for class – Where did you leave off? Scan your textbook material for the class and try to identify what you think is one key or important point. Why? Because professors like me call on people to see if they have anything going on. The deer-in-headlights look and nothing to say is just so impressive.
7. Read and study in quiet solitude – When you read or study do so in absolute solitude, so this means turning off your laptop computer, email, cell phone, ipod (gasp, incredulous looks), TV, and then gag and subdue your roommate (probably just a communications major anyways) for at least 25 mins (You may not have heard of the Pomodoro Technique but stressed students who have used it say the technique works.) . After 25 min of uninterrupted study you can take a 5 min break to check that your cell phone and email are actually still working, that the world did not cease to exist. Then do another pomodoro (25 mins.). Of course this techinique would appeal to a botanist; who can resist a tomato timer? This is the hardest rule of all because today’s students have convinced themselves that they can multitask, and they can’t. Interruptions are concentration and time killers; follow this rule and in the long run you’ll spend less time studying and have more time for screwing around.
Seven rules is enough for now, six really because we discounted # 3, and if you get these going life will be so easy you may have time for a social life, like going to a movie or something once a month. Take it from me, majoring in frisbee and chasing women can be fun, and you do learn a few things, but it doesn't help your grades. Perhaps some of my faithful readers will have a tip or two to share with you.

Friday Fabulous Flower - On Thursday

Wow! Some really sharp readers sent me messages to point out that the Friday Fabulous Flower was posted on Thursday. Well, yes, and what of it? None of my Australia friends complained because it was already Friday for them. And that blog was ready to go and since we were going out in the field on Friday AM to search out a potential study site, it seemed like a good idea. If the implication was that the Phactor was out to lunch, let me straighten you out; he almost always knows the day of the week; the day-date disconnect is his big problem. Let us hope that clears things up.

Friday Fabulous Flower - Cardinal Flower

This Friday's fabulous flower is Lobelia cardinalis, cardinal flower, although other than its scarlet color, it doesn't resemble a bird at all. The plant is usually about a meter tall, and in the late summer a stand of cardinal flower can make a pretty spectacular display rising above their favorite roadside ditch betraying their preference for wettish places. Like many bright red flowers these are displayed turned slightly upward, without any noticeable scent, and a goodly amount of nectar. Floral biologists anywhere recognize this suite of traits as indicating bird pollination. Distributed widely across eastern North America, the sole pollinator is the ruby-throated hummingbird. It may be that when the cardinal flower finishes flowering at the northern end of its range, that's the signel for hummingbirds to begin their migration southward. Lobelia's in general have flowers with a strong bilateral symmetry, and cardinal flower is no exception, with three corolla lobes out front showing the way to the tube of nectar. Two small corolla lobes curve to the side, sort of staying out of the way. The stamens are fused into a tube at the top through which the style and stigma grow and eventually emerge. Before the stigma opens a ring of bristly hairs encircling the style just below the stigma look a bit like a small bottle brush. When a hummingbird makes contact with the staminal tube and pushes it back just a little, this causes the stationary and bristly style to push pollen up and out of the tube, and action that has been called a "pollen pump", but to me it's a test tube and brush. Try it; you can actuate the mechanism yourself. These flowers are in the pollen dispersing phase. After the flower finishes its pollen dispersal, the stigma opens, the bristles fold back to trap any self pollen remaining, and the flower is ready to accept pollen from the next hummingbird to visit.

Really cool water feature

One of the things people really like about gardens more than anything else are water features. Some are very naturalistic looking like real streams or ponds. Others are more dramatic, more artistic. At Heritage Gardens in Sandwich Mass they have a really cool water feature. At first glance it doesn't seem like much, a long (100-150 feet) narrow, quiet sluice of water gently overflowing into a gutter hidden below. From the upper end you just can't see that the over flow water pours from the far end into a pool far below; you don't see or hear the spout (far end of upper picture). But from the side and below, the spout becomes the singular feature. Getting the whole thing level is quite an engineering feat, at least to a fellow whose household gutters never seem to work right. As simple as this is, it is a surprisingly striking addition to this garden.

New Botanical ID Quiz

It has been far too long since we had a botanical identification quiz, although having a couple of sharpies among your readers has greatly cut down on the number of guesses on previous quizes, which have averaged about 1! The solution to the problem is obvious; make the quiz a lot harder, and here is an admission, the Phactor got this one wrong in response to a student query during a field trip to a botanical garden, but my students were impressed anyways. Explanation will follow later. This quiz features the most ornamental and striking feature of this plant, the exfoliating bark, and we'll see how you do.

Botancial recipe - Zucchini pickles

Here in the great midwest, August always means the same thing to gardeners, way too many zucchini. Neighbors, even vegetarians, even starving graduate students, will run and hide if they see you coming with a basket, and they should if you let them grow to more and 7-8" in length. The trouble is that when you're away for a few hours, and the squash go untended, zucchini can grow to the size of torpedoes. After making the obligatory zucchini bread, 6 loaves, out of just one torpedo, best to just admit the error and toss the rest. Even when picked at an optimal size, zucchini have a way of overwhelming you, so for decades now, any zucchini recipe that made something new was given a try, and most have been, well, less than exciting. And that's how it is with recipes, and cookbooks, and the Phactors know because when it comes to exotic cookbooks, containing all those culinary promises of gastronomic delight, we have no will power, and most of those recipes go untried, but every now and then you get a truly remarkable cookbook that yields 4 or 5 really outstanding recipes that get added to your cooking lexicon. My point being that many get tried, and few measure up, and when offering up a recipe to my readers, whose response to my initial recipe offering was rather disappointing, a result that can perhaps be attributed to people being creatures of habit and not willing to readily change their dietary staples, it has gone through a filter and passed the test; something that's really good, really easy, and in this case uses up those excess zucchini. These zucchini pickles don't take long to make, and piled on top of a grilled sausage or hotdog, they are simply outstanding. One small change: add 1 tsp of pickling spices to the vinegar mix for a bit more of a complex flavor. In a recent batch of these pickles, two long, thin green hot peppers were thinly sliced and added to the zucchini and onions for bit of zip; after all when you get that old food processor whirling away, it's hard to stop! Sorry to Mrs. Phactor who had other plans for those peppers, the old two cooks in one kitchen problem. This recipe can also be doubled without any problem. And it also works for cucumbers.

Bag-o-chips, Impeached Governor of Lincolnland

A regular sport here in Lincolnland is awaiting the verdict on public officials on trial, especially governors. Prosecutors tend to get over zealous in pursuit of public officials, often throwing the book at them, with the unfortunate effect of watering down the most serious breaches of public trust with charges of jay-walking and littering. All indications are that the jury deliberating the indictments against Bag-o-chips will not reach a verdict on a great many of the charges, and only find him guilty of littering or parking in a handicap space. Like a great many soap operas, silly dramas on a small stage, the outcome does not seem to matter. Who cares really? Whether guilty of selling his influence or not, the citizens of Lincolnland learned that Bag-o-chips was not really interested in being governor, and was doing a horrible job of it; more than enough reason to remove him from office, and that is what really mattered. So who really cares if he fixed a parking ticket or not (He didn't; it's the Chicago police who do that when they aren't beating the crap out of you.). Bag-o-chips is yesterday's news, and my only wish is that the media would stop referring to him as "former governor of Lincolnland"; he's the impeached governor, a very special category and we should always accord him that honor. The truly depressing thing is that our choices this November seem to be between a rather undistinguished, and at least somewhat incompetent fellow who moved up into the empty post, and an opposition party challenger, who in some 20 years representing us has not a single noteable accomplishment to his name, a fellow who clearly would be out of his depth as governor. Some choice! But at least neither has been indicted.

Friday Fabulous Flower - Yellow-fringed Water Snowflake

The yellow-fringed water snowflake (Nymphoides geminata) is one of quite a number of tropical and subtropical species in this genus. Nymphoides means "like Nymphaea", like waterlilies, and while sort of like waterlilies in the growth pattern of some species, they are not closely related at all. For small, shallow water gardens these can be quite nice, easy to grow, showy plants, and while growing this plant for reasons now forgotten the Phactor noticed the fringed petals. Now anything that increases the size of a floral display is generally interpreted as enhancing its ability to get visited and pollinated, and this was how the function of the fringe was explained. Quite by accident, the ever observant Phactor discovered that the fringe had a second function. Experimentation demonstrated that the fringe interacts with the surface tension of water, the same principle that allows a water strider to walk on water, and rather than rising water drowning the tethered flowers, it closes the petals, and when the water level recedes the flower reopens undampened, a useful adaptation for a plant growing in shallow water subject to rapid and brief changes in water levels. That was some real "fringe science", but without question it's a fabulous flower.

Cyanide in food plants, naturally!

Your taste buds are a nice simple chemical testing kit. You can measure pH, how acid (sour) to how basic (bitter) something tastes; you can detect salts, soluble carbohydrates (sugars), and to some extent, metallic tastes too. In particular humans have a strong aversion to very bitter tastes, and this is an excellent instinct for avoiding two very common classes of toxic compounds, alkaloids and glycosides. One of the more famous glycosides (a molecule plus a glucose sugar) produces cyanide by combining with water and dissociating after the sugar is removed, and many plants use this compound as a chemical defense mechanism against herbivores. If you have ever read any murder mysteries, a good detective always notices the odor of "bitter almonds", and then declares, "cyanide." Actually it always smells more like rank almonds to me, but it's so hard to describe smells. We eat "sweet" almonds, seed of a close relative of the apricot, peach, and plum, and they are not actually sweet, but here sweet is used as meaning "not bitter", so they don't have any appreciable amount of the cyanogenic glycoside. The seeds of these other species tucked safely away inside the inner stony fruit wall (pit) are quite bitter and inedible, as are apple and pear seeds. Don't worry if you happen to consume an apple seed or two. First, you seldom chew them, and when unchewed their impervious seed coat allows the seed to transit your GI tract intact (a typical small seed gambit). Second, very small doses of cyanide are not particularly harmful. Whew! Larger pitted fruits operate on the eat the flesh and discard the pit model, something we primates are quite good at. Here's a recent news article about a colleague who studies cyanide producing plants, and while this subject is covered in my economic botany class, even the Phactor was surprised to learn that Lima (lee-ma, as in Peru, their native home) beans were cyanogenic. The good news is that cyanogenic compounds are both water soluble and heat volatile, so people have developed methods of food processing that reduce the bitter taste, thus reducing their toxicity. However, when we jigger with the genes and turn off the glycoside production, the crop suddenly becomes very tasty to herbivores. So you can't win even when you rig the game.
HT to the BSA.

Tree Tower

Search engines, the card catalogs of the digital age, often surprise you with unsought items, and so it was while searching for articles on tree architecture (how trees are constructed), the search engine happened upon a year old article on tree architecture of a very different sort, growing live trees to make a tower. In general this is pretty cool, although not at all a new thing as the Phactor pointed out in a blog some time ago. Still supporting a framework with live tree axes woven into a magnificently large espaliered tower is quite a trick. One of the interesting things about both willows and twigs is that both grow around objects very well and both will readily fuse axes, although figs are better at forming woody roots from stems. This puts whole new meaning on the idea of a tree house.

Garden Flowering Log - July 2010

As you would expect flowering is slowing down in terms of the number of new species, but many of these summer perennials flower over a considerable period providing long displays. July has had a lot of hot and steamy weather, more than usual, and the trend has carried on into August, sadly. This isn't just summer weather, but really oppressive heat and humidity, the kind that melts your sneakers into the blacktop, the kind that is only pierced by the shrill calling of cicadas, the kind that tropical plants love, but that cook plants from cooler climates. For this reason a small conifer, Siberian cypress (Microbiota decussata), while hardy to zone 2, it suffers in this kind of summer heat. But plants at the northern end of their ranges, like the Magnolia virginia, seem quite happy. Having missed the last bit of July and the first bit of August, one or two flowering events might be mis-logged, but those things happen. For absolute certain another 19 species flowered in July bringing the year's plant flowering total to 252. Mrs. Phactor thought we might hit 300, but that seems a bit high. Her perennial bed is big, and you count on them for summer color, but there's also considerable redundancy. So far the champion in terms of longevity remains the Sinocalycanthus, which is still in flower having started on May 1.
July 2 - Purple prairie clover
July 4 - Bottle brush buckeye
July 6 - Globe Thistle
July 7 - Leadwort, Bouncing Bet (soapwort)
July 8 - Culver's root
July 10 - Gladiolas, Sacred Lotus, Black-eyed Susan
July 13 - Phlox, Sneezeweed, Chaste tree (Vitex)
July 14 - Summer sweet (Clethra alnifolia)
July 17 - Cardinal flower, Prairie Beebalm (Mondarda fistulosa)
July 18 - Hydrangeas - several varieties
July 20 - Joe Pyeweed
July 21 - Magic "lily" Amaryllis
July 22 - Summer sedums

Won't use the E-word

The Sunday Chicago Tribune had a major article on antibiotic resistant bacteria and lack of incentives to seek new antibiotics. They quoted several experts and kept using phrases like "bacteria develop resistance", then it dawns on you, the one word to describe the whole thing is not being used; evolution. Bacteria develop resistance is a very misleading phrase. A very small number of bacteria out there in the bacterial universe will have some genetic difference that provides them with resistance to a particular antibiotic substance. But it matters not, and these bacteria may not even be as vigorous as those without the resistant genotype. This all changes when a population of bacteria encounters an antibiotic which exerts very strong selection in favor of any bacterium with genetic resistance because it kills all the rest. Antibiotic resistant bacteria are becoming more common because of the use and misuse of antibiotics. The more we use them, the more resistant strains are selected for. When first discovered antibiotics were treated as a magic bullet against infections, and at first they sure seemed that way. But physicians don't study evolution, and many don't even think it's a valid theory so deficient is their biological background, and this lack of understanding created the problem. People even demand antibiotics to treat viral diseases when they only work on bacteria, thus demonstrating a double dumbness. So now humans are in an evolutionary arms race with bacteria. Have no doubts about who will win; the odds greatly favor the bacteria. Here is a case where the biology behind the story is simply lacking, and we're left wondering if it's because the "experts" and/or the journalist just don't get the concept, or if the newspaper is just afraid to use the e-word for fear of offending the biologically ignorant. Those of us who are experts at explaining biology would surely explain it differently.

Home Again

Vacation and meetings are over, and the Phactor is back to the midwestern flatlands. As usual for August, lots of things need water, but not as badly as some years. Pennsylvania really loved us; based on the number of long, frustrating construction delays on I-81/80 it was clear their new approach for increasing tourism was to hold everyone hostage. While construction is necessary, constrictions that result in 5 to 10 mile backups are totally rediculous, and no one seems to care how bad it gets. Managed to detour around one long backup, but grimly endured the rest. In comparison similar construction in NY and Ohio was being done, and while it required slowing traffic down, traffic continued to move. Get your crap together PA! On the home front the kitty girls were most happy to have us back. Weather has not improved one bit, and very hot conditions continue, so it was great to have escaped if just for a couple of weeks. But the weather and what it does to our gardens is only one reason why August is so disliked; it means the fall semester is just a couple of weeks away and all kinds of crap will be coming our way. Hmm, maybe time to hit the road again afterall.

Friday Fabulous Flower - Rose mallow

During the past two weeks, visits to beaches have been pretty frequent, but that only included three with natural vegetation pretty much intact. In this part of the NE USA, this very gaudy plant, the rose mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos) occupies a zone where the beach vegetation meets more inland vegetation, particularly where it is a bit wet. The rose mallow has typical enough mallow/hibiscus flowers, but they are 6 or more inches in diameter. These herbaceous perennials grow to 5-6 feet under good conditions and several cultivars exist for some mid-summer color, but note that Japanese beetles love members of the mallow family.

Botanical meetings - C'est fini.

Another fine set of botanical meetings are shot to heck. Unfortunately this is the only chance many of us get to see each other, spread out across the continent as we are. This year's banquet was a refreshing change from the ordinary; it was really good what with steamer clams, mussels, and chowder. There was other stuff too, but why? Oh, yes, natives of the midwest. Of course we make lots of contacts, initiating collaborations, trading specimens and information, and in general doing the people side of the science business. It will take a couple of days to go through all my notes and respond to all the requests and queries. So, now to hit the road and head back to the midwest. Nothing like a relaxing drive along I-95 to start things out. Ta.

On the Road Again - Internet Access

It takes a considerable amount of nerve, gall actually, for a hotel that charges you nearly $200 a night to then charge you an additional $11/day for internet access, especially when you only want to use it for a short time each day. This is nothing but piling on, especially when you can get free wifi internet access merely for buying a cup of coffee at the local caffeine shop. So this is just pure greed on the part of these hotel chains. Oh, and then there's the $25/day charge for parking your car. Are these guys taking lessons from the airlines? You wanted a pillow or sheets on the bed? You wanted hot water in the shower? Just a small additional charge! OK, you definitely know when you've been away from home long enough. All for now.

Botanical Meetings 2010

When about 1000 botanists get together you learn a few things. It's also nice to see alot of colleagues and friends, some of which go back 40 years, and it's important for the students to see that there is more to a profession, a career, than just the degrees and stuff, it's the people. And the exciting thing is too find out about all the new things that people have learned. They know how big the first trees were and how they grew (cladoxylopsids). People continue to discuss (argue) about the results of different data sets and the resulting evolutionary relationships among seed plants (but that part of my book isn't going to be revised again!). Parasitic plants may rob nitrogen from grasses and then recycle it in such a way as to benefit grasses. But the ones in my research are doing something different, which is good because otherwise these guys would have scooped the Phactor. Someone found rootlike structures on fossils of some of the earliest land plants, but they probably aren't roots, but rhizoids, filamentous outgrowths with an anchoring/absorbing function. And just an hour ago a convincing argument was made that carpels and anthers, the reproductive organs of flowering plants, predate flowers, i.e., that organization of parts that we call flowers. All very wonderful, and best discussed over cold beer. And my pocket is filled with business cards for collaborations and sharing of information and specimens, and lots of new connections will result. And this is why it's important to be an active part of a profession, and you cannot find a better one than botany, and when you see the vitality of this group is doesn't seem possible that our profession can be in jeopardy, but it is and more and more jobs and programs and departments disappear into human bio-medical black holes.

300th Blog - Botanical field trips

Supposedly the first 300 blogs are the hardest, so the 301st should be easy. Just returned from a field trip associated with the Botanical Society of America's annual meeting, and it had a familiar qualities: a bus load of plant fanatics ranging from senior citizens to undergraduate students, generic food box lunches (How is it that they are all identical?), and someone who has the responsibility for getting us back on time. Now if ever botanists surrender to the clock, our professionalism is toast, and no use setting some precident of being on time. No when some little fern requires that a group bushwack through a mucky sphagnum bog, green briar, and poison ivy, why no problem. How fun to hear students tell us that this is their first national botanical meeting. If you tell them you still remember yours, which was in 1972, they look at you in rather disbelief that anything so ancient might still have functional gray cells. Sorry not to include any pictures, but no way to get them out of the camera and into this hotel computer. Sorry not to have a better story to celebrate 300 blogs over the past 2.5 years. This is not a torrid pace, and seldom is there time for more than one internet session a day; too many real things to do. Like visit beach communities and some strange holly forests with lots of ferns and fungi, and lots of plants that we associate with more southerly ranges (holly, mountain laurel, and so on). Now to wash off the dust, get a drink, attend a lecture on evolution and a mixer of several hundred botanists, some of the best people on Earth. What! You don't believe me? Well, just ask them!